Catholics join Emerging Church conversation

Published 14 March 2009  |  
A group of Roman Catholics are dipping their feet in the Emerging Church pool, joining a conversation that has long drawn the interest of Protestants and Evangelicals.

While the Emerging Church has been hotly debated among Evangelicals, some of whom are staunch critics, the term “emerging” is far less known within Catholicism. Equally as unknown and confusing even among Evangelicals is the term “emergent”, which some use interchangeably with “emerging” and others have distinguished as a segment of a wider Emerging Church movement.

With that, there is "no natural resistance" to the Emerging Church, according to Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico province.

"It is just an intriguing concept to many Catholics," he noted.

Today, Rohr is in conversations with Brian McLaren, one of the better known speakers of the Emergent Church, and is preparing to host an event next week around issues of the Emerging Church.

It is expected to be the first time Roman Catholics have ever hosted such an event.

The three-day conference, which begins on March 20, is sold out with nearly 1,000 people from a broad spectrum of Christian faiths signed up to attend.

With Catholics just entering the Emerging Church conversation, Rohr says the conference is "no more than an opening of a very new and wonderful door".

"We have no goal in sight now, except the excited conversation itself," he said. "There is a post conference, with those who want to talk about ‘Where do we go from here?’"

According to McLaren, the emergent (or emerging) conservation sprung up over ten years ago when a number of young leaders, most of them evangelical, came together to discuss their struggles, issues, questions, challenges, and discoveries – many of them relating to a shift from modern colonial faith to a postmodern and postcolonial faith. Similar conversations were springing up among mainline Protestants and other Christians, with Catholics being the most recent faith group to participate.

Though some have labeled it a movement, McLaren prefers to call the Emergent or Emerging Church a conversation, saying that it is still in its "embryonic stages" and just part of a larger movement that is coming together.

Conservative Christians, however, have already begun to criticise leaders of the Emergent Church for denying doctrinal truths such as the substitutionary nature of the atonement and rejecting absolute truth. The criticism has also carried over to those associated with the Emerging Church, though some Emerging leaders have attempted to define the Emergent Church as one stream within the wider Emerging Church.

Franciscan priest Rohr said he was not familiar with the Emerging Church early on but had noticed that a new demographic was emerging – one that was across denominational lines and had a consensus about what the Gospel issues were but that had no official body or teaching guiding them.

Rohr believes what is emerging is not a new denomination but a new kind of reformation that won't focus on opposing existing structures.

"That is the new kind of reformation that really distinguishes itself from all previous reformations," Rohr said in a lecture in November. "We always felt when we came to a new discovery we had to kick out the old guys, we had to prove that everybody ahead of us was 100 per cent wrong and we were now 100 per cent right.

"We don't want to create another Emerging Church denomination that's going to have to prove that it's right and all the other denominations are wrong," he added.

"The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Don't waste the next 20 years of your life being against anybody, anything, any institution. Just go ahead and do it better," he emphasised.

Progressive Catholics, post-liberal mainline and progressive Evangelicals are mainly associated with the Emerging Church movement, as McLaren has noted. But he says it is "not any single group's movement to join, but one to help create together".

"I don't see the important future being in 'the Emergent movement', but in God's ongoing work in the world – the missio dei," said McLaren, who will be speaking at next week's event.

"I think the Emergent conversation is people coming together to grapple with questions and struggles about what it means to be followers of Christ in today's world.

"In the future, I don't really expect to be talking about 'the Emergent movement' ... I would hope that the conversation we're encouraging would take root and stimulate generative friendships across many if not all denominations around the world.

"So, in my mind, if the Emergent movement succeeds, it becomes invisible and brings new vision and new resources and new freedom to followers of Christ of all kinds."

The conference is being held at the Center for Action and Contemplation, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The centre, founded by Rohr, serves as "a forum for peaceful, non-violent social change" as well as "a radical voice for renewal and encouragement".

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