Deep Church Catechesis

Leicester R. Longden

For several years my Catalyst essays have been exploring various aspects of the “lost art of catechesis”: the deep resources to be recovered in the pre- and post-baptismal catechesis of the early church known as the catechumenate; the craft and musicality of catechesis; and its recovery in certain historical forms like John Wesley’s boot camp model of formation and Charles Wesley’s hymnody of sung theology.

If church history shows anything, surely one recurring pattern is the loss of sound catechesis and the continual struggle for sound teaching and practice of the faith. Catechesis decays into mere methods and techniques. The great doctrines become ossified slogans rather than windows into the mystery of salvation. Recovery attempts that strive after new “spiritualities” and “practices” become in their turn spiritual “technologies” that miss the mark and distort the gospel.

Attempts at the renewal of catechesis can never be just the repristination of methods once tried and now forgotten. They must participate in a recovery of the gospel itself for contemporary believing, behaving, and belonging.

A recent book that provides a promising perspective in this regard is Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy, by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry (Cascade, 2014).

In less than 200 pages the authors provide a series of provocative proposals for a robust ecclesiological response to the challenges of modernity and postmodernity — a response articulated through the notions of a “third schism” and “deep church.”

“The Third Schism: On Losing the Gospel” (part one of the book) is devoted to a forthright, yet clear and accessible, analysis of the rise of secularism, identifying modernity and postmodernity as the roots of the “third schism.”

The authors argue that the first two great schisms (the separation of Western and Eastern Christianity and the split in the West between Catholics and Protestants) divided Christianity, yet still allowed for a “family resemblance” among the different communions. The term “third schism” points to the reality that now there are forms of Christianity utterly opposed to the Christian tradition, denying many central gospel claims, yet spread throughout and across the various communions.

“The third schism … undermines the very basis of Christian faith in its denial of the Trinity, incarnation, and the resurrection, and in its treating Scripture as an object of scientific inquiry rather than as a sacred text” (x). Schism, in this sense, represents not so much the dividing of denominations as the rending of the church and a loss of the gospel.

William Abraham has commented on the third schism concept as a “whole new way” of tackling “the problem of naming … the present nasty divisions across Christendom,” which avoids the old superficiality of right/left, conservative/progressive labels. He argues that the concept has heuristic value that, even if eventually rejected, allows for a new angle of vision (see his “Foreward” to Notes from a Wayward Son: A Miscellany, by Andrew G. Walker, ed. Andrew D. Kinsey [Cascade, 2015], xi).

Walker and Parry are frank about their call for a vigorous defense and recovery of historical and Trinitarian orthodoxy. (Appendix two provides a clear delineation of their position from fundamentalism.) At the same time, they see any return to the sources as only a “half-turn.”

“Christians cannot think and behave as if modernity has not happened. And it cannot be with the aim of simply repeating the theology and practice of past Christianity. Rather, it must be a retrieval that has an eye to recontextualizing in our living contexts — a fresh improvisation of the faith that is both deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition but also alive to the worlds we now inhabit. Christian tradition has never been a static notion” (44).

Using the concept of a third schism as a way of identifying “versions of modern Christianity which, although modern are not Christian,” Walker and Parry seek a recovery/discovery of a richer and deeper form of the faith that they identify as “Deep Church,” a term originally coined by C.S. Lewis as an alternative to his famous reference to “mere Christianity.”

“Deep Church: On Recovering the Gospel” (part two) unpacks their vision of deep church in chapters that describe deep faith, deep worship, and deep living — all aimed at articulating orthodoxia as right believing and right worship, and orthopraxia as right practice.

There are also chapters on deep roots (Scripture and tradition) and deep church (Eucharistic community), but the chapter of especial interest for these Catalyst essays is “Deep Transformation: Recovering Catechesis.” Here, the authors provide a trenchant critique of the inadequacy of contemporary Christian education practices in the face of the “torrent of life-shaping influences” that flows from modern media entertainment, advertising, and consumerism.

Walker and Parry outline a series of catechetical implications for a deep-church vision that consciously seeks to build a “kingdom paideia.” My future Catalyst essays will attempt a critical engagement with and analysis of their proposals.

Posted Oct 17, 2016

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