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Leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum to decide if the United Kingdom (UK) should leave or remain in the European Union (EU), Boris Johnson — the now exiting prime minister — wrote two letters. In one he argued that the UK should remain in the EU; in the other that it should leave.
He chose to advocate to leave and went on to become the face of the conservative establishment’s campaign. There is little doubt that his advocating to leave forged the path for him to become prime minister.
The letters Johnson wrote could be read as a genuine, rational debate in search of “the truth.” Don’t be deceived. Boris Johnson is much smarter than that. He understands how truth works. Truth is a narrative that holds you. It’s something you inhabit, like a culture or a language. His letters were crafting a narrative.
Johnson was cynically stitching together a winning narrative — a narrative that could capture and hold just enough voters for him to win. This narrative harped on deep grievances and prejudices among much of the British public. Those immigrants who pick your fruit have actually stolen your jobs. Those educated Brussels bureaucrats mock you as they look down their noses and steal from you. If you vote to leave, you can take control of your destiny again.
Johnson didn’t have to do much to compile this narrative. He was able to simply string together these latent sentiments and capitalize on them for his political ends.
What intrigues me most about Brexit, however, is not actually Johnson. Instead, it is the British who did not favor leaving the EU, and specifically how the Brexit outcome affected their sense of identity — that narrative truth that partly held them.
Some of what it had meant to be a citizen of the UK was caught up in the narrative that whatever Europe is — the audacious experiment that is the EU — they were a part of it. But now, the narrative that held them ruptured. A truth that generations of UK citizens had identified with, no longer applied. They were forced to embark on a new journey in search of a different narrative to inhabit.
Over the past few years, have the narratives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) ruptured, too? Do you find yourself, like UK citizens, on a forced journey — dare I say a pilgrimage — to find a different narrative to inhabit?
I know many church leaders who, like Boris Johnson, are figuratively writing their own letters. Unlike the cynicism of Johnson, however, these leaders are genuinely debating remaining or leaving. Weekly, it feels as though I hear ministers, elders, deacons, or professors muttering about the struggles with their choice to stay or leave the CRCNA or the RCA.
And as for the invested congregant in these denominations, a slow-moving referendum of voting by one’s feet is afoot. From what I can see in the RCA, progressives, liberals, and even many moderate congregants are heading for the door. Some are “quiet quitting” — no longer being so active. Others shout righteously as they slam the door behind them. All this despite the reality that most of the radical conservatives in the RCA are also leaving for their new, trendy denominational homes, letting everyone else put out the fires they so zealously stoked for years.
I feel rather like those UK citizens — no longer held by the narrative I found in these institutions, and now in search of a different narrative in a distant place. Wherever beauty took truth and goodness. I’m on an unanticipated pilgrimage. Are you?
I’ll be transparent, I genuinely don’t know the specifics that will turn up on the journey ahead — the journey in search of a different narrative. But I’ll venture to say two things.
First, after a lovely conversation with a dear friend, one thing has become clear to me: it will all take time. Physical and temporal breathing room is a must, and frankly unavoidable. I’m hoping that, among others, James K.A. Smith’s new book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully NOW, will help.
Second, I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite quotes from my all-time favorite theologian, Saint Bonaventure. At the end of his mystical instruction in his book Itinerarium Mentis in Deum or The Journey of the Soul into God, Bonaventure comes to the end of knowledge that can be communicated, and so he directs the reader to perilously leap into the darkness where God is found so that we might find loving union with Christ, saying:
If you wish to know how these things may come about, ask grace, not learning; desire, not intelligence; the groaning of prayer, not diligence in reading; the Bridegroom, not the teacher; God, not people; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the fire which completely enflames and which transfers one into God through its completeness—in anointing and its most burning affection—this fire is indeed God and His forge is in Jerusalem.
The Truth we seek to be held by is the God who already tells us we belong. Yet, we need to go on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem so we may be forged to live for such a time as this.
Friends on “the way” in search of a different narrative to hold and be held by, whether you remain or leave, take your time with the journey ahead, and know that what we seek is most likely in a darkness beyond mere knowledge; we will need to take a leap, so follow Bonaventure’s instruction.
I’m curious, so I’d invite you in the comments below to reflect on and share the contours of the narratives that once held you within the CRCNA or RCA. Historically Reformed? Ecumenical impulse? Analytical piety? Systemic thinking? Others?
Header photo: the steeples of Dimnent Memorial Chapel of Hope College & Mulder Chapel of Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.
Photo by Cameron Carley
Many thanks for this fine essay … the comparison with Johnson and Brexit makes great sense … as folks spin their stories, if you will, to not only find their place, but, then, to justify the place they’ve chosen. Your phrase, “letting everyone else put out the fires they so zealously stoked for years” is spot-on. I write from the perspective of 52 years of ordination in the PCUSA … and our struggles over the years to grow up, as I put, into the grace of God, or remain embedded in our dogmas of yesteryear. There were those “conservative” folks who were more than happy to destroy the church, and in the destruction, to find “proof” of the church’s failure, it’s abandonment of the faith, as they saw it. Liberals left, too, to find a place where their values were accepted and honored. In the end, the more progressive views prevailed, with conservatives finding other places more congenial to their narrative. We’re doing fine – we’re a smaller denomination, and the future is cloudy. But we continue to produce from our seminaries women and men of good conscience and strong values. At this stage of the game (I’m 78, and doing interim work), I have no idea … but the God of the covenant proves faithful … in the meantime, we do out best to be faithful, too.
Thanks for asking! The narrative that had kept me in the CRC was that it was a place for intelligent piety, calling us to social justice, and to loving our world and everyone in it. I don’t know where to go now. It would be nice to gather together with other RJ blog readers here in Holland. You are my lifeline these days.
This is an excellent essay!
I haven’t seen moderates and progressives leaving the RCA. Many of the departures from the RCA have been to Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC), whose website indicates 69 churches in its network and another 39 on the “decision pathway” to joining. At least some (perhaps most) are former RCA congregations. I am curious about where you are seeing the progressive and moderate departure from the RCA?
Thanks for asking, Scott. Not many left-of-center congregations are leaving. I mostly see individuals (ministers, congregants, etc.) either consciously choosing to disengage (almost like being forced into apathy) or leaving altogether.
I rejoined the CRCNA when I accepted an appointment as Academic Dean and Philosophy prof at Calvin College, my alma mater. The college and its affiliated church had shaped me as a believer, as a thinker, as an engaged citizen, as a child of God. The college represented so much of what I valued most in Reformed Christianity. ( I may be the only new administrative hire who was Rector’s Warden of an Episcopal parish. I was required to join the CRC, the RCA or one of the “split P’s,” but not PCUSA.) The college (now elevated by the U word), and my then home congregation (Neland Ave CRC) both face daunting struggles against closed-minded zealots who have pronounced themselves the sole guardians of the tradition. I don’t know how long I will remain CRC but will pray fervently for a return to the spirit of the church and college I love.
Although I am deeply grieved by the path that the CRC, my home since birth, has taken, I have no intention of leaving. Being of an optimistic nature, this struggle between those who have closed the doors and those, like myself, who have opted to go with the expanse of the scriptural story told in the love and grace shown in the person of Christ I see as a long game. Having spent 73 years in the CRC, I can’t leave her to the “closed-minded zealots’, as David has so aptly called them. They may own the field right now, but there are many who will continue the struggle. However, if at some point we finally leave the denomination that we have so loved, rest assured that the Kingdom will go on, in spite of all of us.
Thanks Trey for this fine article. I have often remembered our fellowship a few years ago. The narrative that drew me into the Reformed Church, as one born and raised in a very different tradition, was rooted in my deep love and commitment to ecumenism. I saw a robust tradition, one that avoided pop-traditionalism, while it engage with catholic and paleo-orthodox stories of faith. I saw what could happen on the near horizon but I still hoped and prayed for a better way. (I still do, evening in the divisions of the present time.) You have helped us understand better what is going on any hearing our stories. Now we must “put on love” and work prayerfully for unity even when division seems to be growing more stridently among our churches and leaders.
Yes, exactly. What holds me here? The shared story of the Rochester CRC congregation that I have been part of for most of my seventy-two years. This is my home. Now Synod has tried to yank my home out from under me.
You can read my opinion in The Banner – https://www.thebanner.org/columns/2022/08/crc-synod-2022-a-lament