i sat and pondered the moment; there under protective glass was the graven image of thomas campbell, but i couldn’t find jesus anywhere!
october 4, 2009. i entered elkins auditorium on the campus of pepperdine university about ten minutes before 11 am. the second service of the university church of christ in malibu, ca was about to begin, so i made my way to my regular seat in row 2. (i actually like sitting toward the front during worship service.) despite the wealth of the city of malibu, the university church of christ does not own its own church building. rather, it has an agreement with pepperdine university that allows them to worship in a lecture hall on campus: elkins auditorium.
i knew that today was ‘world communion sunday,’ a sunday where different congregations from different denominations around the world set aside their doctrinal differences and partake of a communion together united solely as christians.
i was also reminded that today was world communion sunday because my local congregation had earlier announced that it would be hosting a special, alternative to world communion sunday second service on october 4: a second ‘great communion‘ celebration, which is designed to do the following:
remember Thomas Campbell, celebrate our movement, sing praises to God, and accept Christ’s invitation to his Table.
i had taken issue with this decision to hold a special communion to celebrate thomas campbell and logged my objection in a previous post. my objection centered around two main points:
1. it is highly oxymoronic to hold a special communion to celebrate and commemorate a denomination that was established for the very purpose of eliminating denominations.
2. because the ‘great communion’ celebration was held on the first sunday in october, a day known to the rest of the world as ‘world communion sunday,’ the great communion celebration appeared to be an alternative celebration of the restoration movement churches on a day reserved for unity among all christians (not just those within the restoration movement).
but this was by now an old issue to me. i had said my peace, logged my objection, and wished them the best. those who chose to attend and participate in the ‘great communion’ service were welcome to do so, and i would say nothing further on the matter.
but as i sat through the regular 11:00 am worship service in elkins (again, not the special 3:00 pm ‘great communion’ service, but the regular 11:00 am service), i could not help but notice two things that stood out like democrats at a nra convention. and because i do not wish for the rocks to cry out, i shall mention them briefly here.
there was a reliquary containing objects commemorating thomas campbell in the auditorium!
never before have i seen or even heard about a reliquary in a church of christ. sure, doug foster has his shrine to thomas and alexander campbell and the stone-campbell movement, but i have never seen an actual, glass-encased display case containing objects associated with the closest thing the churches of christ have to saints.
keep in mind, the churches of christ are somewhat famous for their lack of religious icons, decorations, images of jesus, and in many cases, crosses in their buildings’ architecture and decoration. there is a long tradition of reminding members that the church is not a building, but the people who come to worship. this, combined with the fact that the churches of christ are traditionally poor and could not afford fancy buildings and organs and pianos (another contributing factor to the church of christ’s affection for a cappella music), has resulted in church building architecture and furnishings that lack images of jesus, crucifixes, or images portraying scenes from biblical stories.
(however, one may note that in the pepperdine chapel (not a church of christ, but a chapel on the pepperdine campus), there is a large stained glass window. many are surprised to note that at the center of the window a book appears prominently displayed, rather than a cross or an image of jesus. many have argued that this speaks to the church of christ’s focus on the text of the bible – for better or for worse – as opposed to the person of jesus.)
given my tradition’s loathing of religious imagery, you can understand my astonishment when i entered elkins auditorim and saw a glass box encasing rare books containing the signature and a graven image of thomas campbell, who is said to be the founder of the ‘church of christ’ as a movement. (conservatives will deny this and argue that the founder of the ‘church of christ’ is no less than jesus himself, but the restoration movement and its offspring, the ‘churches of christ,’ ‘disciples of christ,’ ‘christian churches,’ and ‘international churches of christ’ are said to be the product of thomas campbell, his son alexander, and barton w. stone, among others.)
note the great irony of this moment: in elkins auditorium, there is not a single image of jesus anywhere – no picture, no stained glass, and not a single cross to be found anywhere! but, there is a glass-encased, highly visible, carefully placed reliquary dedicated to thomas campbell. i thought to myself, ‘we finally have a reliquary in a church of christ. it is prominently displayed, under protective glass, and it contains objects associated not with jesus, but with st. thomas campbell.’ i sat and pondered the moment; there under protective glass was the graven image of thomas campbell, but i couldn’t find jesus anywhere!
but there was a second travesty on this first sunday in october, 2009:
there was not a single mention of world communion sunday. not one!
for a congregation that has openly stated its commitment to ecumenicism throughout this ‘great communion’ debate, i found it incredulous that there was not a single mention of ‘world communion sunday’ during the 11:00 am service.
my close friend and preaching minister at the university church, dr. ken durham, gave a sermon that compared (i kid you not) thomas campbell to bono (the lead singer of the rock band u2). among other things, both call for unity and both wear pimpin’ glasses. the sermon centered on the song ‘one‘ by u2. i love the song. i like u2. and i applaud the social justice work bono does to bring about debt rescindment in developing nations. despite the obvious attempt to cave and mention thomas campbell on the same sunday as the ‘great communion’ service to be held later than day, i enjoyed the sermon.
there was, however, one glaring omission: at no time today during worship was there a single mention – or even an acknowledgment of – ‘world communion sunday.’ not one. ken’s sermon was about being ‘one’ and being united across that which keeps us apart. but, there was no acknowledgment that today christians around the world were setting aside their doctrinal differences to commune with one another as christians alone: no baptists, no lutherans, no episcopalians, catholics, methodists, or church of christ, only christians. we just forgot to mention it. i hope it was not intentional, but how could we not even mention ‘world communion sunday’ on a day dedicated to unity? instead, we mentioned thomas campbell a lot and we plugged the planned alternative to world communion sunday, ‘the great communion,’ celebrating the restoration heritage with a special announcement pleading with members to come to the special service. but on this sunday dedicated to unity and being ‘one,’ there was no mention of ‘world communion sunday.’
i sat in silence, disheartened.
we talk a good game. we speak of ecumenicism and unity. but apparently, unity is only something you can experience with the university church of christ in malibu if you are a part of the restoration heritage. it is easy to be friends with our friends; even jesus says so (matt 5:46). i left the 11:00 am service saddened. i was not angry, just sad. we can be so much, but the leadership of our congregation appears to be far too focused upon the ‘brand name’ of the ‘churches of christ,’ rather than focusing upon using this church’s unique talents to lead and define what it means to be a congregation on a university campus committed to christian higher education. we are too worried about preserving ‘the brand,’ and not focused upon serving others and teaching our students to think critically about our own movement.
it makes me wonder: how committed was the presbyterian minister thomas campbell to preserving the ‘presbyterian’ brand? he knew all too well that those church leaders who seek to preserve their denominational heritage can only look backward, never forward. perhaps this is why our numbers are dwindling, core members are moving elsewhere, and students are looking elsewhere to worship. campbell left behind his denominational brand and sought a new ecumenical start by establishing a movement focused on christ, not a denominational brand. yet, here we are 200 years later, arguing that our students aren’t familiar with, aren’t honoring, aren’t remembering, and aren’t maintaining the ‘church of christ’ brand. there is a reason they don’t want to honor their denominational brand; ironically, it is the same reason thomas campbell failed to honor his.
as for the great communion service at 3:00 pm, i know very little. i did not attend. i hope they filled elkins and had a great time. my goal was not to undermine the service, rather, from the beginning i have sought only to ask people to consider why we worship, what it means to be a member of the ‘church of christ’ (as a denomination), and what it truly means to be ecumenical. i hope that in writing these words publicly, i can continue to contribute to the conversation about the present and the future of the churches of christ, come what may.
Filed under: bible, california, church of christ, religion, robert cargill Tagged: | alexander campbell, barton stone, brand, church of christ, doug foster, elders, great communion, ken durham, malibu, movement, pepperdine university, reliquary, restoration, thomas campbell, University Church of Christ, world communion sunday