Seriously, it’s OK

Alexander Campbell and a Guitar

how not to do world communion sunday

i sat and pondered the moment; there under protective glass was the graven image of thomas campbell, but i couldn’t find jesus anywhere!

The glass-encased reliquary containing artifacts and graven images of Thomas Campbell located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009.

The glass-encased reliquary containing artifacts and graven images associated with Thomas Campbell located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009.

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!

The glass-encased reliquary containing artifacts and graven images of Thomas Campbell located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009.

A close-up of the glass-encased reliquary containing books autographed by and images of Thomas Campbell. This display was located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009. It appears to have been set up in preparation of the 'Great Communion' service to take place later that day at 3:00 PM.

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.

The stained glass window of Pepperdine Universitys Stauffer Chapel. Note at the center of the window there is no cross, but a Bible, highlighting the importance of the text to the Church of Christ tradition.

The stained glass window of Pepperdine University's Stauffer Chapel. Note at the center of the window there is no cross, but a Bible, highlighting the importance of the text to the Church of Christ tradition.

(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!

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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.

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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.

Why I Oppose the October 4, 2009 “Great Communion” Celebration of the Restoration Movement

The last time I checked, Luke 22:14 did not say, “Do this in remembrance of Thomas Campbell.”

Declaration and Address by Thomas Campbell. Published December 1809.

"Declaration and Address" by Thomas Campbell. Published December 1809.

I wish to question publically the decision to participate in the “Great Communion” celebration of the Restoration Movement churches as it is presently planned. The elders of my local congregation, the University Church of Christ in Malibu, CA, have decided to participate in a “Great Communion:” a bicentennial celebration of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, and a centennial celebration of the first “Great Communion,” which was marred by nonparticipation due to sectarian divisions between denominations that once comprised the American Restoration Movement.

This second “Great Communion” is the brainchild of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, which according to its website is a communion and worship service designed to, “Remember Thomas Campbell, celebrate our movement, sing praises to God, and accept Christ’s invitation to his table.”

Some will no doubt question why anyone would object to a celebration of our religious heritage, especially a lifelong “born and raised” member of the Churches of Christ. However, I object to the purpose and the timing of this special communion not for sectarian reasons, but for ecumenical ones.

First, the idea of scheduling a communion service with the specific purpose of celebrating our movement is wholly antithetical to the original purpose of the Restoration Movement itself. (And yes, the Churches of Christ are a denomination. The sooner we admit that we are, in fact, a denomination, the sooner we can move forward with the progress of the church. The mere fact that a “Great Communion” has even been conceived is evidence enough that the Churches of Christ are a denomination separate and apart from the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the International Churches of Christ.) The initial purpose of the Restoration Movement was to set aside denominational differences and worship together as Christians only. And yet, some want to celebrate our commitment to the elimination of denominationalism with a special communion dedicated to remembering our denomination. This is the equivalent of auctioning off slaves to celebrate abolition of hosting a keg party to celebrate prohibition; it is the very anthesis of the movement’s initial intent.

Second, the singular purpose of communion is to remember Christ crucified—nothing more. A communion is the celebration of a community of followers of Christ by reenacting the Last Supper, which Jesus established the night before he was crucified. The Last Supper was, in fact, a Passover meal, which Jesus and the disciples celebrated in accordance with their Jewish customs. The gospel of John invests new meaning upon the crucifixion by portraying Jesus as the Passover lamb sacrificed for the redemption of mankind. Likewise, Jesus invests new meaning upon the symbolic elements of the Passover meal—the bread and the wine—redefining them as his body and his blood broken and poured out for humanity to redeem them of their sins. This “blood of the covenant” mentioned in Matthew 26:28 echoes the traditional covenant found in Exodus 24:8. Thus, the bread and the wine of the communion celebration are to commemorate one thing and one thing only: Christ crucified.

The last time I checked, Luke 22:14 did not say, “Do this in remembrance of Thomas Campbell.” Communion celebrations should absolutely never be designed to celebrate anyone other than Jesus of Nazareth. But, according to the “Great Communion” website, the purpose of this special communion is to:

remember Thomas Campbell, celebrate our movement, sing praises to God, and accept Christ’s invitation to his table.

The order of these four items is striking (if not patently heretical)! We do not participate in communion to “remember Thomas Campbell”—ever! Matthew 26:13 does not say, “Wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what he has done will be told in remembrance of him.” We do not remember Thomas Campbell; indeed, Thomas Campbell is most likely rolling over in his grave! (Yes, he’s still there; we are a resurrection tradition.) The very purpose of Thomas Campbell’s “Dedication and Address” was to eliminate denominations, not to celebrate them!

What is next? Will we have a special worship service dedicated to Barton W. Stone? Will we have a special communion to remember ‘Raccoon’ John Smith? Shall we host a special communion to remember David Lipscomb? Can we next honor Kip McKean? Jeff Walling? Max Lucado? Richard Hughes? Where does it end? Why are we hosting a special communion service to “remember Thomas Campbell?” Again I must ask: why do we worship? To remember a man, or the man: Christ?

To hold a special, second communion on October 4th to celebrate the Restoration Movement after our regularly scheduled communion mocks the communion that our congregation regularly partakes of on Sunday morning. Is our regular communion not enough? I am the first to argue that members of the Church of Christ should learn their denomination’s history; for far too long, members of the Church of Christ have denied their own denominational history and have pretended to be the direct descendants of the early church. We should attend conferences, take courses, and join historical societies, but we should reserve the communion memorial to remember Christ, not Thomas Campbell.

Third, scheduling the “Great Communion” on October 4th, which is otherwise known to the rest of Christendom as “World Communion Sunday,” an ecumenical celebration of Christian congregations around the world, only underscores the sectarian history that apparently still persists within the Churches of Christ and the greater American Restoration Movement. Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address was given on August 17, 1809 and published on September 7, 1809. This means that the actual bicentennial would be closer to Sunday, September 6, 2009. However, the “Great Communion” website specifically references World Communion Sunday on October 4, 2009:

We are calling on churches all around the world associated with this movement to gather in their own communities on World Communion Sunday – October 4, 2009, to share in communion using the resources on this website.

Thus, it is evident that the October 4, 2009 date was deliberately chosen to coincide with or perhaps even replace World Communion Sunday with an intentionally belated remembrance of Thomas Campbell and celebration of the Restoration Movement.

Scheduling this special communion in the first place is bad enough, but to schedule a celebration of the Restoration Movement on the very day that has been set aside to celebrate ecumenicism within Christianity is a slap in the face to the very concept of ecumenical Christianity. In doing so, we bury our movement’s original concept of “Christians only” and resurrect the sectarian memory that we are the “only Christians.” What on earth possessed the leadership of the University Church of Christ in Malibu to sponsor a communion with our closest cousins—the Disciples of Christ—when the rest of Christianity—Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and many other denominations—reach out to all Christendom? To schedule this special event on the same day as World Communion Sunday creates the terrible impression that we are willing to reach out to other Christians, but only to those that are very much like us. The result is quite the opposite: while the elders may claim that this is an ecumenical effort, the fact that it is celebration of the Restoration Movement (regardless of whether members of any denomination are invited) betrays the underlying and persistent perception that the Churches of Christ in general—and the University Church of Christ in Malibu specifically—are a group of sectarian Christians that refuse to worship with Christians of other traditions, even on the one day that is set aside to celebrate ecumenicism in Christianity. Additionally, because the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships on the campus of Pepperdine University, where half of the students and faculty that consider themselves Christians do not attend a Church of Christ, this celebration further alienates those students who already may harbor feelings of resentment because they are not a part of the minority, yet ruling Church of Christ class at Pepperdine. Hosting the second “Great Communion” in celebration of the Restoration Heritage on World Communion Sunday only further increases the cynicism of an already skeptical Christian community that feels the Church of Christ students and faculty reap countless benefits at the expense of other, non-Church of Christ Christians.

According to the Pepperdine “Grat Communion” blog:

As heirs of this common heritage, the University Church of Christ will invite members from area Stone-Campbell churches to gather at the Lord’s Table with us on Sunday, October 4, at 3pm, in Elkins Auditorium on the Pepperdine University campus. We will recall our past and look towards our future as we remember our Lord, proclaim our faith, and affirm our baptism into God’s family. This Great Communion service will be one of many across the world on October 4, gatherings devoted to Campbell’s reminder of what it means to be called Christian.

The “ecumenical invitation” appears to be one that invites only “area Stone-Campbell churches” to a special communion, which is “one of many” Restoration Heritage celebrations around the world. Again I must ask: why not invite everyone and celebrate all Christianity and not limit the communion to just “Stone-Campbell” churches? Perhaps it would be better named the “Targeted Communion” if it celebrates Restoration Heritage churches. Or, does the adjective “great” describe the quality of the four denominations celebrated and not the quantity of other Christian heritages that are not the subject of celebration at this special communion?

There is still much beauty in the Churches of Christ. Likewise, I love my local congregation in Malibu, CA, and am not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. We still have much to overcome in terms of our continued suppression of women and their roles in worship and church leadership, reaching out to homosexuals, and with issues of social justice and service to the poor. Issues of ethnic diversity are more a result of the lack of diversity in our location within the city of Malibu, and within the student population at Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu meets. But, there is much beauty in both the denomination and specifically in my local congregation. The University Church of Christ in Malibu is a highly progressive and eccumenical church that regularly reaches out to other local churches in other denominations throughout the year, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our holiday services are models of true ecumenical worship. Likewise, many of the Pepperdine students that worship on campus on Sunday mornings can be found at Malibu Presbyterian on Tuesday evenings worshipping and praying with Christians of other denominations. This is the true Pepperdine and the true University Church of Christ model. Again, why shut the non-Restoration Heritage churches out on World Communion Sunday by hosting a Restoration Heritage celebration?

Because it meets on the Pepperdine University campus, the University Church of Christ in Malibu is also a highly intellectual church. It is the kind of place where you can throw a rock and hit a Ph.D., which isn’t a bad idea given the decision our elders have made to participate in the second “Great Communion” of Restoration Heritage churches.

The University Church of Christ in Malibu is also quite autonomous, and does not cower to the pressures and opinions of more conservative and sectarian congregations within our tradition, or at least I thought so. The University Church of Christ in Malibu should celebrate its uniqueness among the congregations of Christ, and should seek to reestablish itself as a progressive, truly ecumenical leader within our heritage and not simply follow along to the sectarian beat of influential historical societies.

The University Church of Christ in Malibu should not participate in the limited-scope vision of the “Great Communion” as it is defined by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. Rather, it should participate in a truly ecumenical gathering: World Communion Sunday. It should do so during its regular Sunday morning worship service. We should celebrate together as a body the way we always do, and not participate in a limited, sectarian celebration of the Restoration Movement, which was by its very nature designed to do away with denominations.

It is not too late. I urge the elders of the University Church of Christ in Malibu to respond swiftly and embrace the true meaning of ecumenicism, exercise their autonomy and not yield to ideas from another church body, withdraw their sponsorship of the Restoration Movement “Great Communion,” and celebrate World Communion Sunday with the rest of the Christians around the world during our regular Sunday morning University Church of Christ services.

The beauty of our movement is that while we acknowledge our movement’s history, we don’t celebrate it. The entire Restoration Movement was based on the elimination of denominations; to celebrate our movement would be contrary to its very purpose. Instead, we should actively deny our movement’s history and place focus upon Christ himself.

Or to put it biblically, we deny ourselves, and follow Jesus.

Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.

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