I was just reminded in an email from the Disciples of Christ Historical Society that today (September 12) is the birthday of Alexander Campbell, one of the Founders of what has become the Stone-Campbell Movement or Christian Church Movement, and thus of the stream of that movement that I inhabit -- the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Alexander Campbell was born September 12, 1788 in County Antrim, Ireland. His parents were Thomas and Jane Campbell. He was born a preacher's kid as his father was a minister in the Anti-Burgher Seceder Sect branch of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland! Thomas and Jane would emigrate to the United States in 1807, taking residence in Western Pennsylvania. Alexander stayed behind, attending Glasgow University in Scotland, before joining his family there in 1809. While Alexander was in Scotland, his father had an epiphany of sorts, and chose to open the Lord's Table to all Presbyterians, no matter their affiliation. It got him in trouble, but launched an ecumenical ministry. Simultaneously, it seems, Alexander was having a similar epiphany in Scotland. So, when Alexander reached Western Pennsylvania, it seems they were of similar mind and thus together began a ministry of seeking to find unity among Christians, based on what they believed was the most basic constitution for the church -- the New Testament (read through the eyes of a Lockeian framework).
Campbell would go on to make his presence felt on the American Frontier (West Virginia, Ohio, and places like that), as a teacher, editor, and famed debater. He was probably best known for his debates with noted Socialist and religious skeptic Robert Owen.
More importantly, however, what Campbell and his colleagues did was try to reach back in time (guided by Enlightenment era principles) to a utopia of his own (the church of the NT) to create a new way of being Christian on the American Frontier. The movement that he helped found was imbued with the American ethos of freedom, guided by a spiritual constitution that he believed was divinely ordered.
So, Happy Birthday Alexander!
But my reason for posting this isn't simply that it's the birthday of the founder of my denomination. Notice of Campbell's birthday came as I have been reading a memoir in manuscript by Keith Watkins.entitled "Eucharist and Unity: A Theological Memoir." I have reached a point in the manuscript where Keith is pondering the numerical (and one might say spiritual) decline of the Disciples, which has taken place at a faster rate than other Mainline denominations, especially the United Methodists. Keith offers some of his own thoughts as to why this is true, but key is one related to Campbell's birthday.
Perhaps the simplest way to state the Disciples problem, as I thought about these things, was that we had lost faith in the vision that formerly had energized our life and had not found a way to reform, renew, or replace that vision.
Why is this? Well most of the elements that mark our communion, such as weekly communion, adult baptism by immersion, lay elders, etc., were "based on the assertion that these ideas and these alone were the biblically warranted way for people to receive new life in Christ, organize their churches, and witness to the importance of Christian unity." As we have embrace a newer, more critical understanding of Scripture, the foundations have begun to crumble and unlike some of the other Mainline churches, we haven't had much to fall back on as we have engaged modern culture. That may be why I continually hear Disciples state that our primary vision is that we have the freedom to believe what we wish to believe. It is true that the early Disciple leaders, especially Campbell, embraced the principle of freedom, but that freedom was rooted in his embrace of a New Testament constitutionalism. This freedom was based in the idea that reason could guide our understanding of Scripture without much input from Tradition (creedalism). That premise, we are finding, may have had a deleterious effect on our faith community.
So again, happy birthday Alexander -- but where do we go from here?