WHOLE: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World. By Sharon Watkins. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2014. Xii + 129 pages.
I was present at the 2005 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portland, Oregon, when in a historic vote the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins was elected as the first woman to lead a Mainline Protestant denomination. It was a powerful moment for our church and for the church at large. When the celebration ended, we had to get down to business. These are not halcyon days for many Christian denominations. Our foothold in the broader culture continues to decrease, which puts an even heavier burden on those who lead these institutions. There are budgets to balance and programs to manage, but if we are moving into a post-denominational age, then these must be dealt with in the context of conversations about denominational identity. What gift do we bring to the Christian community that would warrant our survival?
I have watched over the past three decades of ministry as leaders of my denomination have wrestled with questions of priorities and identity. We have developed mission statements and mission priorities. But the real question is – who are we and why do we exist? In this brief book, Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples Christ), reflects upon our latest attempt at defining our identity. We are, we have decided, “a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” This statement is an attempt to restate one of the core values that has marked this American born movement within the Protestant community to pursue the unity of the Christian community. It also seeks to give a purpose to this effort – healing the brokenness of the world community.
In part this book is designed to interpret the mission of the denomination to its members, many of whom know little of its history and its mission. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter are provided in large part as an encouragement to congregations to have a conversation about Disciple identity and how that can be lived out in the local context. At the same time, Sharon hopes that the book can convey to those outside the denomination a sense of our denominational identity. This is important in part because we have a rather generic sounding name. There are, in my area, quite a number of “Christian Churches.” Very few of them have any connection to the movement of which my denomination is a part. The second part of our name – “Disciples of Christ” – isn’t always helpful either. Sharon informs us that this name doesn’t poll well, with many thinking we’re some kind of cult. If this little book can help clear the air, then we’ll be better off.
In writing this particular book Sharon, like some of her predecessors as General Minister, is trying to put her mark on the denominational identity. She attempts here to build on an earlier statement that was developed when Dick Hamm was General Minister. Known as the “20/20 Vision,” this statement focused on what we are to do as a community of faith marked by “true community, true spirituality, and a passion for justice.” This new statement, developed soon after Sharon became General Minister, focuses on who we are as a community. While we may feel like we don’t much to offer – we are, after all, rather small – Sharon has been proclaiming the message that our day may have come as a denomination. As was true in the early nineteenth century, our simple creed, focus on lay leadership, lack of strict rules, and congregational freedoms, makes us – it would seem – more flexible and adaptable. Congregations have great freedom to imagine and implement new ways of expressing the core values of the denomination.
The book that Sharon Watkins has written – Whole – mixes biblical stories with contemporary stories, some taken from her own life story as a Disciple and others from current Disciple congregations are seeking to live out in practical ways the mission of the church. The book draws its inspiration from the sermon that Sharon preached before President Barack Obama on the morning after his inauguration, which can be found in the appendix to the book. She writes that in this inaugural sermon, she sought to point out that “what we nurture in life, good or bad, will grow and flourish. What she wanted to communicate to the President and to the world, was that it is best if we nurture love of God and love of neighbor.
The book itself is laid out in six chapters – Table, Welcome, Wholeness, Movement, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The difference between the final two chapters is that chapter five focuses more on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, whereas in chapter six she focuses more specifically on denominational identity. The earlier chapters lift up our commitment to gathering at the Table of the Lord with great frequency – making it clear that this Table is an open table where everyone is welcome. She writes: “The spiritual heart of my denomination, however, is a table where all are welcome because a loving God first welcomed us. It is a family table and much more” (p. 20). With the Table at the center of Disciples worship, she moves to the idea of welcome. We know that Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, but what does this mean? How do we expand the neighborhood? She notes that for Jesus, “the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to others, wherever they live” (p. 33). It’s not just the persons living next door. In the course of the chapter, Sharon introduces us to congregations who have heard the call and are expanding their neighborhoods, such as providing water to those crossing the desert from Mexico to the United States.
In chapter three, entitled wholeness, Sharon gives a new take on the historic Disciple “plea” for unity. It’s not just institutional unity and it’s certainly not uniformity. It does, however, include concepts like completeness, healing, and integrity. That’s where the idea of touching a fragmented world. She points our attention to the work of the East German Christians that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But more remains to be done. Racism, for instance, still afflicts the nation. Sharon writes about a consciousness raising experience when still a youth. She was at a regional assembly in Indiana, listening to T. Garrett Benjamin, then a young African American Disciple preacher, who in his preaching unearthed for her the concept of systemic racism. This commitment to wholeness is expressed in a further commitment to pursuit of justice. It is not enough to give charity – wholeness comes when we go deeper toward the root causes.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a denomination. It has an institutional face. But in focusing on being a movement, Sharon takes us back to an earlier vision, in which Disciples saw themselves not institutional form, but as a movement of reform toward the unity of Christians. By emphasizing the idea of movement we get beyond the inertia that often afflicts institutions. Instead of focusing on “attraction,” she is encouraging those are Disciples to get moving. It’s time to go into the world. And we go as Disciples of Christ (chapters five and six). We are, she suggests a “want to” people not a “have to” people. One of the reasons why Sharon feels the Disciples are a viable option for this new generation is that we don’t put the emphasis on doctrinal tests. There is the possibility for great openness to the other, allowing others the freedom to interpret the biblical story and apply it to their lives in a way that makes sense to them – not because they must, but because they want to. Therefore, she writes: “Twenty-first-century churches need to have strong habits of community that allow us to hold varied opinions about all manner of subjects, yet visibly stay together in love” (p. 102). This is not easy. Congregations are often composed of people whose politics and theologies vary greatly. There is a tendency to separate. You’re either us, or against us. Such a vision is not in tune with the Disciples heritage. Staying together must be rooted in a deep spirituality that allows for civility, unity, and mission.
As noted earlier her sermon before President Obama was in impetus to this book. On that day the Disciples stood in the limelight. But who are these people and what are they doing? In this book Sharon Watkins seeks to help us come to a better understanding of our identity. Each of the six chapters includes discussion questions so that congregations can use the book to have a conversation about our identity. Then in the appendices, she provides us with a number of documents and statements that speak to identity – including the Preamble to the Design for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This Preamble comes as close to a creed as Disciples are comfortable with. Also included is Sharon’s sermon – “Harmonies of Liberty” – preached before the President.
This is an important book for Disciples to read, because it serves as a pastoral letter to the churches. It would be good if congregations used it in their educational programs so that conversations can be engaged in. It should also be a good introduction to the Disciples for those living outside the family. It is enlightening, shedding light on the Disciples central interests. It is very readable – full of stories both modern and ancient. You might call this an inductive sermon – drawing together stories that lead us toward understanding our identity and our calling as church.
This is, I would say, a must read for anyone who wants to know the answer to the question: “who are these Disciples?” We’re not just a religious generic. We have a history and a theology and a purpose. This is important to remember, because while not everyone knocking on our doors knows our story, they’ll want to know our identity. At the same time, while I do believe that we can be the church for this age, I also know that denominations, including mine, are quickly slipping into near irrelevancy. If we’re to be more than the church for a remnant, then we need to focus on the mission at hand. I believe that Sharon Watkins gives us tools we need for this work.