The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In some churches, Reformation Sunday was a time to bash our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as being superstitious, naïve, corrupt…and the church as a whole, whether Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical or Orthodox has plenty of sin to confess. So often, we are not able to see the log in our own eye when we castigate others, and I’m not going to bash anyone today (especially since I’m going to spend four days in a Jesuit retreat center this week). Instead, I want to talk about parts of our tradition that still are informed by the experience and understandings derived from the Reformation: not just Luther’s break with Rome, not just Calvin and Zwingli’s experience in Switzerland — all of which informed our Evangelical and Reformed tradition in the UCC. And I’m not going to talk too much about the English Reformation that was kickstarted by Henry VIII’s withdrawal from the Roman Church and the formation of the Church of England, though that is where our Congregational forbears have their roots.
Instead, I want to talk about newness and transformation. Many Christian’s read this morning’s passage from Jeremiah and think, “Oh…a new covenant…he must be foretelling Jesus.” Jews obviously don’t read the prophecy that way. Isaiah relays the information that God is about to do a new thing (Is. 43.19), and again Christians may read that as a prophecy of Jesus’ messiahship, but Jews don’t read it that way. Perhaps what these two passage are saying to all of us is that God doesn’t stand still…that God is about finding new ways of being in relationship with God’s people…that there will be new ways that God’s people are faithful.
Reformation is about course-correction. When the armada of the church has steered into a storm, some ship captains recognize that it is time to take a new tack and get into clearer weather. Reformation is not just something that happened on October 31, 1517 when an Augustinian priest nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t the first reformation and it wasn’t the last. In the Congregational tradition, it happened in conjunction with the continental reformation, accelerated with Henry VIII and the birth of the Church of England, and with the idea that the state church, of which kings and queens were and are the head, was still stuck in the storm with the rest of the armada.
Even under the more Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, some thought that the extent of religious reform in England still had not gone far enough. They objected to religious vestments (surplices, robes, and other priestly garments), to making the sign of the cross, and to the observation of saints’ days. Another major objection was the use of prayer books at all and the Book of Common Prayer in particular. Instead, they thought that prayer should come only from the heart, not from the printed page. They wanted to do away with bishops and church courts, replacing them with consistories and synods as a means of church discipline. A recent history of the Plymouth pilgrims says that “around the turn of the 17th century, puritan became a common epithet in England,” [John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims (Yale: New Haven, 2020), p. 9.] and the name stuck. Most puritans wanted to stay within the Church of England and to work on reform from within. Other more fervent puritans wanted to “tear down the Church of England and start from scratch” [Turner]. These were the Separatists, some of who eventually made their way to Plymouth, Mass.
As you can imagine, this was not well received by either Church authorities or the monarchy, and while some Separatists had the means and good sense to emigrate to the Netherlands, others stayed in England…some at their peril. Authorities raided Separatist congregations, arresting men and women. On one occasion in London, 21 Separatists were arrested. More than a dozen died in jail, and their two ministers, John Greenwood and Henry Barrow were hanged in 1593. What was so threatening was the idea of Christian liberty in the formation of local congregations that would preserve the freedoms of the laity in the admission of members, election of officers, calling ministers, and the exercise of church discipline.
Those early Separatists, who became Plymouth Pilgrims and later Congregationalists, had ideas of reform that challenged the status quo not just in their ecclesiology (their theology of what the church is and ought to be), but it also rubbed up against royal power. James I said succinctly, “No bishops, no king.”
Since this is the 400th anniversary year of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth, Mass., I’ll be saying more about them at the end of November, but I hope that this glimpse at our Separatist forbears in England helps you to understand some of the things about this congregation, and that ways that we keep transforming and reforming. If God is still speaking, we ought to be listening and responding.
During the Second World War, Swiss Reformed Theologian Karl Barth said that the church is always reforming (ecclesia semper reformanda) through self-examination and transformation, and that is certainly true for our UCC today. Can you imagine what the Pilgrims would have thought about being Open & Affirming? Or me wearing an alb and a stole? Or Carla and Jane Anne being ordained ministers? Part of the genius (and I use that in the classical sense, not meaning wicked smart) of the Congregational tradition is that it is willing to morph and transform. Think about it this way: The Puritans of Boston and the Pilgrims of Plymouth became the Congregationalists (now UCC) and the Unitarians, perhaps the two most progressive churches around today. Continual growth and reformation are in our denominational DNA.
I want to go back to Karl Barth for a moment. In the days leading up to World War II, the German church became nazified, wedded to the prevailing politics of hate, and some theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood defiantly against the state controlling the church…and he died for that conviction. Others, including Barth, formed something called the Confessing Church and they wrote a statement called the Barmen Declaration, which is an integral part of the denominational heritages of the UCC, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and of course the EKD, the German Protestant Church. Hear these words, and see if they ring true at this moment in history: “We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over … its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.” I wonder if you can see these words, written in 1934, having any applicability to American Christianity that is so often in its history institutionalized racism and white privilege…that is co-opted by radical individualism and the prosperity gospel…that neglects the words and actions of Jesus in favor of empty slogans like “family values” and “pro-life,” while separating immigrant children from their parents, putting them in cages, and then being unable to reunite them with their families. These are “the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political conventions” of America today. May God give us strength to stand up and make a change.
Last week, our strategic planning team had its first meeting, and you’ll be hearing more about that as we schedule online focus groups. We’ll be looking especially at who is our neighbor and what God is calling us to become as our congregation continues to reform itself and move forward. Even before the pandemic, I asked you to begin praying about and wondering about this question: What is your dream for Plymouth? And I ask you especially to think about that in terms of who Plymouth is called to become ask we ask the question, “Who is our neighbor?”
If you ever wonder why the role of the church in society is important, I hope you will remember our history, and that you will become a part of shaping the history our own time. May God’s law of love and compassion be written on all of our hearts.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.