Identity Crisis: Finding Congregational Tradition in the Disciples of Christ Church

Identity is a precarious thing. We are who we are by and through relationships with other people, past events in one’s life, and a look toward what a person might or might not want to be in the future. Mix a little heredity and cultural influence, and you have an identity, for better or worse. That is, identity is made of up both your own choice of who and what you want to be, but also is heavily influenced by the world and people around you. Feminist theorist Judith Butler sees identity as a stage on which we perform ourselves, where “stylized repetition of acts” produce who we are (Performative Acts, 1988). In this way, our birth or past – Butler speaks in terms of gender formation – doesn’t necessarily determine who we are, if at all; instead, our identity is filtered through our gestures, actions, language (both bodily and vocally), and (re)enactments within our social context. I think one of the primary places we can see this identity formation at work is within the Church, a social context exploding with cultural influence, physical gestures, symbolic actions, and ‘stylized repetitive acts’ of language and worship with others.

Looking at identity in this way, how in the world does a church, a gathering of people with their own inner struggles and opinions, come to have a unified identity? This fickle, loosely affiliated gathering of people held together by the fingertips of their hopes and needs for sociality and “something more” – how does it become something more than its parts?

I have been struggling to find identity in my church, a church within the Disciples of Christ tradition, one that broke from the Presbyterian church some decades ago in an attempt to get back to the roots of Christianity, to pure discipleship, while simultaneously getting away from the that which impedes discipleship – ritual, creedal statements, and “empty” ceremony – leaving only a confession of (1) Jesus as resurrected Lord, (2) ecumenism, (3) baptism by immersion, and (4) weekly communion as our identifying elements. What the Disciples of Christ were left with are vital and foundational facets of Christianity, but what they tried to leave behind was quite a bit of tradition and “ceremony” that had its own place among the building blocks of the church. The result was a denomination that was beautifully congregational, with loose hierarchy and to-the-point theological language, one that pushed welcoming all, constricted doctrinal points to promote unity among disagreement, in which, if you had those few elements and stuck with them, you could be a church and do it faithfully.

Within this framework, the Disciples of Christ are open and welcoming toward traditional liturgy, and many churches incorporate and utilize the long-standing Catholic and Anglican liturgical tradition in diverse ways. The flip side to this coin is that there is little continuity between churches, even less hierarchical influence on what and when to be liturgically and theological traditional, and almost no reasoning to why we choose to highlight one part of tradition or worship style over something else. For example, the use of liturgical colors and the observance of the Church Calendar is completely optional, varying greatly from church to church, especially in my home state, North Carolina.

The benefits and setbacks of this liturgical (and theological) freedom is what spurs my question, ‘how can a church be something more than it parts?’. Better put, how can a church that gets to choose what it does wrangle their needs and wants under an umbrella of continuity with what has come before, get back to the basics without demeaning the ritual and liturgy that helps articulate those basics, and how can people whose identity as individual autonomous actors perform together on the church stage? How do we tell people who we are without the answer being “a little of this, and a little of that.”

The easy answer to this question would be tradition. Liturgy, hymns, ritual practices like communion and baptism, accompanied by repeated words and traditional assumptions regarding worship and life together all contribute to a sense of collective identity; an identity that lives and works with what has come before and looks forward through the lens of prior conviction of those who paved the way and pushed the church to the present point. St. Tertullian said it in a different way – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” – but still gets the point across that those before, along with their tradition and tireless work, have made possible the very creation and sustention of the church.

And I am not here to say that tradition cannot also be something contemporary, but it still needs to be checked lest we do whatever feels right, or use that meaningless phrase, “Well, that is just the way we have always done it.” The challenge that I face is taking in “what we have always done,” especially in a Disciples church that welcomes newness and fresh perspectives, while also stressing the need to ask ourselves, “why do we do this? What impact does it have? Why does this matter in our relationships together under Christ? What message might this convey? What worshipful symbolism can this hold?” With tradition, we can answer the ‘why’ of our communion actions, even if we want to throw those actions away. But if we replace those actions, we fill it with another thoughtful, liturgical, and theological ‘why.’

Like tradition, Butler suggests that on the individual level, we do not necessarily have an identity, but we “do” or “perform” an identity. On a collective level, that is the message of Christianity, and the value of liturgy – that what we do (together) fundamentally shapes who we are and what we can become. And in line with Butler, this collective “doing” cuts across those constructions which might break us apart – gender, race, and political allegiance – without destroying the individual. Thus, (re)enacting and (re)producing the Lord’s Table, or saying the Apostles Creed in unison moves individuals toward becoming something together, actually affects the constitution of our being.

We need things that are significant, that signify something more than us, and that symbolize a “why” as much as a repetition. When we having nothing to reproduce, or when we limit what we can re(enact), say, or remember together, then we quite literally limit who we can be, and how collective we can become. That is to say, we can only be so much of a “church” if we don’t do more church.

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