Book review: Turning Around the Mainline: How Renewal Movements are Changing the Church; Thomas C. Oden, Baker, 2006, 272p $US17.99
Oden's latest book is key for anyone interested in the renewal of Protestant mainline churches. As a resource, it chronicles the recent history of the renewal and confessing movements in the US and Canada and celebrates their coming together, theologically and organisationally, in what Oden terms a "new ecumenism of orthodox Christian teaching after the collapse of modernity" (208). Oden includes evangelical groups within the renewal movement, but downplays their contribution in favour of "classical ecumenical teaching" (208). In "boring but important" chapters Oden provides examples of orthodox theological statements and of legal argument relating to the trust of property according to the discipline of the church. He helpfully discusses the place of discipline, and of church and civil courts.
For orthodox Christians, the book is a great encouragement. Oden records the perseverance of faithful groups with few resources in the face of plain unfaithfulness by well resourced denominational leaders pursuing their own agendas (16). He names the way denominational headquarters have marginalized these groups by calling them fundamentalists, old-fashioned, exclusive or obstructive. He gives a clear call on theological and prudential grounds to stay and steward God's great heritage in the mainline (27-34). However, unity must be based on truth, and heresy disciplined (103-119). Amiable separation with entitlements is urged for those who cannot assent to doctrinal foundations. An excellent chapter (179-196) on confessing and its noble history challenged me to make this more integral to church life.
At times, Oden's own role intrudes. He is repetitive. His passion can tend toward triumphalism. Unfortunately, he does not address the common criticism that the renewal and confessing movements in the US have over-identified with right-wing politics. This has substantially muted their gospel witness to the poor, minorities, and those with an interest in community issues such as health, housing, public transport and the environment. There is a clear warning here for Australian Christians.
The book also does not sufficiently address why these denominations have moved so far from the Bible. Analyzing the past guides strategy for the future. Oden does note the liberal nature of most denominational seminaries (24-25), the devastating influence of the modern ecumenical movement (103-119), and the determination of the homosexual lobby for legitimation (85-87). However, as Oden sits more easily with a confessing rather than renewal position, he underplays evangelism and the need for contemporisation. It is one thing to call and even lead a church back to orthodoxy. It is quite another to pass on that faith to the next generation. And yet another to transform a church's culture so that it not only has the zeal "to seek and save the lost", but is effective in doing so. The mainline churches desperately need a host of young leaders with this commitment. Only time will tell whether God is merciful, or whether Oden's call comes too late.
P.S. Readers of this journal will be interested to hear that Gordon-Conwell has recently made an in-principle decision to teach an Episcopal M.Div track at their Charlotte campus, after representations from evangelicals in the ECUSA.
Adrian Lane has a heart for renewing the mainline, and currently enjoys expressing this through teaching at Ridley College.