The 1950s are really popular today.
The 1950s are very popular these days in the church circles I traverse. It was then, it is reported, that things worked well. From the perspective of my own tradition, it clearly was a time when there were more Presbyterians, more Presbyterian congregations, more jobs at the various Presbyterian judicatories, even more Presbyterian colleges (and of course more Presbyterian students). And there was more money, particularly flowing into all these institutions with “Presbyterian” in their names. In that at a base level, more is better, the 1950s looks to have been a better time.
I was born in the 1950s, so I do have a tender spot in my heart for the decade. Romanticized portrayals of it during my childhood, on TV shows like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Leave it to Beaver”, grew and shaped understandings for me and many others of my generation and those before me. The ‘50s were a simpler time, when things went well for me and my kind…and because I grew up surrounded by “my kind” (and because, let’s face it, I was a child and saw my reality as normative for all), it was a happy decade. There was one Roman Catholic family on my whole block; people smiled when the Mom had baby after baby, and that’s as far as discussion of difference got. Mayberry and Mayfield seemed a lot like the town where I grew up: everyone went to church, everyone’s Mom sang in the choir and taught Sunday School, everyone walked to and from school, everyone was safe on all of the streets, and no children or women were victims of violence.
Romantic memories and critical thinking
Now, if my stroll down memory lane inspires some critical thinking, dear reader, congrats – that’s the point. There was a lot going on in the town and on the street when I was a child that never rose to my attention – and some of it, in fact, was pretty ugly. Damage was done below the pristine small town surface, and some of those who lived through it are still trying to clean up the mess – ecological, social, political, and economic. These truths, combined with the realities of nasty and undemocratic US global policies and civil rights struggles, violence and death, the negative outcomes from which we continue to live with today, demonstrate the lies on which the idea of the “happy days” of the 1950s, and 60s, and 70s are built.
So it is in the church today. The 1950s still hold a lot of charm for folk. A document was published by a PCUSA office in 2008 entitled Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, which suggested (among other pearls of wise advice) that we as a communion needed to revert to a time when things were working and let those naturally gifted for leadership lead – and most of these would, in this framework, turn out to be white male pastors of “tall steeple” congregations. (That is why, dear reader, they are in those calls – people who have that skillset are the most gifted among us for leadership, according to this model of understanding.) And in February of this year, a group of people comprised almost exclusively of ones who are part of this naturally-gifted-for-leadership group published an open letter to the whole PCUSA, suggesting that we are – or they are – called to move toward schism – a violation of their ordination vows, and a movement away from Jesus’ call to the whole church for unity – cloaked in much more faithful-sounding terms. “Like-mindedness” was elevated as a virtue in the letter.
“Like-mindedness” as the goal
If there was ever a value indicative of the way of those in power in the 1950s operated, “like-mindedness” would be it. And that’s just the issue – the identity of those who hold power (and money, and guaranteed pension, and the ability to leave the denomination and take your property with you) determines the values of the time. The Golden Rule – those who have the gold make the rules – is still true in much of the world, much of the time.
In the 1950s, those who had the gold – and the power that comes with it – included a lot of Presbyterians and Presbyterian institutions. We flowed right along with the culture, which commended people for participation in church (if not generally for radical discipleship, which was seen by many as going too far). John F. Kennedy got elected in part because he denied that his faith would be a significant factor in the way he governed. In order for a Roman Catholic to be elected in a context Protestants still held most of the power, this was required of him. Church made sense to many people in the 1950s, and so those who wanted to get along went along – to church on Sunday morning, to opening their wallets when pledge time came around, and to supporting the goals of central offices. In the 1950s, most Protestant congregations and communions were blessed with cultural coherence in the US.
The fly in the ointment, which didn’t get much airtime, was (and is) Jesus’ call to stand against culture. When the culture affirms us, we feel comfortable and blessed. Push the Biblical mandates to the side, and kick the challenges of the Gospel to the curb – we long to be affirmed! In the 1950s we Presbyterians – like many other Protestant communions – we were affirmed. AND we were a much more sexist, racist, unjust organization, with less room for difference, less space for diversity of opinion, and more comfort across the board with those in power staying in power.
“Like-mindedness”, like schism, is not part of Jesus’ plan for the Church
The transition of the last sixty years in the US has moved much of the old “mainline” Protestant church to the margins of society and social power. Now we must struggle for dollars, deal with our place outside the centers of power, and minister in ways for which many of us were not trained. It’s harder, there is more conflict – or more conflict that takes place out in the open – and those coming through seminary are told to prepare for an uncertain future with many new strategies, resources and ways of being in their toolkit.
And there is excitement in this time as well. The church of this decade requires highly competent, innovative, nimble leaders. Amazing things are happening in congregations in many places. Those with a lot of experience of living on the margins – those leaders of the church who weren’t granted power and status in the 1950s – have demonstrated their ability to teach others, by example, through writing, blogging, and presentation. Prayer and spiritual disciplines, about which I heard very little in my early 80s seminary training, have made a big comeback – leading to congregational renewal, liturgical and ministry innovation, interest in new ways of being church, and people in many ways moving toward the radical discipleship that was not a big part of the 1950s paradigm of church.
The moral to the story, of course, gentle reader, is that yearning for the 1950s won’t get us there – but why would we want to go? Jesus is not less active in this time of transition than Christ was in that moment of national “stability”. It may be, in fact, that we who struggle are more likely to look for his face and hear his voice as we admit our weakness, a state that is, if God’s witness to us is to be believed, normal. Not the new normal – just the same, age-old normal for we who seek to follow. God calls us to be faithful to God and with each other in this time – and seeking the past will not assist us in that goal. The church in transition has the same resource – Jesus’ leadership – it always had. If we lost our way in times like the 1950s, when the culture affirmed even those tendencies in us that were antithetical to the call of Jesus’ good news – now, as transition swirls around us, we might be able to find adequate clarity to find our way again. May it be so.