The Great Emergence: the best of times, the worst of times (Phyllis Tickle)

Phyllis TicklePhyllis Tickle explains what the Great Emergence is, and how it gives rise to the best of times and the worst of times.

If Charles Dickens thought he knew something about strange times, he should have stayed around to describe the years you and I are living through. They're strange almost beyond description, not to mention their constituting, like those of Dickens's tale, seemingly both the best and the worst of the possibilities.

These times of ours are referred to as the Great Emergence, if not by popular novelists, then at least by the scholars and credentialed observers who are doing today's writing and talking. Primarily their titling plays to the fact that about every 500 years our latinised culture goes through a major upheaval. Or perhaps we should say 'upheavals' in the plural, because everything changes. Every part of life from economics to politics to culture and social structures to intellectual pursuits and technological advances … everything must change. And ultimately, of course, so too must religion itself change.

Our upheavals, each one of which has had about 150 unsettling years of preliminary tick-up or lead-in, have also always had rather fanciful names that, like ours, have included 'Great' as part of them. Five hundred years ago, it was the Great Reformation. A thousand years ago, the Great Schism. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Great Decline and Fall. Two thousand years ago, the Great Transformation… and so it goes, and so go we as well. For you and I sit now firmly positioned in ways of living and being that, for almost 150 years, have been roiling dramatically in transition from old ways to new, from former bases of authority and organisation to new ones.

Only recently have those cataclysmic shifts begun to offer us up some clear hints about what the next few centuries will be formed by, what cultural and intellectual changes must be accommodated for by changes in how and who we are, and what re-configurations, both conceptual and material, are of necessity going to accrue. And religion, like every other part and parcel of who we are in the 21st century, is changing and, pray God, will continue to change significantly within the span of our lifetimes.

Religion, like every other part and parcel of who we are in the 21st century, is changing and, pray God, will continue to change significantly within the span of our lifetimes

Just as surely as denominationally-structured Protestantism birthed out from the Great Reformation without destroying a more hierarchal Roman Catholicism, so too another, more self-organising, more communal branch of Christianity is birthing now out of the Great Emergence. Fresh expressions is both a major evidence and also a member-part of that birthing.

Like the advent of neo-monasticism and its nascent community of communities, for example; or of emergent church and/or emerging church and their attempts to define themselves and distinguish themselves one from another; or of deep church and the powerful small church movement; or of the hyphenateds, such as Angli-mergents, with their loyalties to the old and the new in sweet congress; or of missional church with its quiet passion … like all of these and some half-dozen others, the coming and now the flourishing of fresh expressions of church bear witness to a new, powerful, and portentous re-configuring. Indeed, they bear witness to a reconsidering – as well as a re-configuring – of what it means to be Christian now in this time of Emergence, of how Emergence Christians can most devoutly worship, of how church should or should not be organised, and even of what 'church' is as a construct, of where authority lies and of how one lives in mystery…

The questions are almost as many as the questers, the answers lying just beyond our reach but not beyond our hope and our sure faith. So we move prayerfully on, we Christians in the twenty-first century of the Common Era. Whether we be Christians in fresh expressions of church or Christians in more traditional forms of church, parts of Emergence church or congregants in inherited church, the only real imperative seems to be that we move, all of us together, with informed knowledge and energetic and ongoing discernment of where we are and how we fit; with mutual respect for all of us whether we be building or simply repairing, expanding or primarily renovating church; and with a most holy fear, for, like Dickens, we are writing a tale about the best of times and the worst of times. The difference is that, unlike him, we are writing this tale before the fact, not in retrospect.