". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Worship and Theology

The May 19, 2008 issue of National Review features a cover story on the theology of Reverend Jeremiah Wright (mentor & pastor to Barack Obama). If you have ever endured congregational strife, especially relating to questions of worship, I think the following excerpt will sound all-too familiar (the emphasis is mine):

In those days, Trinity was one of the few predominantly black congregations in the liberal United Church of Christ denomination. Trinity had been formed by the UCC at the height of the early civil-rights movement, and the initial goal was to build a fully integrated church. Trinity's ethos was decidedly middle-class. "Unfortunately," says Wright, in those days "the notion of integration meant that blacks should adopt a white lifestyle, a white way of worship, European values, and European-American ways of viewing reality." Trinity's congregation sang hymns from "white hymnals," priding itself on services that could "out-white white people's services." In 1967, in a step viewed as misguided by today's Trinity congregants, the old Trinity rebuffed a call for cooperation from the Black Panther Party.

As the black-power movement spread in the wake of the King assassination, Trinity resisted. In the broader black community, post-'68, "aspirations for integration and assimilation were being replaced by those of black pride and separation," writes Julia Speller, a leader at today's Trinity, in her history of the congregation. . . . Membership [at Trinity] soon dwindled to 87 adults.

In 1972, Trinity finally decided to seek a more black-identified style of worship, and a fuller relationship with the surrounding black community. In Jeremiah Wright, with his raft of higher degrees and his desire to revive and develop black musical forms, Trinity believed it had found an ideal new pastor. Wright transformed Trinity's service--the choir took up quasi-dance stepping and swaying moves, along with African dashikis, drums, tambourines, and washboards--and the congregation grew exponentially.

Although Trinity had brought on Wright with change in mind, the original congregants were not prepared for the extremes to which Wright's "Africentrism" and black-liberation theology would take him. Wright arrived in 1972, and by 1975 nearly all of the members who had originally invited him had left. In 1983 a group of particularly active and prominent members uncomfortable with Wright left Trinity and the UCC for a local Pentecostal Apostolic church.

In 1978 there was trouble with the UCC as well, as a national-level official attempted to distance the church from Trinity. Says Speller, "Trinity was accused of being a cult (only three months after Jim Jones and Jonestown!) and Wright of having an 'ego problem.'" The unnamed official failed in his efforts, and after church-sponsored attempts at "reconciliation" offered an apology to Trinity.

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