Empowerment is a foundational concept within Progressive Christianity with roots in all the theologies of creation, evolution, feminist, mysticism, and liberation as well as influences of quantum physics and the press toward social justice activism. A companionship of empowerment honors relationship and partnership over leadership, inclusiveness and egalitarianism rather than patriarchy or tribalism, engagement with the outside world over self-serving pursuit of mastery and salvation, process over outcome, wholistic entanglement with heaven in the here and now over dualistic separation of heaven from earth, God from humanity or sacred and secular. There are many ways to foster empowerment in a faith community but perhaps the most defining one for members and visitors and guests is how a ritual is created and performed. They might know we are Christians by our love but they will see we are progressive Christians by our rituals.
In Christianity’s Dangerous Memory, O’Murchu sums up how to make empowerment values come alive by suggesting it is about “giving power away” (O’Murchu 175). Boyle echoes this in Tattoos on the Heart by defining kinship as “being one with the other… [N]not service provider and service recipient. No daylight to separate – just ‘us” (Boyle 188). Thus, the very first actions necessary to fostering an empowered community are those which share power and erase distinctions. An empowered community supports a circle of equality instead of a pyramid of ranking or chain of command. Surrendering clerical garb, reducing jargon and being open to opposing ideas and questioning of the status quo are essential to the sharing of power. The trick is to make sure that new “approved” phrases of progressivism do not simply supplant traditional phraseology and that openness to new ideas and new people is more than window dressing.
“[b] Being one with the other” requires that we accept significant change and challenges from all comers with love and not pretend to listen. Empowered people don’t just tinker around the edges; they live radically and boldly with vision. Truly sharing decision making means accepting everyone across identity groups of race and class but also across personality types and believing that each one has something to offer - perhaps especially those whom society marginalizes – the socially awkward, the nerd, the blowhard, the highly structured or the one who prefers everything to be loose and ambiguous, flowing and fluffy. This is what it means to recognize the divinity of every person.
It is the very challenge that Jesus sets before us – to love one another as he loves us. No exceptions, codicils or asterisks involved. In the YouTube presentation on “Gospel Life in the 21st Century”, Delio suggests that being open to diversity and the incompleteness that may result is quite simply the point; life is not about perfection or measuring up, it is about joining in a “great whole” and connecting. She channels deChardin in recognizing the ever expanding, ever changing universe and our earthly environment. Ever one to draw on scientific evidence, Delio points out that seventy-two percent of the universe is dark energy where silence reigns and where birth comes from; a useful reminder of how silent meditation and patience and not knowing all the answers are the underpinning of accepting imperfection within ourselves and in each other and in being able to change and move forward. She calls for nothing less than a “renewed interiority” that will allow us to be open and passionate about a new Christ consciousness. So, when a decision in a community of empowerment takes time to process and proceeds through several imperfect versions, and time is a-wasting, loving patience will need to be highly valued and generously practiced. In short: remember, even Eden had snakes.
Another implication of empowerment values is, according to Delio, a willingness to see our gospels as more than historical documents and not to be stuck in some illusionary golden age when pews were full and seminaries even fuller. Without getting into specifics, she asks her listeners to birth Christ anew in a movement of “Christogenesis” and uses a verb tense to call on us to “Divinize” the world. In practice, this means that all members of a community must be lifelong learners, able and willing to interpret scripture in a way that distinguishes historical or traditional truth from the truths that are eternal. They must not be bound to myth or literalism and aware of cultural context and church history. Being willing to learn is a tenet of O’Murchu’s idea of an adult faith so critical to empowerment. In “Adult Faith Growing in Wisdom and Understanding”, he presents faith as “soulcraft” for the individual rather than the upholding of dogma by the hierarchy (118). Practitioners of empowerment have to give up rigid certainties and comfortable myth and being told what to believe. The implications for this in allowing believers to listen to their consciences and discern a personal idea of who the Holy One is for each of us are for some people, quite liberating and for others, disconcerting. A community of empowerment tries to discover the heart of the Divine, the meaning of being one in the Body of Christ while not giving away or surrendering where we have come from – and sometimes, agreeing to disagree on the smaller items and focusing on the bigger picture.
Once freed from dogma and the pursuit of a heavenly reward conditioned on good behavior and regular inoculations from sin in a confessional, the adult believer is obligated and hopefully, eager to engage with the world outside the church building, and outside the faith community. O’Murchu sees the modern community as one that acts on a “forward-looking agenda for society’s transformation” to address the inequality and suffering of the world (107). An original point he makes about activism is that hope is more important than love because despair is the singular temptation that prevents us from engendering change in our modern age. In Christianity’s Dangerous Memory he puts it another way; we need to speak not merely about the abundant love of a Creator and the virtue of charity but about justice. This harkens back to Boyle’s idea of standing with the dispossessed; not working for them, but with them. It is possible to love and pray from afar but the concrete actions sustained by hope are taken in the trenches, on the front line.
No profile of a community of empowerment would be complete without addressing the place of ritual. We take as a given that certain passages in life are defining and deserve formal acknowledgement. It is however, easy for ritual to go off the rails and become either an institutional power grab (i.e. transubstantiation) or a dilution of the deep spiritual meaning of the life passage at hand (i.e. internet ordained Uncle Johnny neglecting the holy, spiritual import of the moment). Good ritual for adult believers requires meeting the challenge to be inclusive, life affirming, expressive of family culture and placing “inherited wisdom…into contemporary context (O’Murchu Adult Faith 178). Above all, the ritual needs to recognize the indwelling Spirit of the person(s) at the center of the ceremony so that it is not the presider who brings in the blessedness with magic fingers. This means having community members empowered to be front and center, part of performing the rites that signify the passage. This might be parents anointing their child at a baptism, a lay member handing a lit candle to the confirmand or a spouse saying a prayer at the bedside of his deceased partner. This is the formalization of empowerment which, in the words of Boyle, is the privileged vision of standing aside and seeing the light of “souls feeling their worth, refusing to forget that we belong each other” (212).