Faith Works 2-4-12
My lecture notes from last night
Last night, I started a new semester with students at Methodist Theological Seminary of Ohio over in Delaware. Our class is "Disciples of Christ History & Polity." History is simple, in a way; polity less so.
Polity is basically how an organization is structured and run. Names of denominational groups are often indicative: Presbyterians have a presbyterian polity, run by presbyters or "elders" and the session (board) of a congregation. Episcopalians have an episcopal polity, with bishops as the core element of the structure.
And of course Presbyerians of whichever national body (there's more than one) or Episcopalians will laugh at the idea that it's that simple, so polity is both the formal structures in constitutions and bylaws and canons, and the folkways, aka how it actually works.
Like most mainline Protestant denominations, the polity that grew and was formalized in the go-go days of the Baby Boom, and spread in depth and weight through the 1970's, is creaking and cracking in 2012. Processes and procedures I was taught in the 70's & 80's as if they were "as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be" have vanished like snow in a warming trend. There are still patches surviving in shady spots, but the broad connective sweep of denominational polity is now, in Amos' words, a bag full of holes.
So what am I teaching this year? Well, most of the history is still what it is, from 1801 & 1804 around Cane Ridge, Kentucky and in 1809 through 1811 between Washington, Pennsylvania and Bethany, West Virginia. There are stories of minority groups and their experience of this new vessel for carrying the gospel across the frontier than have not been well told, if at all, in the past, and we highlight those narratives more than in the past, but it holds up pretty well.
Polity, though, is calling for a wholesale rewriting of the syllabus, and my methods. We're going to take an inductive, not a deductive approach, because . . . well, here's where I plan to start.
In the 1970s, I learned how to edit reel to reel tape, quickly and well. If you were doing production for radio news or station promos, this skill made you invaluable. It is physical work, but takes a fine touch; you use both hands to manually turn the reels after adjusting the play heads, find your spot, mark it, then pull out some slack, notch the tape into a special grooved device, then slice it with a razor blade. Keeping track of which part you're splicing to what, there's a tape you also slice into strips and lay across the side of the tape ends on the side opposite the playback heads: then take up the slack on the reels, return the heads to standard settings, and you're ready to play. If that sounded simple, it is . . . and isn't. But it was a marketable skill in radio and production studios for many years.
Likewise, around the same time I learned how to use not razor blades so much as eXacto knives and clear adhesive paste instead of tape, and lay out a page on a light table for a newspaper. The oldtimers would razz us about setting type, but we had the latest technology which printed out much of our formatted text, "camera ready." The page layout, however, needed physical arrangement, with borders and headers and boilerplate and ads, then you trimmed and laid in the text to the "news hole" waiting on the page for your content.
It was said that a good layout person could always find a job, and from what I heard from recent graduates, it was true. You literally laid out the page, and the results were an art which took both an eye, and an ability to see the pages in your mind's eye not yet laid out where "cont. pg. 7" would go.
I still know, in my head and through my hands, how to do those things. I haven't done them for years (decades) and probably never will again. If I taught you how to do them, and said it would help you find work in radio or newspapers, I would be lying.
That's why we need to look at our polity as we have it, and figure out from there where you should go. (And that's how I began last night with my class. I'll let you know what we learn together.)
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you think a polity is at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.