Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass works as an author, speaker, and independent scholar. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University. In 2002 she undertook a three-year research project funded by the Lilly Endowment of Virginia Theological Seminary, where Bass has taught that involved visiting 50 prospering congregations in six US denominations–United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and The Episcopal Church (Anglican)—churches considered “mainline.”

Bass was trying to find out why, in contrast to the general impression that such churches were all in decline, these were flourishing. Out of her study came several books and studies, the most recent of which is Christianity for the Rest of Us, released by Harper San Francisco last fall.

Early next month Bass will be in the diocese. She will speak to Anglican and Lutheran clergy on Friday, Feb. 1. The next day, Saturday, Feb. 2, from 9:30 to 3:30 pm, at a joint Anglican and Lutheran “Church Depot” event at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, she will be keynote speaker.

Parish teams, lay leaders, and clergy are invited to attend. See the diocesan website for details, or contact the Rev. Paul Borthistle, Director of Parish Support Ministries, 604 684-6306 ext. 219, or Program Coordinator, Bettina Gruver, ext. 226.

Diana Butler Bass’ Signposts of Renewal in Congregations

1. Reflecting on the faith journey

2. Hospitality for all people

3. Discerning the Spirit

4. Healing bodies and souls

5. Practicing contemplation

6. Sharing testimony

7. Embracing diversity

8. Working for justice

9. Quality worship

10. Crafting beauty in music & art

-From Christianity for the Rest of Us

Interview with Diana Butler Bass

Prior to her coming she agreed to an interview with TOPIC Editor Neale Adams (slightly condensed here).

What do you mean by saying a church should not think of itself as a gathering of saints?

When churches think of themselves primarily as gatherings of saints they have a tendency to become very insular and self-centered. They forget that the church exists for the world and not the other way around. And they also will tend to elevate their interpretation of Christianity as the best above everybody else’s. Churches that have that as their primary image tend to be churches that get into very complex arguments over minutia and tend to kick people out when they disagree with the pastor or disagree over different kinds of doctrine or theological issues.

Do you reject the claim that conservatives make that in liberal churches anything goes?

Well, conservatives may make that claim but that doesn’t make it so. The churches as a gathering of the saints is best contrasted with another very deep image of the church that comes out of the tradition-- St. Augustine used it-- the church as a hospital for sinners. Even the most liberal of churches realizes that there is sinfulness in the world and that there is sinfulness that bedevils us, corporately and individually, and that those things need to be transformed—they need to be healed, or they need to be changed, by the love of God toward goodness, justice, and beauty.

Can the neighbourhood church survive without viable neighbourhoods?

The neighbourhood, in a sense has often changed being a small geographic area in a particular town or city, like the place I grew up in, in Baltimore, Maryland. Our neighbourhood has transformed into the World--as it is connected by technology and in relationships that spread over vast numbers of miles. In my own neighbourhood where I live now in Alexandria, Virginia, I know fewer of the people who live on my street in terms of having them be my primary reference group of how I live my life. But my neighbourhood exists as really a virtual neighbourhood on the Internet and by telephone, and it exists literally across the English-speaking world. We need to think of ourselves not simply as the little church around the corner on the block, but as a church that exists as a virtual village of human kind.

How does the embrace of diversity that you advocate relate to that?

When you live in a diverse neighbourhood you don’t assume that everybody thinks alike. Instead of telling people how to behave or what they should think, you begin to learn to listen to a variety of perspectives. There’s real wisdom that comes from different cultures and different ways of understanding God. I’m spending a lot more of my time trying to understand those things and integrate them into my world view than I am in telling them how to believe or behave. 

In our diocese we have some of a more conservative theology, some more the understanding you advocate. How do we keep together?

That is actually I think the most difficult problem facing us today. It’s very easy for a lot of people to be in a room with great ethnic and racial diversity, even sexual orientation and other things, but theological diversity is really hard to deal with. It’s hard especially when people want to believe that they’re right and that everybody else has got it wrong.

I don’t have any corner on who God is and how Christians are supposed to act in the world. And I just need other voices in that mix and other wisdoms. I’m glad for that variety. But I do think that theological diversity is the toughest thing right now to create a real space for.

Any tips as to how we Anglicans can stay the middle course between extremes and work together?

There is a wonderful story about  the Sixth Century Desert Father, Dorotheus of Gaza. And Dorotheus belonged to this particularly quarrelsome. A group of monks who actually hated Dorotheus and at one time he lay down on his cot in his monastery that his brother monks had covered in glue. This was not a nice group of monks.

And Dorotheus said when he got to this point with his brother monks he realized this presented the chance for him to examine himself, and to see what he was doing wrong in his relationships--rather than looking at his brother monks and accusing them. Dorotheus wrote that self-accusation is the first practice of Christian humility.

The middle way, the via media, requires humility. It absolutely requires humility. I haven’t followed events in Canada quite as closely, but I can say from the perspective of the American Episcopal Church there has been precious little humility in the Episcopal Church.

On both sides?

On both sides in the last six years. Lots of people have been running around the countryside, everyone saying that they are right and their opponent is the criminal, the enemy, is the one who is wrong. But there is very little looking at ourselves and saying, what is it about me? What sinfulness and incompleteness do I bring to this that has makes this rift deepen.?

How applicable to Canada is your work, which is based primary on research done in the United States?

The similarities between what is known as mainline Protestantism in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada are pretty much the same. Once these were the old status churches. In the last 50 to 75 years these churches have lost traction, vision, people, prestige. They’re all scurrying to figure out what it means to be Christian in a different kind of world.

My book is about Christian practices, things like hospitality and humility and justice and beauty. I don’t think those things have a border between them when it comes to nations.  No matter where we live we’re called to that kind of stuff and our communities are called to practicing those things too.

Will you be telling us how to get started, how to revitalize our parishes?

My husband always teases me. He says, people always expect you to fix their church. They don’t know you can’t fix anything unless it has to do with duct tape. That’s really true. I’m not the church fix-it lady. If people come with an expectation I’m going to give them a program or try to sell them a kit that will fix their church, it’s not going to happen.

Instead, what I think my work opens up, and what I try to open up is, as a person, is space for our imaginations to be able to fly. and to think together what might be better ways of approaching some of the question that bedevil us. I always try to encourage people, and give people hope. I think that encouragement and hope are probably better than any sort of pre-packaged program that you could possibly sell anyone.

Some personal questions. You’re a mom?

I am, I have a beautiful daughter who just turned 10 years old. She’s just fun and smart and I miss her tons when I’m on the road. I travel a lot these days and it’s a sacrifice but, you know, this is what I do.

She’s been to many churches with you, as you acknowledge in your book.

Yes. She recently told me she was sick of churches and she didn’t want to grow up and be a church person. And I looked at her and I think she was expecting an argument. I said, that’s okay, Emma, you don’t have to be a church person, I just want you to be a Jesus person. She kind of smiled, and I think that was okay with her.

And you live in Alexandria, Virginia.

I do. My husband, Richard Bass, works for the Alban Institute, which is an American organization which helps congregations. Alban has a large Canadian mailing list. So I expect there will be people there who have read books that they have published.

So you’re both working in this area.

YeS, we are. What’s interesting is that neither of us or ordained. We’re both lay people. This appears to be our calling, to help serve clergy, and to help congregations think about how to do what they do better.

One of your blogs on the website is about a beauty contest, and in passing you mention that once when young you were asked to enter such a contest, but turned down the opportunity. I wonder why.

Well you know, I spent a considerable amount of time in conservative, evangelical churches when I was a teenager, and I considered it to be vain. I was working toward a deeper beauty, allowing me to grow in prayer. I was a serious teenager. (Laugh)

I really enjoyed that blog about the beauty contest and your acceptance in some senses of the culture, and feeling even something like that could be transformed.

I’m very comfortable in that skin, you can ask my daughter, for we spend a lot of time watching things like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars at our house, and popular movies. I think Christians are called to live in the world, and do that with grace and joy and happiness. So maybe if somebody asked me now--but I’m 48—to be in a beauty contest I might have said yes, but I don’t think they’re going to ask me at this point.