The 500 Year Cycle

I came across Phyllis Tickle in a talk at Mars Hill, where she talked about the idea that she writes about in her book, The Great Emergence. I’ve embedded a video with her trail for the book (which I’ve not yet read, but I’ll summarise her points as I understand them.)


Basically, she takes the words of the American Bishop Mark Dyer: “Every 500 years, the church has a rummage sale” and builds a historical theory that this re-imagining cycle has happened and that we are in the transition period right now. Five hundred years ago was the Great Reformation, at the turn of the millennium was the Great Schism (Roman and Orthodox Churches parted their ways). Back another 500 years was the fall of Rome and the split of the Oriental churches from the rest of Christendom. Five hundred years back takes us the the great watershed of Jesus and the start of the Church. But it continues back too, the exile in Babylon ~500BC, the rise of the Davidic dynasty ~1000BC, etc.

Obviously other major events have taken place in the Church, but the basic idea is that the 500 year transitions are a chance for Christianity to recover lost things and find new direction from them. We are in one now that Phyllis Tickle calls the Great Emergence, referencing a growth of a new kind of Christian church, looser in allegiance to structures, using new technologies, re-evaluating and re-interpreting Jesus and his teachings and re-discovering older ideas almost lost to Protestantism from the Orthodox and Roman traditions. She hails Brian McLaren as a key figure in the Emergence and I love the things he’s doing.

This evening talking with the CReATE group, I made some connections with the talk at Sprin Harvest about Post-Christendom. Before the collapse of Rome, in fact in the eyes of many historians, a cause of the collapse of the Western Empire, was the conversion of the state to Christianity. Since then, the Church, in various forms, has been “in power” or tied into the structures of power in many countries, whether explicitly (e.g. the UK) or implicitly (e.g. the US). In the age of monarchy and empire, the head of state was “anointed” by the head of the church, and the head of the church was chosen with the blessing of the monarch. Laws would need the consent of both state and church, in fact it was hard to tell that there was a difference in objective for either. Now, as the 20th Century ends and the 21st really kicks in, that tie-in is fading and we cannot assume it will last. Multi-culturalism is one reason, and we’d be foolish to pretend that we can fight it. The only way we (the church) can change the world now is through our influence and actions, no through wielding power. We may well mourn it, but we cannot pretend it is not happening and part of our response should be to re-evaluate our theology of religion and dig out the elements that are shaped by power more than by Jesus. I’ll give one example and stop.

In terms of value, we would find it hard to disagree that all people are made in God’s image and of equal, infitite worth to him. But our practice of religion tells us to listen only to those who have joined our gang – a great tactic if you want to enhance power, but not great for extending influence. Why should any others listen to us if we will not listen to them? Dialogue means both sharing and listening. And we might well be scared of it if we fear legitimising rival power groups, but not if we just want to spread the influence of the Kingdom of Jesus. We need to be prepared to listen, prepared to change our attitudes if we see Jesus and his Kingdom in the ideas of others. That’s emergent and post-Christendom.