Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Descending Theology

It's going to be one of these weeks, I fear, where I have things to say, but they're of interest only in the most bizarre twists of the reader's mind.  I'm hoping we'll see a tax cut, but Congress's track record is less than spotty on that, so what is left to say before they start, you know, trying?

So ... yesterday I got an email from the singing group I used to belong to in Virginia, when I lived there.  I'm still a member of the organization, so I still get the emails, which is fine, because I actually want them, to know what the group is doing.

The email was a simple reminder that the week's rehearsal was not going to be at the usual community center where the group has met for the most part for about 30 years.  No, they were going to meet this particular day at a place called Plymouth Haven Baptist Church.  Now, when I hear "Plymouth Haven Baptist Church", I get a flashback that has meaning only to me, and may not even rise to the level of "bemusement" for anyone else. 

Here's the thing. 

Maybe 15 years or so ago, when I was an active member of the organization and singing every week there, the City of Alexandria closed the aforementioned community center for what turned out to be almost two years, to do renovations we assume to have been much-needed ones.

We needed an alternate meeting location where we could put up chorus risers and deal with 120 people or so every Tuesday night, including visitors and good parking.  Naturally, in metropolitan Washington there are many such facilities, many of which are associated with churches.  One of our members was able to arrange with his own church, Plymouth Haven, for an indefinite residence for the group to rehearse there until the community center was finished and ready to take us back.  Admittedly, the church was a little further away for me, compared to the community center, but an extra five miles or so on a 30-mile commute each way was merely an annoyance. 

The relative extra driving distance included the last stretch of 7-8 miles or so on Fort Hunt Road, at the end of which drive stood the church, before the road continued toward Mt. Vernon.  And for the better part of two years, I drove that road at least once a week through the mostly residential, suburban neighborhood that had grown up around it the past century.

The neighborhoods along the drive, Belle Haven and Fort Hunt, are very mature and peaceful-looking places, and accordingly their residents' ecclesiastical needs have had many years to be satisfied.  That was one way of saying that there were a lot of churches strung out along the drive.

Now, as I would drive, I would be usually singing, typically against a "learning track" that was our way of learning an practicing our notes.  So the surroundings were only viewed subconsciously as they passed by, or rather, as I passed by them.  House after house, church after church, beneath consciousness they built up in my mind over the course of the months.

The very first one on the left was a Catholic church that appears to have moved from there since we left the area, but I recall it quite well.  Plymouth Haven was, of course, the last one in what I started to realize -- always subconsciously -- was a sequence.  It was, of course, a Baptist church, and as a Southern Baptist myself, I felt reasonably at home there.

I will always think that the first inkling I had that something was either ironic or pre-planned (or divinely ordained) was when it occurred to me that the second church, St. Luke's, was an Episcopal church.  "How interesting", I must have thought, "that the Episcopal church was so close to the Catholic church, given the historic English dichotomy between the Anglicans and the Catholics."

Well, it all went downhill after that thought.  The chipmunk part of my mind had to look at which church came next and, sure enough (if you are thinking that way), the very next church was Lutheran.  Next came the Methodists, then the Presbyterians and finally, good old Plymouth Haven Baptist Church.

If you are still not getting the humor or the irony, let me remind you that the Southern Baptist faith and organization has five main tenets -- the rest varies by individual church and a lot of interpretation.  The first four (in no order) are baptism only of believers; baptism by immersion; one man-one vote decisions in each church; and separation of church and state.

The fifth is key -- the Bible is the sole article of God's Word, and it can be interpreted accordingly.  In case you wondered why there are so many little Baptist churches here in the South, suffice it to say that when every pastor can interpret the Scripture according to how he or she reads it, you're going to have a lot of pastors moving around as they attract believers with comparable interpretations.  Being a Southern Baptist pretty much requires some level of agreement with the pastor as far as theology, because there's another bunch of Baptists right down the road if you're not on the same page as far as salvation, mission work, Heaven and the other place, drinking and dancing -- you get it.  I've been through that.

All that is by way of saying that "Baptist theology" is a very, very flexible term.  And if there is an antithetical denomination to that notion, it is Catholicism which, as far as I can glean, is certainly more rigorous in its theology than any Protestant denomination.  So it simply struck me that something in old Alexandria, Virginia had assorted itself over the preceding century or so that defies explanation, unless you consider it God's sense of humor.

The churches of Fort Hunt Road had ultimately assorted themselves so as to stand in descending order of theological intensity.

And despite what seemed patently obvious to me at the time, you heard it here first.

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
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