I keep hearing people talk about the "Great Hall" perspective on Christianity. Apparently (I confess I haven't gotten around to reading it yet) Jim Belcher's book Deep Church borrows the concept from C. S. Lewis to explain the difference between "essentials" of the Christian faith, which call for unity, and "nonessentials" of the faith, which call for liberty, or pleasantry, or something like that. If you picture a giant cathedral--or, more helpful for me, the dining hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (I've never been to Great Britain)--with rooms off to the side, Lewis and Belcher would say that the side rooms are occupied with the "side issues" or "nonessentials" of Christianity, while the center houses the core doctrine. So, for example, the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ are issues which all in the Great Hall can affirm; niggling questions like the responsibilities and privileges of women in ministry are appropriately shuttled off to a side room.
I confess that this mental picture isn't doing it for me--which is a problem, because it's doing it for virtually everyone else in my life. I certainly understand the appeal of the image: if nothing else, it's helpful to be able to suggest to people who are raucously arguing that ladies belong in the nursery or somesuch that perhaps they'd be more comfortable having their conversation in one of the side rooms, which have lovely windows that allow for fresh air, and cushioned seats in a circle far superior to the row after row of pew benches of the Great Hall itself. The picture of the Great Hall gives us someplace to dismiss annoying people--someplace other than the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I think the problem for me is that the image works doctrinally but not historically, and I tend to think more historically than doctrinally. The Great Hall image is static, not vivid; it's an oil painting as opposed to a CGI-animated film. Each side room doesn't represent a group of people or a conversation so much as a point of dogma; the center hall represents not a magisterium or even a worshiping body of believers but rather the content of the creeds. I think the image is intended to help us think of ourselves as a church that is made up of smaller, idiosyncratic churches, and for a Brit like C. S. Lewis (or an anglophile like many American evangelicals) a castle with a great hall is a good mental picture for that; but in reality I think the better picture for this organization of doctrine and dogma is a filing room, with "fire file" cabinets for the essentials and "to be filed" cabinets for everything else. We're not organizing people; we're organizing ideas.
Meanwhile, the actual presenting problem isn't so much ideas but people--people who argue passionately that anyway other than their way is a highway to hell; people who are annexing the Great Hall while locking doors to all the other side rooms that unsettle their stomachs. A person, of course, can only occupy one side room at a time, so the image doesn't allow for the complexity of human opinion or the influence over time of one side room's conversations spilling out into the Great Hall. Not to mention that a "Great Hall" is not a normal, lived experience for virtually anyone. The closest we come today to observing a Great Hall is watching C-Span coverage of congressional hearings and voting--and that is by no means a picture of unity. The idyllic image of a Great Hall unsullied by the side conversations that threaten to erode the purity of the Christian faith can only take us so far, and for me at least, that's not very far.
So what image replaces it? I don't know for sure. I'm leaning toward (I don't like it, necessarily, but I'm leaning toward it) the market bazaar.
First off, I like the word bazaar, but more importantly, it infuses dogma and doctrine with some dynamism; these aren't ideas in isolation but transactions and negotiations being conducted in real time, in a crowded and busy place. People make foolish purchases of things they don't need; some merchants misrepresent their products; there's room for both friendship and rivalry among the merchants; and most of all, the noise makes sense--it's not necessarily legitimate, but it's understandable.
But in this image of the marketplace, what functions as the "essentials" of the Christian faith? I don't know that for sure either, but I'm wondering if maybe its the economy that undergirds the bazaar. The coin of the realm that facilitates each transaction, the shared assumptions about what has ultimate value, the regulations that set limits on how much manipulating of the market will be tolerated, even the taxes that are levied against merchants for the privilege of hawking their wares. Maybe it's the Great Bazaar that characterizes the state of contemporary Christianity--this lively, at times adversarial, often ridiculous but ultimately very natural assembly of people making their offers and filling their needs, with the master of the market keeping the chaos as ordered as is necessary--and disordered enough to keep it interesting.
In any event, another Anglophilic maxim comes to mind: In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity. And the greatest of these is . . .