Heretics in the Right Colors
Father Michael smiled as I told him the news. His smile, more tight lipped than usual, suggested I was about to hear something important.
He was both educated and civilized, a combination more rare than one would hope and there was little he had not seen. Father had gone from California to Oxford to do a doctorate on Romany folk customs and he collected art in Peru. This man pastored a diverse congregation and was comfortable corresponding with the Archbishop of Canterbury and helping the homeless. His manners served him well in all situations and he treated everyone he met the same way: decently and in order. He was genteel without being precious, a gentleman. He was listening to the latest foibles of our former church.
“Wait and see,” he said,” when everything else is gone, folk will make sure they get the language and vestments right. Some will become higher and more precise in the liturgy than even we were. Getting words right will also matter once the meanings and reality are gone.”
The heretics will get the liturgy right if they get nothing else.
One reason I came to love Father Michael and the parish at Saint Michael is that Father cared about the outer signs. If we loved a beautiful God, and we did, then the service should be beautiful. This beauty, however, could turn into ugliness if liturgy ran over people or the truth. The service was not a show, the liturgy was the work of the people, not a magical formula that would produce holiness if only done correctly.
One Sunday none of the four pastors prepared a sermon: “Today we will dispense with the sermon.” So he announced and proceeded apace, unbothered. We had done our best and now carried on with loving God and each other. If a child was serving and made an error, this was more likely to lead to ice cream with some encouragement than a rebuke.
Over time, he elaborated and pointed out that the “good guys,” the folks who agreed with us, could also become obsessed with the “right color” vestments. Why?
With the lose of cultural power or even of our traditional church home, the temptation was to win where we did have power.
“Let’s purge those folks over there whose altar faces not quite the correct way!”
“Why does he touch the altar when he elevates the Host? Should he elevate the Host? Should we call the Host the Host?”
A man could have gone to one hundred English villages and found one hundred variations on the Book of Common Prayer. This is my experience with the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in Orthodoxy: every Church a bit different, nations a good bit different in practice one from another. In sane times, the differences are not deemed important, but when power starts to slip, God help us, we begin to double down on the minors.Should we have pews? Should there be Sunday School? What about head coverings? We end up losers in the right colors.
Losers in the Right Colors
There is no great insight needed for a Christian to see that this is useless and unloving. The Lord Jesus said:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
We begin in justice, mercy, and faithfulness and then tithe correctly. The just should get the colors right, make a proper outer sign, if they can. Justice comes first.
Except it is not so obvious. Doing justice is always hard, especially when the world, the flesh, and the devil are particularly empowered. Mercy seems only an option for the powerful. I have seen conservatives that are losing ground in an institution double down on small doctrines to the point of madness, alienating natural allies, to compensate for losing the broader battle.
They could, of course, lift up their heads and do mercy. They could even lose, but with faithfulness: risking much to speak the greater truth. Instead, all of us are tempted to withdraw to where we need not have mercy and clean up all those not giving a tenth of their spices.
More than one Christian college will tenure a pro-abortion professor as long as he does not dance on campus.
Father Michael refused to lose this way. He did not, in fact, “win.” He stood for the truth and most people abandoned him. One younger pastor friend was his ally until his pension was threatened, then he betrayed Father. Father Michael was harassed for his faith at work, stressed that he could not help younger colleagues, and the stress killed him long before he needed to die. Yet Father never lost sweet gentility, never doubled down on controlling a little kingdom, always remained focused on justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
He also built a beautiful church: proper as it could be.