Being a (Non-Roman) Catholic Evangelical: Getting High (Church, that is)

Being a (Non-Roman) Catholic Evangelical: Getting High (Church, that is) January 18, 2014

David Russell Mosley

 IMG_0707

18 January 2014

On the Edge of Elfland

Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

A few days ago over at The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead wrote an article entitled, ‘Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the future?’ In the article, Olmstead cites several Protestant converts to various kinds of more Tradition (read Liturgical) branches of Christianity. This is a major trend I have seen myself in many of those with whom I attended university and even within myself. Olmstead posits that  Millennials, the generation that spans from roughly 1977~1982-c.2000, are in search of deeper and more mystical faiths, often than those in which they were brought up (the article notes a former Reformed Baptist, and two Presbyterians who switched from a typically Low-Church Evangelicalism to various High-Churches). I myself know of several Presbyterians, some Nazarenes, and many within my own tradition (the Restoration Movement) who have gone high Methodist, Anglican Church of North America or Episcopalian, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic.

Perhaps it is the hidden hipster within me, but I hate doing things that are trendy, or be seen to be trendy. In fact, in a recent Facebook thread a joke was made (by me, of course) that trendy is the last word most people would use to describe me. That being said, I wonder what it is that drives people like myself to seek more High-Church expressions of faith. I don’t think its possible for me, at least, to say what the general motivations are toward High-Church expressions of the Faith, but I can at least try to describe why I feel this way.

For me, it was the study of Christian history that began to move me down this path. My own tradition has often stressed that the Church should look as much like it did in the book of Acts, particularly chapter 2, as it can.  There are, I believe, many problems with this, but I don’t want to get into that. What learning about the history of Christianity, taught me, however, is that this picture we had of the apostolic church was for one, not as cut and dry as we tended to teach. Also, even if it was, things changed rapidly within a hundred years. You see, Protestantism can tend to focus on either the individual tradition of a given group (Baptist history, Presbyterian, Restoration Movement, etc.) or can focus too much on the brief pictures we’re given in the book of Acts which is meant to teach some bigger things than how to organise our churches. Doing a Master’s degree in Church History taught me that there is an awful lot between Acts chapter 2 and today and not all of it is bad.

In fact, as I learned about the history of Christianity, I realised that we technically share a vast majority of the same history with our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. Working with rough dates and generalisations, it could be said that all of Christianity (or the majority anyway) shares all of its history from the Life of Christ until 1053 (the typical date given for the schism between East and West). Western Christianity then continues until, roughly, the sixteenth century and the Reformation. What this means, I realised, is that there are 1600 years where we share ancestry and history with Roman Catholics and about 960 years that we also share with the Eastern Orthodox. This taught me that we need to take the practices and theology of those periods much more seriously than we tend to. We cannot simply write off ancient and medieval theologians because they are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox and not Protestants. There were no Protestants!

This plus my own work, mostly private, in recent years in the theology behind much that is contained within Liturgy (the Church Calendar, the Divine Hours,) and high sacramentality (Eucharist and Baptism as sacraments and the world as sacramental) has left me desirous of more than I have often received in Low-Church Evangelicalism.  Even now, I attend an Anglican church here in Nottingham, but, particularly the service we attend, it still tends toward a more Low-Church expression, desiring to be more Spirit led, which I believe means allowing for spontaneity (not a bad thing, in my opinion, though rather limiting since that attitude can tend toward saying the Spirit doesn’t move, or move as freely, within structure).

The issue for Low-Churches, however, is not one of simply having a stylistically more liturgical service. That could perhaps help with retention of young people, but it doesn’t get to the root of the desire, at least not for me. This isn’t, for me, merely a preference for a traditional style of worship. It isn’t as though I unequivocally prefer hymns or chants to praise choruses and contemporary Christian worship music (I actually like some of the latter); nor is merely a desire for more communal prayers; lectionary based preaching; or more attention to the Eucharist. It is the theology behind so many of these things. I read the Scriptures and the great theologians of the Ancient and Medieval worlds and I see a worldview that sees the World as constantly upheld by and participating in the God, a world where Angels can appear to young women, where bread and wine can be body and blood, where miracles can happen. In essence, I see a different world than the one the Enlightenment and science divorced from theology and philosophy has taught us to see. I see a world where time can be used to tell the story of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, everyday, every week, every year. I’m not sure, however, that most standard Protestant theologies can give us this, tied as they often are to Modernism. Nevertheless, I don’t give up hope. I hope, pray, write, and teach about these things in the hopes that change can be affected, not simply in what we do, but in what we believe. If something doesn’t happen, however, I firmly believe we will see more young Christians and young converts, attaching themselves to traditions which already have these elements of liturgy and sacramentology, because let’s face it, that is much easier than changing our traditions themselves.

Sincerely yours,

David Russell Mosley

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  • Great post David, you’ve had some similar observations as I have amongst my circles here.

    One thing I would say is that I wouldn’t worry too much about getting caught up in the trend–language I don’t totally agree with, in this context.

    I was raised Roman Catholic in a suburban parish, which these days basically means a pretty run-of-the-mill contemporary liturgy–remove the tabernacle, prayer for the pope, and the crucifix and you could be in just about any liturgically higher Protestant church. Older forms of liturgy were something I knew nothing about until University.

    Since then and since becoming involved at the University Chapel where I would describe the liturgy as high and traditional (but without venturing into calling it anglo-catholic) I have seen a great many people come to a deeper faith, or to faith through the chapel and through a higher liturgy. From Roman Catholics, all stripes of protestant, the un-churched, and a few Jewish converts. In my own experience, and knowing what I do from them, their movement into this type of tradition was not a following of trends, but a real movement of the Spirit.

    Obviously as someone pursuing ordination I believe in and have been witness to authentic expressions of worship throughout the broad range of liturgy you’ll find in any church, while my preferences remain quite high and traditional. I don’t think high/old is the only way, but instead simply one expression of worship. That being said, I think the trend that you may be talking about and which I have noticed as well is tradition without the teaching.

    A big issue in Canada is that while there are a great many parishes and people who prefer to use the Book of Common Prayer, there is a serious lack of teaching about it. Many parishes abandon it altogether, even at the “early service” because it begins to be viewed as outmoded, fuddy-duddy, and less clear and concise than the alternatives. Really, it’s that nobody is teaching the theology behind it and I desperately wish they did. Some actions, symbols, and reasons behind doing the things that are done in the traditional and in the modern liturgies are not the same (e.g. Eastward-Westward celebration), though I find that many assume that they are–if the difference isn’t taught, then people tend to fall away from that which seems most foreign nowadays (Eastward).

    Forcing traditional liturgies where it is not understood is not good, nor is axing it because it isn’t taught, either. The trend I have seen (elsewhere) is that a lot of places move towards high aesthetic expressions in the liturgy, but the underlying oomph of the taught and understood theology is absent. This is when, I think, the -ism or -ist gets added onto traditional-. Turning older forms of liturgy into an -ism strips it of the connection you brought out in your post between the ancient church and the modern, things have changed but the liturgy I went to on Thursday is not an -ism that started anew when one of the College Chaplains decided to re-introduce older forms of liturgy, but rather it is simply a continuation of the same worship that has been ongoing for two millennia.

    Yours

    Colin

    • Colin,

      Thank you for such an excellent comment! I want to respond specifically to this preference you’re seeing in Canada for BCP in what I think it would be right to call a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ attitude. I think you’re quite right that there is a lack of teaching on liturgy and why it is important. It’s why I spend so much time writing about it on this blog. I think this lack is also the reason why so many from previous generations also disdain and reject liturgy. It is (though I hate using these generational terms) the Boomers and Gen. Xers who tend to go away from more “formal” expressions of worship, perhaps precisely because there was a lack of teaching on this. The real question for me, however, is how do we change this within the service itself and beyond. How do we get people to buy into liturgy and how do we teach them about it? To these I have no firm answer.

      Yours,
      David

      • David,

        Indeed the answer is unclear to the questions you raise.

        In my heart of hearts I like to think that, socially at least, the pendulum is starting to swing back in favour of liturgy, lectionaries, and taking the tradition more seriously. I say socially because I think that the changes that took place between the 60s to (let’s say) the 80s may have been a necessary response to the sort of rigid tradition and faith which dominated the 40s and 50s. As somebody told me lately about that time period, we often look back to it and say, “Look at how full churches were back then! Look at how many more churches there were!” &c &c, but what isn’t taken into account is the fact that it was a much more obligatory thing back then. Pews weren’t necessarily full because everybody there really wanted to be there.

        I think this led to a rejection by the Boomers and Gen. Xers of more formal expressions of faith, and ultimately to denominations scrambling to make their liturgy “relevant” to an increasingly rebellious generation. I tend to think that this relevance-making and reform went a bit too far in places and threw out the baby with the bath water, but I also can’t believe that this is not part of God’s providence, either.

        The pendulum swung hard in one direction in the 60s-80s and I think it is starting to swing back. I think with the reforms came a banality and softening of theology and points of doctrine that have now left later generations unsatisfied. I think the changes left churches unprepared to adequately respond to hard questions and major issues that people and the church have had to face, and perhaps too they underestimated the people’s desire for tradition and deeper or more challenging answers to questions of doctrine, as well as their capacity for understanding them. Put frankly, I don’t think that people are nearly as dumb or itching for relevancy as the church assumed and adjusted itself for.

        I still, often, hear older people within the church talking about how they are doing things to make their liturgy more attractive to “young people”. The problem being that what they are suggesting they change to has been out of vogue for years. Scrapping the 1932 Hymn Book for the 1982 hymn book is not a great leap forward. However, what we are left with are the forms of liturgy, teaching, and music that are not only still relevant today, but have withstood the tests of time (generally speaking) for ~1500 years.

        As I said, I have seen a lot of people our age start to take an interest in older worship, but primarily around places that have a strong emphasis not just on more academic teaching of the liturgy, calendar, and sacramental life–but an education on how we can actually come to live it. What is community (True community, with the monastic model used as an example)? How can the offices and a study of what Common Prayer means shape our understanding of the religious life outside of 8am-11:30am on Sundays? How can it shape that time as well?

        Part of what I have been thinking about lately, and intend to write a post about, is the notion of “Belonging Before Believing.” The basic premise being that a) we can no longer assume that unchurched or people disassociated from their denomination are going to wake up one Sunday and feel the urge to come to church (it might happen, but we can’t assume it) b) the fruits of a healthy church community, sacramental/liturgical/common religious life isn’t just shown in what happens on Sunday, but what happens when the community shares itself outwardly. An example might be if there is solid education and teaching going on, strong emphasis on the calendar and a regular religious life outside of and including Sundays, and the people in the congregation live out their faith outwardly then the things that go on as byproducts of a church community should actually be what attract people to the church–like book clubs, or dinners, or theatre.

        But I think the importance is that we don’t have to make them “religious” events. It’s not about tricking people into showing up, but helping to demonstrate that church isn’t just Sunday morning, or butt-in-pew worship. Church is actually about a communal life together, and that can include going to a pub, or watching a movie, or dining together, or reading together. It’s a fact that is not communicated well enough, but I think that that communal life can fill a gap in a lot of people’s lives (E.G. that Sunday Assembly group), and dropping the pressure for them to jump into a liturgical life can help them to see where that healthy communal life comes from and aid them in entering into it.

        Yours,

        Colin

        • Colin,

          Man, you make some excellent points. I think, given that was I also not there, that your assessment of what’s been going for the last 60-70 years is right on target. However, I would note that perhaps the one of the positive things about the older notion that church was a bit more socially obligatory is that the church had a larger role within society! Now, this role wasn’t always fulfilled well, and obviously something was wrong, which is why so many people started leaving, but still we need to get churches back into a new, and hopefully better (i.e. more prophetic as well as just and charitable, etc.) role within society.

          Your points both about educating people not just about what the Calendar, etc., are but also how we live them is well put. I’ve got an essay I’ve been working on wherein I note the need to have better understandings of the liturgy of the Year, the Week, and the Day and how these impact the very way we understand time and how we live within time, realising that time is not neutral or secular, but is, because it is created just like us, sacred and in its best moments participates in eternity.

          Further than that, however, you’re right that the Church needs to hold both social and educative events that are religious insofar as the wellspring from which the desire comes to hold them is the love of God, but that they are not bait-and-switch events. In an earlier post I wrote about gardening and I can’t now remember if I mentioned my longing for seeing churches have gardens and cooking classes, but that is something I would see to help with communal life. I mean, what if instead of a food pantry you could come to church get fresh fruits and vegetables (and perhaps even farm fresh meats) and then also, if don’t already know how, learn how to cook them so that when you take them home you don’t have to throw them away. Similarly, I’m attracted by Archbishop Welby’s idea of the church having banks in order to do away with payday loans and so on.

          This feels like a conversation we should continue through some kind of correspondence, as we’re certainly going to run out of room on this post eventually.