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Ecumenism…bah!

December 11, 2007

I happened upon an article written for the website BustedHalo.com by Astrid Joy Storm, a young priest in the Diocese of New York, on the subject of ecumenism. For reference, it can be found here.

I will say first that it is a fine thing to find Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches collaborating to feed and clothe the poor, to send missionaries to the far-flung regions, etc. When man’s basic physical needs are at stake, theological quibbling seems out of place (although I wouldn’t wait outside the Roman church for the free condoms to be distributed). This is where ecumenism can really shine.

But I wish to tackle what the Reverend Miss Storm sets forth in her last section, on the subject of post-denominationalism. She writes:

Upwards of 60% of us [20- and 30-somethings] no longer consider denominational affiliation as important as it was to previous generations, and we also get around more, experiencing different denominations before possibly committing to one—if at all. Such experiences mean that, while not necessarily dismissive of the conversation, we’re just not interested in waiting around until the old men in robes hammer out every minute detail of doctrine before we can share in each other’s faiths.

I disagree with most of this, at least in the form in which it has been presented.

In the first instance, not being interested in the minutiae of the conversation means being dismissive of it. We are, each of us, revealed in our language, and Miss Storm, though she gives a good show of toeing the party line of her fellow priests, distances herself from it, both by characterizing it as the concern of “old men” (read: not young, urbane, female priests), by categorizing its details as “minute” (read: esoteric and fusty), and, of course, by her use of the word “doctrine” (doctrine being, of course, very 12th-century and exactly as dead as the Scholastics).

More significantly, however, it is not my opinion that doctrinal differences are chiefly to blame for having kept members of the various denominations from crossing the threshold of other churches (I think that here both Miss Storm and I are really looking at the divide between the RCs and the mainline Protestants, whom the Episcopalians will represent in this essay, surely to the chagrin of the Presbyterians, et al.). In former days, one did not “shop” for a church. One was born to a church, as one was born to position. To be a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church was to be among the upper classes, while Roman Catholicism was something best left to the immigrant Irish, Italians, Poles. And in those days, one could not buy one’s status, as today. Status was conferred by birth, and maybe by marriage (disbelievers should refer to Edith Wharton). It’s no coincidence that Episcopal churches across the country are usually near prominent houses or civic buildings, and not in historical slums. Leave that to the Romans. I argue that these forces – much more than the machinations of old clerics – have hampered inter-denominational understanding and coöperation.

Our task, then, is to identify the primarily social causes of past dissonance, and to separate them (to the extent possible) from the dogmatic, liturgical, and theological differences between the churches. This is a crucial point, especially since (I’m sure this is true of Miss Storm and her peers) most of the social barriers have disintegrated, quite apart from the efforts of ecumenism.

Here I want to say that whenever one speaks of the various denominations, and especially when one speaks of Episcopalians, the discussion must reduce to one about identity. This is where we have now arrived. For my present purposes, I will define identity as the set of customs, practices, and ideologies that members of a group will identify as being distinctive to themselves. In other words, the components of identity are just those factors that vary between the denominations.

Chiefly, it is my consideration that, rather than difference being inherently bad, distinctiveness is reasonable and normal and neutral, much as having blonde hair or brown hair is neutral, and therefore, our peculiar habits, as Episcopalians, are to be embraced and shared and celebrated.

There is a strong argument – and it’s a sound argument, if a little absurdist – that ecumenism, in its post-denominational form, conflicts with multiculturalism. I consider this relevant chiefly because most of those who might say that denominations obstruct unity would also loudly defend the rights of any person to cling to an ethnic, or regional, or family identity. I will confess my own bias here: my family have been Anglicans since the reformation in England (never Puritans), so religious identity is part of my own cultural heritage, which, yes, even white people can have.

Miss Storm, as a young person (I am younger than she) and an American (I am also an American), forgets that every church comes with a long and particular history and body of convention; Canterbury did not split from Rome yesterday. Her advocacy of erasing denominational lines suggests that she suffers from the modern instinct to regularize, to smooth idiosyncrasies and differences. And, having identified societal obstacles and shifted to them all due blame, shall we cavalierly cast aside a long and rich past in the name of standardization? Must we air-brush the Church, like we air-brush so much else? Perhaps we seek to air-brush the church because we are so used to having so much else smoothed to within an inch of its life; we cannot properly process particularity. Miss Storm should have more of an understanding of this, I think, given her seemingly incongruous set of personal attributes: a young, interesting, good-looking priest (See here for her own discussion of people who can’t handle complexity and particularity.).

I might also ask what value there is in sharing in each other’s faiths if we demolish what makes each faith remarkable.

If, instead, we delve into our particular history to see who and where our church has been, we can use that understanding to plot our path ahead. This must surely be a much better course of action than our current endless hand-wringing and the knee-jerk, false self-righteousness of “we take everybody!” (which confuses Anglican doctrinal breadth for post-political-correctness, un-critical, blind, acceptance; a topic for another essay). The role of history in identity is certainly something that we can learn from our ethnic neighbors. And rember, it was Churchill (an Anglican) who said that “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”

I will venture also that church-shopping and its accouterments have less to do with theology than with the larger patterns of consumption in the 21st century United States. Every day, Americans are bombarded with advertisements which all have the same basic message: your [product] is inferior, and if you continue to use it, you too will be inferior. Salvation is found in our version; buy it, and you will be healed. From dish soap to lipstick to cars to mates (Match.com, anyone?), the message pervades that better things are found everywhere but in your posession. One often hears that we live in an age of anxiety. Small wonder.

The Church exists always in a kind of delicate state, betwixt and between. It must be sufficiently engaged – sufficiently modern, in whatever era – to minister to the needs of the people arriving through the door, to meet them where they are, but also it must stand apart – aloofness here being a virtue – in order to ground the seeker in the eternal, in the rhythms of the worship of the Almighty.

People involved with the Church are often criticized for being inward-looking. My favorite image is that of the Church standing in a circle, looking at itself. While a certain amount of self-examination is surely appropriate, there is a certain sense in which too much worrying over identity, constantly asking “Who are we/What are we doing/How can we be better/faster/sleeker/more popular?” impedes our ability to put one foot in front of the other. Too much of this quickly becomes self-indulgent. At which point does getting groomed and dressed in the morning change from self-respect and courtesy into vanity?

We are called to minister to “the next person through the door”. But, to my mind, this does not mean making the Church instantly intelligible. It must be intriguing, yes, and offer a glimpse of the Divine, yes, but cheap and easy, like a gumdrop, no. For doing so really misses the point of what we’re doing in church, how that ministry to the seeker should play out.

Many churches, most notably (I think) St Bartholomew’s in New York, have adopted the phrase “come as you are”. St Bart’s has a “come as you are” service. This slogan has Christ-likenss in its favor. But too often do we forget its necessary second half: “come as you are… and leave transformed”. Jesus took everyone as they were, and then he told them what a bunch of screw-ups they were and that they should get outside of their comfort zone and follow him, something that of course made most everyone upset in some way or another.

Perhaps at issue also is the modern cleric’s vision of the church. Even if denominational identity isn’t as strong for us as it was in our parent’s generation, we unwittingly remember something we may never have experienced: what many Episcopal churches (and most mainline churches) were like on Sunday mornings in the 1950s, when the white folks went to church as a matter of course: packed. Present day priests also want full churches, and this they do not question. And they will throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak) in order to fill those pews.

Partly this is a structural problem. An empty church is a church that will go out of business. Even the best-endowed parishes are in some way dependent upon pledging and the goodwill of the people to maintain programs. The word “benefice” is alien in the New World, but any European of moderate understanding could probably tell you what it means. I’ll put it here into context: it means a church that’s not dependent on the goodwill of people. Even mentioning the idea that parish priests be paid from rents must be anathema to the populist, and so the question is raised: must worship be popular?

Miss Storm makes the mistake of all true-believing populists in her unquestioned assumption that all truth is found at the grassroots level. She assumes that the seeker has all of the answers, which is a horrible logical contradiction. Seekers come to the Church with questions, not answers, and if one of them shows up overly self-assured in his having it all figured out, then it is the duty of the Church to set him straight. We forget that the answers (or Truth, if you like), when one speaks of religion, are always revealed, never received. And worship, study, and meditation – along with plain dumb luck (or Grace, if you must) – are usually the routes to understanding.

A notable former ex-Evangelical, now converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, was interviewed on a news program recently, and he spoke eloquently about his preference for – and the value of – liturgical worship, about losing himself in the rhythms of the ritual and becoming closer to the Holy. The longing to connect with something deeper, older, and richer than the daily routine runs deep in many, many people. We offer this! The Book of Common Prayer (if one sticks to 1928 or to Rite I), together with the Authorized Bible and the works of Shakespeare, is the most influential work written in English, ever, and our worship, when carried out with integrity and purpose, has all of the solemnity and other-worldliness (holiness?) that one could want.

While denominational identity is no longer appealing as a way of stirring antagonism and class solidarity, it should be appealing as a way of illuminating different paths toward becoming closer to God, of growing in faith and understanding. Here Miss Storm would be well to remember the circle of piety. Nameless non-denominationalism is not the answer, as people are different, each from the other, as one can no better argue for everything than one can argue for nothing.

Being grounded in a church (whichever church one chooses) allows the seeker to grow and move past questions of affiliation and prescriptive identity. Ecclesiastical particularities are not merely cosmetic, and to assume so is to be overly caught up in the modern American belief that identity can be bought and sold, that it consists of no more than the clothes on our backs or the cars in our driveways. Proper identity works in the opposite direction, where the accouterments express deeply-held convictions. So too with our churches. Our differing practices are outward and visible signs of whole methods of belief, a fact which again makes one well to recall the circle of piety. Different strokes for different folks.

Only after questions of “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” are put to bed can the Christian journey really begin. If one is serious about faith, which no doubt Miss Storm would commend us to be, then, at a certain point, the window shopping must end. To sign on with a particular group, a people with a history and a tradition and skeletons in its closet (i.e. any group), is a daring move. Joining is much harder than critiquing, and it is no coincidence that such a move is called a leap of faith.

This is a hard act in our day, a day that Edith Wharton might barely recognize, when most Americans are born into a great murky soup of conflicting agendas regarding who we are and who we should be. But choose we must; it is the only path toward breaking the holding pattern of insecurity, the only path toward getting on with our journey.

As for me, I choose our Episcopal Church; it has much to recommend it, and it can stand well on its own merits. The Prayer Book is peerless and offers, in the words of the Prince of Wales, “a simple and moderate system for a whole life, from baptism to last rites, and seeks, I think, in its rubrics and ceremonies to embrace the whole person and not merely the intellect.” It is ours, to say nothing of the distinctiveness of our liturgy and of our Hymnal and the magnificence of the choral tradition. Perhaps it is not all instantly comprehensible, but I believe it to be ultimately digestible, and able to provide a sound framework in which to lead a Christian life, which is really the point, is it not?

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