It’s Crunch Time

In C.S. Lewis’ book That Hideous Strength, a literature professor muses with his wife that both good and evil are becoming clearer, sharper. He refers to a poem in which heaven and hell are eating away at Merry Middle Earth, moving closer and closer to the center. In the novel, the choices of good and evil become clear for ordinary people who had no real ideas on what good and evil were. One of the main characters, Mark, gets swept into a demonic system – not because he himself is evil, but because he craves human approval and insider knowledge, because he would give up his soul to be part of an Inner Ring. Evil was not particular; it was eager to swallow Mark whole if Mark was willing to give up his own identity.

This week has been a difficult one for me, and for anyone who craves peace and approval above all. I hate conflict, and I hate not being able to please everybody in my life. I don’t even like being around fights that don’t involve me; I’m that annoying person who makes a joke on contentious Facebook threads because I can’t stand the tension. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we do not live in a world that allows for such cowardice. Among other issues, the matter of gay marriage has cloven in two American society, with very little patience for indecision. You’re either with us or against us, on both sides. I’ve been saddened to see friends of mine post that they will be deleting anyone who disagrees with the recent SCOTUS decision. I’ve heard my mom read to me, in significant tones, a statement from a PCA group saying that any church that approves of gay marriage is apostate. Almost everyone on Facebook has something to say about it, sometimes charitable but often not. Those who see themselves as the future, as being on the “right side of history,” can be harsh and (dare I say it) intolerant of those who disagree. If you are on the fence about this, as I am, there is a great deal of pressure to get with the program. I dread anyone asking me what I think, because I fear that “I don’t know” will cause consternation on either side. In spite of how some have derided the notion, I can see how this decision could curtail religious freedom. On the other hand, I don’t personally have an issue with gay marriage; very recently, I would have said I was all for it. So why the hesitation?

There are two issues, two very important issues, that this brings crashing to the fore. On the one hand is civil liberty. Will this increase liberty for those who wish to marry their same sex partner? Yes. Will it decrease liberty for those whose consciences will not let them approve of gay marriage (by not hiring someone in a gay marriage, for instance?) I think it’s likely. Will it make it a thought crime to suggest a different definition for marriage? That is already happening. And as a strong supporter of free speech, that’s what worries me most. The social pressure to think in lock-step is significant at this point.

The other issue is that of sexuality and gender in general. Frankly, I don’t think that this is something that can be handled by the courts. Perhaps I’m a libertarian at heart, but this is the realm of families, churches, communities. The court has made a decision on the civil government level, but how should churches respond? The Catholic Church’s stance is well known. There are a multitude of evangelical stances, but none of them have a long-term chance of success. If you stop seeing sex and procreation as tied together intrinsically, then what reason do you have to see gay sex in particular as abhorrent? Simply saying “the Bible says so” will not do, not when you look into the actual translations of what Paul is talking about in Romans 1, not when you disregard Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and still claim to be “sola Scriptura.” It looks like simple bigotry.

The more liberal churches, like the one to which I belong, do not claim to be Sola Scriptura, but we also do not have a Magisterium. We work within the church’s tradition, with Scripture, with reason, with experience. The Episcopal church in particular allows a lot of lee-way with regards to what individuals believe, which is why the “liberal church” stereotype is flawed. I know many individuals, priests and laypersons, who would describe themselves as conservative or traditional, and not just concerning liturgy. However, it is true that the Episcopal church as a whole is moving towards a more liberal view of human sexuality.

For myself, I don’t want to just go with the flow. Nor do I want to react for the sake of reaction. When discerning what is good, what is true, the approval of others is a terrible motivation, only as good as those surrounding you. When the choices are this stark, when the differences are this clear, indecision ceases to be a valid option. This is good; it is good to know that one must look for truth as a good unto itself, and that just going with the flow cannot suffice. That doesn’t make it less terrifying.

In the meantime, Julia, if you want to post something on the topic at These Walls, I’m sure it will be meaty and thought-provoking (hint hint).

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Burlap and Incense

My name is Caroline, and I am a liturgical snob.

There’s no support group for it, just as there’s no group for people who overuse semicolons, and probably for the same reason; we’re insufferable. I readily admit this. And yet, try as I might, I can barely contain a shudder when the priest extemporaneously changes He to God, or when the Peace becomes an impromptu family reunion, or when people’s cell phones go off during the service. I’m that guy. When I visit a church, nothing brings me joy like noting the presence of bells at the consecration. If there’s a traditional version, I’d rather have it, whether it’s organ music vs. guitars or a central aisle vs. “in the round.” In general, it seems right for Mass to emphasize the vertical over the horizontal.

That said, I’m completely sympathetic for those who need the horizontal emphasis, even those who whitewashed icons and built suburban concrete monstrosities in the 70s. It doesn’t mean they’re irreverent or godless, but it probably says a lot about where they came from.

My background was as vertical as the staunchest rad-trad could want. Our favorite hymn was Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne, which declared that “He can create and He destroy.” God was “immortal, invisible… in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

The children’s Westminster Catechism that I memorized said that God made me and all things “for His own glory,” that “God can do all His holy will.” The answer for everything was “for His own glory:” why did God command Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites? Why did God create Satan if He knew what Satan would do? Why does God only chose some and not others to be His elect, even though some non-elect die as infants without doing anything wrong? Who are you, O Man, to question God?

Not only was God all-powerful, all-glorious, holy and sovereign, not to be questioned, but we the people were dead in our sins. Our moral compass never pointed North because of the fall. We would never chose God on our own, because we couldn’t. We had no free will, no inner goodness. I was taught that nothing I did was actually good, that even my good works were probably done out of pride, or fear of punishment. No action done by man could be described as pure.

As a teenager, I watched R.C. Sproul’s Fear and Trembling video series, in which he called the faithful to reflect upon their wretchedness. The video discussed when God struck down a man for touching the Ark of the Covenant, for trying to catch it before it fell in the mud. Sproul taught that God’s action was only logical: dirt does what dirt is supposed to do. When it gets wet, it becomes mud. It obeys the natural laws, unlike man, who disobeys. Our hands are much worse than dirt, than worms, than the foulest thing you can imagine. The only reason we could stand before God is because of Christ’s righteousness, the snow covering our dung heaps.

If anyone was brought up to have a vertical-oriented faith, it was me. The experience was like pre-Vatican II Catholic guilt, but without the release of Catholic confession. They hammered home to us that faith is not about feelings, not about what’s in it for us. We were never overburdened with self-esteem. We were fed on complex theology from childhood, without sugar-coating. Except for the whole Protestant part, it was a Michael Voris dream come true.

That’s why I’m sympathetic to the tackiness, the feel-goodisms, the watered down theology. I don’t think it’s true, and I think it’s harmful in a different way, but I understand why so many would find it appealing. I can see why hearing Latin triggers painful memories for many who grew up pre-Vatican II, just as hearing an “altar call” triggers pain for me.

Last Sunday, the reading was from Isaiah 6, in which the prophet enters the Holy of Holies, with smoke going up before the throne of God and six-winged cherubim calling to each other “Holy Holy Holy!” And the prophet cries out before God that he has unclean lips, woe is me. His sin is purged with a burning coal.

It’s a beautiful, stunning passage, and I hate what it does to me. I hate that hearing the lector read it made me tremble with terror. I hate that I was suddenly a teenager watching “In Fear and Trembling,” when Sproul talked about that exact passage. I hate that the priest talked about God’s glory, not because he said anything wrong, but because I hear it through the filter of my past. When he says God’s glory, he may see beauty, but I see atrocities committed in God’s name, that are “for His own glory.” The word glory is a cover-up, a word to whitewash all the horrors done by Joshua to Canaan, the genocide, the rape, the executions and stonings that God Himself supposedly sanctioned “for His own glory.” Be ye holy.

Thing is, Beauty kept calling my name, in spite of all. I got lucky, because my particular faith tradition had done its own whitewashing. My ancestors snuffed out candles and tore down altars and destroyed icons and burned monasteries, for the glory of awful Jehovah. We worshiped in a plain building with a central wooden pulpit, our version of the altar, without pictures except for a stained glass cross. I don’t connect incense and candles and chant with my past; I connect it with moving away from my past, with choosing for myself where to worship, for daring to let God love me.

But if we’d been the ones with incense and Latin? I’d be making burlap banners and holding hands in the Our Father.

How Do We Attract Young People to Church?

You can start by knowing that that’s the wrong question.

Yes, that is the wrong question. It presupposes that the church is “in here,” that young people (whoever they are and whatever that means) are “out there.” Who is the “we” asking the question? Presumably, old people at church. “We” don’t really like young people, other than a few that we’re related to, and even then in small doses, because who can understand them, kids these days, but we’re facing our mortality and all the clergy say that we need young people or the church will die out so (sigh) here we go. Let’s put the word “cool” in the mailed out newsletter and add another guitar at Mass. That’s what kids like, right?

Let me propose a different beginning: consider that you probably already have “young people” in the pews. You may not notice, because that single woman in the back creeps out so quietly after the last hymn, but she’s there. The young couple with the baby that screamed during the consecration until someone shot enough dirty looks in their direction – they got the memo. The college students that get really preoccupied during the offertory because they spent their last cent on textbooks, yes, those are the ones that always leave during holidays. The awkward young man at Christian Ed who wanted to talk theology, not knowing this wasn’t the done thing, just let the leader finish the talk so we can get coffee in the fellowship hall, he was there. They were all there one Sunday, maybe two, maybe they asked a bunch of questions about possible service opportunities and classes, but their faces went blank when we told them about the women’s Bible study that meets every Tuesday at 10 a.m. I wonder why we never saw those nice young people again?

Here are a few questions I’d propose:

1. What do you mean by “young”?

Do you mean anyone below 50? (I’m looking at you, Episcopalians). Do you mean “young white middle-class couple with small children?” Do you mean “college and career” – a nebulous phrase that includes freshmen putting marshmallows in the microwave and 30 year old singles with 401Ks – or did you have high school students in mind?

Since I’m not in an amiable mood, I’d guess that you’re expecting this:

young couple

Not this:

This photo was taken on Broadway, between 61st and 62nd Street. The picture speaks for itself... *************** This set of photos is based on a very simple concept: walk every block of Manhattan with a camera, and see what happens. To avoid missing anything, walk both sides of the street. That's all there is to it … Of course, if you wanted to be more ambitious, you could also walk the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. But that's more than I'm willing to commit to at this point, and I'll leave the remaining boroughs of New York City to other, more adventurous photographers. Oh, actually, there's one more small detail: leave the photos alone for a month -- unedited, untouched, and unviewed. By the time I actually focus on the first of these

2. Why do you want young people to come to church?

Is it simply because otherwise the church will die out? Is it concern for their souls? Is it because you think the church has something good to offer? Is it because young people have something good to offer?

3. All of which culminates in a final question:

What do you mean by “church”? Are you sure that you’re in it, and that young people aren’t? What is the church’s purpose? Why do we even do this crazy thing where we dress up and go to a building on Sunday morning and sing songs and listen to a sermon and take bread and wine? Does it make you feel good because you did it, and your parents did it, and everyone respectable in town use to do it?

Does it scare you that it’s no longer mandatory in polite American society? If so, what do you fear? What would be lost if we lost the church – whatever that is?

Why Being an Episcopalian is Hard

… For me, anyway. It goes back to my childhood religion, PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). This is a very conservative, Calvinist Presbyterian denomination that split from the mainline Presbyterian church when it got too liberal in the 70s (the Southern Baptists formed for similar reasons). The denomination was very young; some individual churches didn’t make the jump until 1990. It was full of idealistic, energetic evangelicals who felt burned by the split. “We didn’t leave them; they left us” was the common refrain. They saw themselves not as new and young but as old, reaching back to the Westminster Confession and the Puritan tradition.

Mild-mannered, middle of the road folks don’t split from churches, but people full of passion and vigor often do in the Protestant world. The PCA attracted a certain personality type: well-educated, bookish, and almost Type A. It attracts folks that like the world to make sense, who believe that if you read the Bible with the right lens everything will fit into black or white boxes. It’s not just bookish nerds though – there’s an evangelical, energetic bent that gives it missionary zeal and focus.

Luther-Meme
Just putting some memes in here to keep things light.

The church I grew up in was very small: on an average Sunday we had between 30-40 people. On a very, very good day, maybe 50. There were just a handful of kids, none exactly the same age of course, so growing up I talked to everybody regardless of age. If you’ve ever been part of a very small community, you know the drill. Everybody pitches in and participates and likes it. If the doors were open, we were there, probably teaching something. When someone leaves it’s heart-wrenching, and we had lots of people leave. We couldn’t offer snazzy children’s programs or beautiful choirs or a praise band or overseas mission trips. Being part of that church could be so rewarding, but also so stressful, and lots of people, especially families with small children, decided it was too exhausting. Every time this happened the pain was overwhelming, and to heal I began to get prideful. Those people weren’t devoted to Biblical Truth. Those people worshiped youth groups instead of a sovereign God. They didn’t have what it takes to be Real Calvinists. Calvin Thug Life Remembering that now makes me want to vomit.

Pride and hurt feelings aside, there were benefits. You had a real community, a family, that had your back. One of the blessings of the place was its acceptance of the weirdos. I was a shy, odd kid, but people loved me anyway. We had kids with disabilities, both physical and otherwise, who fit in just great with the rest of us. The church’s motto seemed to be: we’ll accept anyone, no matter how different, as long as you believe exactly like us.

Becoming Episcopalian after this background was a hard transition, and I still feel like a recent convert. I even attended a breakaway Anglican congregation for awhile, perhaps because being part of a conservative schismatic group felt like home. Some of the challenges are cultural. When you come from an evangelical background, mainline Protestant churches feel off in a thousand ways. The ratio of elderly to other age groups is much larger than you’re accustomed to. There’s this thing called “coffee hour,” which was designed to make young introverts feel uncomfortable. Mainly though, the congregants lack a certain outward emotional zeal.

Part of the evangelical DNA is an outward display of religious affections (see, I know my Jonathan Edwards). Whether it’s anger, or sadness, or happy-clappy-joy-joy, evangelicals can provide it in spades. Enthusiasm comes naturally. This can be emotionally exhausting, especially if you’re an introvert. Many the revival meeting has passed in which I quietly panicked in the back: “Should I go forward? Do I feel enough to go forward? Should I raise my hands? I don’t want to look like I don’t care. Maybe if I quietly raise one hand that would be sufficient.” You end up faking it, and then you wonder how many others are faking it, and the whole enterprise feels inauthentic.

So part of me was happy to be in a church with so scripted a liturgy, where you’re told when to stand, sit, sing, and kneel, where you’re not required to emote on a weekly basis. However, I also happen to be an emotional soul, albeit a private one. Hymns can make me cry. I’m regularly overcome by the experience of the Eucharist. So being in an Episcopal congregation, in which everyone carries on quietly and feels, or doesn’t feel, in their own heads, can be disorienting. The English temperament was stolidly preserved in American Episcopal congregations, and evangelicalism is so stereotypically American that at times I feel like an immigrant.

However, the difference lies deeper than just culture. The Presbyterian view of church is that specific beliefs are preeminent. Pastors and elders must sign off on the Westminster Confessions and the Book of Church Order. Congregants don’t have to, but if you truly disagree with them you will be unhappy and probably won’t last. I’ve known churches to change the words to hymns to make them fit the Calvinist TULIP. (At one PCA church I visited, they sang To God Be the Glory which included the offensive phrase “and opened the life-gate that all may go in.” They changed this to “that we may go in.” I think that moment was when I decided I was definitely not Calvinist).

Episcopalians flip this on its head. They process beliefs through prayer and worship. The central text is The Book of Common Prayer, not a doctrinal dissertation or confession. They say that Jesus, not the Bible, is the Word of God. Most sermons center on a Gospel story, not a letter-by-letter analysis of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Not everything is black and white and engraved in stone. This is simultaneously refreshing and frustrating.

lex-orandi-batman

My religious background was designed to make you think a certain way. Everything was all or nothing. You’re elect or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do about it. God is exactly the way we say He is, and if you don’t like it that means you are irreverent. You are a worm, and your good works are probably the result of pride or some other bad intention. Don’t rely on your instincts or trust yourself; the heart is desperately wicked!

Since I have severe anxiety, I was ready to be told exactly what to do in every instance of life. I have panic attacks trying to chose shampoo brands, so don’t trust me with making moral choices! Tell me what to think, what to wear, exactly which actions are sinful in exactly which scenarios, exactly how to live. Don’t tell me to be a grownup, to use discretion and self-control.

In the meantime, I’ve accepted that I’m on the Anglo-Catholic end of things. I’d say it’s because they have a high view of the sacraments, but maybe it’s just because that way I can express my emotions in a positive direction.