“ For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” – Luke 9:24 NRSV
What do Evangelicals have that Catholics do not? Why are they the only Christian group that is successful in growing via conversion? As I read over the concerns raised by Leah Libresco (a Roman Catholic) and Rod Dreher (an Orthodox Christian), I think of where my own church (The Episcopal Church) has fallen short. Like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Episcopal Church maintains the apostolic succession of Bishops (as the name suggests) and we keep all seven sacraments. We do have a liturgy that when fully embraced includes beautiful chanting, candles, icons, incense, and all of it leads to the High Mass. Unfortunately, for fear of remaining small (we make up about 2% of the US population), our leaders ranging from the Bishops all the way to vestry members, stubbornly insist on watering down our liturgy. Our priests, when teaching confirmation classes that we often rename (“Seekers Class”) capitulate to the seemingly mainline protestant culture of the United States.
When I was first joining the Episcopal Church, I remember our priest telling us that “confirmation” was simply an act of claiming what was given to us during baptism. It was the Bishop who confirmed me, the Right Reverend Alden Hathaway, who explained in his sermon that he, as a Bishop, once knelt before three Bishops when he was ordained, and the layed hands upon his head. Those three Bishops experienced the same before him, and did the Bishops before. Going back, the earliest Bishops, or Episcopos, where consecrated by the Apostles, and the Apostles by Christ himself (this is the Apostolic Succession). So, when we came before the Bishop and he would lay his hands upon our heads, we would not only feel his hands, but the hands of every Bishop before him, and the hands of the Apostles, and most importantly, the hands of Christ. This is who we are.
So let me get to the point
I know that I’m preaching to the choir right now if Ms. Libresco or Mr. Dreher read this, but I write this to address Mr. Dreher’s two main questions: “What are Catholics doing wrong?” and “What are Evangelicals doing right?” Mr. Dreher is on to something with this statement, “If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people.” This is what Evangelicals are doing right. If I may expand on that label “Catholic” to include all Churches that maintain the sacraments and the Apostolic Succession (Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.), Mr. Dreher also seems to understand what we’re doing wrong. “Catholic and Orthodox intellectuals — I am guilty of this — have a strong tendency toward self-satisfaction, resting in the beauty and the intellectual depth of our respective ancient traditions, but notably lacking in missionary zeal.” However, this could lead to the erroneous conclusion that we should do what they are doing. We should stop all the pageantry, lighten up on the liturgy, stop emphasizing the importance of the Apostolic Succession; and play some electric guitars, shout “Amen”, sing and clap our hands, etc. I hope I don’t sound condescending towards Protestant churches that enjoy this style of worship. Jesus never gave us a particular style of worship and I don’t presume to have the style that is suited for all of Christendom. The body of Christ has many parts, and a body made entirely of right arms wouldn’t be able to function.
Evangelicals function well because they embrace who they are. For Christians who worship with their hearts, who enjoy immediately expressing what they feel God is doing for them, etc. these Evangelicals have it in the bag. Whenever the Episcopal Church struggles against its nature, trying to be more like the Evangelicals, we end up with an uneasy compromise on mainline Protestant style worship. As Ms. Libresco showed, mainline Protestants are the least successful at retaining membership. Please do not take this as judgment, but I personally find mainline Protestant worship rather dull and unfulfilling. Evangelical style worship makes me uncomfortable, and not in a good way. It doesn’t challenge me to be a better Christian, or take a leap of faith. It just makes me feel like I don’t belong, and that’s because I don’t – not there, anyway.
So what can Catholics do right?
What we can learn from the Evanglicals is that we will grow if we embrace who we are, and we make worship relevant to the everyday lives of the people who attend. Those who criticize us most sharply for our ancient rituals, and claim we are out of touch with the modern era…these are the very people who will NEVER attend our churches, no matter what we do. When the Episcopal Church seeks to save its life, it dies a little more inside. When the Roman Catholic Church isn’t far behind, it does the same. But I have seen life in the Orthodox Church. I am back to embracing my Episcopal identity, but I did, many years ago, convert to Greek Orthodoxy. There was no capitulation in the Orthodox Church. The sacraments were held to the highest standards, and the liturgy was fully embraced. Visitors were welcome to enjoy our style of worship, but it was our style of worship. Those who wanted to embrace it, including myself when I first attended, were welcome to come to confirmation classes and then decide if they wanted to be Chrismated. To this day I love the Orthodox Church, and only returned to the Episcopal Church as a compromise with my Methodist wife (Episopalianism seems somewhere in between Orthodoxy and Methodism).
There is a portion of Christians who yearn for high church liturgy. There is another portion of the general population, Christian or otherwise, who could be won over. But there are those who will never be won over, and they speak the loudest. Of that group, those who are non-Christian only wish us harm, and we should ignore them. Of Evangelicals or other Protestants who criticize us, we should remind them that in the end, we all have the same Lord and Savior, and a house divided against itself cannot stand.
What we, Catholics of every flavor, must do is embrace who we are. For Orthodox Christians, Mr. Dreher already recognizes their hurdle – “Orthodoxy is so exotic in the American context that it’s hard for it to evangelize relative to other Christian churches.” Those who yearn for liturgy, however, need only attend an Orthodox mass, and they will be hooked – I know I was. Both Roman Catholics and Episcopalians face the same primary challenge, however. Our own members chip away at who we are from within. The capitulation must stop, and we must embrace the full liturgy, with all its smells and bells. We’ll never out Protestant the Protestants, but we can sure out Catholic ourselves. The Roman Catholic Church also must move past the notorious sexual abuse mass-scandal of that last several decades. It’s important for them to clean up their act, which they are finally doing, but that alone would simply slow their decline. For the Episcopal Church, we have no major scandals…we’re just boring. For starters, we should scrap the word “Protestant” from the official title of our church in America. Let it simply be “The Episcopal Church in the USA”. Lose the “Presiding Bishop” label and embrace “Archbishop”. From there, revive the use of icons, the chanting (especially during communion), and every bit of beautiful pageantry that makes us Episcopalian. Let the Presbyterians be Presbyterians. Lastly, never let anyone claim that we do not believe in the true presence of Christ when we take communion. We do not embrace the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation because the miracle of communion is beyond our comprehension, but we do not see it as mere symbolism. We do receive the body of Christ. No, Richard Dawkins, not the literal flesh and blood of a 1st Century Jew named Jesus, but the heavenly body of Christ…I wouldn’t expect you (Dawkins) to understand.
Holding on to capitulation will only lead to a slow death. Our Churches will become museums, as so many already are in Europe. But worse, in America, some corporation or politician will want to tear them down for “progress”. I love the Orthodox Church, but I’d hate for it to be the only remaining source of high church worship in America. If we breathe new life into our places of worship, if the liturgy is born again, that portion of the population yearning for liturgy will return full measure. Then, that next portion of lost souls – that portion that can be captivated by the liturgy – they will wonder in one Sunday morning. When they do, welcome them!
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10 NRSV
For further reading:
An interesting article on the RCC in Germany and capitulation to “modernity”, I have mixed opinions of the particular issues addressed by the RCC in Germany, but overall worry about their lack of conviction: