Are we “relevant” enough yet?

Since the days of the Apostles, Eucharist has been the fundamental form of Christian worship.

Since the days of the Apostles, Eucharist has been the fundamental form of Christian worship.

Over the past few years I have spent increasing time reading the early writers and doctors of the church. The more I read, the more I want to read. The more I read, the more isolated I become in developing an understanding of how the church was formed and how its traditions, rites, and organization came into being and evolved. “Isolated” in the sense that almost no one seems to be familiar with these writings or their impact on our faith, nor do they seem to care. While sharing with most of my fellow Christians the belief that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and that should be our focus, only a few seem to understand that the maintenance of that focus requires an earthly institution that not only doesn’t change with the times, but maintains a direct and steadfast identity and structure that would be clearly recognizable to a Christian from any period. When I explained to my son why the office of acolyte should be approached with great respect, I told him that it was one of the first lay ministries and that torch meant exactly that: The first acolytes flanked the carrier of the writings into the dark and secret places where Christians were forced to meet and provided light as they were read from.

This imagery really impressed him and created a pride that showed in his performance. It appears that over the centuries the idea that “…the Bible contains all things necessary unto salvation.” has come to be interpreted as “Why do we need all that other stuff?” While reunification with our Creator through the grace of Jesus Christ is our foremost personal goal, the maintenance, growth, and passing on of the church militant as an earthly institution remains critical to the spreading of the gospel. It is in that pursuit that reading the writings of those who lived with the apostles and were their immediate and chosen successors is essential to understanding the foundations and mechanics chosen for the one holy catholic and apostolic church. In reading Clement, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Athanasius, and Eusebius Pamphili, and others, one finds the answers to each and every issue confronting us today and yet one finds modern Christians constantly re-hashing these things ad nauseum in ignorance.

It is in the light of these readings and so much more I have learned about the history, organization, the liturgy, the governance, the rites, and the symbols of the church that I now am uplifted in ways as never before as I enter each time and see the altar, the symbols, the once and future procession, and participate in worship that other Christians from almost any century would find familiar. It is a revelation, and a burden. While I had felt that much change had occurred in just my lifetime in the church I now realize there have been more alterations and fundamental changes in my time than in the previous 15 centuries. While some of these, notably the priesting of women and an emphasis on the passing of the peace, are great things that correct error and probably reflect better the earliest days of our faith as I’ve come to understand it, myriad others reflect nothing but some belief in “modernization” reflecting the absence of a fundamental understanding of church history and the importance of continuity. The American province of the Anglican communion has so vectored into itself as to be well on the way to be yet another niche denomination attempting to find a foundation after blindly leaving the rock of the clear lineage of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

It was from this I was running when I chose the Anglican catholic tradition as a 21 year old son of a Southern Baptist preacher looking for his Christian roots. After the church I was raised in voted to bar blacks I found myself unable to accept that as being in any way Christian. To my relief, I found to my amazement and surprise that the Baptists were not the “one true church” one raised in the American south might reasonably assume, but only a tiny splinter of Christianity. I struggled mightily to become a Roman catholic, but was stopped cold by the closed communion rail which I simply could not rationalize as “Christian” by history, tradition, or scripture and as being of the same root as the resolution of my Baptist church’s resolution barring blacks. At least my old Baptist church only barred blacks and not everyone who wasn’t “one of us.”

The issue of Roman primacy is so easily cleared up by even a cursory read of Eusebius alone. I submit that even a lay scholar such as I can readily dispatch the claims of this great splinter of the church and sole remaining representative of the ancient Pentarchy to be the Vicar of Christ on earth in front of any objective jury with ease…and yet a frightening number of those outside that communion who intone “…and I believe one catholic and apostolic church…” every Sunday morning identify “catholic” and “Rome” in perfect submission to the carefully constructed and maintained fantasies of that denomination.

Do not think me as one wishing ill towards our Roman brethren. I hold church unity to be second only to the faith itself in importance. With some degree of apologies to Dr. Martin Luther King I would say that I have a dream that one day the son of a Baptist preacher will kneel at the rail with his Roman brethren and receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation together. On that day Rome will establish itself as truly catholic and apostolic and leave behind its fallacious and unbecoming claims to control of the path to union with God.

In “shopping” I was introduced to St. James Church in Texarkana by a close friend and in my first experience carried away in a sense of rapture, holiness, presence of the Spirit, and a timeless experience of being accompanied by Christians of all times and places. Finally, I experienced the communion of saints. Recently I revisited that parish and found little had changed, and again was the recipient of a great blessing in one of the steadily dwindling places where the traditions of the ancients remain largely intact. However, such places are now anachronisms rather than the rule.

Personally, I do not believe the decline in our numbers in the U.S. of all mainstream denominations of the catholic tradition and the timeline of the deterioration of our adherence to the time-tested rites, traditions, and practices of those who went before us is coincidence. It is not only the ancients I have read, but also such mighty works as Samuel Davis McConnell’s timeless and brilliant “History of the American Episcopal Church” which, while ending in the early part of the 20th century, I found still perfectly described a church separated from its mother by the Revolution and groping to determine its identity. As a vestryman, I had a member of clergy identify us as “Protestant” and immediately asked “Sir, what are we protesting? I am a Christian of the Anglican catholic tradition, and your document of consecration identifies you as a priest of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Yes, I know.  If you look hard enough you’ll find “protestant” in the Articles of Faith (though only in the header and not in the doctrines)  and on the ECUSA web site in fine print at the bottom.  But we spring from what is most accurately termed “The English Reformation” rather than the “Protestant Reformation” and that word has been a constant irritant since the American Revolution separated us from our mother church.

I still feel a twinge when one of our priests or bishops identifies themselves as an “Episcopal” priest or bishop, as I see this as an admission that we aren’t “real” members of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. Then, I read the Athanasian Creed as enshrined in our Prayer Book and see it’s admonition that “catholic” and “Christian” are inseparable. Therefore, this becomes not a matter of simple preference, but a critical theological issue. Each Sunday I am in the company of fellow Christians who identify themselves as “Episcopalians” A significant number have no idea what the word means, a majority of them see themselves as “protestants” and many of those do not identify themselves as “catholic” and not one in ten have a clue who Athanasius was or have ever read that creed. Nonetheless, they intone habitually “…I believe one catholic and apostolic church…”

That brings me back to Eusebius Pamphili. I am a bit past half way after several months of reading, re-reading, and digesting. Now, it has become more like sitting at the feet of a master who discourses the formation of the faith as one who witnessed it and received it from the apostles and their immediate spiritual descendants personally and feels an obligation to those who would succeed him to ensure the origins of the rites, traditions, governance, and substance of the church militant are accurately understood. His voice speaks to me with the authority of one inspired. While we know many his works have been lost, the remaining body is massive. His “Ecclesiastical History” is a gift from God that provides a priceless detail of the history of the church from the Resurrection until at least the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. which can arguably be considered to represent pinnacle and completion of the formative period of the one holy catholic and apostolic church as founded by the apostles.

He clearly describes how the “glue” of the first 3 centuries was that of martyrdom and repression, and that orthodoxy was maintained by the successors to the apostles largely through correspondence and epistles, as well as synods of equals. By his time, this had been replaced by the emperor as pontifex maximus, a title handed down from pagan times that made the emperor chief priest of all religions within his dominions and of the state religion, but the theological directorate of the church itself remained largely the Pentarchy of the most ancient churches. For me, this is the golden age of the church. Yes, there were almost countless heresies but these gradually shriveled against the walls of the great doctors and theologians working together in harmony. Of course, this period did not last.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 gave recognition, in its 28th canon, to Constantinople’s extension of its power over Pontus and Asia in addition to Thrace. The Council justified this decision on the grounds that “the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city”, and that the First Council of Constantinople, “actuated by the same consideration, gave equal (bold and underline by the writer) privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her”.

Note that this gathering of the one holy catholic and apostolic church elevates Rome and Constantinople due to their special position as political centers, not by any claims of special theological importance, and certainly neither as the “vicar of Christ” or having special claim to the keys to the kingdom, and they are both “magnified” for the same reasons.
As the power of the city of Rome declined politically, the bishops there began to fill in the vacuum with a belief that they succeeded the emperors as pontifex maximus and autocrat of the church and city. The extension of their political responsibilities is certainly understandable given the chaos following the final withdrawal of Roman forces sometime after 550 A.D.

With the exception of Pope Martin I, no Roman bishop until 732 A.D. questioned the authority of the Byzantine monarch as pontifex maximus to confirm the election of the bishop of Rome before consecration could occur. Interestingly, it is about this time it is believed the “Donation of Constantine,” a document ceding the title “pontifex maxiumus” to the bishop of Rome and “…power, and dignity of glory, and vigour, and honour imperial…” was written.  This document was eventually admitted to be a forgery by Rome itself, but not until much evil was done in its name. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Dante in his “Divine Comedy:”

“Ah, Constantine, how much evil was born, / not from your conversion, but from that donation / that the first wealthy Pope received from you!”

With the loss of three of the five cities of the Pentarchy to the Moslems it came down to two, Rome and Constantinople, with Rome the only one of the churches founded by the apostles remaining under Christian rule. Rome made every effort to increase its temporal and ecclesiastical in these centuries and the process was accelerated by Gregory VII, peaking in the rule of Alexander VI. Citing the above referenced forged “Donation of Constantine,” the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople for refusing to submit to Rome by papal legate Michael Cerularius in 1054 was the beginning of a campaign to destroy that last remaining obstacle to Roman power. That struggle ended with Nicholas V ignoring of the last emperor, Constantine XI’s pleas for aid against Mehmet and the end of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1493 as well as the last vestiges of the original Catholic Church.

In this campaign from a “first among equals” role in a truly catholic church granted in deference to its location in the political capital and home of the “national church” of the Romans to the “one true church” with the keys to heaven, Rome succeeded beyond my ability to comprehend such that even today she virtually owns the word “catholic” and all other Christian traditions have acquiesced, as well as the secular establishment. This, in spite of the readily available evidence to the contrary.

I must emphasize the degree of struggle the above theological and historic issues place on my faith. From the fact that there is either one church or there is no church I cannot retreat. Beyond that, my faith is simple: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. In the public expression that faith, I do not believe there is any right or wrong way to praise His holy name. However, I believe that continuity in the rites and traditions handed down from the days of the Apostles to be critical in ensuring the future of the church. While I can have a blessed experience in a gathering where a computer screen replaces the altar as focus and no music is heard that has stood the test of more than a few years, I consider it a breach of fiduciary interest in the inheritance from our forefathers to instill in our children a sense of “anything goes” and “roll your own religion” is just fine. Anglican chant and Missa Marialis are precious family heirlooms, while “Our God is an Awesome God” is unlikely to stand the test of 12 centuries.

ECUSA membership peaked the year I was confirmed and has dropped by 30% since that time. I cannot help but believe that there is a more than coincidental connection between the rush to modernize and casualize our services into such diversity that one may only know any Episcopal/Anglican connections from the sign outside. I do not miss being characterized as the “frozen chosen,” but I do miss feeling at home in any parish of the Anglican communion, high, middle, or low.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Satan. “Well, duh” you might say, but I mean that in the sense of whether such an entity actually exists or perhaps is some monster of the Id within us as weak, temporal creatures prone to prostrate ourselves before desire. However, in contemplating the disintegration of my denomination in the past 50 years it recently occurred to me that if I were Satan, and I’d failed for centuries to bring the church to ruination by simple individual temptations and such, I might finally realize that the best way to destabilize and destroy a such a tower of strength as has been the Anglican catholic tradition might be by undermining its very foundation. If I were him, I’d start with the catechism and replace it with a nice, contemporary “Christianity 101” without a test. Of course, make sure it’s different in every parish and minimize any discussion of ecclesiastical history. Then, I’d want to take the liturgy and make it as relevant to modern tastes and times as possible. Declare censing the oblations to be an archaic throwback and a fire hazard not suitable to modern times. Of course, the jewel of Anglican chanting of the psalms would be replaced with a monotonous unison reading guaranteed to ensure the congregation is drowsy before the gospel is read and asleep before the sermon even starts. Certainly forcing the vergers to the verge and out of their ancient role as sergeant majors of lay ministry and insurers of training and discipline of the acolytes would be high on the list, such that those acolytes would be free to wear shower shoes at the altar without fear or concern and slouch and fidget at will. Those with the ancient skills are dying off rapidly and won’t be a problem for “modernization” for long. Then, as understanding and practice of the ancient traditions of the church waned I’d plant the seeds of schism in individual parishes and ensure that everyone saw the need for diversity and acceptance of everyone’s individual preferences to worship and make it politically incorrect to not completely accept a computer screen as the focus of worship instead of the altar.

I write this as a member of a parish that has managed to split itself peacefully into two distinct rites and yet maintain warm relations now for years. I credit the extraordinary abilities of our Rector with maintaining this but the political astuteness of an individual is no substitute for the continuity over decades and centuries that a unified liturgy can maintain. As a valued mentor once told me “Dave, clergy comes and clergy goes, but the parish belongs to YOU!”

While we have managed to co-exist in peace and love for years, we are a poster child for the gradual dilution of the ancient traditions and I believe a day will come when our differences are so great that even our common love of Jesus may not be sufficient to keep us together. In a small group reading a book by the current Bishop of Texas Andrew Doyle by the title of “Unabashedly Episcopalian” I was rather taken aback when a younger member asked what a “catechism” was and several others joined the query. When we gather together on occasion for combined services, I can tell they are just as uncomfortable with Hyfrydol or the Agnus Dei as I am when the guitars and drums begin to twang out the latest praise song du jour.

Another ancient writer from whom I draw inspiration is Lao Tzu, who said “The bough that does not bend is soon broken.” However, in spite of the truth in that statement I am also reminded of Martin Luther:

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God. Amen”

April 18, 1521, in the city of Worms, Germany, Martin Luther before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

This entry was posted in Theology and Faith and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Are we “relevant” enough yet?

  1. simona says:

    Hi, Ive been a lurker around your blog for a few months. I love this article and your entire site! Looking forward to reading more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s