Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people."
-Acts 6:8 (NRSV)

"He was a good Christian, and never enthusiastic in his religion."
-18th century English epitaph, possibly apocryphal

I was reminded of the supposed epitaph (the source is the late Laurence Lafore, who taught British history at the University of Iowa, and occasionally told some whoppers) when I attended Christmas Eve service at a local Episcopal Church. The service itself was beautiful--the music, the liturgy, and the elaborate ritual--what we sometimes call "smells and bells." But the sermon was another matter--a very intellectual but very dry talk about the oxymoronic nature of Christmas. There was nothing theologically wrong with what the rector said. But he wouldn't win any converts with it. In short, he showed no enthusiasm.

Before all the controversy over women priests and gay bishops, Episcopalians argued about churchmanship. Because the Anglican church is both Catholic and Protestant, there almost had to be a dispute between the two approaches to the liturgy. The Anglo-Catholics, or High Church, emphasized the sacraments, while the Evangelicals, or Low Church, stressed the Bible and conversion by the word. (In Britain the distinction between High and Low Church gets complicated, but here in the States, you can pretty much equate High with Anglo-Catholic and Low with Evangelical.)

And the High Church has triumphed, especially here in the Midwest. And as a Midwestern Episcopalian, I'm High Church. But it's unfortunate that that in adopting the High Church position, we've too often discarded the best of Evangelicalism. Especially its enthusiasm.

The Evangelicals included William Wilberforce, who spearheaded the movement to end slavery in the British Empire. And the Wesley brothers: Charles, who wrote some of the most beautiful hymns in the English language, and John, whose preaching converted thousands. (John Wesley died a member of the Church of England. Only after his death did his followers break with the church and become Methodists.)

But the enthusiasm of preachers like Wesley was too much for some staid Anglicans, who helped push Wesley's followers into breaking with the church. Thus the epitaph, which declared enthusiasm anathema.

We all know of situations where religious zeal has led to fanatacism of violence. But the word enthusiasm literally means "having God within." Martin Luther King, jr. was enthusiastic in the same sense as his fellow martyr St. Stephen, whose feast day is today.

Personally, I suspect that the decline in membership of the Episcopal Church has less to do with women and gays in the clergy than with a lack of the evangelical spirit in both the clergy and prominent laity. We can have the most awe-inspiring music, the most beautiful vestments, and the most elaborate ritual--but if the rector can't preach an inspiring sermon, we're not going to attract new members. That's right. We need some enthusiasm.


gerry rosser said...

I tend to wonder why you "need" new members. This sounds like an implied criticism, but it isn't, just an area of wonderment for me.

Peter said...

I confess to being part of the problem you describe here. I left our Episcopal church before I left home for college. I had had a spiritual awakening, and I left for the local charismatic church in the middle of the Jesus movement. There really was no sympathy for the movement at our Episcopal church, which was the most “high” Episcopal Church in our blue-collar shipyard town.

My father rejoined the vestry a few years ago, and he lamented the lack of enthusiasm anywhere but in the youth program, which was plugged into a statewide Episcopal movement that has brought some of the low-church enthusiasm to the local churches.

I think that my father and I have both changed. When I was a teenager, my father saw the charismatic movement as fanaticism (a lot of what I saw of it was), and I had the audacity to privately question the eternal status of members of my former church. I also think that my departure from the Episcopal Church hurt him deeply.

My own journey has led me to a new appreciation of ritual and beauty in worship, and of the Book of Common Prayer. Worship in the Episcopal Church is generally more reflective and contemplative than in the low-church expressions I have been associated with over the years. Now, though, and like you, I gather, I’m less interested in having one expression of worship without the other.

I agree with you that we need one another.

One solution may be to start seeing high and low church as generational expressions, since generations within a denomination generally seem to associate themselves with one expression or the other. As I have suggested, at my parents’ church currently, the older members resonate more strongly with high-church worship while the younger members resonate more strongly with low-church worship. Perhaps we can learn to learn from one another, to see it all as strength, and to send consistent signals that we have a broad enough understanding of church history and religious psychology to accept one another.

Another handsome and thoughtful post. Thank you for writing here.

steve on the slow train said...

Gerry--No offense taken. The simple answer is The Great Commission. It's in all four Gospels, although it was probably added to Mark's. Here's the version from Matthew 28:16-20:

"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'"(NIV)

Of course, Jesus didn't tell us to make Episcopalians of all the nations, but I believe the Anglican "middle way" between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism is a tradition that can bring Christians together; that is, if we ourselves can stay together in the next decades.

Huston Smith saw Christianity and Buddhism as religions not defined by ethnicity or blood. Jews allow converts, but do not seek them. One cannot truly be a Hindu without having a caste. But both Christianity and Buddhism which grew out of Judaism and Hinduism, respectively, actively seek converts.

Along with most "mainline" Christians, I'm not about to try to convert a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu or even an atheist. But we can convert by example. But when people come into a church, as they often do on Christmas and Easter, they need to be inspired and welcomed. And Episcopalians aren't always good at either.

Peter: Very thoughtful comments. I'm not sure whether it's generational or not. Of course, I'm from an area where there isn't much of a Low Church tradition. Even the Pentecostal movement in the Midwest was decidely Anglo-Catholic. Seabury-Western Seminary in Evanston, IL, where students disparaged the moderately high St. Mark's Church in that city as "Mr. Mark's'" was a hotbed of Pentecostalism in the 1980s.

When my wife and I visited Williamsburg in the 1980s, the people at Bruton Parish Church talked about a young priest who had served there before becoming chaplain at the University of Chicago. He once filled in at St. Martin's Church in Chicago, where I was a member, and told me that people in Williamsburg complained he was too high, but was too low for a lot of Chicagoans. He, for one, knew how to give a homily. Perhaps his connection with that very Low Church parish helped him.

We definitely need each other.

Peter said...

Too high for Bruton Parish? Bruton Parish is about as high as we get in Tidewater, VA!

steve on the slow train said...

Peter--As I recall, there were no kneelers. There was no tabernacle or sanctuary light. And at that time, the main service was not always a eucharistic one. It seemed pretty low to me. Of course that was from the perspective of a parishioner of the Chicago diocese, where a church with a Lady Chapel (St.Mark's, Evanston), is considered low.

William Craig said...

I don't suppose you have a source for the {possibly apocryphal) epitaph, do you? I have not been able to locate it elswhere. However, I have only begun looking.

Thank you for your trouble.

steve on the slow train said...

William--I Googled the quote and variations of it, but with no result. Laurence Lafore was a brilliant man, but he did tell some whoppers. For instance, that the Dukes of Malborough would take the leftover food from their dinners, put it in a revolving drum to mix it, and then give it to the peasants. Only when Consuelo Vanderbilt became Duchess, he said, were the leftovers given out unmixed. Apparently the mixing drum was an invention. So I can't verity the epitaph. Sorry.