"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.