Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay to explain why so many people of her generation avoid church. Evans quotes approvingly from one of her friends, who went looking for a worship service that is "not sensational, flashy, or particularly 'relevant'." What that friend wanted instead wasn't relevance or affirmation, but an invitation to full membership in what she called "the life of an ancient-future community."
That phrasing rankles me because I'm older than Evans and her peers, and more attuned to the syntax that aspiring theologians unwrap like a fresh deck of cards when they're trying to prove that they're intellectual and compassionate. The poetically liturgical "Ever ancient, ever new" captures the same insight as "ancient-future" without threatening to veer off into the mail-order shamanism that looks to places like Stonehenge and Sedona for whatever dignity it can borrow.
Unfortunate word choice aside, I'm glad that Ms. Evans and her friends have come around to the idea that the timeless trumps the trendy. She needn't be smug about what she calls the "Millennial" ability to sniff out hypocrisy, however -- that just means that even younger people realize we're all sinners.
Four years after abandoning an evangelical Protestant church community whose spiffy worship services were unable to assuage her doubt and disillusionment, Evans now considers herself an Episcopalian. I cheered when she used part of her essay to plug ritual and sacrament:
"You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality," she wrote. "You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God."
Evans rounded out her examples by capping them with a summary worthy of huzzahs: "What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments."
Good stuff, that. And yet I fear that Rachel Evans will eventually be disillusioned again, because despite that wonderful acknowledgement of ritual and sacrament, she also writes that the magnet that drew her back into church wasn't truth so much as Episcopalian "inclusivity." The big red doors of her church are open to all, she's happy to say: "conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me."
But of course those doors are open to all. That's not an Episcopalian distinctive; it's a mark of authentic Christianity that every Christian communion has inherited to a greater or lesser degree from the original fellowship organized by Jesus and headed by Saint Peter. To call the church "inclusive" is to call it "catholic."
Wittingly or not, Evans has transposed the vocabulary of the church fathers into a key she finds easier to sing. If that helps her meet the obligation we all have to live the Great Commandment, it's a wonderful thing. But if Evans (or anyone else) clings so tightly to inclusivity that the embrace leaves no room for the other marks of the church, then there's a problem, because "one," "holy," and "apostolic" sit at the same table that "catholic" does. To put one mark of the church in front of the others is to risk jettisoning faith when your own congregation falls short of that mark.