Tuesday, May 12, 2015

So swim the Tiber already

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.


  1. I love this, as I've always loved your writings on the Church. I plan to write a post linking to it soon. So glad we're both blogging again!

  2. I grew up in a home that wasn't observant, except for one thing: we did Passover. My goodness, but did we do Passover. The entire seder was done in both English and Hebrew, and we didn't miss a bit. In addition, all the songs got sung twice, first the way my Dad had learned them as a child, and then the way my Mom had learned them.|

    When I was off in the world, a friend invited me to her family's Passover seder. I knew that they were conservative Jews, so I assumed that the seder would be even more lengthy and complete than my family's. To my surprise, though, the family rushed through the seder, with one person mumbling through this or that prayer or recital, while everyone else engaged in ordinary dinner table conversation.

    As a child, I had imagined that this would be a great way to observe Passover -- swift and friendly. In fact, I found it very disturbing. The question that presented itself to me was this: "Why bother to go through the motions of an important historic and religious ritual if your behavior leeches it of any meaning?"

    To make an obvious tautology, religion without meaningful observation is meaningless. It does not draw us out of our ordinary life into a spiritual world. Instead, it's just another item in the laundry list of things we do.

    I regret to say that I have never overcome my childhood and am not an observant Jew. But I will say this: On the rare occasions I participate in a religious activity, whether a Jewish one or, because of friends, a Christian one, I want that participation to be complete in every respect so that I am fully aware that I am taking a moment out of my life to dedicate myself to God.