On being well-informed

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“High Church.” Vanity Fair, Jan 2, 1875. (Image/Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

The Oxford Movement was an intellectual and spiritual movement led by graduates of the University for which it was named. These graduates were later called “Tractarians” because of the essays they wrote in support of old customs such as public recitation of the Daily Office.

But the Tractarians were also parish clergy who put their ideas into practice. Their example drastically improved the churchmanship of parishes nationwide. It was their actions that counted, not their arguments. Indeed, their arguments tended to get them into trouble!

Here’s the problem with traditional Christians, and Anglicans especially, complaining about how uncultured and ignorant modern society has become: We’re right, of course, but it doesn’t matter that we’re right.

Most people don’t have a personal interest in Gothic architecture, Scripture or the Classics. They never have. Otherwise, the Oxford Movement wouldn’t have been needed. Just read Shakespeare (or better yet, Chaucer) to see what sort of bawdy entertainment the average person consumed. Middle and Early Modern English may sound pretty, but pretty words don’t mean anything.

A reasonable view of the past

There was, however, a time when Catholicism appealed more to average people, and even to the unlettered. In fact, this was a time when the unlettered were far more common. The cultural assumptions, even of Sunday Christians, were drenched in Christianity. Stained glass windows were called the “poor man’s Bible” for a reason.

But in the course of time, it has come to pass that interest in Christianity has become an intellectual hobby. These hobbyists, as I have noted previously, are the majority of our recent converts – and Anglicanism is already one of the better-educated US religious traditions!

File:Yale-library-stained-glass.jpg
(Image/Wikimedia Commons)

Stained glass windows no longer catechize tenant farmers. Instead, our average convert comes to us after a long, agonizing inner struggle (and much deep reading). By and large, this convert is less likely to rely on stained glass for access to biblical stories, and more likely to have conversations about the glass making techniques that were most common in the 14th century!

As a result, many of the people who complain about the death of high culture are those who complain about the death of God. And mark me, it is meet and right so to do. But what does that complaint imply?

We’re assuming that a real Christian is, well, educated. If that’s true, our appeal is limited to those who have always trickled into Anglicanism, often without efforts at evangelism. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a steady stream, but it’s small and we could do better.

While we must never “water down” any aspect of our patrimony, we would do well to separate the “plain folks” appeal of certain hucksters, whose missionary success in our culture convinces us not to even try, from the truth that God’s grace is for all people, and doesn’t rely on logical reasoning. Our culture doesn’t catechize people by default anymore, and when it did, it made them Evangelicals (for more on that, consult this article that I posted some days ago). We need to design a pitch of some kind that doesn’t rely on people already knowing how things are “supposed to work.”

Hopefully, this post will get people thinking about the nature of this outreach, and working to implement it in their own parishes.

Context

In our culture, unlike most, the average person has experienced religion as a marketplace of ideas. The products that have done best in this marketplace have appealed to the lowest common denominator. This has meant the ascendance (in fact, the total, unquestioned dominance) of a Revivalist Evangelicalism that we call Protestant, but which the Reformers wouldn’t recognize.

This brand of religion has, in turn, has devolved into “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a conviction that God wants people to be nice and not much else. MTD is almost the only faith of the generation coming up. Like it or not…

  • Most churchgoers don’t know what denomination their church belongs to. They also can’t pronounce “denomination.”
    • Or “Angelican.” Or “Pescetarian.”
  • Most people aren’t churchgoers.
  • The generation coming up is tiny, has no sense of duty to any institution, and likes it that way.
    • Without drastic social change, there’s nothing we can do to change this.
  • In spite of these challenges, a gigantic number of Evangelicals, who were raised in a sort-of Christian culture, have joined the Big Three (now four) Branch Churches because getting a higher education made it impossible for them to remain Evangelicals in good conscience.
  • This has given us an excuse not to contemplate mission to everyday people for whom theology doesn’t happen to be a personal interest.

Anglicanism is the choice you make when you find out that the Canon of Scripture was determined by bishops. It’s the choice you make when you realize that Jesus didn’t use the King James, but you’re still attached to it. We’re a thinking man’s religion in a very anti-intellectual country.

I’ve known Evangelicals who feel so threatened by the snob appeal that they chose not to convert even if they privately thought we are right.  We may reach them with any appeal except the one that has worked for us thus far. And we must stop being scared of just witnessing the plain Gospel truth because it sounds Protestant to say it that way.

In historically Catholic countries, a simple, lay spirituality (not that of an intellectual hobbyist) has given the vast majority of believers a saving faith. Such lay spirituality is normal and desirable. Societies should not be bisected between “high church” academic converts and everyone else. Normally, in fact, they aren’t! In our country, however, this is a longstanding problem that deeply colors our assumptions: The 18th-century frontier was evangelized by Baptists and Methodists; the Methodists seceded from the Anglican Church; and the 18th-century frontier is now Middle America.

Put another way, we need Average Joe Anglicanism.

Implications

What I’m saying is this: We may be barking up the wrong tree by complaining about the decline of classical culture and education. Back when classical culture was the only sort, it was absorbed through one’s upbringing and cultural ethos, not higher education. The average person of generations past knew the Bible because he went to Church every Sunday. He went to church every Sunday because his father and grandfather did. He may have learned some Greek fables because his parents used them for bedtime stories.

Christmas is a feast because it’s Jesus’ birthday celebration – we had the creche. Lent is sad because we fast, like someone who lost a loved one and skips meals.

Fine points of doctrine didn’t concern him because… why would they? Mass media hadn’t yet turned most people into self-appointed experts. Besides, if the study of the ancient Church ever stops being a fashion among Evangelicals, and we do not learn to get to the average, sincere seeker of redemption, we won’t last long enough to figure it out.

Before our media-driven mass culture, it would have struck people as odd that laity had elaborate opinions about doctrine or switched churches (sometimes repeatedly) because they had done so much reading. It should still strike them that way. For us to think that an informed society will solve this is an anachronism, and a result of us talking to ourselves (instead of others) too much.

Converting people who share this assumption has led us down the same road as the Protestants: Converts who are always looking for the next best thing, instead of buckling down and accepting their lot.

How do you think we lose people to Rome or the East? They read about how the grass is greener on the other side, and defect from us over differences that are, as the saying goes, “academic.”  They don’t listen to their priest, but the Pontiff of the Romans is an absolute monarch, so theirs must be the truly true Church. They hardly fast, but the Orthodox have a stricter fasting rule and hesychasm, so theirs must be the really real Church.

These people would benefit if they went to church with people who don’t read much or even care to, but who know how to be loyal, and hate a flake.

If someone studied it from a media perspective, we would learn that Anglicanism loses converts, not because of a mystical pull to the true Church(es), but because countless educated, spiritual neophytes mistook the excitement of novelty for a calling from the Holy Spirit. When Broad and Low Anglicans say that our focus on ceremonial can be shallow or misleading, I think this is what they’re talking about.

In the near future, the Anglican BenOp may be best served by Anglican outreach to people with average concerns. Will I face Judgement when I die? Was my life worth living? Where can I go to make sure my kids know right from wrong? Instead, we rely completely on a stream (which could end tomorrow, for all we know) of self-catechized people who have developed refined tastes in religion.

The Anglican Ethos

If you’re on the fence about this thesis, remember that many of you have said the same things yourselves.

When we say that there is an Anglican ethos, and that it is Benedictine, what do we really mean by that? We mean that the BCP is a simplified, monastic regula for average people. People can learn about church by living the Christian Year (the entire thing, bound up into one single book) instead of by reading about theology and becoming self-appointed experts, as do Evangelicals.

Can you guess what else we say?

“You know, Anglicanism does pretty well in college towns.”

“We get a lot of people who read their way into the faith.”

“People always use us as a launching-pad for other communions. That’s so Protestant!”

This is cognitive dissonance on our part. We think our tradition is for everyone, and it is. Uniquely so. You could drop off a bunch of random people on a desert island with a King James and some BCPs, and they would be able to pull off normal parish life (save the sacraments) forever if they had to. It would be like that Tom Hanks movie Castaway, but with outstanding dialogue.

But it never even crosses our minds that someone might darken our red doorways just because he realized that he really needed redemption and a parish family. We want him, but we just don’t reach out. Then we wonder why the Baptists get people saved all the time. Even educated people don’t always come our way, because their interest is biology or physics instead of theology!

So let’s take more converts from among the intellectual hobbyists. As many as we can. But let’s also explain to them that they have entered the true Church, not a halfway house, and figure out a way to reach and disciple non-hobbyists. Then (insofar as it’s possible) let’s have public Offices and Prayer-Book weddings, until even our non-hobbyists can “speak Episcopalian,” and even our intellectual hobbyists are so immersed in pre-modern assumptions that they stop making modern decisions, such as reading their way into religious conversions.

What does successful Anglican outreach look like? Has something worked in your parish? Please let us know in the comments section, or in The Second Catholic Revival at Facebook.

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