During my theological training with the Church of England, at one of the residential periods in Cambridge, I was asked to participate in a survey plotting certain aspects of the theological orientation and church tradition of those training for ordination. After filling in numerous multiple-choice questions and waiting for someone to run the results through their testing mechanism I was told I was an “inclusive*, open, evangelical”. Pigeonhole adjectives which described my belief about salvation, my attitude toward other church traditions, and my preferred church culture. A way of saying what I already knew: I am grounded in and nourished by my own evangelical cultural heritage, but I appreciate the richness and diversity of other church traditions, and I believe the work of Christ extends farther than we can know. It doesn’t bother me that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ see things differently, and worship differently, than I do. For the time being none of us has a perfectly clear view; we all see as “through a mirror indistinctly” (I Corinthians 13:12).
In other words, I am a small “e” evangelical, not a big “E” one. I believe every person in the world would benefit from a personal decision to turn from their selfish ways and be led in their daily life by the Spirit of Christ. But I don’t believe this necessarily means they should additionally choose to embrace worship and thought as the Evangelical wing of the church presents it. I’m not a company man, in that sense. I don’t see our ways of doing things as intrinsically “better” than other Christians; they are just “different”, and what we happen to be used to.
My current work in the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands is presenting me with a wonderful opportunity to put what I preach into practice. As their name suggests, this church draws up the living water in buckets quite ancient and different in form from the relatively newfangled evangelical ones I am accustomed to. It is taking me some learning to know even how to grasp the handle. This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed learning – I have!
In the Old Catholic Church I have come to see the worship liturgy and ceremony as reflections of the worship described by St. John in the Revelation: each Sunday we pull back the veil to join with the heavenly throng – elders, candlesticks, acclamations, white robes, bowing and incense included. Yes, it is highly formal and structured, but so is the worship presented in John’s vision, and no evangelical I know has ever disparaged that. (Though one of my Evangelical colleagues once told me “liturgy kills the Spirit”; presumably he’ll not be very comfortable in heaven, wearing his white robe, bowing the knee and all…)
To quote someone** most Evangelicals would consider a friend: “Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a wide-spread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast – all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”
One of the books I’ve read recently, in my attempts to understand Catholic worship, is Evangelical is Not Enough, by Thomas Howard. In it he traces his roots in evangelicalism and his journey through the Anglican tradition, to end up in the Roman Catholic church. This book resonates deeply with me, even though that last step is one too far for me. Nowhere in the book does Howard belittle the many good things he learned in his American evangelical upbringing; in fact he rightly praises them and suggests that other traditions might learn from them too. (It is only too bad that the publisher, Ignatius Press, is Catholic, and hence the readership will largely remain so too.)
For myself, I am pleased with the handful of pearls I have collected from my experiences with other church traditions. And I am aware I need to be careful in whose path I put them, lest they be trampled.
* “Inclusive” has, especially in North American churches, arrived at the narrow meaning of “accepting of homosexual partnerships”; however, in the survey I took it had to do with one’s soteriological stance.
** C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost.