22 June 2011

A Religious Conversation

What follows is a fictional conversation between myself and three gentlemen. I imagine us in a quiet corner of a pub, with a few pints on the table and a muted sport channel playing on the wall television. I should think it is a Blackpool-Aston Villa game, though none of us are paying attention to it. It is late afternoon, and a light rain is falling from a cloudy sky outside. We are in England, perhaps in the north or west, though it matters little. What I am doing at a pub in England is a bit of a mystery. It may have something to do with that book of Tennyson's poems I was browsing in the basement of a bookshop during the time between times. Listen then, to the conversation, if you like, though there are other tables if solitude is your goal on a cloudy day.

“And that is why I no longer buy my shoes in bulk,” I said. “But, back to the subject of the Church, the nature of it has long been a concern of mine. If God is real, and if He became a man, and if He, as the man Jesus Christ, founded a Church, and if it is His will that we all enter into it, then that is what we ought to do. Growing up, I believed the Church was an invisible body of true believers, scattered among a multitude of denominations. However, I have come to believe this is not how the early Church saw itself. There was a strongly defined line between being in communion and out of communion, between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. In the apostolic age and during the first few centuries of Christianity, there was a visible, corporate union.”

The three men nodded their agreement.

“This is not to say everyone always agreed,” I continued, “but when there was a significant dispute within the Church, they would meet in council to determine orthodox doctrine. They would not just say, 'Let every man do what seems best to him,' and then calmly observe the subsequent splintering of the Church.”

“It is no surprise that so many Protestants would adopt the invisible Church theory,” said Mr. Pope. “After the utter chaos and disaster which followed the 'Reformation,' rather than despair at schism upon schism, Protestants simply decided that corporate union was no longer important.”

“In effect,” said Mr. Athos, “rather than solve the problem, they declared it solved in its current state, much like a child told to clean his room who then decides the floor really is the proper place for all his toys. This is not to say Christianity in the West was not already in a sorry state prior to the Reformation, of course.”

“Indeed,” said Mr. King, “though I do have, I think, a higher opinion of the state of the West than Mr. Athos, here. The Church needed a little adjustment, not a disintegration.”

“So, the Reformation happened, with some bad results and some good,” I said. “Five hundred years later, how do we look at the Church and how do we find our place in it? I am not comfortable with the invisible body of believers theory, because I am not prepared to pronounce dead the visible Church founded by the apostles. That Church is worth looking for, at the very least.”

“He who seeks, finds,” said Mr. Pope.

“Perhaps I can use the analogy of a tree,” I continued. “The Church started as a trunk in the time of the apostles. Today, there are many branches, some healthy, some sick, and some which have since fallen from the tree. Should we try to locate the healthiest branch, work to improve the health of the branch in which we find ourselves, or has the trunk itself continued to grow tall and strong?”

“I hold to the branch theory,” said Mr. King, “which is why I see Mr. Pope and Mr. Athos here as fellow members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I do not look at Christians without apostolic succession or without sacraments in the same way. I make no speculation about the state of their souls, but I cannot think of them as being truly in the Church. The Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox are not in communion, but I do not believe the walls that divide us reach to Heaven. Our clergy have received the same authority, we offer the same sacraments, and we worship the same Christ.”

“It is very kind of you to see Mr. Pope and me in this way,” said Mr. Athos, “but of course you know our churches cannot say the same about you or about each other.”

“Of course,” said Mr. King, good-naturedly.

“Christ is not divided,” Mr. Athos continued. “If the Church is Christ's body, how can Christ's body be divided, be split up into branches? Is the Holy Spirit leading us down divergent paths?”

“Can you elaborate on what you said, Mr. King, about other Christians being different from Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox?” I asked. “You Anglicans are, after all, children of the Reformation, just as the rest of us Protestants are.”

“It comes down to the apostolic, sacramental nature of the Church,” said Mr. King. “The early Church believed in sacraments, and it believed in the transmission of apostolic authority through the laying on of hands. Those churches which have maintained that succession and which have maintained that understanding of the sacraments are on a different level than those bodies which have broken away from that and renounced centuries of Christian tradition. We believe the Church of England took the good from the Reformation,without at the same time tossing out the good of Catholicism. The sects that were unable to do that, and which instead threw out the good along with the bad, replacing it with their own innovations, are the ones I call Protestant.”

“You are a traditionalist, Mr. King, an Anglo-Catholic,” said Mr. Pope. “Obviously, I have sympathy for your point of view, but you are not representative of Anglicanism as a whole. It may not have appeared very Protestant when King Henry still sat the throne, but it is certainly Protestant now. Its founding was due to the rejection of authority, its doctrine is a matter of vote, and it is becoming less and less orthodox by the day.”

“We have our heretics, to be sure,” said Mr. King, “but so do you. The statements from Rome may be orthodox, but are the local parish members any different in your Church than they are in mine? All of Christendom is in a struggle in our day.”

“The faith has always had difficult times,” said Mr. Athos, “this being but the latest of many, with many sure to come. When we look at a struggle within a church, however, sometimes we have to wonder if the struggles are due to the very nature of the church itself. Schism and heresy are built into the Protestant system, as Protestantism has as one of its core values the idea that each believer has the right to determine doctrine for himself and to reject any and all authority that contradicts his view of the Scriptures. In Roman Catholicism, the idea of the development of doctrine has led to all manner of heresies which, coupled with the growth of papal power, led to the Protestant rebellion and the shattering of Christianity in the West.”

“I don't like the current state of Protestantism,” I said, “and all three of your communions are appealing to me, in different ways. However, there is a zeal for the faith in some of these non-sacramental communities that often seems to be missing in the older churches. Yes, their buildings are ugly and their music is awful, and they often bend over backwards trying to avoid tradition, but these people really do love Christ.”

“I certainly don't deny that,” said Mr. Pope. “But imagine if these people also had the sacraments and were receiving Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity at every mass. Do these people love Christ because of where they are, or would they continue to love Him in His Church? This is not a case of the nominal traditional Christians opposed to the zealous modern Christians. The tares and the wheat grow up alongside each other in every church. And an exciting service is not necessarily an indication of a strong faith. We Catholics are often accused by low church Evangelicals of being dull in our worship, simply because we treat the worship of God as a sacred event and not as a rock concert.”

“I prefer traditional liturgy,” I said, “and I love the old hymns, but I understand other people have different preferences. I do not want to accuse them of not worshiping properly, because they do not like the same kind of music or liturgy as I do. Still, modern Protestant church music is often painful for me to sing, and it is so theologically weak, it nearly makes me weep when I think about what we could be singing instead. And yet, I shouldn't become Catholic, for example, just because I don't like modern Protestant music.”

“Have you been to a Roman Catholic mass lately?” asked Mr. Athos. “The typical Novus Ordo parish is not singing the old hymns, either. They haven't turned congregational singing into a rock concert yet, but perhaps after Vatican III, they'll tear out the altar to make room for the drum set.”

“The past few decades have been a disaster, I will give you that,” said Mr. Pope, “but there is hope for the restoration of the sacred. The Latin mass is more widely available, Gregorian chant is encouraged, and much of the liturgical nonsense that has been tolerated for many years is on its way out. The Church has made it through worse.”

“You know,” said Mr. King, “if you want the old hymns, we still sing them. Come to church with me on Sunday, and I will show you a beautiful church, a reverent liturgy, and even some Latin. Mr. Pope would almost approve.”

“All form and no substance,” said Mr. Pope. “You have maintained the trappings of Rome, even when many Catholics forgot their value, but the theological foundation has eroded away. If your services are to be any more than playacting, you will have to return to the substance of the faith, and not merely its outward appearances.”

“We do not sing the Protestant hymns you love,” said Mr. Athos, “but once you have chanted the Divine Liturgy, you will not know if you are on Heaven or on Earth. And there is much in the Protestant hymns that is orthodox; sing them among your family and friends, by all means.”

“To leave one's church for another is a sad thing,” I said. “But if one were to leave one's church in order to return to the previous branch, as it were, that would be the opposite of schism. If unity is something which we ought to seek, then we should applaud such an action, if, in fact, the previous branch has managed to maintain the faith. I grew up as a Free Methodist. If there was a Methodist church in my area that was orthodox, it would be an act of unity and healing for me to join it. However, the Methodist movement itself came from Anglicanism. Would it not be even better to find an orthodox church in the Anglican communion?”

“Certainly,” said Mr. King.

“And yet,” I continued, “Anglicanism broke away from Catholicism, so would it be better yet to find an orthodox Catholic church?”

“Hear, hear,” said Mr. Pope.

“If I go back even further, however,” I said, “I am faced with a dilemma. That the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church split is obvious, but who came from whom is not. Who is the original and who is the schismatic?”

“You know my answer to that,” said Mr. Athos.

“Perhaps we can each make our case,” said Mr. King. “As a branch theory believer, it matters little to me, eternally speaking, which you choose, but obviously I am Anglican for a reason. The Church of England is the Church of my fathers. It is the church in which I was raised. I grew up singing the hymns, living through the liturgical year, and celebrating the Eucharist. The ancient churches that tower over the English countryside, which our ancestors built, are Anglican churches. Mr. Pope would surely say they ought to belong to Rome, but they are English churches in which English people have worshiped for centuries. I see a continuity from the days of St. Augustine of Canterbury and those who preceded him up to the present day.

“The people of England stayed loyal to their bishops, not needing a bishop in far-off Rome to legitimize their authority. If your ancestors, Mr. Kinyon, had stayed loyal to their bishops, you would be an Anglican. If you want to end your current schismatic state, you need go no further.

“Besides,” he continued, “as a literary man, certainly you admire C.S. Lewis?”

“I do very much,” I said.

“He was an Anglican, and he was quite orthodox and sincere in his faith. Christians all over the world, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike, admire his writings. Newman and Chesterton became Catholic, it is true, but so much of their inspiring and thoroughly Christian work was written while they were still Anglicans. Can you look at these men and say, 'Anglicanism does not produce Christian men?'

“Come to the Church of England, and you can worship God in reverence and beauty. You can recover the traditions you thought were lost, and gain that which you have never had. You will not need to accept odd and un-biblical doctrines like purgatory or papal infallibility, which you will if you join Mr. Pope's church. You will not need to reject your own Western Christian heritage, which you will if you join Mr. Athos' church. Yes, we have our modernists and our liberals, who seem intent on wrecking their faith and bringing the Church down with them, but the faith is strong within many and the light of Christ's love burns strong and true.”

“Mr King, your love for your church is admirable,” said Mr. Pope. “May God bring unity. I believe the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church spoken of in the creed. As Christ said, 'you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.' Peter, chief of the apostles, was given special authority to feed Christ's sheep, to guard and guide the Church. His successors, the bishops of Rome, have done this for nearly two millennia, and they will continue to do so until Christ's return.

“The Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ. All Protestant denominations, Anglicanism being no exception, are schisms from Christ's Church. What is the source of their authority? Protestantism is collapsing, moving further and further from orthodoxy with every passing day. The Catholic Church has continued to teach true doctrine, continued to confess the creeds, and continued to hold to traditional Christian morality. Even the Eastern Orthodox have compromised on contraception and divorce.

“In the Catholic Church, God's grace is given through the sacraments. Every day, all over the world, mass is offered. The Church spans the globe, just as it has spanned the centuries. The Catholic Church is your home. It is where your ancestors worshiped, and the door is open for you. Mr. King speaks well of Anglicanism, but the good and beauty found within are remnants of Catholicism. Even these remnants are fading, as Anglicanism moves away from the source of its strength. It is no accident that men like Newman and Chesterton entered the Catholic Church. When an Anglican strives to be orthodox, a journey to Rome is nearly inevitable. We may even see our good friend Mr. King in the Church someday, particularly with the ordinariate now in place.

“The Catholic Church covered Europe with cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and universities. It preserved the learning of classical Greece and Rome, and combined it with the fierce and noble spirit of the barbarians. It developed the code of chivalry. It has continued to produce great scientists, doctors, philosophers, writers, and artists. In its music, art, and architecture, it has shown the world what beauty is.

“Most importantly, however, is the fact that the Catholic Church is true. It bears a truth sanctified by the blood of martyrs, a truth which has stood strong against all the attacks of heresy, a truth that will not compromise. The Church is the ark of salvation, and it will bring you safely to Heaven's shores.”

“Orthodoxy is, sad to say, quite unknown in the West,” began Mr. Athos. “Those who are even aware of us think of us as Roman Catholics with beards and funny hats, or as a tribal religion for Russians, Greeks, and Arabs. However, this is changing, as immigrant communities become more established and as Westerners join the Church. For Western Christians, it really is a reclamation of their heritage. The West was Orthodox for a thousand years, professing the same faith in union with their brothers in the East.

“The Orthodox Church is the ancient Church, holding to the same faith as the apostles, safeguarding it through the centuries. It has not been led astray by heresy, nor has it wandered down the path of speculation and novelty. Orthodox Christianity is the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

“Consider Protestantism. It claims to be a return to the ways of the early Church. And yet, when we look at the early Church, where is this Protestantism? Consider Roman Catholicism. It claims its late doctrinal definitions are merely confirming what the Church has always believed. However, when we look at the early Church, where are these doctrines? The Orthodox can look at the early Christians and say, 'we confess the same faith.'

“In the Orthodox Church, the emphasis is on Christ the Savior, who conquered death and saved us. God sent His Son into the world to rescue us from sin and death, not to stand in our place in a legal sense, suffering the wrath of the Father. Western Christianity so often portrays God the Father as our enemy. Yes, God is just and holy, and yes our sin is an offense against Him, but in Orthodoxy, we never forget that God loves us and He wants to save us.

“Orthodoxy has maintained a sense of beauty and reverence. While Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have both turned away from tradition, in favor of weak pop music, poor art, and poor architecture, Orthodoxy has preserved the Heavenly liturgy. Many a Roman Catholic, distressed by the post-Vatican II iconoclasm which has afflicted his church, has come to Orthodoxy, drawn first by the beauty and then by the truth.

“Orthodoxy is a family Church. Many of our priests are married and have children. Honoring Christ's desire to let the little children come to Him, we offer communion even to infants. Children attend the Divine Liturgy and participate in the service.

“Consider your spiritual welfare and that of your family. Mr. King's parish may be fairly orthodox, and Anglicans of his catholic leanings may be strong Christians, but they are a minority. Anglicanism is dying, and attending a conservative parish is only delaying the inevitable. Mr. Pope's church may look great on paper, but far too many of the priests and bishops do not hold to church teaching. The members at the parish level are no different than the Anglicans, though perhaps with even less interest in tradition. In Orthodoxy, the same faith is held everywhere, not changing with the times like in Protestantism, and not dictated from on high and then ignored like in Roman Catholicism.”

There was so much more to say, but I felt myself being drawn away from the table and back to my own land. Rather, that is something that may have happened, if in fact this event had happened. I rather think it would have been a joy if it had.

Dear reader, what do you think of these three men? Where do you think they were right or wrong? Where do you think they could have each made a better case? Could another have entered the conversation with something meaningful to contribute?