Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

High Church

This article was making the rounds last week. Its thesis is that young people are interested in “high church” traditions because they provide something that the rest of the world cannot:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

As much as I also share a certain “high church” aesthetic, this sort of statement needs some serious qualification. I see no reason why “the world” cannot offer a theology, a sort of group membership, a historical narrative, and authoritative leaders. I also see no reason that other religions cannot offer these things. So often I hear various conversion testimonials and I wonder if the narrator actually did try all of the options before landing “home.” Islam is pretty “serious” after all, with a good bit of ritual. Judaism is quite the “narrative” based religion. Hinduism is old.

Also, this sort of description is peculiarly American. Anglicanism is a great case in point. The type of Anglicans who are far outgrowing the rest on the global scale are the Evangelical ones. They have some liturgy, to be sure, but a good many of them are actually changing the prayer books and incorporating contemporary music. It is the liberals who appear to be more “high church” in the sense of liturgical looks. And those sorts of high churchers are on the fast decline. It seems to me that if we only take the sort of explanation given by the above article and then respond to it by trying to offer what this generation is looking for, then we are still playing the old consumeristic seeker game, only this time our market is the disenchanted. Or are they the post-disenchanted?

Walker Percy, himself a Catholic, had a pretty good response to this fascination with the appearance of the sacred and the holy. He noted that the true catholic doesn’t really care about all of the cultural externals. It’s the non-catholic “tourist” who is fixated on all that. The two parties agree to work together, for a certain mutual benefit, though they are always doing very different things:

It is a nice ambiguity that the Catholics have the least use for the very thing, if not the only thing, for which they are admired, the artifacts, the incidentals, of Catholicism, e.g. the buildings, folkways, music, and so on. Thus, a trivial by-product of New Orleans Catholicism, Mardi Gras, has been seized on by tourists, appropriated by local Protestants, promoted by the Chamber of Commerce, as the major cultural attraction. Nice ambiguity, I say, because each party is content to have it so. Nobody is offended.

The Catholic is content to practice his faith in a dumpy church in York, while the tourists gape at the great nacreous pile of the York minster, an artifact of a former Catholic culture, as beautiful as the shell of a chambered nautilus and as empty. It is not argumentative, I think, to note the niceness of the ambiguity because, if the Catholic is content to have it so, so is the unbeliever. Thus, the esthetic delight of, say, Hemingway in the Catholic decor of Pamplona would perhaps be matched by his contempt for actual Catholic practice in Oak Park, Illinois. It is an ambiguity because it can be given two equally plausible interpretations, Catholic and non-Catholic. The Catholic: what matters to me is faith and practice; the cathedrals and fiestas are incidental. The non-Catholic: What is attractive to me is the Catholic decor, cathedrals and fiestas; what I want no part of is the belief and practice, which is often in bad taste, if not vulgar. Both are right. Catholic practice is often drab and outlandish, drab in Oak Park, Illinois, outlandish in Chichicastanango. And yet the beautiful York minster is empty. It is a nice ambiguity because each party is content to let the other have it his own way. (Lost in the Cosmos, Macmillan, 2000, 158-159)

So it seems to me that, whatever else might be said about this issue of high church conversion, the searching Protestants are still very much Protestant, and their destination-communions, whatever the tradition, are themselves content to have it so.


By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

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