The American Conservative recently ran a piece by Gracy Olmstead that attempts to answer the question, “Is High Church the Christianity of the Future?” In it, a few accounts of (mostly Presbyterians’) conversions to Anglicanism, Romanism, and Constantinopolitanism are narrated, for these three answer to a “longing” that Millenials supposedly have. The motivations given for these conversions are varied, and not simply aesthetic; but the cash-out for Protestant and evangelical churches is primarily aesthetic, and centers, as it often does, on a vaguely- or undefined “mystery” and the erotics of its pursuit. As often, a corollary of this “mystery” is an “openness” to “the past”:
The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. Where they search will have large implications for the future of Christianity. Protestant churches that want to preserve their youth membership may have to develop a greater openness toward the treasures of the past. One thing seems certain: this “sacramental yearning” will not go away.
One implication of the foregoing seems to be “high church” = “connection with the ‘ancient church.'” This assumed connection raises an issue of pressing importance, and so at this point let us branch out beyond this particular column. For when one reads encomia of Rome or Constantinople around the web, this kinship, or even genetic equivalence, is brought out much more forcefully. Its cogency is what I’d like to examine; and I propose to do it by way of one example.
FORASMUCH as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the Holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.
I myself don’t really buy the reasoning that seems to be behind this particular canon, but that’s not the point. The point is, this was a widely held view in the ancient church, and not so widely held in the “high church.”
That is fine as far as it goes, but it should serve as a word of caution to those considering trying on a new religious identity: the pursuit of “mystery” and beauty is not necessarily going to lead you to the ancient church, though it is often marketed that way.1 When you swim the Tiber, you don’t get a complimentary toga.
These vaguely worded paeans to “mystery,” however, appeal to just such a sensibility, creating an imagined church where there is none. (Again, note the subtitle: “Is the High Church the Christianity of the Future?”; “the” High Church? Where is it? Can one visit it on Sunday?). As the band Bastille say in a recent song, “It is not enough to be dumbstruck.”2 The mystery-tinged impalpable3 aesthetic draw to repristinating conversion of various types is actually symptomatic of modern alienation from self and surroundings.
When Keats intones that beauty is truth and truth beauty, we must not simply smile and nod along, but think it through.
- Assuming, arguendo, that there is one, unitary “ancient church” and that it is possible and desirable to join “it.”
- They add, later: “If you give it a name, then it’s already won.” This is why we must be careful with our use of terms and rigorous about what they signify.
- I use the word intentionally, for the attraction seems at bottom to be not sensory but psychological. Carl Trueman has written frequently on the perils of modern religious aestheticism.