Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

High Church, Ancient Church, and the Limits of the Aesthetic

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.

In Canon 20 of the first Council of Nicaea, we find the following (Greek text here):

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.

  1. Assuming, arguendo, that there is one, unitary “ancient church” and that it is possible and desirable to join “it.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

14 replies on “High Church, Ancient Church, and the Limits of the Aesthetic”

If I may be so bold to share my own experience once again, may I assert that mine was not a conversion based on aesthetic experiences, good though they are. While I can’t speak for the other two interlocutors, I did not convert for liturgical window dressing. I converted because I had a fundamental change in how I understood ecclesiastical authority, sacraments, the foci of theology, and the nature of the Church (basically, these are ways that God relates to man). The study of history and literature played a big part, as did political theory and philosophy. Nominalism, Gnosticism, rationalism, and other big “isms” get thrown about, but no one wants to hear a story about “Bart’s study of metaphysics and epistemology.” What I can say to anyone is that I couldn’t hold the doctrines and views I was coming to see as true within any communion except the Big 3, and the Anglicans were the only ones who seemed willing to admit that they didn’t have a monopoly.

If TCI (which I respect) really wants to hit the aesthetic argument, they need to address the issue of how form (including form of worship) affects the character of the worshiper. You become a different kind of Christian when you worship differently on a regular basis. The liturgies of the 3 apostolic churches–as well as the Lutherans–are simply better, beefier, and tied to the continuity of the historic worship of the universal church.

This article also refused to address the heart of scare-quoted “mystery,” namely, the sacraments. Sacramental theology is something I wrestled with most of all for nearly 3 1/2 years. It’s not just an appearance of mysticism, but a recognition of my own finitude and Christ’s wonderful grace and real presence coming to us through such plain vessels as bread, wine, and water. It comes from a particular hermeneutic and certain posture toward the patristic writers. I found I could not attack these doctrines. I’ll leave that to the harbingers, founders, and apologists for the Enlightenment.

Bart, you do recognize that in your last sentence you’re suggesting that any disagreement with unreformed doctrines of the sacraments is “Enlightenment”? This is poisoning the well.

And while I have no reason to doubt that your turn toward the unreformed had primarily to do with metaphysics and theology, this doesn’t mean that many-very many- don’t make the turn for aesthetic reasons. And you might want to note that Dr Hutchinson’s use of “aesthetic” very obviously isn’t simply about quotient of smells and bells. He very clearly is talking about imagined pasts and “the erotics of pursuit” of that past. Newman’s illative sense is “aesthetic” in this precisely this sense, and Newman wasn’t the least interested in liturgical theater. Many do convert for the “prettiness” of the unreformed rites, but even many of those whose conversions aren’t about that still have “aesthetic” motives in the sense in which Dr Hutchinson is using the term.

Again, I’m not saying that your turn was thus motivated, but I do think that if you want to engage the post, you should reckon with the manifest sense the term “aesthetic” has in the post. A good conversation could come of it.


Dear Bart,

Many thanks for stopping by and commenting. Please let me clarify that I was not intending to impugn your motives. I don’t know you at all and thus cannot make any kind of informed evaluation of why you did what you did. Perhaps this wasn’t clear enough in the post–my main interest was (and is) actually the way that articles such as this make the marketing pitch to Protestants and evangelicals, and especially to disenchanted ones. The message to Protestant churches is “get high or die.” We’re supposed to believe that people are leaving in droves, and will continue to do so, if those churches don’t. I’d actually like to see some statistics, if there are any, on the whole phenomenon, because anecdotally, from what I’ve been able to observe, this particular type of conversionism seems to select for a certain, rather small, demographic (and not “millenials” writ large).

At any rate, this is why the article’s failure, as you note above, to address “mystery” is so crucial. “Mystery”? “Beauty”? “Transcendence”? Who can’t get behind those things? Leaving it all vague is advantageous if you’re casting a wide net and drawing people in toward something as illusory as “the high church.” My guess is that once that first step is made, it’s a lot easier to make the hard sell of particulars. Cf. the narrative in the article about Mr. Stellman: 2008, liturgical beauty (whatever that means, precisely); 2009, the rest of it.

I don’t doubt (really, I don’t) that form of worship, well, forms the worshiper. The question is one of criteria. You say that the “Big 3” are “simply [simply!–ed.] better, beefier, and tied to the continuity of the historic worship of the universal church,” as if this is just self-evident. But all three terms, the first two of which could be construed aesthetically, though I don’t know if you mean them that way, are evaluative terms that need to be proved. Better by what standard? What is the standard of liturgical beefiness? As far as the third, a general statement like that papers over a whole lot of messiness that stretches over 2000 years and larger number of miles. As I tried to note in the post, we need to be a little more careful about what we mean by “historical continuity”: of what kind? with whom? when?

I say all this as one who, though not Anglican, has a great admiration for Prayer Book worship, including on aesthetic grounds, and on those criteria I’d take it over the Roman Mass six days a week and twice on Sunday (assuming they’d be ok with the salutary Presbyterian practice of evening worship on the Lord’s Day :)). But I also think it has great value prudentially and pedagogically. What I cannot say, however, is that the fact, considered in and of itself, that some men and women in fourth century Milan or Asia Minor practiced “x” is–again, in and of itself–a sufficient reason for me or anyone else to do it. This is why we’ve got to think more, I think, about this whole “historical continuity” business.

Finally, though the post isn’t about sacraments, because, as you note, the article isn’t really about them either, I will just say that your language of “through” rather than (e.g.) “in” sounds an awful lot like Reformed “means” language to me.

Again, thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

All best,

I should also note, for the record, that the dichotomy Anglican/Protestant is the article’s (or seems to be, anyway), not mine.

Prof. Hutcherson,

Good catch on my slip on sacramental language–I do hold to real presence (not transubstantiation) in that the sacraments are effectual signs. For instance, Lancelot Andrewes best describes the eucharistic presence in terms of a mysterious union of Christ with the elements, the same kind of mystery we find in the hypostatic union. Feeding on that is feeding on Christ, and, like Schmemann, I believe we are what we eat, and there is a physical presence in the elements (though the sanctification/transformation does not annihilate certain aspects the way that RC theology generally demands). I know we won’t agree on this point, probably, but it’s this kind of “superstition” that I and others hold to. Hopping back to Peter’s complaint if I may, there has to be a skeptical impulse to throw off this mentality, and I see that impulse rising in theologians and philosophers of the 1500s and 1600s, which makes space for the imagination of the Enlightenment. While there are always potentialities with history, there seems to have been a move on the more “progressive” or “reforming” spirits in the church that tended to disenchant the world (I think especially on Zwingli and Francis Bacon, but we can point to lots of other thinkers). I deem this a disorder that has become incredibly popular and important in the world, and I am not obliged to participate and further the social, theological, and intellectual disorders of my time.

I tend to agree with the skepticism regarding “get high or die.” There are no studies to my mind that have covered this phenomenon; it might very well be statistically insignificant.I obviously didn’t organize or write the article. I don’t know if smells and bells will save all the youth from their disaffection. If anything, the damage of bad catechesis and spiritual formation is over and done for the Millennials; many are in college and the workforce now. From my friends who have converted to these older traditions (and they are–the apostolic continuity of the historic bishopric is there), it’s often through an intense intellectual confrontation with the canon of Christian tradition. I distinctly remember the day that I stopped judging St. Augustine of Hippo and began letting him judge me. That’s what I mean by a particular posture.

As for “simply better” liturgies, that may have been unclear phrasing, but let us carefully consider this. There is an art to liturgics, and there is a traditional way of going about that art that respects and actively submits to the wisdom of those who come before. Hopefully, we are not aesthetic relativists here–beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder. Certain continuous forms do something, and certain forms do the “job” of prayer better than others. Models are helpful, especially in the patristic era, when the church was undivided and her leadership was not too far removed from the teaching of the apostles themselves. Additions were included in response to heresies and local needs, but as Christianity went above ground after the Edict of Milan, we start to get a pretty good picture of the orders of liturgy, and we also see how different forms started to cross pollinate with one another. A Western liturgy, even though it got incredibly complex in the medieval world and re-simplified to a more patristic model with Cranmer, is still a very good one to work from for Anglicans and Lutherans alike. If and when the liturgy changes and gets updated, it has to be done in and through the conciliar (not ecumenical conciliar) reason of the whole church, if I may steal from Mr. Hooker. Such alterations are similar to but not exactly the same as scriptural translation and interpretation. It shouldn’t be an individualistic endeavor, even though we don’t check our brains at the door.

This kind of authority points to my counterclaim mentioned in the article: the nature of the Church and her authority. A certain way of organizing and perceiving the continuity of the Church allows for more effective maneuvering in the realm of the Church’s ancient past. In the early second century for instance, you see St. Ignatius of Antioch advocating for a pretty exclusive, lofty view of the 3-fold ministry (bishops, presbyters, deacons). Everyone after that point seems to hold to the 3-fold vision as well, even if the Scriptures themselves are a little vague on the point. So, when we confess “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” what are we saying with those terms? What were the Church Fathers at the council saying with those terms, especially considering their own writings? I tend to think that high church folks who focus on an organic, physical tie to the Body of Christ have a superior, more-aligned view in this regard.


I think you’re still missing Dr Hutchinson’s point (and it is Dr Hutchinson, not Hutcherson). As I said before, the kind of aesthetic he’s discussing has precisely to do with “a certain way of organizing and perceiving the continuity of the church”. Most of your last post is, in a way, a kind of “testimonial”. Yes, it’s clear how you worked your way into your present circumstances. But to someone like myself, or like Dr Hutchinson, your “take” or gestalt reading of the past has certain characteristics, and is not just a straightforward encounter with the past, such that you can say, “just look at the past, as I have, and you can only see this and act accordingly.” It’s important to note that you fail to distinguish between a *critical* posture, such as St Jerome had to Biblical manuscripts or Protestants have to church history, from a *skeptical* posture. If you post a false dichotomy of skepticism and authoritarianism, and don’t choose skpeticism, then you will choose authoritarianism, and the totalizing approach it takes. The evangelical way refuses that dichotomy, and inherits tradition critically, that is, openly acknowledging that it is a human production and needs to be assessed for good and bad. This is no more an “Enlightenment” frame of mind than was that of St Paul (1 Thess 5 21) or that of the Bereans (Acts 17 11).

The option to read the past as you do is precisely an option, and the manner of reading that follows from it makes of the past a specious whole, and this gestalt creation (which usually goes unselfrecognized, and is mistaken for straight encoutner), is what Dr Hutchinson is getting at with his category of “aesthetic”. And this gestalt image of the past formed by the modern subject is then projected on psychoemotionally as an object of desire, the desirable “whole” as opposed to the lacking present, and the pursuit of this projection is what Dr Hutchinson means by “the erotics of pursuit”.

A final note: Andrewes did not in fact teach any physical presence of Christ in the elements, and indeed expressly denied it. His hypostatic union illustration, if you examine its rhetoric and structure more closely, is no counterexample.


Dear Bart,

As I indicated above, sacramentology isn’t really relevant to the point I was making in the post, and so I’m going to punt on that for now, though I may return to it in the future. I’m also not going to deal with “disenchantment” in general terms: I think you will agree that this has become a trope of modern convert discourse, just as “mystery” is. I’m not saying that there is not (or might not) be anything to it; but these are huge issues that can’t be convincingly dealt with via such a sentence, in my opinion–and these kinds of sweeping statements that play on a contemporary feeling of alienation are, I think, part of the problem.

As to historical continuity, if all you mean is “they had bishops, we have bishops, and they were ordained in [x] formal succession,” fair enough. That, however, is not the point I was making. There are other respects in which “continuity” with “the” “historic” church is an issue requiring very close attention and definition. The situation on the ground in antiquity, late antiquity, and after is too complicated to be dealt with adequately by any apologetic narratives I’ve come across.

Regarding Augustine, I find it almost impossible to believe that you mean what you said. When you say that you “stopped judging Augustine,” what does that mean? That you never disagree with his opinions? What about when he disagrees with himself and changes his mind, as he did over the course of his long life? You can’t possibly agree with two views that don’t agree with one another. But then, to make that call, you have to judge what he says. Remarks such as this seem to me symptomatic of the dangerous side of “posture”–we can’t possibly deal with complex thinkers in this way. Striking a pose isn’t going to cut it.

In any event, I think we’re getting a bit far afield from what I was intending in the post. I really am grateful that you’ve stopped by. I want to reiterate that my original goal in the post wasn’t to go after you or your story, but rather the marketing technique that the article itself seemed to be using.


As a High Church Protestant Anglican (it’s sad I have to include the “Protestant” part because of the influence of unreformed Anglo-Catholicism), I somewhat sympathize with both positions. Losing out on the Reformation pursuing some high-and-dry ceremonial that is supposedly “ancient” is bad. Furthermore, it’s not even really Catholic.

I consider myself Reformed and Catholic, and I believe the best expression of that faith is in the Anglican Communion so long as it recognizes the fruit of the Reformation without throwing out the ancient Catholic heritage that most Protestants, even of the Reformed stripe (often especially of the Reformed stripe) simply ignore. By ignoring it, I think most Protestants leave their historically-minded young people open to temptations from the unreformed Churches.

Also, this would require excessive explanation for a ComBox, but I believe that the Anglican Communion is the only major Christian body that is not guilty of schism. I believe it is Rome and the East that are schismatic. Furthermore, I think the Puritan-heritage bodies in our country are schismatic. There are some Lutheran and Continental Reformed bodies that not schismatic, but might have other problems or are simply ethnic churches.

“The mystery-tinged impalpable aesthetic draw to repristinating conversion of various types is actually symptomatic of modern alienation from self and surroundings.”

Thank you for making this point, rarely put forth. My hunch is that this more accurately reflects the reality of the dynamic in question than many of the assertions one comes across.

Dear Nathan,

Sorry for the delay. I agree with the last sentence of your second paragraph. Regarding the third paragraph: I am not Anglican and yet I’m afraid that I cannot cop to the charge of being a schismatic. Sorry!

All best,

Dear James,

Sorry to you as well for the delay. That point is one that came from conversation with others; it would be interesting to explore it further to see if your hunch (and mine) is correct.

My gut tells me mid to low church would be a big hit, if you had an episcopal or at least non Presbyterian pastor with some charisma. The “mystery” millenials really would be attracted to is manliness. Fathers are a mysterious commodity nowadays.

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