Saturday, December 30, 2006

Six Geese A-Laying

Happy Sixth Day of Christmas.

One of the legends associated with the song The Twelve Days of Christmas is that it was originally a piece of coded catechesis for recusant English Roman Catholics in the decades following the separation between the Church of England and the See of Rome. Each of the gift items is said to represent one of the items of Catholic faith and practice. There are some very good reasons, detailed here, why this is probably not true. Nonetheless, it provides a pretext for this Anglican's reflections on the Church of Rome.

Most Anglicans of a Catholic bent get Roman Fever from time to time. I know I do. But I was brought up short this week by the published confession of a prominent Evangelical Anglican, the Very Revd Paul Zahl, Dean of Trinity (Episcopal?) School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. "I could become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat," he said in this interview. Of course, he went on to explain the reasons why he does not plan to do so...but still, this was an arresting line for one who authored a book called The Protestant Face of Anglicanism.

The fact is that Anglicans, consciously or not, perpetually define themselves in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. It is the constant backdrop that we can never really escape. Evangelicals and Liberals tend to respond to this reality by painting themselves a contrasting color, as if to say, "See what we are not!" Anglo-Catholics are generally more chameleon-like: "See how alike we are!" But no matter how you look at it, the Roman Church is the 900-pound gorilla in the ecclesiastical jungle, and all the other animals, of whatever size, have to live and move and have their being in relation to it. (The only ones who seem not to do so are free-church evangelicals, for whom the tag "Christian" means only...well...them.)

One of the things I admire and envy about said gorilla is the lack of theological and liturgical idiosyncrasy at a local level. There are some features of contemporary American Roman Catholic liturgy that make me furrow my brow (more on that in a later post, no doubt), but, in my limited experience, there is a universality about it from parish to parish and diocese to diocese that I find appealing. There's less a sense that the local pastor is imposing his own predilections on the congregation than I find to be the case when I travel around the Episcopal Church. For our Roman friends, the Pope is in Rome. With Baptist, every believer is his or her own pope. But for Episcopalians, it is the local priest who all too often, in my not so humble opinion, speaks ex cathedra about all manner of things that should be beyond presbyteral comptetence.

Over on the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv, there's been a thread the last few days on the proper function of lay Eucharistic Ministers in relation to the liturgical duties of priests and deacons. I'm really concerned by the crazy ideas that are out there on the subject. It's not in and of itself earth-shatteringly important, but it's a weathervane for the sad state of theological and liturgical formation even among the clergy in the Episcopal Church. (And, interestingly, it's not an orthodox/revisionist divide; many well-known "reappraisers" have the right views on the subject--namely, they agree with me!)

1 comment:

Susan Peterson said...

Your comments about the supposed uniformity of RC worship left me wondering what church you are talking about!

T'aint so.

I think the variation is more diocese by diocese rather than parish by parish, but there is an immense variation. I would say that churches where the priest seriously tampers with the words of the mass are rare (I hope I am right about this) but the general tenor and style of Catholic worship vary greatly from place to place.

Just read some Catholic blogs!
Amy Welborn runs a "What did you see and hear" thread every so often, in which Catholics from all over the place (along with a few people of other denomoniations) describe the services they attended, usually for a major feast day. So one person will say that the vestments were blue (officially forbidden) for advent at her parish and another person will say, "Are you sure this was a Catholic church?" One place has Gregorian chant...and another...many many others, alas, sing "Eagles Wings" and "This little light of mine"

We have a magisterium and it can be said what our official doctrine is. (pretty much so, anyway, long possible discussion here.) But that doctrine is not taught equally from diocese to diocese either. There are plenty of Catholics, and some of their pastors, whose actual beliefs are much like those of reassessor Anglicans. The only difference is that there is a standard by which we can say that what they believe is not Catholic doctrine. That is a good thing, a very good thing. But it sometimes is not too consoling to someone living smack in the middle of a diocese like
Los Angeles, or Rochester NY...

The only reason to become a Catholic is because you have come to believe that it is The Church Christ founded, and has His protection and promise that it will survive through whatever difficulties the present day presents, whether it is seeming triumph of Arianism, priestly corruption in one age or another, or the influence of the current spirit of the age.
Susan Peterson