Whose Side Are You On?


YOU HAVE TO ADMIT THAT life seems to be polarizing right now: socially, politically, and religiously. Everyone needs to be on a side and you’d better be on the right side as well. Generally, of course, the right side is my side. We are seeing this in all areas: if you don’t agree with me, then you must not only be wrong but you must be filled with hate for me. Anyone so wrong must be hateful.

This is not only a secular issue, for we see it in other religions and in the Church. It’s something I’ve seen for most of my life in every religious tradition in which I’ve participated. People tend not to hold together, but rather spin apart. The more “religious” people get, the more fractious they get. It’s practically a joke among protestants. Well, two jokes actually. Both of those jokes could be told about political parties or social groups and, in some cases, friends or relationships. They run like this in the religious form:

When the man was found on the deserted island, his rescuers found he had built a house and two churches. They asked why. “Well,” he said. “That’s the church I go to. That’s the church I used to go to.”

Many people think the first [denomination name] was [founder name]. In fact the first [denomination]s are mentioned in Genesis. Abram said to Lot, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”

It’s a bit of a commonplace to note this about the Anglicans of my youth: lawsuits filed against departing parishes, bishops denied entry to their churches, parishes split over questions of morality and polity, etc. Even before the present moment, there were the liturgy wars and the prayerbook wars. Yet, even before that, there are other bodies which pealed away from the “Anglican mainstream” to become their own things: the Methodists and the Reformed Episcopal Church for two. In these latter days, the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Catholic Church also split away. Fleeing Anglicans and their divisiveness, I was certainly seeking stability, but I was too quick to believe the writings of some converts to Orthodoxy who said all these problems were solved in the Eastern Church. Everything was calm, cool, and kosher in the East as compared to everything in the West where things are falling apart and heretical.

This mythology was false: in the Eastern Churches, as in the West, the person next to you in the liturgy may not believe all the things the Church teaches, may be just as much a liberal, modern American as in Anglicanism. Short of the Parousia, this will always be so. God promised us the True Church, but not a pure church. No matter where you think the True Church is (and I believe her to be only in communion with the Roman Pontiff) you will always find some who are better or worse at being there. The root of the faith is always in your heart and that’s where you need to work on it. It is impossible to work on – or to judge – the faith in the heart of another person.

So, Rome.

The divisiveness of America is here too. There are those who view the movement from Pope John XXIII through Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, to Pope Francis as one of differing political regimes: some good, some bad. They view the popes of their lifetime through a lens of modern politics resulting in a hermeneutic of rupture: things change from one Pope to another. We sometimes get a Pope who does good things – and sometimes a Pope who does bad things. It is we who get to decide if the Pope is good or bad, based on our political and cultural feelings. What makes a Pope “good” is that he does things I like.

This attitude has increased in the current century to where it’s possible to create a personal ecclesial bubble: Catholics who agree (or disagree) in exactly the same way I do are “the Church” and those who disagree (or agree) in other ways are being divisive. So one must pick: is one a Pope Francis man or is one a Benedict XVI guy? Is one a trad or a modernist? Novus Ordo or TLM? Ad Orientem or Versus Populum? Are you on my side or are you wrong?

This all came to mind with the reporting of the recent meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the discussion of the teaching document on the Eucharist. The whole vote was around the question of should we draft a teaching document? Given that nearly 70% of people who say they are Catholic do not believe what the Church teaches on this topic, it seems we need more than just one teaching document. The media (both secular and some Catholic outlets of all flavors) made out that the document was to be about abortion and our Catholic president. However the document hasn’t even yet been drafted. Additionally, the USCCB has no power to tell bishops what to do or to deny (in itself) communion to anyone. So, stories about the non-existent document and the idea that it could be “enforced” are horribly distorted. The reactions to this non-existent document were like the reactions of children to monsters in the dark: silly, and would be cute except they keep the adults from getting a good night’s sleep.

And the whole thing drove us into further divisions.

Sed contra, there is a hermeneutic of continuity or, one might say, a hermeneutic of charity through which we can view the last 60 years as well, a way in which we might understand what the Church teaches about herself: the Holy Spirit guides the Church and she gets the men she needs to lead her in the way she should go. The Popes have all been on the same mission and are doing the same thing in communion with the Holy Spirit as the Vicar of Christ on earth: furthering the Kingdom of God.

A Hermeneutic of Charity claims that there is a spiritual unity in the Church, of Love in Christ. Thereby we may see the Holy Spirit guiding the mystical bride of Christ through the stormy weather of the world via the Magisterium and the faithfulness of the People of God. It’s seems very clear that this reality is contrary to the political opinions of many folks inside the church and outside the church, on social media and in traditional media. The narrative of good-versus-bad inside the Church means the Church is no longer who she says she is. She can thus be ignored as she does what I dislike. I need only follow Popes I like: everyone else is an infiltration of some outside evil. Please note that “everyone else” will change if my political alliances change. The pure Church is only where I say it is. I am now the Pope.

Love forbids this though.

The scriptures and the saints counsel us to believe sin, judgement, and hell can only be assumed in the first person: I am a sinner, under judgement, and will be condemned to Hell in God’s righteousness unless I am saved by his mercy. All others – especially strangers and enemies – should be viewed in love, should be blessed, should be welcomed as angels, and should be treated as living icons (the very presence of) God. That means they are not destroying the Church, but rather I who am in danger of departure. They are not heretics, but rather I whom am at risk of damnation (if not already under it). Anyone who is a them in this picture must be treated with more, not less, love.

Our Hermeneutic of Charity must go further, though, lest it become yet another ideology, another way to create an “us versus them” narrative in the Church.

To this point, here is one of the stories of the desert fathers:

There was a saint in Egypt who dwelt in a desert place. Far away from him there was a Manichean who was a priest (at least what they call a priest). Once, when this man was going to visit one of his confederates, night overtook him in the place where the orthodox saint was living. He was in great distress, fearing to go to him to sleep there, for he knew that he was known as a Manichean, and he was afraid he would not be received. However, finding himself compelled to do so, he knocked; and the old man opened the door to him, recognized him, received him joyfully, constrained him to pray, and after having given him refreshment, he made him sleep. Thinking this over during the night, the Manichean said, “How is it that he is without any suspicions about me? Truly, this man is of God.” And he threw himself at his feet, saying, “Henceforth, I am orthodox,” and he stayed with him.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward

Using the hermeneutic of charity even those not using that hermeneutic are assumed to be more-faithful followers of Christ than I am. It is impossible to love too much, if it is true love. It is impossible to be too hospitable if it is Christ we are welcoming.

So when we look at a “them” in the Church, the first question must not be “why are they on the wrong side?” but rather “Why am I on a side?” Even if it is a matter of morality and I can look at my own life and see that I am in keeping with the Church’s teaching, how can I judge someone? The very same measure I use to judge others is the one with which I will be judged. I know how imperfect a Catholic I am. It’s actually very easy to imagine you to be better at it than I.

It may be a bit late in our division to point this out. We are not at risk of destroying the Church: the Church can’t be destroyed. They can’t kill her – no matter who they are. Even we cannot kill her. She is the very body of Christ, the living and visible presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth: society, morals, politics, and culture are judged by her – not the other way around. If someone begins with a political assumption and then compares the Church to that assumption, they are living an ideology rather than a theology.

Wherein We Snap & Play Guitar at Folk Mass

Christ the King Sunday, when it was instituted by Pius the XI in 1925, was placed on the Last Sunday in October. That made it a little awkward for Bible Readings (which still had to be doubled up) and for Calendar keeping. But it made perfect sense: it always came before All Saints Day and All Souls Day. You had Christ the King, and then the Saints, and then the Holy Souls.

Vatican II moved this feast to the last Sunday of the Church Year. This, happened in 1970 and, along with other things, cause d a bit of a kerfuffle with those who like Liturgy to stay the same for at least one generation at a time. But it dawned on me today that Christ the King has been in the new place, now, for 3 years longer than it was in the old place.

That tells us something perhaps rather hopeful about Vatican II and the liturgy that grew out of it. 

A friend of mine, who is Orthodox, asked me a pointed question about Catholic worship the other day. Thankfully it was in text, so I had a moment to pray before I replied.

Why, he asked, does most Catholic worship look like dressed-up Protestant worship?

Now, to be fair: I get it. This very question was why I didn’t enter the Catholic Church when I was running away from ECUSA. Even ECUSA (bereft of most things historically Christian) does the Western Liturgy rather better than many Catholic parishes. Orthodoxy, too, has a largely traditional liturgy. Yes, certainly, some of the modern recensions are from the era between the two world wars, and, yes, certainly, there are more things skipped in more places than one might care to admit, but it’s still kinda all there, although only New Skete (with its mid-1980s archaeological liturgy) comes anywhere near the glory of the great rites of Hagia Sophia. Still, even in the worst places, Byzantine Liturgy is rather more stately than not, rather more high church than not. 

Then there’s the Novus Ordo Missae of Vatican II – and all the things that happened that should not have happened: clown masses, folk masses, guitar masses, priest celebrating in their stoles without the rest of the vestments. (Face it, a “cassock-alb” plus a stole is liturgically the same as wearing only your underpants and a necktie to a wedding.)

So I honestly get it. The question is legit. And, implied complaining aside, it is coming from a place of love.

I prayed for help.

In 1967 the standard of Protestant worship was what is known as the Hymn Sandwich: 

  1. Entrance hymn, 
  2. Some prayers and Bible readings
  3. Offering (with music from the Choir and/or the Congregation) 
  4. Sermon (30 – 60 mins)
  5. Exit hymn

On a Communion Sunday (once a month, once a quarter, or once a year – if ever) the above would be slightly modified to have (usually) a shorter sermon and a brief communion plug-in before the last hymn.

This is still the standard in many denominations, although there are now “contemporary” service options, with overhead projectors, and extra instruments, some speakers and entertaining lighting.

Today, however in a vast number of Protestant congregations, from Methodist and Presbyterian, to ECUSA and Lutheran flavors, the style has changed. It may still be a hymn sandwich most Sundays (outside of ELCA and Lutherans) but the pastor is probably wearing only underpants and a necktie. That’s very new.

In ECUSAn and Lutheran worlds (which are in full communion, now) the style is a basic communion service that anyone who has gone to an RC Mass since the 1960s would recognize. This is a huge change. Read any of the liturgy books for Anglicans or Lutherans from before 1967 and you’ll see: they were hymn sandwiches. Highly decorated ones, yes, and very much more structured as liturgies than their fellow Protestants, yes, but hymn sandwiches. And communion was once a month in these times – or maybe always at the 8:30 Sunday service, but not at 11:00.

Communion suddenly became the center point of Protestant worship, just as it was for Catholics. From the outside looking in, 50 years after the fact, this totally escapes us.

Vatican II fixed that.

Did you know that the vast majority of Protestants use a three year Sunday lectionary that runs on the same cycle as ours, that it has most of the same readings (but not all) and that it replaced the absolute chaos that had preceded it? Some communities had lectionaries, but none were the same from denomination to denomination, but now, on any given Sunday, in most ECUSA, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even some flavors of Baptist, you’re likely to hear much the same readings you hear in the Catholic Church.

In many cases, even the ones who had big blowouts for Reformation Sunday on the the last Sunday of October are celebrating Christ the King with us on the Sunday before Advent. A feast invented by the Pope in the early 20th century to combat Marxism and Fascism, is a common celebration in Catholic and Protestant worlds.

Vatican II fixed that.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that (as I told my friend) Vatican II has subtly evangelized the Protestant world. The question is not “Why do Catholic Masses look so Protestant?” but rather “How has it come to pass that 50 years after Vatican II most Christians in the world use the Vatican II liturgy, locally adapted?

Certainly the local folks in their underpants and neck ties don’t think they’re doing the Novus Ordo Missae, but they are. (And as of a few years ago, the Liturgy of the Hours – a.k.a. the Little Office of Paul VI – is essentially the standard format for all liturgical Daily Offices in the Protestant world, previously it was the BCP.)

Certainly if, for all eternity, Eagles Wings and Pass It On were lost in some great mental purification I would not weep (even if it involved the burnination of guitars). And if I never again hear a priest improvise an opening to the liturgy, I won’t care. If all hands raised or held during the Our Father were, tomorrow, chopped off by some divinely appointed Torquemada, I would, to be honest, ROFLMAO.

Burninating your guitars

Certainly there is a lot of theological work that still needs to be done, But the Holy Spirit has done a heck of a lot of work in 50 years. I think it’s ok to say he’s got this.