A Political Theology of Traditionalist Catholicism?

Decades ago, on my first visit to Rome, I stood inside the Church of St. Peter in Chains, watching a stream of people, mostly elderly, stuffing their alms into an offering box. How could the pastors of such an ornate palace accept such a thing, my 18-year-old self asked?   It shocked my conscience and I was determined to do something about it.  Looking around, I saw a confessional manned by a priest.  That, too, was a strange site for me:  a pastor sitting inside an ornate wooden booth.  What went on in there, I wondered?  No matter: I marched up to the booth where a discrete sign was posted: “italiano,” “español,” and “English,” indicating the languages spoken by this polyglot priest. I protested what I then considered to be fleecing people of their money. The priest was reading a newspaper. “Reverend! How can you just sit there while those poor old people give away all their money?!  This church doesn’t need it! Can’t you help them?” The priest calmly folded his newspaper, gave me a wearied look, and asked with a sigh, “A Protestant, I’m guessing?”

I chuckle when I tell the story now, even as I am appalled by my own smug self-righteousness. It never crossed my mind that people, as capable ethical actors, might give of their own volition.  I chuckle, too, because the priest could see things about me that I couldn’t yet:  I was speaking from an anti-Catholic framework as old as the 16th century, drilled into me as a student at my fundamentalist church and school: Catholics aren’t real Christians. That day in Rome so long ago was the first time I became deeply aware of an unmarked identity that I later understood was built in opposition to Catholic:  I’m a Protestant!  I remain so today, but with a distinctively ecumenical bent and, I trust, a lot more humility.

I tell you this as a response to Christina Wassell’s posting “Following Jesus as a Traditionalist Catholic” because an important step in respectful conversation about religion is getting real about ourselves, understanding our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, and narrating our own pilgrimage in faith.  I eagerly read Wassell because she so eloquently relates her migration through several Protestant churches into the traditionalist wing of Roman Catholicism, where she is so clearly and happily at home.  It’s rare to find such a comprehensive interweaving of family and faith like the one Wassell describes in her biography. I feel a tinge of longing for the rhythms of life she describes – keeping the fasts and feasts of the traditional church calendar, for instance.

Most of us are harried by the demands of earning a living, putting the kids in day care, commuting, fighting over social media usage, anxiously shielding our children from the inanities of commercial culture.  Wassell has fashioned a different kind of life.  Down on the farm. Raising their own food. Hell, even slaughtering their own meat!  It’s an admirable counter-cultural life, in some ways not so different from the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, but with a Christian spin. Mazel tov, Christina, for this counter-cultural move.

Christina, we’ve both traveled through several Christian zones on our way into minoritized spaces within our respective spiritual homes.   You, as traditionalist Roman Catholic and I, as a queer white man in a queer African American Pentecostal movement.  Eager to follow Jesus, your faithfulness and mine is under attack. I can’t tell you how many times my bishop, as a lesbian, and my fellow pastors, have been anathematized by other Pentecostal bishops and clergy for being what God gloriously made us.  There are growing tensions within your church, even talk of schism. Pope Francis has been at odds with traditionalists, very recently curtailing authorization for the pre -Vatican II mass you cherish so.  This is to note the obvious:  the spiritual lives of each of us are lived as minorities within our respective Christian movements. That needs to be said.  And that’s about where the similarities end.

Wassell’s path of following Jesus focuses on liturgical aesthetics – at least it seems so to me. Christina’s love for the Latin mass unfurls only against the backdrop of intense negativity about liturgical differences. She is often dismissive of Catholics whose “new mass” offends her spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities. Wassell finds post-Vatican II ritual “’hokey’,” likening attendance at the new mass to being in “the desert” or  at “campfire singalongs.” Wassell demonstrates little charity in her smackdown with Novus Ordo Catholics. It’s either my way or the highway.

Wassell structures her comments around the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credenda, lex vivendi:  “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.”  While lex orandi and lex credendi aspects of the post are lengthy, lex vivendi is only one paragraph. Even after Harold Heie’s post encouraging Christina to tell us something about Catholic social ethics, what she offers is yet more defense of traditional Catholicism, and more stinging criticism of post-Vatican II Catholics. Wassell even appeals to an enigmatic saying of Jesus to swat away attempts at structural analysis and transformational change, both characteristics of modern Catholic social ethics: “Our Lord told us that the poor would always be with us.”  Of the many sayings of Jesus, this is your lex vivendi?  This is the word of the Lord that I favor, Jesus quoting Isaiah in Luke’s Gospel:   

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the prisoners

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to liberate the oppressed . . .

Back to the Latin mass.  Following Jesus within traditional Catholicism is not just about nostalgia, nor simply personal preference.  It entails a political theology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Political theology is at work in any application of Christian ethics to society.   But I’m concerned when we don’t own up to our respective theo-political visions – in this case, what “following Jesus” means for participation in a pluralist society.

There are traditionalist Catholics who are so disgusted by the direction of the U.S. that they’ve withdrawn from public life to build model communities at society’s edge. Yet even some of these withdrawalists, to coin a term, continue to see themselves as engaged in a struggle within the Catholic church and within America’s civic spaces.  Wassell places herself and other traditionalists “in a fierce battle against the culture . . ..”  Wassell never says what she means by “culture, but her words lay bare an “us” versus “them” schema of almost Manichaean proportions – e.g., she speaks of traditionalists as “some remnant of the faithful” here to do penance for a “wayward Bride of Christ.”  I have a feeling that me and the church folks I hang with would be in the “them” category, and so would many of Wassell’s fellow Catholics of the post-Vatican II variety.

Many Catholic traditionalists and their fellow travelers are politically engaged in some of the greatest ethical struggles of our time. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a noted leader of traditionalist Catholics, has agitated against COVID vaccines.  (He was recently hospitalized with COVID.) Then there are fellow travelers who may not identify as traditionalists but are certainly sympathetic.  Steve Bannon and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn are well-known in that category. These leaders and others are determined to curtail if not end women’s access to abortion. They rail against the extension of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples. And they hold a fierce opposition to the civil rights of transgendered persons.  The heat of these battles is tearing at the fabric of American life, and that’s perhaps why Harold Heie has sponsored this respectful conversation. These are matters that send American Christians to the front lines, in battle formation against each other.  It’s helpful to remember that the public square is a dangerous place to enact us-versus-them thinking.

I’ve tried to cultivate the spiritual humility I lacked so many years ago in Rome in my self-righteous quibble with the priest. My many visits over the years to Catholic churches here and around the globe have illuminated, dissipated, and destroyed the knee-jerk anti-Catholicism I was taught as a child.  Not too long ago I attended the funeral of a colleague’s spouse, held in one of those Novus Ordo parishes Wassell so loathes.  At the Eucharist, the priest invited non-Catholics like me to the altar; he did so with the caveat that we come in a spirit of reverence and worship, acknowledging Christ’s presence.  The priest’s invitation might have angered the local bishop, had he known about it, and I’d bet that you, Christina, take this as another indication of the church’s post-Vatican II degradation.  I received the priest’s gesture of hospitality with gratitude and humility. It resonated with my ecclesiology and liturgical theology. As I walked forward to receive, I heard the Holy Spirit’s voice whispering in my ear – how Pentecostal! – a hymn we sometimes sing at communion, “This is God’s table, it’s not yours or mine, come to the table of grace.”

I imagine a church with plenty good room, as the African American spirit song says.  To me, following Jesus means ever-expanding the circle of “we.”  There’s room for you, Christina, in the church I dream about, a church of the third Pentecost where the “least of these” get the front row seats, some of us speak in tongues, and Latin masses and Pentecostal praise breaks are happening at the same time.

What you and I and all of us in the U.S. will have to figure out is how we live together peacefully with such opposing political theologies and nationalist projects. What is it that we hope for?  What is the future we envision? What do we fear?  Whom do we fear? My political theology envisions a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious America, where everyone has the respect they deserve, the right to vote, a roof over their heads, and enough to eat.

In the nation a coming, let there be plenty good room.

A View from a Member of the Common Priesthood

Any Pietist should hesitate to write critically about Catholicism, since anti-Catholicism is so deeply rooted in our tradition. For all his desire for Christian unity and his disinclination to engage in nasty polemics, Pietist pioneer Philipp Jakob Spener was as hostile to the Catholic Church as most other German Lutheran pastors in the era after the Reformation. In Pia Desideria, the 1675 booklet that became a Pietist manifesto, Spener addressed the low state of Protestantism — but only after he first lamented “the distress of those members of the Christian church… who dwell among heretics in the Babylonian captivity of anti-Christian Rome.” In 1842, the Swedish revivalist Carl Olof Rosenius warned that a true Pietist would “not waste time or wear out his weapons by fighting with brothers in faith” — Protestants, that is, whom he likened to the army commanded by Gustavus Adolphus “against the popish retinue” in the Thirty Years War. In the 20th century, the pietistic Baptists who founded and still sponsor my Pietist university were staunch advocates of church-state separation: not only because politically coerced faith contradicted their belief in soul liberty, but because they saw Jefferson’s wall of separation as a bulwark against Catholics gaining and wielding political, educational, and cultural power.

So I approached Christina Wassell’s essay eager to learn about a way of following Jesus that Pietists too easily disdain. Unfortunately, her autobiographical focus left no room for her to discuss types of Catholic piety that have the most obvious resonance with the instincts of Pietism: the spiritual disciplines and intentional fellowship of monasticism (or at least the practices of lay communities like the Brethren of the Common Life or the Franciscans’ Third Order); and mysticism, whose transformative, ecstatic experiences appeal to the Pietist desire for relating to God in ways that transcend intellectual understanding. (One forerunner of my tradition was Johann Arndt, a Lutheran mystic of the early 17th century.) But Wassell’s description of “a robust Catholic life” experienced with family and friends certainly rang familiar to this Pietist, both because we share an appreciation for living out our theological beliefs “‘on the ground’ with our community” and because it’s dismaying to find the intensity of that experience of the Christian life sometimes evaporating into “what happened” on Sunday.

I’m glad, then, that she and her family found their way to a more meaningful experience of sacramental worship. But, much as I wrote in response to David Ford’s essay on Orthodoxy, I can both appreciate the ancient beauty and counter-cultural power of the liturgy in Wassell’s parish and yet still struggle to shed my version of Spener’s concern that “the service of worship that outwardly is correct may still not be a service of worship.”

I don’t want to belabor a problem that I’ve already addressed in some depth, especially since I don’t want to leave the impression that the sacraments are unimportant to Pietists. In his new book on German Pietist leader August Hermann Francke, Peter Yoder points out that Francke preached six times on the Eucharist just in his first full year of pastoral ministry. But as highly as he esteemed that sacrament, Francke also inaugurated a view of worshipful ritual that has never disappeared from Pietism: that communicants ought to take Communion not out of custom or habit — let alone what Francke called “hypocrisy” or “ignorance” — but as a personal expression of repentant obedience to Christ that brings the believer deeper into union with him. 

So even as the religious historian in me reads Wassell’s essay and thinks back to less enthusiastic accounts from Catholics less moved by worship before Vatican II, any follower of Jesus Christ should rejoice to hear Wassell describe her experience of the Traditional Latin Mass as drawing her and her family “deeper into the wonder and mystery of the Eucharist and of following Jesus.” I wish I had had a chance to read her description of what happens during that liturgy before I attended a Latin Mass several years ago with my students. Instead of feeling hurt and frustrated at being left in silence while the priest prayed alone to God, I could have availed myself of a chance for a kind of meditation in which “we learn to unite our own sacrifices to Christ’s on the altar.”

May all our experiences of worship so deepen our experience of Jesus Christ! 

But what comes next? I’ll try to develop this idea at much greater length in my own lead essay, but this seems like a good moment to introduce one key point: even if Pietists find that their “experience of Christ flows out of” a sacrament — and I think most Pietists would more likely say that it flows out of Bible study and prayer, we’d be far more interested in asking what flows out of that encounter into the rest of our life. How does our experience of Christ lead us to follow Jesus into the world, to make disciples of all nations and to love our neighbors whether or not they follow Jesus — healing their wounds, slaking their thirst, feeding their hunger, and rectifying the injustices that create their suffering?

Because of other obligations, I needed to finish writing this essay before Wassell could submit her follow-up comment about Catholic social ethics. But while I can understand the challenges inherent in summing up a Christian tradition in just 1,500 words or so, her original choice of emphasis is itself important. For my part, I expect to say almost nothing about Sunday morning worship when my turn comes — save a few lines about hymnody — and will instead focus on how Pietists try to follow Jesus during the rest of the week.

Before I close, I have to acknowledge that Wassell’s chosen emphasis on the Traditional Latin Mass also points to one more clear disagreement with my tradition, about the nature of what Pietists like to call the common priesthood.

It’s not just that my spiritual forebears were so antagonistic to a magisterial, episcopal hierarchy headed by the bishop of Rome. (A figure unexpectedly unnamed by a Roman Catholic whose parish is affiliated with a religious fraternity that chose the name of the first pope “in order to express their gratitude, filial love, and loyalty to the Supreme Pontiff.”). Pietists’ “antipathy to authoritarian forms” was their “greatest contribution,” concluded Dalphy Fagerstrom, one of my predecessors on the Bethel history faculty, since it helped inspire both religious and political “democratization.” By contrast, as we can see from one paragraph in Wassell’s essay, you don’t have to be a Pietist to recognize the potential for concentrated ecclesial power to be abused.

But even in the best version of an episcopate, it’d be hard for a Pietist to relate easily to a way of following Jesus in which a single person plays such a central role, to the point of standing in persona Christi during worship. For we are all priests, Pietists would argue, with Jesus (as Wassell agrees) our “one true priest.”

Not all of us have spiritual gifts to be honed through professional training in theology and ministry, but Spener thought Martin Luther right to reject the “presumptuous monopoly of the clergy” and instead emphasize a “spiritual priesthood, according to which not only ministers but all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts [1 Pet. 2:9].” Some more radical Pietists even rejected Spener’s reservation of public offices (preaching especially, but also the sacraments) to a professional clergy. Historian Jonathan Strom has observed that the German Pietists’ concern for the common priesthood faded after Spener, but it was central to the 19th century Swedish revival that is the chief influence on Pietism as I have experienced it. Those Scandinavian Pietists gave considerable autonomy to lay preachers like C.O. Rosenius and to lay leaders of Bible studies that defied a law requiring clergy oversight of spiritual activities. (Rosenius’ successor as editor of the journal Pietisten, Paul Peter Waldenström, was a priest in the Church of Sweden, but he argued for lay preaching as a hedge against pastors seeing themselves as “a new estate of the clergy, a hierarchy, which is separated off from the laity.”) And even Pietists who share Spener’s concern for “orderly” worship would strive with him to decenter the role played by those few priests who happen to have been ordained, lest “the so-called laity [be] made slothful in those things that ought to concern it,” especially “the office of the spiritual priests to let the Word of God dwell richly among them (Col. 3:16).”

Lutheran-Catholic Sacramental Spirituality: Are We Still Divided Over How We Follow Jesus?

As in the case of the dialogue we have already had with the Orthodox tradition, this Lutheran along with other Confessional Lutherans can wholeheartedly endorse the Sacramental spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church (though Lutheran Pietist elements and Lutheran members reflecting a modernist piety might object). Indeed except for the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation (which when compared to the Lutheran position is nothing more than a disagreement inside the family), Lutherans have a view of the Sacraments virtually identical with Catholics (not rejecting the possibility of there being seven [Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XIII.2]).

A Real Presence vision of the Sacraments like Catholics and Lutheran share (Christ coming to us and changing us [Small Catechism]) is essentially related for Lutherans to the prioritizing of salvation and living the Christian life by grace alone! They are means through which God makes us people who want to follow Jesus. In worship, the benefits of God are received (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.49), in Baptism we are born again and begin to live out our baptism (Romans 6; Large Catechism IV.27), and in The Lord’s Supper forgiveness is not only received, but we also become people who are linked to all the faithful, their strengths and their needs (Large Catechism, V.22,70 ; Luther’s Works, Vol.35, pp.50-52,58,59). How about it, Ms. Wassell (Christina): Is this not in line with the Catholic formula of worship, leading to faith, entailing how we live?

There are other ways in which I see our traditions overlapping/converging when it comes to following Jesus. As you seem to advocate, Luther believed that prayer increases our faith and the practice of the Christian life (The Large Catechism, III.2). I noted that in a previous response you highlight the Virgin Mary’s role in enhancing spirituality. With your Catholic heritage, Luther was open to invoking angels and Mary (whom he called the Mother of God) (Luther’s Works, Vol.42, p.113; Ibid., Vol.21, pp.328-3 29). All the saints may pray for us, he claimed (Smalcald Articles, II.25f.).

There are other ways in which our traditions overlap. Many of the other characteristic Catholic themes which I have noted over the years seem to have affinities to the Pietist strand of Lutheranism and also in some cases to Lutheranism’s Dogmatic Orthodox strands. There is place in the Lutheran heritage for something like the Catholic stress on keeping the Commandments (Formula of Concord SD VII; Large Catechism, I.Con), and measuring growth in the Christian life this way (Formula of Concord, SD IV.31-33). Even the affirmation of a synergistic joining of our will with God’s grace so prominent in your tradition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996ff.) is not officially rejected in Lutheranism (Formula of Concord, SD II.90).

I have found another profound overlap in our traditions. Is it not true that even the Lutheran passion for affirming justification by grace through faith (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.2) has been deemed a valid Catholic option by Vatican II when it decrees (in Unitatis redingegratio, 31) that “all who have been justified by faith in Baptism, … have a right to be called Christian”? Insights like this have led our churches to affirm a common statement about how we are saved (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification). There’s a lot in common in our traditions, and our leaders are starting to recognize this.

I just have a few questions to raise with you now at the conclusion to determine how much celebrating of our unity we might do. You refer to the sacrifice of the Mass. To whom is the Sacrifice paid and how is it paid? This could be a deal-breaker for Lutherans if it entails that we
need to pay more sacrifices to god to get Him to love us, for Christ offered the only sacrifice necessary (The Augsburg Confession, XXIV.30ff). But if the Sacrifice of the Mass is a Sacrifice because Christ the one true Sacrifice is Present or is so deemed because it nurtures the Christian life, a life of sacrifice of denying the self and suffering, then we again have much in common (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XXIV.34).

I resonate with your stated reasons for preferring the traditional Latin Mass. High-Church Lutherans also want the worship leader to face the altar when talking to God. And there is beauty in the chanting/music associated with the Latin Mass. But must the Mass be in Latin, or is your point merely that the liturgy should be done properly? Lutherans have to object if worship is not in the language of the people enabling them to learn the Word of God (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XXIV.2). Another non-negotiable for Lutherans is the conviction that following Jesus includes a social concern about justice, not just charity, for the poor (Ibid., Vol.9, p.19; Large Catechism, I.7; Amos 8:4ff.).

The Catholic Church, notably in the Americas since the end of Colonialism, has such a rich heritage of espousing justice for the poor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2408ff.). I appreciate your rationale for not including this theme in your original paper. But I submit that the Catholic commitment to ending structural poverty is not just a function of Vatican II, but can be traced at least back to the 19th century throughout the church with Leo XIII. Did not his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, direct the faithful to seek economic justice through organized labor and by political means? If you concur with me on this point, then you and I have found another area of Lutheran-Catholic agreement.

Finally I turn to the issue of how much freedom the Catholic vision of following Jesus permits. Give the fact that the Sacraments transform recipients, provide them with a mystical and physical union with our Lord, does it not make sense to think of the faithful as becoming people who want to follow Jesus (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1265-1266)? This opens the door to the Lutheran teaching about freedom from the Law (Galatians 3:13; 5:1; Romans 7:4ff; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377), the spontaneity of good works (Ephesians 2:10; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316), and a Situational Ethic (Genesis 22; Luther’s Works, Vol.5, p.150; Complete Sermons, Vol.3/1, p.61)? Are these affirmations which could legitimately be made in a Catholic context? If not, why not?

Old Divisions are Less Divisive

Response to Christina Wassell, traditional Roman Catholic view
By Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Reformed Tradition

Old Divisions Are Less Divisive

The moving and illuminating account of Christina Wassell’s spiritual journey to the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of “following Jesus” presents challenges for any response from the Reformed tradition. First, my tradition immediately confronts issues which have been dividing points between Catholic and Reformed traditions for nearly 500 years. Second, Wassell’s presentation focuses largely on an internal dialogue with Catholicism, particularly between the changed practice of the Mass and Eucharist since Vatican II, and the Traditional Latin Mass. That dialogue is very insightful, but the Reformed tradition doesn’t have much theological skin in the game in that ongoing interchange.
To begin with faithfulness to the Reformed tradition, we can note major features referred to in this presentation of Roman Catholicism that immediately raise red flags for Reformed folks and have done so for centuries. For example:
• Transubstantiation, where the Bread and Wine at the Eucharist actually become Christ. The first Reformers, while differing among themselves about how Christ and the Spirit are present in the Eucharist, all rejected the prevailing understanding of the (Catholic) church.
• The priest in the Eucharist becoming “in persona Christi,” acting “as a stand in for the one true priest, Jesus Christ.” The Reformed view, while taking seriously the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, has a less elevated view of the one who presides at the Table. The priest as one who, in the Traditional Latin Mass, stands separate, with his back to the congregation, in persona Christi, is an affront to Reformed sensibilities and collegial understandings of how a congregation embodies its identity as the Body of Christ.
• The sacrifice of Christ as the victim, repeated each time the Mass is celebrated as this moment “steps out of time,” is contrary to the Reformed understandings of the one-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and the Lord’s Supper as the time which powerfully remembers this redemptive sacrifice, rather than repeating it.

This brief and certainly inadequate summary refers only to matters specifically mentioned in the carefully crafted paper by Christina Wassell, with its primary focus on how the practice of the Eucharist is understood. Other central issues arise in a Reformed response to a Catholic understanding of how we follow Jesus, such as the nature and embodiment of authority in the church, the number and meaning of sacraments, the understanding of how and through whom God’s grace functions, and the means of salvation, to cite a few examples.
The ecumenical good news is that serious and sustained dialogue at official levels between the U.S. Conference of Bishops and the major Reformed denominations in the U.S. has been undertaken for over 50 years. Differences have been clarified, common understandings have been affirmed, and bridges of relationship and trust have been built. The major historic points of division have been addressed, such as ministry, authority, baptism, the Eucharist, and much else in well-organized rounds of this dialogue with published results. I was privileged to participate in some of the more recent sessions. (These reports can be accessed through the office and website of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and through the ecumenical offices of participating denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.)
Most remarkable, in my view, was the report of the understanding and mutual recognition of baptism, titled “These Living Waters.” Four years of discussion (2003-2007) produced a remarkable, ground-breaking consensus. Then, ongoing dialogue resulted in an official declaration that the baptisms of those in the U. S. Catholic church, and those in the Reformed churches, would be mutually recognized and accepted. This took place in November, 201o. This significant step and its implications are still not widely known, but provide the foundation for a more hospitable relationship between the Reformed and Catholic communities.
Moreover, the historic theological differences held between Catholic and Protestant understandings of the role of grace in the process of salvation were overcome in a joint declaration between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in 1999, sharing “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” After more years of dialogue, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, representing most of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches throughout the world, officially affirmed this joint declaration at a ceremony in Wittenberg, Germany in 2017, 500 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in that town.
These ecumenical steps between the Reformed and Catholic traditions over the past 50 years make it impossible for any response to Christina Wassell’s paper from the Reformed tradition to rely on the old stereotypes and judgments of Catholicism that long dominated this relationship. The ground has been shifting. Clear differences remain, but the fruits of this dialogue demonstrate how both Reformed and Catholic traditions are coming to understand far better what it truly means for each of these expressions of the church to follow Jesus, and to accept what is held in common.
One specific premise in Christina Wassell’s presentation requires a further response. If I understand correctly, she asserts that one’s participation in the Eucharist, particularly as experienced in the Traditional Latin Mass, results in such a mystical infusion of Christ’s presence that “following Jesus” simply flows naturally. There’s no suggestion of the need for the teaching of discipleship, nor any mention of how one appropriates Catholic social teaching. A Reformed understanding would differ here. One of its strengths has been its emphasis on how to teach and learn the practices of discipleship in the context of a world and life view centered on God’s purposes of justice and reign breaking into the world. Simply participating in the Eucharist does not automatically produce the fruits of such discipleship.
(Christina Wassell’s response to this matter, just posted, is quite helpful. Yet, it seems t0 maintain the assumption, repeated in her last sentence, that witness and action in the world for God’s justice flows automatically from the Eucharist, and it omits any reference to systemic “structures of sin” which have been clearly identified by Popes even before Vatican II and regularly addressed in expressions of public theology from the Reformed tradition.)
Finally, how can the Reformed tradition be enriched by the traditional view of Catholicism presented in Wassell’s paper? I suggest three ways.
First, the framework she presents is “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.” The personal journey she shares emphasizes how the practice of spirituality is the driving force which then reveals deep beliefs, particularly experienced through the Eucharist, which then flows into a transformed life. The Reformed tradition often wants to start with getting beliefs right, expressed through Confessions and catechetical instruction, which then, hopefully, produces fruitful spiritual practice. But there’s a danger in always starting with the head and assuming that the heart will follow. Wassell’s paper is a helpful corrective.
Second, the Reformed tradition regards the Eucharist, which we typically call the Lord’s Supper, as a celebration of memory, reminding us of God’s work of salvation. It is kept remote, celebrated by congregations sometimes only four times a year, or once a month. Christina Wassell provides a moving portrayal of what it means in the Eucharist to participate mystically in God’s saving activity in Christ through his Presence with us, and not simply to remember this. Our traditions my differ about the technical and theological explanations of what is happening in this liturgical celebration, but for countless Reformed congregations, moving from the “observance” of the Lord’s Supper to a richer spiritual participation in this mystery through the Spirit would deepen our sacramental life.
Third, the resources of spiritual formation in the Catholic tradition, expressed through mystics, the monastic movement, pilgrimages, Ignatian practices, and so much more, were largely jettisoned by the Reformation. While those examples were not included in Wassell’s paper, that dimension is reflected in the journey that she shares. The Reformed tradition can only be enriched by reappropriating practices of spiritual formation, adapted to our own context, but shaped by streams in the Catholic tradition which, for too long, we have ignored and set aside.

i. https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/reformed/upload/These-Living-Waters.pdf

Eucharist as a Means for Following Jesus

I celebrate Christina Wassell’s account of what the Catholic tradition has done for her and her family. The deeply personal description shows an active, lively faith in following Jesus.

In my response, I will concentrate on the Eucharist that has meant so much to her. My tradition may not be best known for its liturgical and sacramental life, but John Wesley encouraged Wesleyan Methodists to receive the Lord’s Supper (as they referred to Eucharist) frequently. My tradition can affirm with Christina the importance of Eucharist for following Jesus. Methodists initially received the sacrament in their local parishes or when an Anglican priest sympathetic to Methodism was among them.  The sacrament was so important to the people that it became a pressing motivation for Methodists to constitute the movement as a church so they could receive it in the same community where they experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in other ways (many then felt the kind of disconnect in their parish churches that Christina describes in her search for congregational worship that would match the theological riches of Catholicism). My tradition can also affirm the search for authentic worship where all elements work together to present the wholeness of what faith is.

To compare Catholic and Wesleyan Methodist understandings, I will turn to a document produced in dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council (hereafter WMC). The document, titled Encountering Christ the Saviour: Church and Sacraments (hereafter ECS), may be found here: https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/3024/encountering-christ-the-saviour-church-and-sacraments.pdf. This document is neither an authoritative declaration of the Roman Catholic Church nor of any member church of the WMC.  Rather it is a report of the thoughtful and serious understanding arrived at through dialogue over several years that has taken place between these two traditions. Because the WMC has many member churches (several of which were represented in the membership of the Methodist side of the dialogue) it reflects widely held consensus in my tradition.

The dialogue report acknowledges the underlying and interlocking issues that Christina Wassell can only hint at in her posting, namely that how each tradition understands church and ordination greatly affects the understanding of Eucharist. There are differences between the two traditions regarding those underlying questions; nevertheless, the dialogue also uncovered much agreement. I cannot do justice to all the underlying questions in the space allotted, so I will focus on a few matters specific to Eucharist that Christina Wassell’s posting highlights. Catholics, of course, have a long and developed history of understanding the Eucharist. John Wesley encouraged receiving the Lord’s Supper, but he wrote little in sermon or treatise form about the theology of the Eucharist. In ECS, the major documentary source for the Methodist side was Hymns on the Lord’s Supper produced by John and Charles Wesley.

In her account of “what happens” in the Eucharist, Wassell describes the importance of the priest.ECS recognizes that Wesleyan Methodists have no officially formulated understanding of the priesthood and its relation to Eucharist, but both dialogue sides affirmed that priesthood itself is rooted in Christ’s own priestly office (ECS ¶ 169). Methodists, though, stress the “common priesthood of the faithful” and have “rejected the notion of a distinct ministerial priesthood” (ECS ¶161). Despite this difference, the WMC dialogue found agreement that “When the Church exercises its priestly ministry it does so only by virtue of participation in the priesthood of Christ” (ECS ¶162). Although Wesleyan Methodists do not think in terms of ministerial priesthood, our tradition does recognized ordination as “conferral of the particular ministerial charism by the invocation of the Holy Spirit” so ECS draws the conclusion that this understanding suggests “a basic theological agreement that ordination is sacramental” (ECS ¶177) That is, ordination is “a rite that contains and confers the grace it signifies” (ECS ¶179).

As for the potential “showmanship” that concerns Christina when the priest in the new mass faces the congregation instead of the altar, in my tradition, the minister intentionally faces the congregation in order to show that the whole gathered community participates in this event. All are brought into new life with Christ through baptism, and the people’s participation in Christ through the Lord’s Supper is highlighted through the minister and people facing one another. ECS says, referencing the report from a previous round of dialogue: “Taking part in the Eucharist should lead to God’s baptized, priestly people being more transformed by the Holy Spirit ever more truly into the likeness of Christ, and to a more radical following and imitating  of Christ and in all that he has done for us, so that we ‘enter together more deeply into the saving mystery of Christ.’” (ECS ¶110). Receiving Eucharist is a clear invitation for the people to move more deeply into this imitation of Christ.

The ECS found a movement toward convergence between the two traditions regarding the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, although the language is somewhat different—Catholics refer to “offering” Christ’s sacrifice while the hymns on the Lord’s Supper speak of “pleading” that sacrifice (ECS ¶195). Both Catholics and Methodists recognize that Christ’s self-sacrifice on our behalf calls forth our own self-sacrifice. As the dialogue report states: “We are called to be a sacrificial people, in communion with Christ’s sacrifice in a way that transforms our life into one of humble and self-giving love for God and our fellow human beings” (ECS ¶96).

One matter over which it would seem that there is an important disagreement between Catholics and Wesleyan Methodists would appear to be transubstantiation. John Wesley’s revision of the Articles of Religion (which serve as doctrinal standards for many Methodists) treat this idea rather harshly. Even here, though, the Catholic WMC dialogue has found some common ground. Because Wesleyan Methodists use language of “real presence,” the report can say that both traditions agree that Christ’s presence is “mediated through the elements of bread and wine” so they become the “’sign par excellence of Christ’s redeeming presence to his people’” (ECS ¶81).

Although Christina does not mention frequency, it does seem important to note that Eucharist is not always received by Wesleyan Methodists every Sunday. Many congregations receive monthly, others receive quarterly, while some do receive every week. The reason for this variety is rooted in our history of being a movement with preachers who itinerated, preaching to people outside parish churches. Even after Methodism became a church, pastors, instead of being stationed in congregations, often remained “circuit riders,” serving several churches on a circuit, so it was not possible to be at every church every Sunday. With this history, it has been Word rather than Table that has often been stressed in my tradition. In recent years, though, with ecumenical dialogues that help us look at our own tradition from the perspective of other Christians, some Wesleyan Methodist congregations have been moved to offer Eucharist weekly so that we can follow John Wesley’s advice to receive the Lord’s Supper “constantly,” in order to be formed as followers of Jesus more deeply. At this point in time, the actual practice of receiving Eucharist is quite varied in my tradition.

The understanding of Eucharist that is being articulated by Wesleyan Methodists and the desire to receive the sacrament more frequently shows how much my tradition has already been enriched by conversation with Catholics. It helps us draw from our own past in intentional ways to use the sacrament more effectively to help us follow Jesus.

The Traditional Latin Mass & Reactionary Politics

I found Christina Wassell’s account of moving from “generic Protestantism” (my term) to the Roman Catholic Church very compelling, and I certainly understand the quest for liturgy. As an Episcopal priest, however, I found the following sentence a tad confusing, explaining her move from the Episcopal Church to Rome: “While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert.” I wonder: Why would Ms. Wassell move from the Episcopal Church (not “Episcopalian church,” by the way; the adjective form is shorter than the noun) to Rome in search of “real presence”? Most Episcopalians I know—including myself—emphatically believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. (I don’t have statistics for Episcopalians, but according to a 2019 Pew survey, only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation.)

Ms. Wassell goes on to say, “It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety.” Again, though I’m not certain what the author means here by “Catholic piety” (and there’s little in the essay to suggest what that might be), Episcopalians certainly believe “in the sacraments”; during the recitation of the Nicene Creed every week, for instance, we affirm our belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

So I’m left to wonder whether the migration from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism to the Traditional Latin Mass is motivated by something else.

I understand the lure of tradition and history, which many find in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). And I absolutely share Ms. Wassell’s sense of the centrality of the Eucharist—not music or the sermon—in worship: “The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar.” I’m also sympathetic with her preference for Gregorian chants over “impoverished Catholic worship tunes,” though I confess a certain fondness for some of the Taize music. I don’t agree, however, that the priest facing the congregation during Holy Eucharist necessarily gives rise to showmanship; I have come to appreciate the holy beauty of a priest celebrating with reverence and care.

But here’s my confusion (and I’ll doubtless raise a similar question when we get to the Reformed tradition): Why does fondness for the Latin Mass necessarily go hand-in-hand with reactionary politics? It seems to me eminently plausible for someone to evince a preference for the Latin Mass on aesthetic or historical grounds without having to buy into an entire conservative agenda. It’s no secret that the TLM leadership—and, I gather, many of the followers—regard Pope Francis as a flaming liberal. That caricature is ludicrous, of course, but it appears to be fervently held by the TLM contingent—and it is suggested in Ms. Wassell’s statement that she and her family “were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.”

This sort of sentiment, I surmise, is behind the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ attempts to deny President Biden access to the communion rail because of his prochoice stance on abortion. Curiously, those same bishops have yet (as far as I know) to censure Roman Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, which also violates Church teaching. Hmmm. Although I disagree with the bishops’ position—in what moral universe is Joe Biden subject to episcopal censure when the same bishops fall over themselves to extol Donald Trump?—I’d have a lot more respect for them if they made even a cursory stab at consistency.

I wonder if TLM has devolved into a kind of signifier, much the way that even displaying the flag in recent years has become, for many, a signifier of allegiance to Trumpism. That’s a pity, in my view. Both the flag and the Latin Mass have their own rich history and integrity; reducing either one to a kind of totem for, let’s face it, division diminishes both.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives have glommed onto the Latin Mass. One sure way to wage “a fierce battle against the culture,” I suppose, is to embrace Latin. But I still see no necessity for the Traditional Latin Mass to be braided with reactionary politics.

Following Jesus as a traditional Roman Catholic

There is an ancient maxim, “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” Loosely translated, this means, The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living. While this captures a universal truth, it has become a motto of significance for traditionally minded Roman Catholics. Our family has been attending the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) for almost 3 years, and it has propelled us into a radically new place of belief and practice, one we had perhaps not dared to hope for. I humbly offer here just a bit of what it means to follow Jesus as traditional Roman Catholics.

Lex Orandi

When our family converted to Catholicism in 2010, we had worked our way through a gamut of Protestant traditions, moving steadily toward more liturgy as we went. We experienced everything from home Bible churches to mainline denominations. We finally settled at an Episcopalian church which embraced rather high Anglican sensibilities about worship. We received the Eucharist kneeling, sang from the beautiful English hymnody, and enjoyed a rich sense of the liturgical year as it moved through seasons of feasting and fasting.

When one comes from a ‘high church’ context, it can be jarring to convert to Catholicism. It was the theology of the Eucharist and the sacraments that drew us to Rome. Reading and study and prayer confirmed for us that God was drawing us to the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, our visits to many average Catholic parishes often had us shaking in our boots. The Masses felt ‘hokey’ and at times irreverent. The music was abysmal, and while it was not impossible to find priests who could preach a good homily, these visits often smacked a little too much of campfire singalongs for our Anglican palettes. While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert. It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety. We found a Cathedral parish where the Masses ‘weren’t that bad’ and hunkered down.

While we had no doubts about our choice to convert, and while we were growing in our Catholic faith, there was a lingering empty feeling around our actual experience of worship at Mass. The otherworldly notes that ring out in the human heart when a truly transcendent kind of worship takes place were far and few between. The ‘summer of shame’ in 2018 brought a new toxicity to what it meant to be Catholic in the United States, with the news of the sex scandals involving then Cardinal McCarrick and his cronies across the U.S. Our hearts were broken. We certainly believe that the Church can be chastised by God, and that some remnant of the faithful are called to repent and do penance for a wayward bride of Christ (see the old Testament for plenty of examples…Oh Israel!), but we also feared that like so many families around us, we would fail to keep our children in the Church. We were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.

As laypeople we homeschooled, we prayed together, and we dug into the faith with our kids and our friends, keeping time with the year the Church lays out. We aimed to rebuild authentic Catholic culture centered on Christ and the good life He offers. And indeed we did this! The domestic church we kept in our home, along with our likeminded friends, yielded a robust Catholic life full of fireside singing, delicious homemade meals shared with friends on feast days, dancing, storytelling, games, and resurrecting old world Catholic traditions. But sadly, this countercultural push to follow Jesus fizzled at Sunday Mass. We met our Lord there in the bread and wine made Flesh and Blood, but our offering of worship never felt quite worthy of our King and our God. What we believed theologically and lived ‘on the ground’ with our community versus what happened at Sunday Mass did not keep stride. In our weakness, we complained. We longed for more. We grumbled and lamented about the state of things. Then, almost on a whim, we visited a new Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) parish dedicated to celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass. And everything changed.

Lex Credendi

In a technical sense, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that what happens on the altar at the Novus Ordo Mass (the ‘new order of the Mass’ instituted after Vatican II around 1970 worldwide) is the same thing as what happens on the altar at the Traditional Latin Mass (which endured essentially as-is since circa A.D. 600, with many elements dating to the 1st century). All faithful Catholics assert that what happens at Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary. The priest is there in persona Christi, or as a stand-in for the one true priest, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man. He offers the bread and the wine, each in turn, to show the separation of body from blood on the cross which resulted in Christ’s death. When the priest says the words Christ spoke at the Last Supper, that bread and wine becomes Christ as perfect victim, offered for your sins and for mine in the mystery of the Eucharist. It happens here on earth at every Mass, at a given place and time, but when it happens we step ‘outside of time’ and enter once again mystically into the perfect sacrifice at Calvary.

Catholics assert that true religion needs sacrifice. Sacrifice must involve gifts offered to God which are then destroyed, and consumed. In the same way that so many aspects of Jewish faith are brought to a fulfillment and a completion in Christ, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a new and perfect form of the sacrifice the Jewish people had been offering to God for eons. The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar. The music can be great. The sermon can be helpful. But this sacrifice is why we show up. This sacrifice is the praxis of our religion.

While our family understood (if imperfectly!) this theology of the Mass, attending the TLM answered our longing for a fitting form for our worship. This sigh of relief, however, was merely the beginning of a true transformation of our faith. When the lex Orandi changed for us in the TLM, the lex Credendi followed, just as the maxim describes. Without expecting it, we were drawn deeper into the wonder and mystery of the Eucharist and of following Jesus.

It would take another whole essay to describe the differences between the post Vatican II Mass and the Mass of ages, but let me skim the surface. In the TLM the priest spends the vast majority of the Mass facing the altar, with his back to the people. He is at the head of the congregation, and we are all facing God. The priest’s personality essentially disappears in this Mass, allowing the in persona Christi aspect of his role to emerge. The new Mass, with the priest behind the altar table facing the people, invites a kind of showmanship, with the priest highly aware of his ‘command of the crowd,’ using voice and eye contact as features of the Mass, and creating a closed loop focused more on the horizontal experience of faith in a community than on the vertical experience of worshipping God on high.

The TLM is brimming with silence. While the new Mass follows a ‘call and response’ format where the priest says essentially everything out loud and the congregation joins in or responds, there are many places in the TLM where the priest is praying quietly, only to God. The congregation can follow along in missals, but the silence invites a meditative prayer hard to find at the new Mass, where we learn to unite our own sacrifices to Christ’s on the altar. The TLM uses primarily Gregorian chant. This other-worldly music was created for worship and draws the heart and mind up to God in a way that impoverished Catholic worship tunes just…cannot. The TLM offers confession throughout the Mass, and the faithful avail themselves of this sacrament frequently. As we approach Communion, we want to be forgiven and prepared to receive our Lord. Desperately aware of our need for grace, we pray at each Mass (as the Centurion did), “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We only receive our Lord kneeling in humility, and on the tongue. Only the consecrated hands of the priest feed Him to us, taking such reverent care not to drop a single crumb, as each crumb is the whole of the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord.

Lex Vivendi

Before we found the Traditional Latin Mass, our experience of following Jesus was, in a sense, upside down.   Now, our experience of Christ flows out from the Mass. The Mass itself, in its structure, its music, its gestures, its engagement of all the human senses, continually teaches us about Jesus Christ and his Church. We meet Him there. The Eucharist, the centerpiece of the Mass, and the source and summit of our faith, shines more brilliantly for us than it ever did, illuminating our efforts to follow Jesus.


What I learned from other Christian Traditions

Concluding Response from the Orthodox Tradition

 

Dear Conversation Partners,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I’d like to thank each of you again for your very thoughtful, insightful, and appreciative responses to my attempt to provide at least a glimpse into the riches of Orthodox spiritual life in 1500 words!  I’m very encouraged and inspired by your positive interest in Orthodoxy’s understanding of following Jesus through having heartfelt intimate communion with Him, as well as our cosmic sacramental world-view, which undergirds our great concern for environmental issues; our vibrant communion with the Saints, including our special love and gratitude for Mary the Theotokos; the Icons as windows into Heaven; the very deep historical grounding of the Orthodox tradition; and the constant calling and aspiration to live in holiness in thought and action, with the ultimate goal of theosis—participating in the very life of God Himself through His Uncreated Energies.  To the extent that many of you indicated that you had been relatively unaware of these aspects of the Orthodox tradition as a whole, I am all the more motivated to try to make these treasures more widely known, so that more people may find benefit in them.

I’d also like to especially thank those of you who pointed out that my essay did not give much attention to the crucially important realm of self-sacrificial service to others—especially to those suffering from various forms of economic and/or social oppression and injustice.  The particular emphasis that your traditions place on this aspect of following Jesus is certainly something that can and should inspire Orthodox Christians in general to take a more active role in—especially as we have the long historical experience of many centuries, going back to the Constantinian era, during which our Church has worked to alleviate suffering and poverty through establishing hospitals, almshouses, homes for destitute new mothers and repentant prostitutes, and so on, as well as providing charitable assistance for poor widows.  The Church also gradually impacted the legal system of the Empire, as the State came to incorporate ecclesiastical canons into its legal code; the legal code promulgated by Emperor St. Justinian the Great (6th century) remains the foundation of nearly all of Western law.  One example of Christian influence in this code is the equalizing of penalties for adultery for both men and women.  The East Roman (Byzantine) Empire also had an outstanding health care system, in which doctors treated the poor for free, while charging those who were well-off.

So even though Orthodoxy is a small minority in North America, it’s certainly very important for us Orthodox Christians to keep trying to bring relief to those having material needs, as well as to influence the institutions, values, and spiritual well-being of our surrounding society as a whole.  May we all be praying to our All-Compassionate Lord Jesus for His clear guidance concerning what He would have each of us do along these lines, and for His grace to empower and sustain our efforts.

Thanks again for your input.  Looking forward to more conversation!

Sincerely yours, in Christ,

David Ford

Orthodoxy: An Immersion in Sacred Belief and Practice

I so appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this e-conversation. More than twenty years of extended interfaith dialogue with scholars and church leaders from Evangelicalism, the Church of the Nazarene, and Community of Christ (formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) have been transformative for me—both mind-expanding and spiritually invigorating. I know now, more than ever before, how very crucial it is to understand and to be understood.

One of our senior Church leaders offered the following Latter-day Saint perspective on sacraments: “A sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers. We are imperfect and mortal; he is perfect and immortal. But from time to time—indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate—we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with him and, in so doing, gain access to his power.”[1]

While not totally uninformed about Orthodoxy before reading Dr. David Ford’s essay, I marveled and was moved by the depth and breadth of sacramentalism within the Orthodox faith. So many facets of the Orthodox life seem to point one toward divinity and focus the mind and heart on the sacred. This is crucial Christian conduct in a day like ours, when religion and religious discourse are being pushed to the margins of our ever more secular society. Orthodoxy appears to me, at least, to engage the human senses—sight, smell, touch, hearing—in ways that involve the whole person in daily, regular, and consistent worshipful practices and habits.

I am impressed and fascinated by the antiquity of this faith. That is especially the case with one like myself who belongs to a religious movement that came into being in the Restorationism or Christian Primitivism of the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, Latter-day Saints do believe we are a part of a restoration of first century Christianity. Because of that, I have in recent decades grown to love and appreciate the Early Church Fathers, those noble souls who lived much, much closer in time to our Savior and his ordained Apostle than do we. I find many of their teachings to be not only stimulating but also deeply inspiring.

Reading and reflecting on the “resources for spiritual growth,” some of which are enumerated in the fifth paragraph of Professor Ford’s essay, was mind-boggling: daily scripture study, the Church’s centuries-long interpretation of scripture, ancient prescribed prayers, a rich liturgy, psalms, devotional hymns, the Eucharist, confession, holy days, writings of Church Fathers, veneration of the Saints, the creedal formulations, Icons, the Cross, Patron Saints and Guardian Angels. Wow! It’s obvious that no member of the Orthodox faith will ever be lacking in things to do when she or he feels the need to draw closer to God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.

I came away with a few questions that I would like to ask—not as criticism but for clarification. First, could the grand and vast sacramentalism of Orthodoxy be overwhelming for an investigator of the faith, one who is contemplating life as an Orthodox Christian? Could the massive list of “resources” frighten persons with no religious background, or perhaps those who had spent much of their life as conservative Protestants, perhaps Evangelicals, for whom many of the Orthodox practices could appear to be a staggering list of “works” that fly in the face of the grace of God? If a man or woman of the Orthodox faith were asked whether the seeming complexity of Orthodoxy would in any way complicate the “simplicity of Christ” mentioned by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 11:3), what would be a reasonable response?

I ask this question for somewhat selfish reasons. As a person who was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and then as a 21-year old moved to the west, I have watched my own Church through the last 6-7 decades with much interest. It seems almost inevitable that a religious organization that grows considerably in numbers and in influence will eventually have to wrestle with the problem of what I call institutionalization. Namely, how do you continue to grow in numbers of people, meetinghouses, church publications, handbooks, guidelines, procedures, policies, etc. without suffering what Max Weber described as the almost inevitable “routinization of charisma”? As Latter-day Saints, for example, how do we ensure continuity in what we do and orthodoxy in terms of what we believe and teach, and at the same time enjoy the kind of spiritual spontaneity that characterized the meetings and the members in the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young? To what extent would the Orthodox Church face similar challenges?

I was especially interested in Dr. Ford’s reference in the 8th paragraph to how important the “communion of the saints” mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed (or the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1) is within Orthodoxy. I love that expression “vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified.”  It’s pretty important to people of my denomination, as well. Mention is made of prayers made to the Saints, presumably for divine assistance, for guidance, or protection. Is there, within Orthodoxy, any sense in which those on earth may help or assist or bless those who have passed on? I ask that in light of the reference in Hebrews 11:39-40: “All these won God’s approval because of their faith; and yet they did not receive what was promised, because, with us in mind, God had made a better plan, that only with us should they reach perfection” (Revised English Bible; emphasis added).

Mention was made in paragraph 6 of the Orthodox Church’s high standards for sexual purity, namely, “total abstinence for the monastics, and total faithfulness to one’s spouse for the married (with marriage understood between one man and one woman, mirroring Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, the Church).” I wondered to what extent the Orthodox Church is taking hits from the media or criticism from individuals or groups insisting on the propriety of same-gender marriage. The Latter-day Saints are certainly being attacked for our position, which is basically the same (although we have no monastics).

One of the facets of the Orthodox faith with which I am particularly interested is theosis or deification. I wish Dr. Ford had been able to engage this matter and to what extent it is discussed and taught by the rank-in-file of the Church, as well as the scholars. It would be worthwhile to learn how the sacraments and practices can assist individuals to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Finally, Professor Ford’s mention in paragraph 15 of the synergistic relationship between the individual and our Lord Jesus Christ (as taught in Philippians) in the quest for salvation and glorification is a teaching that simply makes good sense. It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s words: “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ. . . . It does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. . . .You see, we are trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and man does when God and man are working together.”[2]

I express appreciation for Dr. David Ford’s excellent paper. It was both informative and deeply inspirational. I look forward on my own in learning much more about my brothers and sisters of the Orthodox faith.

[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, On Earth as It Is in Heaven (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 193-94.

[2] Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 131-32; Book 3, Chapter 12.

How Do We Ultimately Gain Access to & Knowledge of God?

After reading the thought-provoking and engaging post about “what does it mean to follow Jesus” from the Orthodox tradition, I left with two competing thoughts. On the one hand, I have a greater appreciation for how the “Saints” are venerated, with particular emphasis on the consistency of that veneration. Such a commitment to the ancestors of the faith signals that belief in Jesus is something that is most richly and authentically developed in community. On the other hand, I question to what extent this community is challenged by the Orthodox practice of confessing one’s sins to God under the guidance of a spiritual director. How does such a ritual potentially shift the focus away on reconciliation with God to ensuring good standing with the priest? From restoration with Jesus to acquiescence to human authority?

The Orthodox attention to the Saints reminds me that we have a rich history of people before us who have attempted to model following Jesus. As someone rooted in the Black Church tradition, we have always held our foremothers and forefathers in high esteem. It goes without saying there are some well-known, self-professed African American followers of Jesus on this list – Fannie Lou Hamer, Mahalia Jackson, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, for most of us, it was (and is) the way our grandmothers taught us how to pray and talk to Jesus that has sustained us. It was the testimonies of our grandfathers, about how Jesus Christ “made a way out of no way” and “picked us up, turned us around, and placed our feet on solid ground,” that convinced us Jesus could do the same for us. Because of their witness, we yearn to be in community with other Jesus believers who can go to Jesus when we are unable to do so ourselves and remind us of what Jesus has done when we struggle to trust Him.[1]

But what I believe can enrich the Black Church experience is the structured way Orthodox adherents worship the Saints (by Saints, I mean those persons, many of biblical lore, who gave witness to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ). It is one thing to appreciate the people in our families who have raised us up in the faith, a reality that many in the Black Church tradition know quite well. It is another to name the biblical figures that are essential to the dissemination and proliferation of the Jesus narrative; Black preachers often name these individuals throughout the sermonic moment. However, it is an altogether different tradition to, as Dr. Ford puts it, commemorate numerous saints every day of the year – “the day we particularly honor them, asking for their prayers and being inspired by the holiness and fruitfulness of their lives.”

I believe this specific tradition could be a tremendous import to many Black churches. Yes, Black ecclesial spaces discuss the challenges that some of these revered persons endured, as an indication that submitting ourselves to the way of Christ does not come without obstacles. Furthermore, there are some African-American congregations that already closely adhere to the consistent celebration of the Saints. But what greater depth of insight could more Black congregations gain if we dedicated a day to investigating and processing the life of John the Baptist amid persecution? How might we grow in our ability to radically trust Jesus if we construct an entire liturgy during a service around the life of Mary, Jesus’ mother?

In pursuing such an extensive practice of honoring the Saints, it would help Black congregants further realize that faith in Christ is something that is strengthened in community. Mary was the mother of Jesus, but Joseph, the magi, and the shepherds all had integral roles in His birth. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, but he does so by referencing the words and traditions of those before him. Mary and John the Baptist, in other words, did not become Saints “ex nihilo.” Rather, they were formed and shaped by their experiences with Jesus and their contemporaries. Likewise, no follower of Jesus comes to faith in Him by herself, much less a greater understanding of His will for her life. It is, as mentioned earlier, the testimony of one’s ancestors or the witness of one’s colleagues that helps us to make conclusions about our faith journeys that we may not otherwise observe.

By giving more structured attention to the Saints and how their path to sainthood began, people in the Black Church tradition might be more able to see that following Jesus takes a village. No one can claim to be a disciple of Christ and not be in fellowship with people who can support, strengthen, challenge, and encourage her along the way.  I am not claiming that such a communal emphasis will lead one into “sainthood,” at least not in the traditional sense. However, the prominence given to the Saints in the Orthodox Church could be an invaluable resource to assist those in the Black Church tradition who have declared an abiding trust in Jesus.

Despite the benefits of such a worship of the Saints, I wonder how a singular focus on an individual might be detrimental – a focus on a spiritual father during the confession of sin. In the Black Church tradition, there is a strong belief that because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, believers of Jesus have direct access to God for all things. We believe in the “priesthood of all believers” – that is, each person who has faith in Jesus can go to God for herself, without the need of a human intercessor. This conviction is rooted in biblical scripture from texts such as 1 Timothy 2:5 (For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus). For those in the Black Church, Jesus democratizes the process to get in contact with God. Her belief in Christ is the key which unlocks the door to a space where God invites her in for intimate communication and relationship.

But how might this ease of access and one’s relationship to Jesus be compromised with the (re)introduction of an earthly mediator? Dr. Ford mentioned that for those in the Orthodox tradition, to follow Jesus also means the need for a priest “before whom one confesses one’s sins to God regularly in the Sacrament of Confession,” but how do we reconcile this need with Jesus’ model of direct engagement with God? To follow Jesus means to imitate Him, including his straightforward and unfiltered method for talking with God. It is then difficult for me to figure out how to process a conciliator’s role if we are to follow the example Jesus provided.

I also question how such a hierarchical framework might interfere with a person’s vulnerability before Jesus Himself. We all have things we do not want others to know; there are “skeletons in the closet” that we would only trust Jesus with (and even then, we are not always honest with Him!). It is very conceivable that in such a human intercessor model, someone may not be truly transparent with Jesus out of fear of judgment from the priest. In doing so, she might risk not asking Christ for what she really needs, simply because she believes the human authority might condemn her. Furthermore, she might consider that the priest himself is a gatekeeper to Jesus, and therefore responsible for whether her request is both received and answered by God. Such a thought is not out of the realm of possibility, as history offers countless examples of those who tried appeasing a religious figure to gain favor with the divine. To me, confessing one’s sins before a priest weakens the expansive work Jesus came to Earth to do and replaces it with a patriarchal system that restricts communion with God.[2]

I do not mean to declare there is no need for religious leaders. Dr. Ford makes an excellent point that these priests also provide spiritual counsel during the Sacrament of Confession. It is helpful to have third parties that can identify areas of growth in us that we may be unable to see. However, I am curious to know if there is a reality in which bearing our souls before a human does not complicate the freedom of access to God that Jesus created for us.

 

 

 

[1] I do want to acknowledge that when I use the term “Black Church,” I am writing about my own experience in the tradition. The Black Church, as many scholars note, is not a monolith – there is no “one” way the Black Church worships, believes, preaches, or observes religious practices.

[2] I use the word “patriarchal” here because men have dominated this priestly position for centuries.