High-Church Christianity, Evangelicalism, and the Snob Problem
One of the most familiar themes here at Conciliar Post is an appreciation for the historic insights and worship practices of the two-millennia-old Church. Since the site has been online, the majority of contributors and editors have hailed from liturgical backgrounds—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, or something else altogether. And the blogosphere at large is filled with accounts of young Christians transitioning from the evangelical or nondenominational church experiences of their upbringings into high-church traditions. As someone who spent a season wandering through other church bodies before returning to his (traditional) roots, I know well the joy of discovering the riches of the larger Christian heritage.
If I’m honest with myself, though, I have to admit that there can be a certain snobbishness that comes along with the high-church ethos—a certain tendency to treat the high-church experience as a miracle cure for Christianity’s condition in the modern West. This snobbishness often goes hand-in-hand with the notion—consciously held or not—that one’s particular tradition will survive the acid bath of modernity, and others’ traditions will not.
In particular, the shift to high-church worship is almost always a repudiation of Baptist (or crypto-Baptist) churches, nondenominational churches, or just “evangelicalism” writ large. There are plenty of thoughtful critiques of this distinctly American brand of Christianity out in the world, and I agree with many of them.
But it should chasten all “liturgical supremacists” that, at least demographically, those much-maligned evangelicals are holding ground in the face of serious pressures from secular modernity. One can shout “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” until they’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that evangelical churches are still keeping the Gospel—perfect catechesis notwithstanding—in the forefront of their parishioners’ lives. In many spaces, it’s no small thing to self-identify as Christian—much less as evangelical.
I tend to think there’s a tiny bit of self-deception in anyone who refuses to admit that joining a more traditional denomination leads to a greater degree of social respectability. Even if you’re a conservative Catholic or Episcopalian or Lutheran, you benefit from the aura of social respectability that surrounds those denominations. You’re “normal.” But if Vatican II (and its conciliatory language toward non-Catholics) had never materialized, or if the Lutheran Church insisted on geocentrism as an article of faith, would those traditions really have the same appeal? Would appeals to “historicity” and authentic worship truly move the needle?
All that to say: there is a distinct kind of cultural courage associated with evangelicalism—the nondenominational “cultural Christianity” that so many high-church members regularly castigate. This courage is the willingness to be overtly uncool in the eyes of mass society, and to be blasted publicly for holding moral opinions that run counter to the mainstream consensus. Those in high-church traditions who believe they have nothing to learn from their evangelical brethren are fooling themselves: a cultural program that treats all exclusivist moral claims as “bigotry” will pose a challenge to every Christian denomination, not just the obvious targets.
In addition, evangelicals have spent years actually building the kinds of separate institutions and cultural products that high-church proponents of the “Benedict Option” are now seeking to create. It’s very easy to make fun of contemporary Christian music and videos with low production standards, but that only raises an obvious question: what are you doing better? (I know from experience that there’s plenty of Catholic and Lutheran kitsch out there.) It’s easy to be a critic, and far harder to be a creator.
If institution-building is a priority (as it should be!) for theological traditionalists, the evangelical experience should be highly instructive—both its successes and its failures. And that is doubly true in light of the stability of evangelicalism’s membership numbers over time. You might think Bibleman, “Fireproof,” and the music of Rebecca St. James are cringeworthy through and through—but the tradition that produced them is still going strong, while most others are declining. That, at the very least, is a humbling thought.
In my opinion, the best rationale for high-church worship isn’t aesthetic, or even strictly historical: it’s the sacramental principle, the idea that through material means (water, bread, and wine) God is present to us in distinct and essential ways. That principle is rooted deeply in the church’s history, and is a natural development of a fundamentally Christian metaphysics. But even so, it does not justify a kind of theological snobbery, one that authorizes us to smirk at expressions of the faith that seem far more “uncool.” We ought to do better.