Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Americanizing of Faith

The last time I posted from one of Fr. Stokes' articles he was bemoaning the decline of funeral homily. Now he is writing about the decline of the Episcopalian/Anglican Church.

For those unfamiliar with Fr. David L. Stokes, he is a former Episcopalian priest, who converted to Catholicism and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood. He teaches theology at Providence College and writes an occasional column for the Providence Journal. As I learned on my first day as his student, Fr. Stokes pulls no punches. He tells it like it is, and if you don't like it, tough luck!

This particular article is from October 29th. I had wanted to post it weeks, ago but you know what happens when something is put on the back burner.

In this article, Fr. Stokes argues that the Episcopal Church has much deeper problems than same-sex marriage and gay bishops. The emphases are mine.

...But Robinson’s election, important as it is in this drama, is really only secondary to the woes besetting the Episcopal Church — and, indeed, Anglicanism world-wide. To couch it in theological language, we may call Robinson the efficient cause of Anglicanism’s fracturing. But he is not the formal cause. Strange as it sounds, the formal cause is nothing less than the demise of the British Empire and with it the ineluctable evaporation of a definite British ethos.

In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I, much more a practitioner of real-politic than her father Henry VIII, dealt with feuding Christian factions by encompassing them within the same state church. Puritans and Catholics, “high” churchman and “low,” woke up one morning to find themselves beneath the same tent. That didn’t mean disputes ceased. The English Civil War (1642-1651) attests to how bloody theological contentions could turn. Still, by the late 17th Century, with a common prayer book and the King James Bible, the lineaments of Anglicanism had emerged — much more a cultural ethos than a confessional church such as existed amongst the Lutherans and Calvinists on the continent.

Elizabeth’s actions had another result. In suspending theological squabbles, she inadvertently suspended corporate theological reflection. For over 400 years the Anglican ethos remained pretty much a late medieval view of God and the human person, suspended in linguistic amber of dazzling beauty. Thus “protestant” and “catholic,” Platonist and even the odd agnostic all found themselves harmonizing after a fashion in the same choir.

What kept this ethos from evaporating like mist? Not the Archbishop of Canterbury. (He has never held authority analogous to the pope.) Nor the creedal statements of Anglicanism. (Like a wax nose these have always been shaped pretty much by whoever was doing the interpreting.)

What grounded this Anglican ethos was the very English culture from which it arose. For example, two Anglicans may, and did, vehemently disagree on a biblical text’s meaning, but they both shared a common culture that took the Bible as normative. Their differences became blended into the soil they share. With the significant exception of nonconformists, to be an Englishman was to be an Anglican, to be an Anglican was to be English. Cultural stability ensured theological consensus.


For anyone brought up in the mid-20th Century, the Episcopal Church still radiated certain Englishness. We resonated to the rhythm of the old prayer book, the sonorities of T. S. Eliot and the urbanity of W. H. Auden. Ours was the church of C.S.Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Vaughn Williams. Those mid-century decades possessed a spirituality of informed and stylish moderation.

Even then, though, had we been more attentive, we would have heard a distinctly nostalgic, even elegiac, tone in all this. But few of us are ever explicitly aware of the under-currents of real change in our lives. It’s not that the Episcopal Church scrapped the old prayer book, nor was it somehow infiltrated by dastardly liberals. Simply, it underwent what happened to most Protestant traditions imported to these shores: As the English ethos slowly dissipated, the Episcopal Church was finally being transformed into an American denomination.

What does this mean? To use the most glaring example: Where once heterosexual marriage was integral to the social and civic ecology of America, it is no longer. And the spiritual ecology of American denominations cannot but adapt accordingly, if they are to be credible. American culture determines the agenda for American denominationalism.


...I am certainly not ringing the death knell of the Episcopal Church. Indeed, when these disputes are finally settled, I suspect the Episcopal Church may prove an attractive option to many Americans nostalgic for some sort of a spirituality.


American history’s answer has always been power-plays, cloaked in theological rhetoric — followed by yet another, new denomination. Let’s wait and see.

Read the complete article here.

I think that as American Catholics, we need to take Fr. Stokes words to heart and see that something quite similar is happening in the Catholic Church. Have we moved from the Roman Catholic Church to the American Catholic Church? When we desire to assimilate into American culture, that is exactly what we are doing. I am a member of the Roman Catholic Church. There was a time where Catholics wouldn't dare to eat meat on Fridays, now Catholics don't give it a second thought to eat meat on any Friday, even during Lent. I hear Catholics say that they don't want to stand out or do anything which will reveal their faith. We are to be signs of contradiction, not signs of assimilation. So what if someone looks at us funny when we don't go along with the rest of society. Notice how well Christ blended in?


Talmida said...

I found you via Catholic Carnival, and really enjoyed Father Stokes' argument.

I think it is difficult, however to define what exactly IS Roman Catholic. As an American, are you not bound to obey the American bishops' conference?

You use eating meat on Friday as an example, and it's a good one. All Catholics are obliged to do PENANCE on Fridays -- but we can do that by abstaining from meat, or by doing an extra act of piety or charity. Would going out to a fine restaurant and ordering lobster be a penitential act? What about serving up (and eating) beef stew at the soup kitchen?

Interestingly, while American Roman Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays, other Roman Catholics (Canadians, for example) are not. But some traditions are so connected with our identity that it is hard to distinguish which are taught by Rome and which are particular to our own national conferences.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

DominiSumus said...

I have often said that we all need to watch out when the bishops conferences meet because they tend to come up with new ways to destroy the Church.

The bishop's conferences can make certain rules which are particular to their countries. Bishops can even make some rules which are particular to their diocese. For example: some diocese have female altar server while others do not. Even more dramatically, some American dioceses maintain Holy Days of Obligation while other American diocese transfer the feast to the following Sunday. Talk about confusing!

That also falls into the kinds of thing that Fr. Stokes wrote about. These things separate us from each other and from Rome. Yes, sometimes local rules are necessary, but I think it is an overused priviledge.

Fr. V said...


Thank you for posting this.

Though I agree with you I would make one small distinction. I do not think that Catholicism will go this way. I think (some/many) Catholics in America will go this way, but Catholicism won't. For us it is the Catholic Church in America. This will only happen among those who see an American Catholic Church which is quite a different beast indeed.