Conservative Christians love to get their knickers in a twist over various things from time to time such as the horrifying possibility that a victim of sex trafficking might seek an abortion after a rape, or the completely made up issue of “religious discrimination” where apparently roaming gangs of LGBT couples are going around forcing god-fearing business owners to treat them with respect (or at least like any other paying customer). Politics aside, a perpetual source of gleeful angst is when someone formerly deemed “one of us” dares to nuance an obscure theological teaching about heaven (Rob Bell), dares to be honest about doubt (Ryan Bell), dares, heaven forfend, to make a slight lateral move from Christian pop to secular pop (Amy Grant) or worst of all, BECOMES EPISCOPALIAN!
In the most recent kerfuffle, Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans has been excoriated in advance of her upcoming book where she speaks about her faith journey from Evangelical roots to sacramental worship that has led her to her current worshipping community at an Episcopal church. (And for the record, she herself points out, she’s not even officially Episcopalian having not yet been confirmed). It’s no surprise that this creative thinker and millennial, who’s very career is built around exploring faith, for Pete’s sake, should take her religion seriously enough to seek out a church with theology, community, and worship style that draw her into closer relationship with God. Nor sadly, is it any surprise that she’s being attacked for making that choice. The only surprise really is that Evans is surprised by the backlash. Silly her to think that her thoughtful and gradual journey into liturgical traditions might be given some respect from her Christian sisters and brothers. So naive!
Evans is only one of a growing movement of millennials drawn to traditional worship. In my own little world here in Los Angeles, there are at least five of us priests in our diocese ordained in the past few years that attended Fuller Theological Seminary–an Evangelical school–and I’m the oldest of the bunch and the only one who was already Episcopalian. The rest are all young people who converted during their time at this Evangelical seminary because they became convinced that traditional worship, rooted in ancient practice, is the future of the church. And it wasn’t just the students who became priests who were convinced of this. Several times, when fellow students found out I was Episcopalian, they would come up to me and ask for my advice on traditions which were being taught about in their liturgics classes, but which they had no practical experience with. One student came up to me with a Book of Common Prayer in hand that he had checked out of the library and said, “I was thinking of using this to organize worship for this men’s retreat I’m running, can you show me how to use it?” I was like, “Are you kidding me? Boy, have you ever come to the right person!” And we sat down and worked out his retreat devotionals and I was proud to be part of a denomination with a resource like that I could offer to a fellow student and brother in ministry.
What Conservative Christians are really upset about, deep down, is not that one or a few or dozens or hundreds of their fold are being attracted by liturgical traditions and progressive theology. What they are really upset about is that their ways and their positions of privilege in the world are dying and rather than mourning that loss in a healthy manner, they are lashing out against and trying to silence those who are attempting to listen to the new things that God is doing in the world. The Church Institutional may appear to be dying, but the Church Universal, commissioned by Jesus and built by the apostles, is experiencing a rebirth. Some refer to this as the “Emergent” church but some simply say, like Evans, “I just happen to worship with a community of Jesus-followers at an Episcopal church, where I’ve reconnected with the power of communion and the sacraments, and where I’ve been loved mightily for just showing up, even with my doubts in tow.” There is a new church being reborn and I welcome Evans and all the others who will toil alongside us to help discover what it is that is emerging.