Sunday, September 6, 2009

Works without faith

A famous but controversial passage of the Epistle of James concludes:
"Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (John 2:23a-26)
From what I heard this weekend, a childhood friend of mine found the opposite case — works and words without faith — while attending a large Episcopal congregation a few years ago.

It was an odd coincidence: she was never an Episcopalian before (or since), but for few years ago attended the large, upscale parish that I had attended as a kid. She and her husband were drawn to the intellectualism of these high church Episcopalians —the people, the seminars, and of course the high church liturgy with great music. This is a parish that is very high church; for decades, it had the most formal and consistent classical music ministry of any ECUSA church within 50 miles, including a children’s choir patterned after the CoE model.

However, my friend — a onetime Billy Graham volunteer who was always more Christian than any denomination — discovered a jarring reality. The senior priest (no “pastor” at St. Apostasy) didn’t believe most of the key tenets of the New Testament or the creeds: no virgin birth, no miracles, and agnostic on the bodily resurrection. (“Something big” happened to embolden the Apostles, but that’s all he’d admit).

When asked why he recited the words every Sunday if he didn’t believe them, the priest said it was part of the tradition of the church and he wanted to uphold that. (Sounds his stool was missing one leg).

Of course, this puzzles me. Where did this Christless Christianity come from? What kind of “Christian” seminary turns out priests who don’t believe in what has been accepted Christian faith since 325 A.D.? Even if James is right — “faith without works is dead” — certainly he (not to mention centuries of subsequent theologians) would admit that works without faith were never even alive.

Instead of faith, the focus of St. Apostasy is on good works, as part of the Episcopal 2.0 vision of church as an über-social services agency — an emphasis on social justice over evangelism. The website proclaims its outreach and mission, with 11 highlighted community ministries (including LGBT and “Peace and Justice”).

None of the ministries include making converts or spreading the good news. Indeed, this is very European: like the great state cathedrals of Germany and Sweden, more like museums with music than a church. Some say the CoE is only a few years behind. (By comparison, the Catholic cathedral in Köln seemed more authentic in its worship.)

I’m no theologian, but it seems like what distinguishes the Christian faith from Judaism and other Abrahamic religions is two things: belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the exclusive faith claims that Jesus made (e.g. John 14:6, Luke 20:41-44).

Much as we want to preserve traditional worship, we Anglo-Catholics should not make the mistake of seeking common cause with the High Church Progressives like those of St. Apostasy. We have more in common with other Bible-believing liturgical Christians, whether Lutherans (LCMC, LCMS, WELS), (Confessing) Methodists, Catholics and even the rock band Schism II Anglicans.

While the form of worship makes it difficult to make a hymnal with the CCM crowd, the substance — transmission of the one true catholic apostolic faith — will make it impossible to find common ground with those High Church non-Christians that seem to control many TEC parishes.

Perhaps we will need to have a hymnal that spans the various liturgical denominations. Overseas Americans often find themselves worshiping in any English-language Christian church (or at least any English-language Protestant church), so those who travel (or live) abroad are already familiar with some degree of ecumenical liturgy.

3 comments:

Andrew said...

Bah, let's all just go back to the English Hymnal.

9.West said...

I hope you mean The English Hymnal (1906) and not the New English Hymnal (1986).

02continuum said...

A good post. I think your phrase "high church non-Christians" is apt and has a better ring to it than what I have begun calling "ritualized quasi-nihilists."