The Ecclesiastical Pendulum Swing
March 3, 2017
I was baptized in the Reformed Episcopal church, spent time in Reformed Presbyterian Churches (mainly PCA and OPC) as a boy, was extremely rebellious and dechurched for over a decade, came to Christ in repentance and faith in my 20's and now pastor a moderately liturgical Reformed Presbyterian (PCA) church. I am Reformed because of biblical convictions about soteriology and committed to Presbyterianism out of biblical convictions about ecclesiology. My own experience has fueled my interest as I have seen others make dramatic shifts in their ecclesiastical affiliation over the years. The tensions that have recently arisen on account of the debate surrounding the use of the Liturgical Calendar have me once again revisiting this subject. Why do so many, who were brought up in broad evangelicalism move to Anglicanism, Episcopalianism, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism and other High Church Liturgical fellowships? While I certainly do not believe that I have all the answers, I do believe that there are numerous reasons that help explain the swing from one end of the ecclesiastical spectrum to the other.
In 1985, Robert Webber sought to answer this question from his own experience in his massively influential work Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. Webber, who grew up the son of a Baptist minister and who became a graduate of Bob Jones University and the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, swung from broad evangelicalism into Reformed Presbyterianism and finally into Episcopalianism. The pendulum swung as far as possible (without taking him to Rome!)--from one end of the ecclesiastical spectrum to the other. Webber's end goal in writing Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail was to aid those bogged down with the same disenfranchisement he had experienced in evangelicalism. Webber was massively successful at doing so during his tenure at Wheaton.
The first explanation that Webber gives for his transition seems to have to do with a reaction to what I call "retreatism." Retreatism is the product of revivalism baptized in the communalism of the 1960s. It is the evangelical short term trip to L'Abri. If you grew up in an evangelical--or even mainline--church in the '80s, '90s or 2000s you have, no doubt, experienced retreatism. Spiritual leaders full of charisma inject a spiritual steroid into the minds of God's people over a weekend away. This shot, of course, wears off and spiritual life again becomes mundane. Spiritual dryness kicks in once the panacea of retreatism wears off. As one of my best friends likes to say, "After the campfire goes out, you lose your camp fling, you lose your camp high and you lose your camp salvation."
High Church ecclesiology and liturgical practices present themselves as being the sure-fire remedies to retreatism. In High Church ecclesiology, ritual replaces retreat and sacramentalism replace spiritual steroid shots. For those tired of the "never enough" evangelical hamster wheel, it seems like the perfect corrective. However, in making a full swing to High Church liturgy, experiential Calvinism is almost always lost.
This loss of experiential Calvinism has nothing to do with retreatism. Rather, many move from broad evangelicalism into Reformed churches for a time because they believe that they have found a more robust historical leg on which to stand. After all, the Reformed Church holds the foremost place in Protestant, ecclesiastical history. Confessionally Reformed churches tend to satisfy those seeking historico-ecclesiastical objectivity...at least, for a time. One of the things that those who make the full ecclesiastical pendulum swing tend to have in common is that, at the end of the swing, they end up downplaying biblical and doctrinal objectivity in favor of ecumenicalism or traditional and sacramental objectivity. Interestingly, this was one key component of Webber's own self-avowed transition. He wrote:
"One tragic aspect of the spirituality of right doctrine is that it tends to create a uniformity of interpretation that stifles growth...In the Anglican tradition I have found freedom of curiosity and openness. I regularly speak in Episcopalian churches where, during the discussion, a number of viewpoints will be expressed openly and forcefully. I've found a give and take on the local parish level that is healthy and dynamic."
Again, Webber noted:
"My pilgrimage into the liturgical church was related to my concern for rediscovering mystery...a conviction to the supernatural calls me to seek what is beyond the literal, to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of life...A sacramental view of life is not much different from a supernatural view of life. It affirms the mystery of the universe and allows that everything in life is, in one way or another, related to the mystery of the Creator and Redeemer."
Two ironies arise when reading the writings of many proponents of High Church liturgy. First, they become every bit as objectively dogmatic as the Reformed dogmatists from which they seek to distance themselves. This is usually the case with regard to their sacramentalism rather than with regard to their soteriology. Employing formulaic dogma in order to commend the "mystery" of their sacramental theology such proponents of High Church liturgy slip just as much "uniformity of interpretation" under the door of those they are seeking to win as that which they reject from the quarters of the Reformed church.
Second, adherence to the Liturgical Calendar is analogous to retreatism--only it is a High Church retreatism. In observing the Liturgical Calendar, proponents create annual Liturgical retreats--(while convincing themselves that they are simply adhering to traditional anti-experiential worship). In High Church retreatism, proponents get excited about the prospect Ash Wednesday and Lent the way broad evangelicals get excited about the Passion One Day Conference and Walk to Emmaus. Many proponents of High Church liturgy believe that Ash Wednesday and Lent will provide them with a special experience of God. In this way, the anti-experientialist are just as experiential as the experientialists from whom they have sought to separate themselves. Those who move to High Church ecclesiology and liturgy are often simply seeking a new experience--an experience that is offered to them in the liturgy. The experience that the High Church offers is one that is more mystical and less biblically restrictive. Once the experience of High Church liturgy wears off, those who have made the shift tend to abandon experientialism altogether and finally swim the Tiber. In Rome, everything is done by the church ex opere operato and no self-examination or experiential effort is needed to benefit.
For others, the move from broad evangelicalism to High Church Anglicanism and Episcopalianism is based on the desire to separate themselves from the constraints of "their grandpas theology." Interestingly, this seems to have also been true for some who made the switch from Arminianism to New Calvinism over the past decade. I have known several young men who enthusiastically embraced Calvinistic doctrine for a time only to abandon it for more ecumenical doctrine. At their own admittance, these young, restless men were first attracted to Calvinism on account of the resurgence of interest that occurred a decade ago. It was, for them, something new and exciting rather than something built on biblical convictions. Once that excitement wore off, the current trendiness of High Church liturgy swooped in and picked them up. As Webber himself noted, in High Church liturgical fellowships biblical objectivity falls by the wayside in favor of historico-ecclesiastical objectivity. This makes the High Church a perfect place for those shifting their doctrinal convictions based on historical experience rather than biblical criterion.
As the practice of Lent began to sneak its way into the fabric of Calvinistic and mainline churches years ago, the question of traditional objectivity began to surface once again. Ash Wednesday now holds a place that it never held before in Calvinistic churches. Many are rightly concerned that we are on a slippery slope (which is not always a logical fallacy) toward a mass embrace of Anglo-Catholicism. More and more young Calvinists are attracted to High Church liturgy. Anglicanism, which was from its inception a moderate movement tends not to bode well with the strong experimentalism of biblical Calvinism. Only time will tell which will ultimately get the upper hand. Those who say that we do not have to pick and chose will be among the first to abandon one for the other. History has proven this to be the case.
The frightening fact is that when we look at history rather than to Scripture for ecclesiastical objectivity, Roman Catholicism will almost certainly be an attractive force on the pull of the pendulum. While Rome boasts historical priority to other forms of ecclesiology and doctrine, Rome does not hold chronological priority to biblical ecclesiology and soteriology. The dire need of our day is not the quest for an historico-ecclesiastical objectivity, but biblical objectivity, fidelity and spirituality. As we seek these things, we will find ourselves drawn most to the Reformed church--with its attempt to most fully root doctrine, worship and practice in the Scriptures. This does not mean that there will cease to be diversity of opinion about ecclesiastical affiliation. There will always be differences on the precise form of biblical ecclesiology.
My advice to those who find themselves on the pendulum swing from broad evangelicalism as well as to those moving toward Anglo-Catholicism: Find a church that is faithful to expositional, Christ-centered preaching of Scripture, regular Lord's Day observation of the means of grace (i.e. word, sacraments, prayer), the practice of church discipline and the loving fellowship of the saints. Exchange the quest for both spiritual and liturgical retreatism for biblical, Gospel-driven experimentalism and worship. Value historic liturgical practices, but never do so at the expense of biblical revelation. Be content to embrace "your grandpas theology" wherever it coincides with biblical truth. Toe the biblical and ecclesiastical line.