A quick visit to one of Manhattan’s many Episcopalian churches will exemplify mainline progressive Protestantism’s growing interest in traditional liturgy and sacramentality. Most of Manhattan’s Episcopal churches date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-the peeling paint and musty wood testifying to their rich history. Upon entering one parish in Washington Heights, I was immediately overwhelmed by the light that cascaded down through a stained glass window situated above an elaborate, ceiling-length altar piece. The beauty of the interior penetrated my heart, a prayer slipping off my lips as I wondered in amazement who could be responsible for having inspired such a masterpiece.
After introducing myself to one of the deacons, I learned that the main Sunday Mass was a High one, with all the bells and whistles one might find at a Tridentine Catholic Mass. The younger parishioners, she told me, were looking for something more substantial than your average praise and worship fare. The more traditional forms of liturgy offer a sense of stability in the face of the ever-changing worship services in the Protestant landscape. While communicants are allowed to receive the Eucharist “on their own terms,” she told me that she personally believes in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, which for her serves as a concretization of her faith in the Gospel. While some, she recognized, may not be in the same place in their spiritual journey, the ultimate fulfillment of the faith is found in Christ’s gift of self to humanity in the Eucharist.
The experience of the beauty of faith is distinct from pure aesthetic beauty. The aesthetic beauty of the architecture and liturgy point to true Beauty, the beauty of the Truth, which is fully revealed in the sacraments. Cardinal Ratzinger refers to the effect that beauty has upon the heart as an arrow opening up a wound. He cites the Greek theologian Nicholas Cabasilas, who says, “when men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound.”
This thirst for the truth which is provoked by the “arrow of beauty” can only be quenched by an encounter with Christ: “True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality, ‘how it is Christ himself who is present and in an ineffable way disposes and forms the souls of men.’” The promise of Christ’s presence, the true salve for this wound, is realized in the sacraments.
Our society struggles to affirm the truth of even the most basic of realities (our bodies, love, education), partially due to our severe trepidation about embracing objective truth and moral authority. Christians can offer our culture a unique understanding of the relationship between objective truth and authority. Our understanding of this relationship is rich enfleshed in the sacramental life of the Church. As the deacon pointed out, the sacrament of the Eucharist offers a concrete promise of meaning, hope, and truth-not floating around somewhere above this world- but in this world. God unveils his divine Beauty in the messiness of our daily affairs. The rich liturgy and aesthetically compelling worship space-both of which are inspired by the outpouring of divine Love in the Eucharist-are further signs of God’s promise to humanity.
What many progressive denominations often miss is the traditional liturgy and sacramental life’s interconnectedness to ecclesial authority. Their thirst for the beauty of traditional liturgy implies a complementary hunger for a more robust sense of authority and ecclesia. The promise of the Eucharist is intimately tied to the sacrament of Holy Orders, from which come the Catholic and Orthodox Churches’ ecclesial hierarchy. Rather than becoming an obstacle to one’s happiness and fulfillment, ecclesial authorities serve as custodians, as guarantors, of God’s promise to fulfill our infinite yearning for love, beauty, truth, and happiness. The objectivity of the truth, and thus the certainty of hope, are made real through the sacraments, whose authenticity is dependent upon the hierarchy which Christ himself instituted.
The apprehensiveness of progressive denominations to affirm traditional views of ecclesial authority and ethical teachings have often led to their exclusion from ecumenical dialogues. Many Christian denominations will seek only to engage in dialogues with other denominations who hold the same convictions about ethics, especially when it comes to sexuality. This ecumenism of ethical values often results in more of a political syncretism than ecclesial unity. This seems to be the case in the ever-growing Catholic-Evangelical partnerships, who often join forces for the sake of fortifying the conservative faction in the Culture Wars.
To what extent do these ethical values (traditional marriage, pro-life, etc) constitute the essence of Christianity? How does this breed of ecumenism help to shine Christ’s light in our radically secularized world? While orthodox Catholics share with traditional Evangelicals the conviction that abortion and sodomitic marriages are morally problematic, their views diverge sharply when it comes to the liturgy, sacraments, and ecclesial authority.
These efforts in ecumenical cooperation, which often devolve into mere political and ideological platforms, inadequately witness to what is truly essential to Christianity. For Catholics and Orthodox Christians, our conservative ethical values stem from our convictions regarding sacramentality and authority. But these more essential and markedly novel convictions often tend to get lost in the our society’s mix of conflicting values and ideologies. In a culture where ideological platforms reign supreme (albeit of a different political persuasion), what unique contribution can Christians offer at the table of dialogue? If Christianity is reducible to yet another ideological platform, then our contribution can barely be called novel or definitive...at least not enough so to proclaim it as Good News.
While our culture is rife with ideologies and “stances on issues,” we lack any sense of objective truth and authentic authority. By minimizing the significance of these elements of Christian doctrine for the sake of promoting ethical values, we run the risk of blending in with the other ideological noises that already plague our culture. While many progressive denominations have capitulated to relativistic notion of ethics, their growing interest in more traditional forms of liturgy and sacramentality offers the chance to initiate an “ecumenism of sacramentality.” In conjunction with an ecumenism of ethical values, this can help forge a path toward witnessing to that which our culture thirsts for most.