Someone with a surname I envy because it sounds a lot like my home state (Fr Jonathan Mitchican ) recently posted an article on the Covenant blog entitled, The romance of the priesthood. You should probably stop and go read it right now, if you want to understand most of what I write below. (It’s about Call the Midwife, sorta, if you need some motivation to read it.)
…OK. You’ve read it and came back here? Good.
Waxing lyrical about the undoubtably remarkable lives of women and men who joined Anglican religious orders, Mitchican writes:
We are missing the heroism of our forefathers and foremothers, the confidence that allowed them to wear habits and take vows even when they could be arrested for it. We still have our convictions and our doctrine, but we have lost so much of the romance that goes with them.
According to him, Anglican catholics are ‘in a funk’ and are missing ‘the pioneering spirit’ which once propelled them to plant churches, to be proud of their worship, to care for people with no expectations, and to brave the condemnation of the larger church and/or society for any of the above. The swashbuckling romance of the Jesus-loving, revolutionary, inspiring priest or nun/monk/friar – where has that gone? Is it still compelling?
Because I am a nerd* I read and write about Anglican ecclesiology – that is, the part of theology that pertains to how the church talks about itself, shapes itself, polices itself and sometimes shoots itself utterly in the foot. One of the most significant and coherent voices in contemporary ecclesiology from an English Anglican perspective is Martyn Percy, whose trilogy of books on the subject are fascinating. Percy is a theological educator, priest, Oxford college Dean** and Canon. In the truly horrifically titled first book of this trilogy, Engaging with Contemporary Culture, Percy writes about global ecclesiological trends by riffing*** on the dramatic theory of another dude with an excellent name, Northrop Frye. Using Frye and James Hopewell, one of the first English writers in Congregational Studies, Percy constructs a church typology, which I reproduce here with reference to Anglicans:
- Those churches who focus on Frye’s category of the Tragic are expressed as Canonic/Dogmatic. These Anglicans prioritise dogma and obedience as central to church.
- Those who focus on the Comic are expressed as Gnostic. More otherworldly and/or contemplative, they are less concerned with arguing about particular shapes of church.
- Those who focus on the Romantic are expressed as Charismatic. They require adventure, nostalgia and heroism in their narrative of church and spirituality.
- Those who focus on the Ironic are expressed as Empiric. They are realists looking for the proof in the pudding for what the church is and can be.†
I think Percy’s onto something. Instead of following another popular theorist, James Fowler, who talks about ‘stages of faith’ – of reaching towards spiritual maturity – and constructing images or ideas about churches more or less hospitable to Christians at different stages of maturity, Percy argues that the Christian life is not a straight line. One doesn’t simply progress from immature to mature and need different kinds of church along the way. Rather, individuals and communities learn to value different aspects of life and spirituality more or less highly, to perform these values and perform behaviours that generate these values. And so to dramatic (performance) theory.
Percy’s third type of church is based in Frye’s category of Romantic. He writes that Christians who highly value the Romantic want to swept away by amazing stories of people whose faith was remarkable. They want to be inspired to act, inspired in prayer, moved in worship, connected to and motivated by the past. The word he chooses for this type is Charismatic.
You’ll not find many catholic Anglicans who look overly fondly on the word charismatic. It can smack of anti-authoritarian ego-inflated leaders, of disorganisation and awkwardness in the rather fuzzy name of the Holy Spirit, of trying new things that might fail. But you will find catholic Anglicans who speak of ‘being faithful rather than being successful’, of recovering enchantment and holiness and silence at the heart of Being, of re-associating all that is with God Who Is its creator and redeemer and sustainer.
A longing for a romantic, compelling narrative at the heart of the Christian faith, in the lives of brave Christians is not new – this Mitchican gets exactly right. What Percy gets right is how he identifies that some churches, particularly charismatic churches, have demonstrated that they value precisely these things. They value compelling narrative, vibrant and tangible spiritual experience from which people can learn and benefit, saints and heroes, and they seek to cultivate these things in the hearts and lives of the people in their churches.
So again I find myself where I’ve found myself so often: at the catholic-charismatic convergence. Because, irrevocably, I am a charismatic. By this I mean I love hearing people’s stories, especially stories of those who overcame great difficulties in their struggles of faith and of justice. And I don’t think I’m alone in loving those stories, yes, in romanticising them, in wanting something of those real physical and spiritual experiences for myself. And if that sounds like you and you’re a catholic Anglican – guess what, you’re a charismatic, too.
It is at this point that, if one is a catholic Anglican, one talks about the mysteries of meeting Christ in the bread and wine, in the silence of prayer, etc. If one is a charismatic one talks about extended period of singing and praying, of the laying on of hands, maybe of glossolalia. Sociologically speaking, these are all powerful cultic rituals which make real that which the participants long for – those narratives they romantically imagine and desire to embody in their own lives. It lies to the theologians among us to quibble about what happens in each of these sacramental(ly charged) moments.
Mitchican, towards the close of his article, reflects that even changing the toilet paper†† in the men’s room of his church is part of his priestly vocation – even if that task may seem utterly mundane and unromantic. It is part, he says, of sharing God’s ‘most beautiful and unexpected light’ with the world.
So we must return and dwell on the beautiful and ever-unexpected nature of how we meet God and God meets us. The words ‘romantic’ or ‘romanticise’ can bring a criticism: they can mean that we don’t take full account of the hardships that accompany the bravery, the sacrifices that made possible the extraordinary life of faith, the failures that pervaded the memorable missions. The changing of the toilet paper that we do in the half hour free before the bible study attended by four people. The evening service we had to stop running with no assurances something would start up in its place. The community project that seems to be a bit aimless at the moment. The endless prayers said in hospitals, in hope, in hope, in nothing but hope.
Romance is inspiring, beautiful and unexpected, and lest we forget, especially when it involves God, it is always bloody hard work.
* And an ordinand doing an MPhil. Insert complaints about privileged academic lifestyle.
** Boo…hiss…the Other Place where they punt backwards…
*** ‘Riffing’ being the proper academic term, obvs.
† Percy, Engaging with Contemporary Culture, pp. 105-107.
†† Brits, that’ll be ‘loo roll’. Americans, laugh with me at this saying, please. And also I’m really sorry for all the UK English spellings.