Breaking my self-imposed blogging hiatus, I just had to write something in response to The Vatican’s most recent statement on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church (below). But in other news, the girls are doing well, I’m enjoying the challenge (and butt-kicking) of full-time child care, the move is coming along, and the Phillies stink. OK, now for the post:
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What bothered me most about the Pope’s recent reassertion of Roman Catholic primacy and his labeling as defective other ecclesial communities (including my Lutheran ecclesial community, which according to the Pope cannot properly be called a Church) is the myopic claim that the Church of Christ subsists only in the Catholic Church (for an explanation of the linguistic acrobatics of subsists, check out the Second Question in the new document, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Church). Where is the humility? All other churches – ahem, ecclesial communities – are legitimate, it seems, only in the ways in which they mimic Rome.
Mimic Rome. I am no liturgical theologian or historian, but it takes no PhD to figure out that much of Main Line Protestantism’s liturgical renewal over the past century represents, in some sense, an attempt to mimic Rome (an assertion made, in part, by Ryan Smith as quoted in Jason Byassee’s recent blogpost Gothic, finery, and ecumenism over at Theolog). But I increasingly wonder why we Protestants set Rome on a pedestal, honoring its liturgics and tradition as some sort of archetype. It’s as if we Protestants have drunk the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s Kool-Aid and are lamenting that our defectiveness prevents us from being fully in communion with Rome.
Personal aside: Once upon a time I drank the Kool-Aid and was a greatly jealous of my Catholic friends. High mass with great pageantry, deep spirituality, powerful teachings, strong authority in the bishops and Pope. The Roman Catholic Church seemed to me to be a church that knows what it believes, what it teaches, what it is. This confidence, this strength was deeply appealing to me. And their Mass – rich with symbols of power and authority – reflects this confidence in being Christ’s One, Holy, and Apostolic Church, God’s authoritative messenger in the world. It seemed unambiguous to me – Christ dwells there. By comparison, my church seemed to have, well, less. Rome just seemed to have it all.
And so we Protestants have increasingly adopted the Catholic Mass and
theology. But this move to a higher liturgical theology and practice
seems misplaced to me, in part because many of the Protestant
churches swept up in liturgical renewal have decentralized authority and a lower understandings of ordained ministry than do our Roman Catholic brethren. The awe and majesty of the Roman Catholic Mass reflects, in part, the authority and power that the Catholic Church claims to possess via a historical apostolic succession from Saint Peter and Jesus himself. By this rationale the clergy possess a special power, too, a power and authority demonstrated and displayed in the gestures, garments, music and mysticism of the Mass.
But that’s not us. As high as we Protestants might try to climb on the liturgical ladder, we still do not believe that our bishops or pastors or hierarchy is any holier than your average lay person – the sinner/saint, fallenness-of-creation thing is still terribly at work. We do not attribute to our bishops or church leaders any significant authority and power in the way that the Roman Catholic Church gives to its leaders (for us Lutherans, even us ELCA Lutherans who have adopted the practice of Episcopal ordination, the bishop’s role is still strictly symbolic and administrative – emphatically not a guarantor of holiness, truth, or apostolicity).
For better or worse, we Protestants live in an ambiguous realm in which The Word – living and active, but not always clear and precise – is authoritative. We gather, we organize, we create structures so that The Word can be proclaimed, but we do not attribute to these gatherings or structures universal power or authority. Power and authority are attractive things, but we Protestants simply don’t possess them in the same way that the Roman Catholic Church claims to.
The question for us is this: given our theology and several hundred years of post-Reformation tradition, given our affinities with Rome and yet also our distinctiveness from her, what does liturgy, spirituality, or church administration look like in our traditions? For us Lutherans, how do the writings of the Book of Concord, the spirituality of Lutheran pietists, and the lived vocation of Lutherans today, for example, impact the way we "do" church? Perhaps we need to mimic Rome less and look anew to our own God-blessed spiritual inheritances, and also to the inheritances received by other members of the Christian Church in the Eastern, Reformed, Wesleyan, African-American and Anabaptist traditions, just to name a few.
On this side of the Kingdom of God no Church is perfect, no Church has exclusive claim to universal truths. Rome, just like a certain ecclesial community with roots in Wittenburg, is defective. All of Christ’s Churches – or ecclesial communities, or whatever you want to call them – are defective. And yet each of these expressions of the Church contain something of God, too. By looking only or primarily to Rome for inspiration and guidance, we are missing out on the things that God is doing in other corners of Christ’s (defective) Church.
PS. Our Presiding Bishop’s statement in response to the Vatican’s statement can be found here.