This long editorial — a reflection on American regionalism, Anglican missionary effectiveness, and changes in early 20th-century style and attitudes — comes from Frederic Cook Morehouse (1868-1932). Morehouse’s father. Linden (1842-1915), was the founder of the Young Churchman Co. From 1886, he was the publisher of The Living Church. Morehouse’s son Clifford Phelps (1904-77) edited the magazine from 1932 to 1952.
From The Living Church (July 31, 1926), pp. 467-68.
A GOOD behaviorist could work out quite an attractive bit of analysis by comparing the different Christian Churches according to his psychology. For in church, obviously much depends on behavior. There, especially, bodily attitudes and gestures, the forming of words, and the tones with which the words are spoken, are theoretically supposed to be of no great account, but actually express, or affect, or even are, the substance of religious beliefs and spiritual attitudes. A pronounced “ritualist” is thus a religious behaviorist. And public, corporate worship of any sort is about the most behavioristic thing there is.
So far as that goes, we need not be behaviorists at all to perceive that beliefs are highly colored by the ways in which we pronounce the words “I believe,” and by the actions with which we accompany our recitation of the Creed. And a great deal of our belief depends on our taste for this behavior or that. Take the one example of ceremonial bowing. Some like it, like to see it done, and like to do it even lavishly themselves; others invidiously talk of “bowing and scraping” (where “and scraping” is evidently put in for disparaging effect), to show that they detest it. Now while we cannot surrender the truth that we bow because we believe, we must admit that we believe more intensely when we bow; the believing and the bowing reinforce each other, and certainly believing comes much more easily to one who likes to bow than to one who hates it. So some beliefs are in part dependent on our taste or distaste for bowing. Kneeling to receive Holy Communion is another example, with a history of its own; and there are many more.
IN modern America, taste has much to do with one’s choice of a Church. The divided condition of Christendom puts it up to the individual to make his own choice among the Churches and sects; and his choice is very apt to be, in his own mind, a simple question of taste, concerning which non est disputandum. Now a great Church unified in essentials, that is, in things divinely revealed, could safely leave many choices to individual taste. For instance, so long as Holy Communion is celebrated, the precise amount of ceremonial to be employed depends largely on one’s own sense of the fitness of things. So long as there is Common Prayer, the choice as between ornate music and no music at all, or between a byzantine and a gothic church, or between a little sanctuary and a colossal cathedral, is safely left to taste.
But an anomalous thing about this divided Christendom is that a choice between what claims to be an objective, supernatural, revealed religion and what claims to be a natural, humanitarian moralism is masked and veiled so that it seems to be only a choice between chanting and ranting, between surplices and coat-tails.
We all know people who have come into the Episcopal Church because they liked the service, and also people who have gone into the Methodist Church because they liked the genial fellowship. We have admitted that these things are not mere accidents but have a strong connection with real issues of belief; but we do not admit that these matters of taste are the whole issue, and we hate the idea of concealing the whole doctrinal and ecclesiastical issue beneath the mere difference between geniality and a Prayer Book.
Bishop Morrison of Iowa, in a masterly sermon published some years ago—we crave his pardon if we speak only from memory and inexactly—suggested that the Episcopal Church began its missionary work in the Mid-West under the disadvantage of being somewhat discordant to the general taste of the people of the land. It was not, and even now is not, what the taste of this people particularly liked. The contrast between the Church’s ways and the general taste may easily be examined a little more in detail, as it were in parallel columns.
This Church had an air of formality, stately and dignified, though not elaborate; but the taste of the people was for informal cordiality. Hence the circuit-rider had the advantage over the priest in his surplice. The Church was hierarchically organized, with more or less lordly prelates at its head; but the popular taste was for democratic man-to-man-ism. Hence the lay exhorter was naturally preferred to the bishop. The Church had a strong tinge of beauty, or at least of prettiness; but the people liked usefulness better. A layman of our own day complained of the Anglo-Catholics that “they always want to have something pretty.” The Church habitually took the attitude of devout worship; but the attitude the people liked better was that of listening to exhortation. The Church expressed itself liturgically; but the people preferred something that expressed itself oratorically. The Church seemed emotionally cold, or at least cool; but the prevailing taste was for something red-hot.
A contrast slightly more subtle and difficult to designate can perhaps be seen in this, that the Church’s way of expressing itself is somehow indirect, metaphorical, symbolic; the language of the Prayer Book, especially of the Psalter, reflects ancient times, customs, and ideas, and reflects them in old English. This is not easily taken on one’s own lips as directly expressing one’s own thought; if it expresses our minds at all, it does so indirectly, metaphorically in part, symbolically. Such a mode of utterance, like all utterance which is saturated with classical allusions, semi-quotations, antiquated turns of phrase, bespeaks the sophisticated mind, somewhat matured in culture, which often seems to the Philistine to be “effete.” In the early days of the Mid-West, this Church seemed to be a hot-house plant, a “named variety” of the species ecclesia christiana, brought out from the “effete East.”
For a fresh, young, almost pioneer society, healthy and natural, has a juvenile preference for frankness, for direct, straightforward speaking, as for straight shooting. “The Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness,” etc., etc., could be said much more directly: and the people liked those who did say it more directly, in everyday language, straight to the point.
So that is how it was that the Episcopal Church won the allegiance of only a small minority in the “Valley of Democracy,” a minority whose tastes had developed differently from those of most of their fellows, a minority that could make some claim to more cultivated taste all around, so that a taste for the Episcopal Church was somehow supposed to be included in “good taste” generally. To most of us this fact is one that it is unpleasant to admit, so far are we from any inclination to boast of it; but it appears to be an objective fact, at any rate.
WE have spoken of past years, when the Church was attempting to extend itself over the young civilization of the Mid-West; but probably the same issues of taste were decisive to a degree in other parts of the country, and are still to be recognized in the present. Some changes have occurred, however.
There has undoubtedly been a change in the popular taste. There is greater appreciation of anything that partakes of pageantry and stately formality, mysticism, the beauty of holiness, the indirect, allusive, archaic in expression, and even hierarchical dignity; the Papal Legate, the Bishop of London, any exalted personage, will now draw immense crowds. When American presidents ceased to receive British ministers in their shirtsleeves, when justices of the supreme court assumed gowns, long steps were taken toward the vindication of the Episcopal Church. … To a considerable extent, America has developed quite a flair for Anglican Catholicism. Tastes have verily changed, when Americans will throng to an out-and-out plainsong service, for example, and come out saying that it was the most “impressive” thing they have ever attended. This change has perhaps not gone very far as yet: probably the popular distaste for our ways of behavior has not very greatly diminished since 1880; but it has diminished some.
And to meet the altered public feeling, the Church has changed its behavior. Let a stranger dip into one of our summer conferences or young people’s conventions, and he will wonder what all the talk about Episcopalian formality meant. When bishops are chiefly to be recognized by the fact that everybody laughs at their jokes, instead of waiting to see whether they are funny or not, then prelacy is (behavioristically) not quite what it used to be. And the tremendous emphasis now placed on being useful to the community and to the world is rather a change in Episcopalian behavior. Thus in some ways we have adapted our supply to the demand, while in other ways the demand for our peculiar brand of religion has increased.
IF now we have sufficiently glanced at some surface aspects of the question why we behave like Episcopalians, and why so many people do not behave like Episcopalians, it remains for us to protest again that these things are not the great issues, though ineradicably mixed up with them. Of course it makes a lot of difference whether we are formal or informal, liturgical or chatty with God and man, but we don’t want it to make all the difference. Beneath all the choices that depend upon taste, we would plead for a stronger reassertion of the things for which we really stand, which are as far as possible from mere matters of taste.
As a section of the Church, as a religion, we have but little care for the attractive unless it attracts toward the true and right; and if there is any chance at all of getting hold of what is true and right, as Church and as religion we will stand by that, no matter how unattractive for the present it may be. Not so much what is tasteful as—we are not ashamed to come right out with it—what is valid and what is orthodox, is what we mean to hold as our reason for doing as we do. The Prayer Book, we believe, never advertises itself as a beautiful or impressive thing. It does ask that people judge it candidly, “seriously considering what Christianity is, and what the truths of the Gospel are: and earnestly beseeching Almighty God to accompany with His blessing every endeavor for promulgating them to mankind in the clearest, plainest, most affecting and majestic manner, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord and Saviour.”
But there are other Catholics who also use stately forms of worship, though in other tongues. Whether we are more like or unlike them it is difficult to say. On paper we seem much alike; in practice, in manner of worship and of discipline and of living, very different. Men say they will be Catholics only, with no prefix. It cannot be done; perhaps it ought not to be done. The Man Without a Country could not be happy as a mere cosmopolitan; neither can one be in religion. And the reason is not difficult to find. The genius of the Latin race has infused one group of Catholics, of the oriental races another, and of the Anglo-Saxon a third. The religious psychology of each of these three is entirely distinct. On a very small scale men pass from one of these groups to another, but not on a large or a national scale, and it is probable that they never will. For a time all Saxon Europe was Latinized, but it could not last; the genius of the Saxon peoples was against it. The breach might have been avoided by a continued recognition of the separate integrity of national Churches, but never by a system of Italian over-lordship. Heredity is strong in Churches as in individuals, and our heredity is almost unmixed Anglo-Saxon. We must open up our American Church to all those racial strains that make up the American people, and be extremely sympathetic with all of them, seeking to make American Churchmen rather than Anglo-Saxons; but we would not become better Catholics by forsaking our heritage from those centuries of Englishmen, of Scotchmen, and of Irishmen who have used the Book of Common Prayer in their mother tongue, and have learned to voice their religious aspirations and their worship in its classic and hallowed phrases.
And that is why we behave like Anglicans. No doubt we always shall.
Richard Mammana is the Archivist of the Living Church Foundation.