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Denominational Envy

By John Mason Lock

From time to time I visit other churches, especially during the four weeks of vacation I take in the summer. In recent years, I’ve taken to visiting churches of other denominations as a chance to broaden my perspective and enrich my worship of the Lord.

Visiting a church in a denomination different from one’s own can be a disconcerting experience. If you’re unfamiliar with the liturgy — either the formal liturgy of the traditional churches or informal liturgy of the many independent churches — it can be a confusing and even humbling experience: Where are we? What page? Are we singing this verse again?

Visiting churches of other denominations can also incite pride in your belief in your church’s superiority. In some ways, this is inevitable. We are prone to account our experiences and opinions as universal and normative. There is always that inner voice saying, “in my church we do it this way.” Such a love of our experiences and opinions can lead us to be dismissive or even contemptuous of difference, and Episcopalians have a long history of such attitudes toward other denominations. In my observation, Baptists seem to be most targeted denomination for our derision, and this is not limited to left or right, progressive or traditional. Everyone loves to beat up on Baptists!

At times I have been infected with such a spirit. It always makes you feel better to knock down a lesser brother or sister. But even more than this, as a young person, I simply wanted to know what the right denomination was. I was seeking truth and assumed that I would eventually find the church that was the truest, if not the truth itself. Raised in the Episcopal Church, in college I began a spiritual odyssey of “trying on” various denominations. I visited Baptist churches, a charismatic church, the Roman Catholic Church, and a Russian Orthodox Church. In each case, while attracted by certain aspects of the denomination, I was always repelled by one narrow aspect. For instance, could I really worship in a church that treated Constantine as a saint depicted prominently on every ikonostasis, as the Orthodox did? My thinking was rather simple-minded in in believing I would find the church that was wholly right.

This summer I visited a Roman Catholic Church and a Baptist Church with my family. I’d like to share my brief reflections. The Roman Catholic Church was in northern New Mexico at Chimayo. The historic adobe church is an important pilgrimage site where thousands of pilgrims walk on Good Friday. We decided to visit for Sunday Mass while visiting family in my native state. When we arrived, however, we learned that Mass was not in the historic church, but in a large outdoor courtyard with concentric benches around a gazebo with a free-standing altar. The musical accompaniment for the Mass was played by a middle-aged Hispanic man on acoustic guitar, and was a mix of Spanish and English songs. I was immediately struck by the levity of the priest as he prepared for the Mass. He joked around and greeted parishioners as they found their benches, and remarkably this levity did not come across as flippant or disrespectful.

The priest, a native of Madrid, began his sermon by talking about how several years ago, while still living in Spain, he lost his sense of taste. The narration of this story went on for some time as he shared about relearning how to eat because he had formerly only eaten for pleasure. The thrust of his sermon was that just as he had to train his brain, so our brains are wired for certain behaviors, and everyday activities usually enforce these patterns of behavior. If you complain a great deal, then your brain will become trained for this activity. We need some kind of disruption, like his loss of taste, to retrain the brain.

There was so much about this Mass that I shouldn’t have liked, or at least a younger version of me wouldn’t have liked. An outdoor Mass. A folk Mass. A sermon that was, let’s be honest, moralistic. But this was not how I felt at all. I was struck by the overwhelming participation of the people singing. I admired the sincerity of the priest, who after the consecration disrupted the formal flow of the service to make one more comment on his sermon that communion with Jesus in the sacrament as a way to begin retraining our brains. Interjecting a thought like that is something I would probably never do as an Episcopal priest, but it worked in that context and it was wholly sincere and moving.

Finally, I was struck, as I usually am in attending Mass in the Catholic Church, by the socioeconomic diversity of those in attendance. For all our talk of diversity the Episcopal Church, we are tremendously burdened with the heritage of being a church for the upper classes. We have yet to begin to reckon with the critique leveled against this scandal in Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 classic The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Even Catholic churches have not been immune to division by racial or ethnic lines — in my current hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey, there are two Catholic churches, historically home to Irish and Italian communities, respectively — yet in comparison with the Episcopal Church, Catholic congregations today seem much more to reflect the heavenly reality of the numberless multitude from “all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9). Seeing it firsthand gave me a holy envy for this expression of the visible catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church. Such envy does not drive me to want to convert, but rather, it inculcates a righteous discontent with our “unhappy divisions” and a prayerful hope when one day in the future we might “with one heart and one mouth glorify God the Father.”

My second visit in some ways could not have been more different. It was at a predominantly African American Baptist congregation in Red Bank. When my wife and I were still dating, she was a member of a church plant similar to this congregation, so this was by no means my first experience of such worship. The music was solidly rooted in the Gospel tradition. Accompanied by drums, keyboard, bass, and guitar, the small choir of singers led us through four or five songs for about 45 minutes. Clapping, hand-raising, and even some dancing and extemporaneous praying were widespread. None of the words were printed, but the songs were not difficult to learn, and while I find much of Contemporary Christian Music to be sappy and sentimental, the music here invited the worshiper into profound contemplation.

Next followed a sermon of about equal duration. I could not imagine preaching for that length in the Episcopal Church, but I found the sermon gripping from beginning to end. What impressed me was the urgency of the message. Whereas sermons in the Episcopal Church often sound like partisan commentaries on current events or soothing self-help for pressing personal issues, I was struck by the urgency of the message. It contained what I’ve heard Fr. Leander Harding call a soteriological imperative of it dealt with life-and-death issues, whether in our personal lives or in society at large, for the sermon avoided the pitfall of treating religion either as private opinion or public policy. The gospel works from the inside out — starting from the individual heart and moving to how we shape our social and political lives.

I was reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brief sojourn in New York City, when he was scandalized by the segregation of American churches. The progressive Riverside Church near Union Seminary, where he was lecturing, was academic, formal, and detached from any soteriological urgency. Bonhoeffer found more authentic expressions of the gospel in African American congregations in Harlem. It is hard not to imagine that if Bonhoeffer were to visit the States today, he would be similarly discontent.

From these visits and my analysis of them, it would seem that I am in the wrong denomination, but the truth is that I am not and could not be a Baptist or Roman Catholic, however much I admire them and see that parts of their traditions are superior and even in some cases truer to the gospel than mine. The Episcopal Church is the small corner of the Lord’s vineyard that I have been called to tend. One of the ways I can tend that corner is by lifting up my brothers and sisters across the denominational divide and striving to become more like their best qualities in a prayerful hope that we might one day be one as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:11).

The high expectations of the ecumenical movement have dwindled in recent decades. The opportunities for imminent Christian union look dim, but that does not mean we have to retreat to our respective denominational silos and take up again our mutual antagonism. Rather, let’s cultivate a desire for union through holy envy of the strengths and merits of those across our denominational divides.



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