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On Returning to the New World

By Christopher Seitz

Europeans generally think of Americans as very religious. They see things like a public swearing-in with a hand on the Bible and read a lot into that, though for us, it’s more of a formality and may have no actual religious significance for those taking an oath. “So help me God” — this is less a final declaration freighted with Christian significance than a necessary legal obligation.

To be sure churches dot the landscape in ways a foreign visitor will not fail to note. This is a bit odd, since many French villages display crucifixes at their entrances in a way that would be illegal in the United States, and ancient Catholic parishes similarly omnipresent across France. Yet something about the ubiquity of churches in America draws the attention of European visitors.

What is distinctive about the United States — and to a certain degree, Canada — is the variety and number of denominations. The Yellow Pages of old would display page after page of church listings, remarkable for their sheer differentiated number. Four or five kinds of Baptists, same for Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists, a United Church of Christ, Brethren, Adventists, Disciples of Christ, Latter Day Saints, and Christian Scientists, and more. The European Reformations birthed these entities, while hostilities, loss of employment, and wanderlust shipped them abroad to set up shop in the New World. Thereafter, the New World itself confected New North American offshoots.

In France, where we have lived for four years, there is nothing remotely similar. There the church is, for all intents and purposes, Catholic. Their buildings are historically ancient and deeply entrenched. Yes, a struggling Église Réformée, or evangeliste gatherings in small modern spaces, but that is about it.  France is a Catholic country, even if in spite of itself.

What Europeans — going back to de Tocqueville — observe in the New World’s religious landscape is the denominated churches spread across the land. This very pluriformity says to them: America is a Christian country. Of course, this is a judgment prone to exaggeration and misunderstanding, particularly in view of recent rapid changes in American life.

What I wish to dwell on, however, is just this diversity and pluriformity, even if in diminished and diminishing form. What does it mean? Is it indeed a sign of vibrancy and health, as is often claimed — from afar or from within? How should one in fact characterize the religiosity displayed in the form of variety of choice in the denominated landscape of America?

One possibility is to think of this is simply as a fact, an accident of history, which surely it is. No one designed this denominational variety or set about to construct it as a preferred good. It comes, literally, with the territory. It is a fact ingredient in what it means to be a New World, a land full of those who came from somewhere else and who brought with them the expressions of Christian faith and life that had existed across the variety of Old World countries, now plopped down in one United States.

As time marches on, what this ecclesial variety must invariably entail is the sense of choice. With so very many types of churches, those who would be Christian must choose from among them. This religious fact merges pretty quickly with perhaps the biggest American cultural reality: consumer choice. From dog food to television channels and streaming services, to breakfast cereals, choice is ubiquitous. The fact that churches invite us to evaluate and choose among them is perhaps quintessentially American.

Increased mobility has done away with the parish system, whereby you simply went to the church within whose parish boundaries you happened to live. This is compounded by the astonishing church variety, not only among traditions (Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist), but within traditions (PCA or PCUSA, ELCA or LCMS or NALC). Perhaps closest to home for readers of Covenant are the varieties of Anglicanism now present. The Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church alongside the Anglican Church in North America and various other “continuing” Anglican bodies.

The rich variety we observe in church choices used to mean that ecumenism was an obvious project, though enthusiasm for it seems to have waned since the initial optimism of the early 20th century. The fact of so many churches called to us to pursue unity and reconciliation.

After all, when the New Testament speaks about the Church as the Body of Christ, it clearly does not intend this diffuse, differentiated, denominated variety. Yet our choice to belong to some church, to be an Episcopalian for instance, is also a choice not to be something else. Surely this is not what the New Testament envisioned with the word “church,” but more closely approaches the Corinthian factionalism Paul decried (1 Cor 1:10–17).

But we may be at a point where this rich diversity begins to mean something rather different. The historical anvil on which these differences were forged begins to recede from view. Wounds begin to heal. People forget who they are and where they came from. Certain groups — one could name the Reformed Episcopal Church as just one example among many—end up with an identity they did not start with, and indeed one they pushed hard against.

These reflections are not meant to chart a particular course, but rather to describe a fact about ecclesiology with which we in the New World must grapple. My sense of the Catholic Church in France was that it has adopted a more centrifugal character than a centripetal one, the product perhaps of French secularism and formal separation of church and state in the early 20th century. The trend in North America seems to be moving in the opposite, centripetal direction.

But maybe the trend will reverse course, asking people to identify common ground wherein older historical differences simply lack the same urgency. This is not ecumenism-as-formal-project, but something more inchoate and unplanned.

Unless, of course, one trusts that the Great Planner, in whose hands time resides, is up to something greater than we can imagine. Which is of course always the case.

Perhaps the sharp edges that belonged to denominated identity will give way to a deeper grasp of common life in Christ. This is not love of diversity for its own sake; or an everyone-gets-a-prize optimism; or, we all worship the same God blandness. It is something that the march of time under God’s providence alone can craft.

What might this look like? Over all it would mean less anxiety about “borders” all around. The Catholic Church might more concertedly seek to recognize and embrace catholicity outside of its own ranks. Non-catholics should in turn accept this posture as true to the Catholic Church’s identity. Obviously, such a development would represent a challenge for both sides, for different reasons. But at present this looks like a missed opportunity, at a time when other models for church unity have timed out, are stalled, or have become only talking-shops.

The experience we had in France could be a model. Let there be select regions where generosity is extended by the Catholic Church to non-catholics as an experiment in grace, and vice-versa. The liturgical work is already in place. Lectionary, biblical studies, and theology are shared domains since Vatican II. What is missing is common worship life on the ground. Why not step out in faith?

The Church is Jesus Christ’s plan for the redemption of all creation. It was not a plan for diversity or for staking out national church identities. When Anglicans begin to prize an ecclesiology chiefly of pragmatics, diversity, and cultural accommodation, this is not the image of the Church as the New Testament describes it, and as the one Israel of God prefigured it. There are better ways forward and their time is upon us.

Christopher Seitz has been Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Yale University, the University of St Andrews, and Wycliffe College /University of Toronto. He served as President of the Anglican Communion Institute until 2016. He and his wife Elizabeth have been residing at the Catholic rectory in Courances, France, during which time he taught at Centre Sevres (Paris). His new book is Convergences: Canon and Catholicity.


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