by Thomas Howard
A Good Beginning
I was brought up in an Evangelical household. To say this is to say something good.
My father was a layman, not a preacher; but he was a devoted and assiduous daily student of the Bible. He and my mother exist to this day in my imagination as the very icons of the godly man and woman. It was a wonderful thing—that sage, earnest, transparent, Bible-centered faith. I owe the fact that I am a believer today, and that my whole pilgrimage, steep and tortuous as it has been sometimes, has been towards the center, not away from it, to the faith and prayers and example of my father and mother. I believe that I and my five brothers and sisters, all of whom, now, in our sixties, are Christians who want to follow the Lord wholly, would all testify to this godly influence of our parents. The household was a household suffused with the Bible. We sang hymns—daily—hundreds of them over the years, so that probably all six of us know scores of hymns by heart. We had family prayers twice a day, after breakfast and after supper. Our parents prayed with us at our bedside, the last thing at night. We all went to Sunday school and church regularly. There is only one agenda in a fundamentalist Sunday school: the Bible. The Bible day in and day out, year in and year out. Flannelgraph lessons, sword drills, Scripture memory: Everything was focused directly on the Bible itself. I am grateful for every minute of this, now, 50 years later. Because of this, the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is ringing in my ears all the time. Hundreds of verses, in the language of the King James Version, are there, intact, in my memory. I hope that, if my memory fails and I lose my wits in my old age, perhaps these verses, from so long ago, will remain there and bring me solace.
The Christian believers among whom I grew up were very forthcoming about the faith. They spoke easily and informally about the Lord. When you were among them, you knew that you were among people of “like precious faith,” as St. Peter phrases it. Many of the guests in our household had been overseas missionaries, some of them interned in concentration camps by the Japanese during World War II. Our ears were full of stories of how God had been faithful in all sorts of human extremities. It would be hard to find a better ambiance, I think, than this good and trusty Evangelicalism of my youth.
But I speak as one whose pilgrimage has led him from the world of Protestant Evangelicalism to the Roman Catholic Church. One way or another, all of us whose nurture has been in one of the sectors of Protestantism where the Bible is honored, where the gospel is preached without dissimulation, and where Jesus Christ is worshipped as God and Savior—all of us desire to be faithful to the ancient faith that we profess, and to be found obedient to the will of God. Certainly such fidelity and obedience have motivated us so far, and we want to be able to give an accounting of ourselves when it comes to our turn at the Divine Tribunal, for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Why then, would anyone want to leave such a world? Was not that a rendering of the ancient faith almost without equal? Surely to leave it would be to go from great plenty out to famine and penury?
Of my own case, I would have to say that I did not want to leave it. Certainly I was restless as a young man, like all young men, and any grass across any fence tended to look very green. I did, out of mere curiosity, draw back from the little church of my parents and my childhood when I returned to my hometown after having graduated from college and put in my time in the army. I visited the local Presbyterian church, and the Methodist and the Lutheran and the Episcopalian. Only this last one held any great attraction for me—I think it was a matter of aesthetics more than any other single factor. The Episcopal liturgy is the most elegant thing in the world, and this is to be attributed to their Prayer Book, which has since been supplanted by a modern translation, but which in 1960 was still the old Book of Common Prayer, with its matchless Shakespearean prose. Episcopal churches tend to be gothic, with stained glass and cool, dark interiors. Episcopal hymnody is virtually the best in the world, if we are speaking of a rich treasury of hymns drawn from the era of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, as well as from ancient Christendom. I was attracted by all of this. There was also a strange note of nostalgia in it, since I knew that my mother had been “saved” out of Episcopalianism into fundamentalism in about 1915, but that she still retained an undying love for Episcopal hymns and liturgy. Somehow that nostalgia had communicated itself to me.
The next step in my pilgrimage was made easy. I found myself teaching at a boys’ school in England, so this put me in the neighborhood of the Church of England. There is a robust Evangelical wing in this old church, so I did not have to “leave” anything. I could have all this and heaven too, so to speak. I was received into the Church of England in 1962 and found myself among the best crowd of all, I thought: Evangelicals who took the liturgy, and the atmosphere of Anglicanism, for granted. I loved it.
When I returned to the United States and married, my wife, who was a wise and holy woman, was fairly quickly received into the Episcopal Church—or the Anglican Church, as many prefer to call it—and our two children were raised as Anglicans. Fortunately, we found ourselves, both in New York in the early years of our marriage and then in Massachusetts, in parishes where the Scriptures were honored and the gospel was preached and sturdy fellowship was central.
Liberalism & Worship
Two questions, I think, spring into the minds of people when they hear of someone opting into Anglicanism. First, what about the liberalism in these big Protestant denominations? And second, doesn’t one have to settle into worship that is dull and lifeless since it is all canned and rote, leaving behind the wonderful spontaneity and freshness that marks the worship in the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches?
On the first question, there is only one answer, and that is yes, one does have to learn to live in a denomination that has very largely given itself over to an extremely liberal interpretation of Scripture and now, alas, of sexual morality. The good and faithful souls in these Protestant denominations suffer over this, of course, and will tell you that they are trying to bear witness in the situation, and that the Church historically has been plagued always with heresy and sin, and that we can’t keep splitting and splitting, as we Evangelicals have done, in the interest of doctrinal or moral purity. You end up with an ecclesiastical flea market that way, such people might urge.
To worship God is to ascribe worth to him. It is an activity distinct from teaching, and from fellowship, and from witnessing, and from sharing. It is an act, not an experience. We come to church primarily to do something, not to receive something, although of course in the ancient worship of the Church we do indeed receive God himself, under the sacramental species of Bread and Wine. But our task in worship is to offer the oblation of ourselves and our adoration at the Sapphire Throne.
Obviously this is a daunting and an august task. Fortunately we are not left to our own resources, nor to the whim of the moment, nor even to our own experience. The faithful have been worshipping God since the beginning, and there is help for us. All of us, even those of us who come from the so-called free churches where spontaneity is supposed to be the rule, are accustomed to borrowing secondhand, canned words to assist us in worship. I am speaking of hymns. When we sing “Amazing Grace” or “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” we are borrowing John Newton’s and Charles Wesley’s words. And we discover that, far from cramping or restricting our worship, these secondhand words bring us up to a level quite unattainable by our own spontaneous efforts. They take us away from ourselves. That is another crucial point in ritual worship: People who are fellowshipping with each other, and sharing, are, characteristically, facing each other. People who are worshipping are, all together, facing something else, namely the Sapphire Throne. The liturgy of the Church brings us into these precincts. Our Lord Jesus Christ was accustomed to this kind of worship—indeed, when he joined his parents and fellow Jews in weekly worship, he entered into the ritual. No one had ever heard of spontaneous public worship. The early Church, in great wisdom, realized that this is a principle that goes to the root of the mystery of our being. Spontaneity is a good and precious thing. The Lord loves any lisping, stammering, broken, and halting words we can offer to him, as he loves the buzzing of bumblebees and the braying of donkeys. But when we come together for the particular act of offering our corporate, regular, recurring adoration to him, then we need a form.
The Question of the Church
During my 23 years as an Anglican, I discovered, and gradually became at home in, the world of liturgy, and of sacrament, and of the church year. But also as I read in theology and church history and in the tradition of Christian spirituality, I found myself increasingly acutely conscious of a question: But what is the Church?
Every Sunday at the Anglican liturgy I found myself repeating, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” These are words from an era that all of us—Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, and unaffiliated—must take seriously, since all of us, whether we are pleased to admit it or not, are the direct beneficiaries of the work of the men who hammered out those words. You and I may think, in some of our less reflective moments, that all we need is the Bible and our own wits. Sola Scriptura. Just me and my Bible. But that is an impertinent notion. Every Christian in every assembly of believers in this world is incalculably in the debt of the men who succeeded the apostles. For they are the ones who, during those early centuries when the Church was moving from the morning of Pentecost out into the long haul of history, fought and thought and worked and wrote and died, so that “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” might indeed be handed on. Heresiarchs popped up out of the weeds left, right, and center, and all of them believed in the “verbal inspiration” of Scripture. It was the Church, in her bishops and councils, that preserved the faith from the errors of the heresiarchs and other zealots, and that shepherded the faithful along in the Way, as it was called.
An Unrecognizable Church
You and I, insofar as we are familiar with modern Protestantism and, a fortiori, with Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, are familiar with a state of affairs that would have been unimaginable to our Fathers in the faith in those early days. I am referring to the oddity that, even though we all say we believe in the final and fixed truth of divine revelation, we are nevertheless all at odds when it comes to deciding just what that truth is. Oh, to be sure, we all agree on the so-called fundamentals of the gospel—but of course those fundamentals have been articulated and distilled for us by the Church that wrote the creeds. The Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the modernists all toil away at the pages of the Bible, but you and I would say they are not getting the right things out of that Bible. Why do we say that? Because, whether we acknowledge it or not, our “orthodox” understanding of the Bible has been articulated for us by the Church. All sorts of notions, for example, have cropped up about the Trinity, about the mystery of Our Lord’s divine and human natures, and so forth. The reason you and I are not Nestorians or Eutychians or Apollinarians or Docetists or Arians or Montanists is that the Church guarded and interpreted and taught the Bible, and we, the faithful, have had a reliable and apostolic voice in the Church that says, “This is what Holy Scripture is to be understood as teaching, and that which you hear Eutychius or Sabellius teaching from the Bible is not to be believed.”
But I was speaking of the question that began to force its way into my mind during those years: What is the Church? What may have appeared as a digression just now, when I referred to the men who worked so hard to preserve the faith, and the bishops and councils who settled upon the right understanding of revelation, was not a digression at all. When I heard myself repeating the words from the Nicene Creed at the liturgy, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” I was, of course, saying words that are not directly from any one text in the Bible and yet that have been spoken in all of Christendom for a millennium and a half now and in some sense constitute a plumbline for us. The Creed is not Scripture; that is true. But then all of us, whether we come from groups that repeat the creed or not, would agree, “Oh yes, indeed; that is the faith which we all profess.” Some would add, “But of course, we get it straight out of the Bible. We don’t need any creed.” The great difficulty here is that Eutychius and Sabellius and Arius got their notions straight out of the Bible as well. Who will arbitrate these things for us? Who will speak with authority to us faithful, all of us rushing about flapping the pages of our well-thumbed New Testaments, locked in shrill contests over the two natures of Christ, or baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or the mystery of predestination? This question formed itself in the following way for me, a twentieth-century Christian: Who will arbitrate for us between Luther and Calvin? Or between Luther and Zwingli, both appealing loudly to Scripture, and each with a view of the Lord’s Table that categorically excludes the other’s view? And who will arbitrate for us between John Wesley and George Whitefield—that is, between Arminius and Calvin? Or between J. N. Darby (he thought he had found the biblical pattern for Christian gathering, and the Plymouth Brethren to this day adhere to his teaching) and all the denominations? Or between the dispensationalists and the Calvinists on the question of eschatology?
A piquant version of this situation presented itself to us loosely affiliated Evangelicals, with all of our independent seminaries and Grace chapels and Moody churches, and so forth. When a crucial issue arises—say, what we should teach about sexuality—who will speak to us with a finally authoritative voice? The best we can do is to get Christianity Today to run a symposium, with one article by J. I. Packer plumping for traditional morality, and one article by one of our lesbian feminist Evangelicals (there are some) showing that we have all been wrong for the entire 3,500 years since Sinai, and that what the Bible really teaches is that indeed homosexuals may enjoy a fully expressed sexual life. The trouble here is that J. I. Packer has no more authority than our lesbian friend, so the message to the faithful is, “Take your pick.”
This is not, whatever else we wish to say about it, a picture of things that would be recognizable to the apostles, or to the generations that followed them. The faithful, in those early centuries, were certainly aware of a great babel of voices among the Christians, teaching this and teaching that, on every conceivable point of revelation. But the faithful were also aware that there was a body that could speak into the chaos, and declare, with serene and final authority, what the faith that had been taught by the apostles was. Clearly, we Evangelicals have been living in a scheme of things altogether unrecognizable to the apostles and the Fathers of the Church.
“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” I found myself saying in the creed. What Church? What is the Church? What was the Church in the minds of the men who framed that creed? Clearly it was not the donnybrook that the world sees nowadays, with literally thousands of groups, big and small, all clamoring, and all claiming to be, in some sense, the Church.
Five Recognizable Marks of the Church
As an Anglican I became aware that I, as an individual believer, stood in a very long and august lineage of the faithful, stretching back to the apostles and fathers. The picture had changed for me: It was no longer primarily me, my Bible, and Jesus (although heaven knows that is not altogether a bad picture: the only question is, is it the whole picture?). Looming for me, as an Anglican, was “the faith,” ancient, serene, undimmed, true. And that faith somehow could not be split apart from “the Church.” But then, what was the Church?
I realized that, one way or another, I had to come to terms with the Church in all of its antiquity, its authority, its unity, its liturgy, and its sacraments. Those five marks, or aspects, of the Church are matters that all of us, I think, would find to be eluding us in the free churches. I speak as a Roman Catholic, for that is where my own pilgrimage has brought me in my quest for this Church in all of its antiquity, authority, unity, liturgy, and sacraments. Let me touch on each of these briefly.
First, the antiquity of the Church confronts me. As an Evangelical, I discovered while I was in college that it was possible to dismiss the entire Church as having gone off the rails by about a.d. 95. That is, we, with our open Bibles, knew better than old Ignatius or Polycarp or Clement, who had been taught by the apostles themselves—we knew better than they just what the Church is and what it should look like. Never mind that our worship services would have been unrecognizable to them, or that our church government would have been equally unrecognizable, or that the vocabulary in which we spoke of the Christian life would have been equally unrecognizable. We were right, and the Fathers were wrong. That settled the matter.
The trouble here was that what these wrong-headed men wrote—about God, about our Lord Jesus Christ, about his Church, about the Christian’s walk and warfare—was so titanic, and so rich, and so luminous, that their error seemed infinitely truer and more glorious than my truth. I gradually felt that it was I, not they, who was under surveillance. The “glorious company of the apostles, the noble army of martyrs, and the holy Church throughout all the world” (to quote the ancient hymn, the Te Deum) judge me, not I them. Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Justin, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Cyril, Basil, the Gregorys, Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary, Benedict—it is under the gaze of this senate that I find myself standing. Alas. How tawdry, how otiose, how flimsy, how embarrassing, seem the arguments that I had been prepared, so gaily, to put forward against the crushing radiance of their confession. The Church is here, in all of its antiquity, judging me.
Second, the Church in its authority confronts me. That strange authority to bind and to loose that our Lord bestowed on his disciples has not evaporated from the Church—or so the Church has believed from the beginning. If you will read the story of those decades that followed Pentecost, and especially that followed upon the death of the apostles, you will discover that the unction to teach and to preside in the Church that passed from the apostles to the bishops was understood to be an apostolic unction. I, for example, could not start up out of the bulrushes and say, “Hi, everybody! The Lord has led me to be a bishop! I’m starting me a church over here.” The whole Christian community—bishops, presbyters, deacons, and laity—would have looked solemnly at me and gone about their business. The Holy Spirit, in those days, did not carry on private transactions with isolated souls, and then announce to the Church that so-and-so had been anointed for this or that ministry. The unction of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of the Church to ordain for ministry, were not two random enterprises. The Holy Spirit worked in, and through, the Church’s ministry and voice. To be sure, he could do what he wanted to do, as he had always done, being God. Under the Old Covenant, we could say that he worked in and through Israel; but of course you find these extra characters like Job and Jethro and the Magi, coming across the stage from outside the Covenant, yet nonetheless undeniably having been in touch with God. God can do what he wants, of course.
But the Church understands herself to be the appointed vessel for God’s working, just as the Incarnation was. Her authority is not her own. She arrogates nothing to herself. Her bishops and patriarchs are the merest custodians, the merest passers-on, we might say, of the deposit of faith. As a Roman Catholic, I am, of course, acutely conscious of this. When someone objects to me, “But who does the Catholic Church think she is, taking this high and mighty line” (about abortion or about sexual morality or about who may or may not come to the Lord’s Table), the answer is, “She doesn’t think she’s anything particular, if you mean that she has set herself up among the wares in the flea market as somehow the best. She has her given task to do—to pass on the teaching given by the apostles, and she has no warrant to change that. She is not taking her cues from the Nielsen ratings, or from a poll, or even from a sociological survey as to what people feel comfortable with nowadays. She didn’t start the Church, and it’s not her Church.”
As a free-church Christian, one can, of course, make up one’s mind about lots of things. Shall I fast or not? Well, that’s for me to decide. Shall I give alms? Again—a matter for my own judgment. Must I go to church? That, certainly, is my own affair. Need I observe this or that feast day in the church year? I’ll make up my own mind. Piety and devotion are matters of one’s own tailoring: No one may peer over my shoulder and tell me what to do.
Indeed, no one may do anything of the sort—if we are speaking of ourselves as Americans who have constitutional rights. But if we are speaking of ourselves as Christian believers, then there is a touchstone other than the Constitution by which our choices must be tested. Our Christian ancestors knew nothing of this sprightly individualism when it came to the disciplines of the spiritual life. They fasted on Fridays, and they went to church on Sundays. Some Roman pope did not make these things up. They took shape in the Church very early, and nobody dreamed of cobbling up a private spirituality. And likewise with all sorts of questions. Shall women be ordained as priests? It is, eventually, not a matter of job description, or of politics, or even of common sense or public justice. The question is settled by what the Church understands the priesthood to be—with cogent reasoning given, to be sure. It is not a question to be left interminably open to the public forum for decade after decade of hot debate.
The Church is here, in all of its authority, judging us.
Third, the Church in its unity confronts me. This is the most difficult and daunting matter. But one thing eventually became clear: My happy Evangelical view of the church’s unity as being nothing more than the worldwide clutter that we had under our general umbrella was, for good or ill, not what the ancient Church had understood by the word unity. As an Evangelical, I could pick which source of things appealed most to me: Dallas Seminary; Fuller Seminary; John Wimber; Azusa Street; the Peninsula Bible Church; Hudson Taylor; the deeper life as taught at Keswick; Virginia Mollenkott; John Stott; or Sam Shoemaker. And in one sense, variety is doubtless a sign of vigorous life in the Church. But in another sense, of course, it is a disaster. It is disastrous if I invest any of the above with the authority that belongs alone to the Church. But then who shall guide my choices?
Once again, we come back to the picture that we have in the ancient Church. Whatever varieties of expression there may have been—in Alexandria as over against Lyons or in Antioch as over against Rome—nevertheless, when it came to the faith itself, and also to order and discipline and piety in the Church, no one was left groping or mulling over the choices in the flea market. Where we Protestants were pleased to live with a muddle—even with stark contradiction (as in the case of Luther versus Zwingli, for example)—the Church of antiquity was united. No one needed to remain in doubt for long as to what the Christian Church might be, or where it might be found. The Montanists were certainly zealous and earnest, and had much to commend them; the difficulty, finally, was that they were not the Church. Likewise with the Donatists. God bless them for their fidelity and ardor and purity, but they were not the Church. As protracted and difficult as the Arian controversy was, no one needed to remain forever in doubt as to what the Church had settled upon: Athanasius was fighting for the apostolic faith, against heresy. It did not remain an open question forever. There was one Church and the Church was one. And this was a discernible, visible, embodied unity, not a loose aggregate of vaguely like-minded believers with their various task forces all across the globe. The bishop of Antioch was not analogous to the general secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship or the head of the National Association of Evangelicals. He could speak with the full authority of the Church behind him; these latter gentlemen can only speak for their own organization. He was not even analogous to the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church or the presiding bishop of the Episcopalians, neither of whom is understood by his clientele to be speaking in matters of doctrine and morality with an undoubted apostolic authority.
This line of thought could bring us quickly to the point at which various voices today might start bidding for our attention, each one of them with “Hey—ours is the apostolic voice—over here!” That is not my task here. I only would want to urge you to test your own understanding of the Church against the Church’s ancient understanding of itself as united, as one. What is that unity? It is a matter that has perhaps been answered too superficially and frivolously for the last two hundred years in American Protestantism. The Church in its unity is here, judging us.
Fourth, the liturgy of the Church confronts and judges me. That seems like an odd way of putting it: In what sense can anyone say that the liturgy “judges” me? Certainly it does not condemn me or pass any sort of explicit judgment on me. But if only by virtue of its extreme antiquity and universality, it constitutes some sort of touchstone for the whole topic of Christian worship.
Often the topic is approached as though it were a matter of taste: John likes fancy worship—smells and bells—and Bill likes simplicity and spontaneity and informality. There’s the end of the discussion. And certainly, as I mentioned before, God receives any efforts, however halting and homespun, which anyone offers as worship, just as any father or mother will receive the offering of a limp fistful of dandelions as a bouquet from a tiny child. On the other hand, two considerations might be put forward at this point.
First, what did the Church, from the beginning, understand by worship—that is, by its corporate, regular act of worship? The Book of Acts gives us little light on the precise shape or content of the Christians’ gatherings: The apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers are mentioned. St. Paul’s Epistles do not spell out what is to be done. We have to look to other early writings if we are curious about the apostolic church’s worship. And what we find when we do so is the Eucharistic liturgy. This, apparently, was what they did as worship. If we think we have improved on that pattern, we may wish to submit our innovations for scrutiny to the early Church in order to discover whether our innovations have in fact been improvements.
Which brings us to the second consideration: the content of the Eucharistic liturgy. From the beginning, the Church seems to have followed a given sequence: readings from Scripture (including the letters from Paul and Peter and John), then prayers, and then the so-called anaphora—the “offering,” or, as it was also called, the Great Thanksgiving. This was the great Eucharistic Prayer, which took on a fairly exact shape at the outset, and which you may still hear if you listen to the liturgy in any of the ancient churches. Psalmody, canticles, and hymns also came to be included, and certain acclamations like the “Kyrie, eleison!” The whole presents a shape of such rich perfection that one wonders what exactly is the task of the “coordinators of worship” on the staff of various churches. The worship of the ancient Church is far from being a matter of endless tinkering, experimenting, and innovating. The entire mystery of revelation and redemption is unfurled for us in the church’s liturgy. That liturgy is here in all of its plentitude, majesty, and magnificence, judging us.
Fifth and finally, the sacraments of the Church confront me. The word sacrament is the Latin word for the Greek mysterion, mystery. Indeed, we are in the presence of mystery here, for the sacraments, like the Incarnation itself, constitute physical points at which the eternal touches time, or the unseen touches the seen, or grace touches nature. It is the Gnostics and Manichaeans who want a purely disembodied religion.
Judaism, and its fulfillment, Christianity, are heavy with matter. First, at creation itself, where solid matter was spoken into existence by the Word of God. Then redemption, beginning not with the wave of a spiritual wand, nor with mere edicts pronounced from the sky, but rather with skins and blood—the pelts of animals slaughtered by the Lord God to cover our guilty nakedness. Stone altars, blood, fat, scapegoats, incense, gold, acacia wood—the Old Covenant is heavily physical.
Then the New Covenant: We now escape into the purely spiritual and leave the physical behind, right? Wrong. First a pregnancy, then a birth. Obstetrics and gynecology, right at the center of redemption. Fasting in the wilderness, water to wine, a crown of thorns, splinters and nails and blood—our eternal salvation carried out in grotesquely physical terms. Then pure spirituality, right? Wrong. A corpse resuscitated. And not only that—a human body taken up into the midmost mysteries of the eternal Trinity. And Bread and Wine, Body and Blood, pledged and given to the Church, for as long as history lasts. Who has relegated this great gift to the margins of Christian worship and consciousness? By what warrant did men, 1,500 years after the Lord’s gift of his Body and Blood, decide that this was a mere detail, somewhat embarrassing, and certainly nothing central or crucial—a show-and-tell device at best? O tragedy! O sacrilege! What impoverishment for the faithful!
May God grant, in these latter days, a gigantic ingathering, as it were, when Christians who have loved and served him according to patterns and disciplines and notions quite remote from those of the ancient Church find themselves taking their places once again in the great Eucharistic mystery of his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
This article is adapted from a talk given in 1993 to The Fellowship of St. Barnabas, July 1993, in Oklahoma City.