Last time, I described my love of the Anglo-Catholicism of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Oxford.1 But alas, my fairy tale love could never last.
The first reason is obvious enough. When the semester abroad ended, I had to go back to America. And there aren’t any thousand year old churches here.2
But the Mary Mag’s experience couldn’t last for a more fundamental reason. It was a rushing confluence of things–being in a new country, learning a new theological tradition, experiencing new ceremonies and sacraments, and meeting new and interesting people. And I was doing all of this with a group of evangelical classmates who were enamored by the same newness as me.
The whole thing had a once-in-a-lifetime glitter to it. Like that time in high school when the person you had a crush on finally kissed you and the universe seemed perfect.3 Of course, most of us realize that emotion is fleeting. If someone lived their life trying to recreate that moment over and over again, we’d all think they were weird. Or a character in a sit-com.
I had a different view. I came back from England determined to recreate the past in America. Specifically, I wanted a church with these qualities:
- A feeling of antiquity. Don’t worry. As much as I hoped St. Brendan’s story was true4, I realized I couldn’t find a church that was actually a thousand years old. But I wanted one that was as close as possible. A century, at least. More if possible. If nothing else, it should feel old. Gothic windows, weathered statues, stained glass, stone arches. Oh, and an attached cemetery would be nice too.
- High church accoutrements. Everything from incense to crucifers, holy water to vestments, icons to candles. The more the better. And the liturgy should be ancient. If it could be attributed to someone like St. John Chrysostom, that’s even better.
- Minimal change and commitment. Some of you are probably asking why I didn’t just convert to something like Eastern Orthodoxy. That’s a sensible suggestion. But that misunderstands how I was thinking when when I came back from Oxford. If I were going to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I would have to do a lot of work–studying their beliefs, attending Divine Liturgies, talking with priests and parishioners. And if I actually did convert, I might have to put some of my beliefs under the microscope. I didn’t want to do that. Instead of working to match my beliefs to the church, I wanted my church’s beliefs to match mine. Which leads to my last point…
- It had to be the perfect blend of liberalism and conservatism. If a church was uptight and rigid about an issue that I thought should change, then they were too conservative and had to be abandoned. But if they were too squishy and spineless about an issue that I considered a core doctrine, then they were too liberal and had to be abandoned. It really wasn’t that much to ask–I just wanted a church that shared my beliefs on everything.
If these factors seem muddled and self-contradictory, that’s because I was muddled and self-contradictory. For one golden three month window, I found a church that was (I thought) perfectly matched to my tastes and desires. I returned hoping to find that same thing–a church that was perfectly suited to me.
I don’t want to give away the next chapter in the story. But I will say it didn’t quite work out…
1 Sorry for the delayed post, by the way. I was doing document review at work last week. It was just as wild as it sounds…
2 Unless you’re one of those conspiracy theorists who think North America was actually discovered by the Irish Saint Brendan. Then I suppose a thousand year old church could be in play.
3 At least, that’s how it seems in teen movies. When I was in high school I was too busy playing Halo and being self-conscious to do anything like that.
4 If you didn’t read footnote 2, then this joke probably didn’t make any sense. But then again, if you didn’t read footnote 2, then you probably won’t read this footnote either. Hmm…
Photo by Forest Runner