Coming back from our glacier viewing hike in the mountains outside Ushuaia, Chile, three couples sat behind us on the bus having a great time, and making it clear by the volume of their voices that they were coreligionists of the Roman Catholic variety. They were not offensive in any way, but their conversation made it known that they were Catholics disinterested in the company of others who were not. “Did you go to mass last night?” opened banter about going or not going and what that meant. Worship was not the point of it. It was not about God. It was about fishing. Whether one went to mass was the key to whether one was successful as a fisherman, or not. No one went fishing on a mountain hike at the tip of South America, so the story telling moved quickly to other times and places closer to home, and they were all about fishing. Going to mass was not about the Christian faith, but about fulfilling the cultural obligations of being Catholic. What the lessons were, what the homily was about, what the sacrament meant was irrelevant. What mattered was doing what Catholics do, and sharing stories about it with other Catholics in their social circle through humor that leaned close to ritual superstition not unlike rubbing the Buddha’s tummy.
I suspect they go to mass not because they believe, but because they are Catholics and that is what Catholics do. There is more to it than just that, and the thing that is more is something most Episcopalians lack. For that matter, generic white bread Catholics also lack it. So what is it that they have and most Episcopalians lack. Alas, we were not born with the ethnic-cultural umbilical cord that ties us to a Church in the same way that some Catholics were. Not so many years ago it was still true that Episcopalians tended to be habitual church goers, but not in the same way. It may have had something to do with being a distinctly English church that is more comfortable with the respectable ways of the gentry. Fifty or sixty years ago if you wanted to be seen with the right sort of people on Sunday, an Episcopal Church was the place to go. Episcopalians did not, as a rule, cater to the masses the way Methodists or Presbyterians did, and the rabble rousing ways of Evangelicals was anathema. We pretended to be more discerning than that, making discreet suggestions to God in the form of prayers laced with thee and thou, and reminding him that sinners tho we may be, we were the right kind of sinners. Maybe that was never true, or true only in certain places, but the myth has hung on even as we see in the mirror a relatively small denomination of rather ordinary people.
Like Catholics, we pay dignified homage to the hierarchy, but with little sense of obligation to pay it much attention otherwise. We can get away with it because we have stripped our bishops of the resources needed to exercise the limited authority we have left to them. Our liturgy is exemplary, and when done well it draws us into a deeper more holy communion with God. It’s one of the things I treasure about being an Episcopalian, but it doesn’t seem to be a big draw.
What we don’t have in any form is the ethnic and cultural connection with the Church that many Catholics have. Maybe it has something to do with the places from which some Catholic families immigrated, and the ethnic communities in which they have remained for several generations. It may also have something to do with a sense of safety that some Catholics have knowing they are part of a church embodied by a unifying worldwide hierarchy that offers clear definitive answers to life’s complex problems. They may disagree with and ignore the Church’s teachings, but they know what they are, and there is a certain comfort in that.
Anglicans have a worldwide hierarchy that works toward collegial unity without the authority to impose it, and no interest in creating it. Well, there has been some interest. A recent effort of construct a more cohesive structure for the Anglican Communion, including something like a disciplinary authority, met with a resounding No! from enough representatives to sink the idea as deep as it could be sunk. We have no teaching authority within the Communion, nor in any of the English speaking churches. In spite of sharing deep roots in the Church of England, the Church in England going back to Roman times, and in shared liturgies germinating from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, each national Church stoutly defends its independence from the others except through the bonds of collegiality, which we euphemistically call the bonds of unity. Each Church within the communion is its own teaching authority, and American Episcopalians, who love bishops, dioceses, and democracy, may have the messiest, least efficient way of arriving at a teaching as any denomination in the history of religion. When we finally arrive at a new teaching, usually after several decades of prayerful, discerning debate, we have no structural means of enforcing it. I love it, but it can be difficult for those who want clear instruction on what to believe and what to do.
I’m digressing to a degree, but only to point out that our lack of an ethnic-cultural umbilical cord tying us to the Church, and our faithfulness to the ancient offices of ministry combined with our unwillingness to grant the hierarchy any more than minimal authority does not lend itself to generations of loyalty to the Church as an institution. The cultural Catholics I overheard do have that umbilical cord connected to a far more authoritarian church hierarchy, but they seem to lack much interest in having a probing relationship with God.
I wouldn’t trade places with them, but I am deeply impressed by their loyalty to the Church. It may be theologically thin, but it’s generations deep.