Is it possible for a Protestant to be Too Catholic?
I serve a church in a heavily Catholic part of Cincinnati, and my parking spot is immediately across the street from a large Jesuit parish replete with parochial school and daily masses. Fortunately the fires of reformation zeal have cooled in the last 500 years and at this point we’re not at each other’s throats about the primacy of the Pope. Most of our spats are over use of parking these days.
Now, because I was ordained in the Independent Catholic tradition, I have a decidedly Catholic approach to the way I approach worship and devotional life. “High Church” might be a better phrase, but in the imagination of the people I serve, “High Church” and “Catholic” are the same thing.
There are the outward things for sure: I wear vestments in worship. I reverence the altar when I enter the chancel. I bow at the name of Jesus Christ. I make the sign of the cross at certain points; I use manual actions during the Eucharist and pray a prayer (from the UCC Book of Worship!) that hearkens to the earliest known Eucharistic prayers—prayers which, of course, were written by Catholics.
But there are inner postures too that can be considered High Church, like my devotion to the Eucharist, my conception of the communion of the saints, or my belief that liturgy and our worship spaces can be big and beautiful because such experiences point to a big, beautiful God.
I haven’t received feedback yet that I’m too Catholic, but my churchmanship hasn’t gone without notice. When I first celebrated last year at the UCC congregation where I was filling in for a clergy friend, our musician came up to me and said, “I ain’t seen that much crissin’ and crossin’ in YEARS—but I loved it!”
As it happens, I’m in good company in the United Church of Christ, specifically thanks to the work of two folks from our tradition’s history, Philip Schaff and John Nevin. These two men were both part of Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania and through their scholarly work contributed to what is now known as the “Mercersburg Movement,” which has played a vital role in the overall trajectory of ecumenism that we see today in the existence of things like the World Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, and even Vatican II.
Nevin and Schaff believed that, throughout the history of the Church, there has been a continued thread of catholicity, that is, what is believed everywhere by everyone, and they particularly saw this as tied to Communion as being something that shows us in a unique way how Christ is present in, with, and around the community of the baptized at the Table in the same way Christ is present in, with, and around the bread and wine in the Eucharist.
They saw the challenge that a particularized form of German Reformed Christianity in the United States posed to the notion of a Church that was truly for all, and concerned foremost with the mandate to unity, they understood the Eucharist as central to the life and witness of Reformed Christians too, just as much as it was for Roman Catholics. And so the Mercersburg group endeavored to offer the Reformed Church ways of reconnecting with its roots in Eucharistic celebration by setting pen to paper and using their scholarship to craft forms of worship that were conversant with the earliest Christian traditions.
They were, of course, panned for being too Catholic.
What Nevin and Schaff seized upon in their work and in the theological tradition that followed in their footsteps was the idea that Christian unity cannot take as its point of departure a particular inculturated form, but rather it must begin with the Eucharist as its source and summit. We continue to see this position reflected in evolving social statements from the UCC General Synods, especially ones like the 1993 statement on becoming a multicultural and multiracial church. Unity is not the same as assimilation to a particular form; unity is, instead, to be approached from a posture of eucharistic expansiveness.
Moreover the UCC as a denomination endeavors to embody a liberal style, that is, we are intentionally making room for expressions and interpretations of our faith that expand our hearts towards fuller justice and inclusion for each individual Christian as well as each of the individual congregations that compose our covenanted community. It’s also why not every one of our congregations necessarily has the same feel or even the same socio-political priorities.
I’m aware that my particular form of worship is not the same as everyone else’s, nor would I ever try to force someone to adopt my own practices. Freedom of conscience in matters pertaining to doctrine and worship is key to the functioning of our denomination. The snare is always the particular, yet the table is always bigger than the snare, and I think we’ll be surprised to find that the Church is way more catholic than any one of us Protestants is ready to admit—even if competition for parking remains pretty tight.
When we get tied down to particulars, we lose sight of the vision of the alternative empire that stretches across humanity like a net and catches everyone in its weave, or that starts in the small and particular and expands outward to provide shelter for everyone, like the mustard seed. The communion table, connected to the font, connected to the doors of the church and into the world of the community, provides the framework by which God’s people can be blessed, lifted up, broken, and sent out to share the good news of an alternative empire of peace and justice with the whole world, which is literally what the word “catholic” means to begin with.