Following up, somewhat, to Fr. Oliver’s last two posts about ecclesial decline (particularly in PECUSA) I want to throw out an idea here that has become rather less fixed and certain in my mind over the last several years.
In 1997 as I was leaving the Anglican Church, I gave to several of my still-Anglican friends, who had a hard time understanding what I was doing and why, a copy of T.S. Eliot’s 1930 essay “Thoughts After Lambeth.” Eliot, an Anglo-Catholic, wrote in the aftermath of the 1930 Lambeth Conference which gathered the Anglican bishops of the world together in their decennial meeting. The 1930 conference is remembered for one thing only: it marked the first time that a major ecclesial body gave, albeit grudgingly, support for the use of artificial contraception.
After that decision, Eliot wrote:
There is no good in making Christianity easy and pleasant; “Youth,” or the better part of it, is more likely to come to a difficult religion than to an easy one. For some, the intellectual way of approach must be emphasized; there is need of a more intellectual laity. For them and for others, the way of discipline and asceticism must be emphasized; for even the humblest Christian layman can and must live what, in the modern world is comparatively an ascetic life. Discipline of the emotions is even rarer, and in the modern world still more difficult, than discipline of the mind….. Thought, study, mortification, sacrifice: it is such notions as these that should be impressed upon the young…. You will never attract the young by making Christianity easy; but a good many can be attracted by finding it difficult: difficult both to the disorderly mind and to the unruly passions.
17 years ago that seemed exactly right to me, and it was a handy heuristic for trying to understand the appeal of Catholicism and Orthodoxy to the many new converts to both who were among my friends: we were tired of the constant cultural capitulations of Anglicanism (and other forms of Protestantism) and their endless, vulgar huffing and puffing to keep up with the Zeitgeist. We want a Church that scorns the easy road that leads to perdition. We want a Church that challenges us vigorously and unapologetically in everything–the bedroom, the boardroom, the workplace, the kitchen, the public square. As the Jewish theologian David Novak reportedly put it, “Any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and your pots and pans is uninteresting.”
Such an approach, I was convinced, is precisely what the world needs, and was, many said, part of the real appeal of Pope John Paul II in his World Youth Days that reached scores of millions around the world with full-throated Christianity. Such an approach, I once thought, explained the appeal of Orthodoxy to those who entered in the 1980s with the late Peter Gilquist and others. Such an approach, I was confident, would lead to Catholicism and Orthodoxy experiencing explosive growth–in the event of the latter, the Gilquist-led conversions would be but the beginning of a flood that would go on and on until Orthodoxy overtook many Protestant denominations in size and influence in North America. As proof that Eliot was right, I looked to Dean Kelley’s sociological study, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.
But I’ve since come to see that the picture is rather more complicated, as it almost always is. Fr. Oliver’s own book on converts to Orthodoxy has been tremendously illuminating here, as has Amy Slagle’s earlier book on coverts. So too have conversations been with my friends, the Orthodox priests Michael Plekon and Bill Mills, as well as the Orthodox scholars Nicholas Denysenko and Brandon Gallaher, and others involved in pastoral ministry. Finally, my own students have been deeply challenging here. When I started teaching my introductory course on Eastern Christianity in Indiana in 2008, I very romantically assumed that my students, who were required every semester to attend at least one Orthodox Divine Liturgy and then write about it, would all leave the church staggered just as the embassy of Grand Prince Vladimir was: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, but we know that God dwells there. We cannot forget that beauty.” I have been depressed, but no longer surprised, to report that at most 10% of my students have that response. Many others leave unmoved. Still others, the most vocal group, can’t get out of the church fast enough because it’s the strangest thing they have ever encountered, and don’t you know all that incense will give you cancer, all that fasting will make you diabetic, all that kissing of icons is unhygienic, and all that sharing of the same communion spoon is the most unspeakably gross thing in the history of the world and will surely be responsible for the next pandemic?
All of these interlocutors of mine have forced me to re-think Eliot’s idea that a vigorous, strict, ascetically demanding form of Christianity is not only the way to staunch ecclesial decline, but is precisely the means by which to build up huge parishes full of zealous converts who fast twice a week; become vegans during Lent; tithe; do missionary work; attend Matins, Vespers, Akathists, Pre-Sanctified, and Liturgy on every feast and its vigil and post-feast; work in the local soup-kitchen; serve on six parish committees; and lead exemplary lives of holiness with saintly families who are all heavily involved in the church. Strictness, in other words, equals “success,” where success is defined as having millions of new members every decade.
Now I’m not so sure about this because the evidence seems lacking. Have we seen massive growth in Eastern Christianity in North America? No. Are most people today really interested in a strict, demanding form of Christianity, or are such folks a distinct minority (and not always the healthiest of minorities, either)? Is there a balance somewhere between a latitudinarian approach of extreme laxity, on the one hand, and a quasi-monastic approach of hyper-strictness on the other?
I still deplore the tendency to try to make Christianity seem “relevant.” I still refuse to countenance the changes made by Anglicans and others in many areas. I still think an easy Christian life is indeed a betrayal of the gospel in crucial ways. But is strictness the answer? Will that bring the masses back, or keep them in? I have no clear answers here.Thoughts?