Romaphobia and the Tragic Loss of Incarnational Worship

I mentioned in my last post that I’m investigating heavily into what the early church Fathers and ancient historians had to say about liturgical/sacramental practices in the church, and that I would blog about the books and articles I’m reading on that topic. However, I felt the need to first take a short detour into something [related] that has been at the forefront of my mind lately.

I was having a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, a gentleman devout in his Christian faith and extremely theologically knowledgeable. The topic of C.S. Lewis came up, and I mentioned something about Lewis’s Anglicanism. 

“Yeah, Anglican…that’s just one step away from Catholicism,” my friend said. 

His tone was not disrespectful, but it carried a certain mild disdain. I was taken aback by his words. I’m certain of his awareness that Anglicanism is fully Protestant, which means there are key theological (and other) distinctions between it and Roman Catholicism. So what could he have meant, exactly? I’ve pondered this as I’ve read works of church history, ecclesiology, and theology of worship over the past several weeks. My conclusion is that what he had in mind, at least partially, were the commonalities to be found in worship and devotional practices between these two traditions of Christendom. 

I believe a very apt description of these paractices is that they are deeply incarnational. What do I mean by that? Simply put, incarnational worship and devotion recognizes and celebrates the Lord’s use of the material creation as a means by which the reality of the Holy Spirit can be perceived by those who are in Christ. Why would we describe this as “incarnational”? Because God the Son saw fit to enter the material creation, even taking on a fully human, material body; moreover, during his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus used material things such as water, wine, bread, and even saliva and dirt as tools through which his power was made manifest. He used the mundane elements of creation to do and communicate extraordinary things! He didn’t need the water in the wine jars in order to miraculously produce wine for the wedding at Cana, but he requested it anyway. He didn’t need the mud to restore the sight of the blind man, but he used it. Why? I am convinced that His use of the material was a blessed sign to us that we can and should see Him through everything he has made, and that the physical can remind us of his holiness in a tangible way.

Never should we worship created things, and we should fully reject the idea that material objects, by themselves, have some kind of inherent mystical powers. Rather, by incorporating the physical, earthly realm, our five senses can participate in and greatly enrich our worship and devotion practices. I’m not talking about cultivating emotions; I’m talking about a heightened awareness of God’s presence. I think these two things should not be confused, but often are. For example, in my case, some very modern Christian music (David Crowder, Third Day, etc.) will foster emotions about God, but it’s not at all the same experience as sensing the nearness of the person of the Holy Spirit. The latter has an entirely different texture. Can these things happen together? Of course. Do they always? No. 

If you’ve ever witnessed a Roman Catholic Mass or Eastern Orthodox liturgy, you’ve likely experienced the many beautiful material/sensory trappings that often characterize them: candles, incense, golden crosses and chalices, ornately embroidered vestments, prayer beads, bells, tonal chants, and sometimes a sung liturgy. While I am not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, the high church experience is intensely worshipful for me. It is majestic, beautiful, and immersive. I sense with my whole self the holiness of God and the sacredness of worship. And, I know I’m not the only Protestant who would say this; based upon the many emails I’ve received from readers over the past few weeks, there are droves of us. Yet, many Protestant denominations almost entirely exclude these material elements from their practices. Why is this? 

I think the reason, sometimes, is what I have heard called Romaphobia–a strong disagreement with (even fear of) non-Protestant theology/ecclesiology characterized by a wholesale rejection of all things that look, feel, or sound “Catholic.” (Take note that this is definitely not the approach that was taken by the Reformers!) Churches, such as many parishes of the Anglican church, that have not thrown out the baby with the bathwater, are sometimes looked upon with suspicion. My very first experience of high church was at an Anglican church in California five years ago, and I remember being struck by the similarities between their worship and what I’d read and seen on television about Roman Catholic Mass. Thankfully, this did not repel me, despite the fact that I grew up around a ton of anti-Rome attitudes. 

Side Note: I’m reading Thomas McKenzie’s book, The Anglican Way right now, and it is phenomenal! So informative! 

embed-celtic-crossRecently, I attended worship at a local Anglican church (affiliated with the conservative Anglican Church in North America). It wasn’t the highest-of-high-church services, but it was a very incarnational experience nonetheless. Behind the linen-draped altar table  and rising above it, was an enormous cross carved in a Celtic style. Royal-looking lit candles were set at either end of the Lord’s table. The service opened with a procession of the vestment-clad Bishop, priests, and deacon down the center aisle, led by a young acolyte (I think that’s the term) holding a long rod with a golden cross at the top. The liturgy included the Nicene Creed being declared in unison by everyone present, as well as deeply theological spoken prayers. At several points, many attendees made the sign of the cross–forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, then back to chest. (I love that practice–crossing yourself to outwardly signify your identity in Jesus Christ!) The liturgy of the Eucharist was very reverent and formal, and it was the first time I’ve taken Communion on my knees, in front of a cross, with a priest serving the elements. At the end of the worship service, the Bishop walked out front and center to give a final blessing. In his hand, he carried what is called a crozier or bishop’s staff. It’s a large, hooked shepherd’s staff, and his was made of what appeared to be intricately-carved wood. The rich symbolism was immediately apparent to me–the Bishop’s Christ-appointed role is to shepherd those under his care.  

Make no mistake: I affirm that there is room in orthodox Christendom for different expressions of worship; I’m not saying that there is one specific “right way to do it.” (Nor am I saying that anything goes; do laser lights and smoke machines point people to Jesus? I doubt it.) What I find tragic is how much that is good has been lost in many Protestant denominations (in both worship and private devotion), sometimes (not always!) because their tradition sprang from a history of Romaphobia.