The missus and I finished the first two seasons of The Killing (better than Breaking Bad, not nearly as good as The Wire) and turned last night to the third season of Downton Abbey. After two episodes, I like the presence of Shirley Maclaine far more than I expected. The differences between Yanks and Brits on tradition and history is particularly intriguing and definitely ironic. Most citizens of the United States (Canadians are Americans after all) sympathize with the idea of ending tradition and letting estates like Downton be relegated to the ash heap of housing developments, representative government, and wireless internet. At the same time, the ongoing appeal of the British royalty and the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey prove that for all the common sense of equality, merit, and reason, many moderns still enjoy having around a ruling class with its pomp and circumstance. Perhaps that kind of tradition sets a standard that provides order even for those outside the ruling class, and it is a desire for order that keeps institutions like the British and Dutch monarchies alive. Whatever the explanation, I am betting the executives at BBC know that a series based on the Earl of Grantham and his estate will always pull in better ratings than a show based on Sybel’s husband, Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who can’t help spouting republicanism at family dinners and making uncomfortable all guests of aristocratic backgrounds, along his former peers among the downstairs help.
That appeal of estates, titles, wood-paneled libraries, grand dining rooms, dutiful servants, and formal dinner attire may explain why some Protestants find Rome or Canterbury a better brand of Christianity. Roman Catholics and Anglicans simply set a better formal dining room table than Presbyterians. Just compare the altar and Mass to the table and the Lord’s Supper. One is grand, the other is ordinary. It is comparable to the difference between Tom Branson and the Earl of Grantham. I might feel more comfortable having a pint with Tom, but I’d rather watch a series about the Earl.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard picked up on this dynamic somewhat in her reflections about why low-church Protestants turn to high-church communions:
The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.
Missing from this description is a recognition of the difference between liturgical styles in historic Christianity. The options are not simply high-church liturgies over against megachurch informality. Another layer of difference is one between simplicity and ornateness. Reformed Protestants have been sticklers for simplicity in worship. Reformed worship has plenty of reverence and transcendence but it comes from the word, read and preached, with the sacraments as illustrations. Anglicans and Roman Catholics derive reverence and transcendence from the show of the architecture, vestments, images, music (not Roman Catholics post Vatican II), and THE sacrament. It is like the difference between folks songs and opera. For Christians who want a sensual experience in worship, a Reformed Protestant service will come up short — too didactic and logocentric. For those same Christians, the P&W worship service will simply be tacky.
VanDoodewaard is on weaker footing when she goes on to commend Reformed churches for holding on to their children in ways that evangelicals do not:
But not all kids who grew up in American evangelicalism are jumping off into high church rite and sacrament: congregations that carefully teach robust, historic Protestant theology to their children are notably not losing them to the Vatican, or even Lambeth. Protestant churches that recognize their own ecclesiastical and theological heritage, training their children to value and continue it in a 21st century setting, usually retain their youth. These kids have the tools they need to think biblically through the deep and difficult issues of the day and articulate their position without having a crisis of faith.
I would like to see some statistics on this, but my own sense is that communions like the OPC (perhaps not representative but certainly one where a lot of theology is taught) do not retaining their children. For instance, at the recent General Assembly, roughly one-in-ten of the commissioners was a child of the OPC. All others had jumped from somewhere else to benefit from the OPC’s dedication to doctrine. Not even the attempts of the OPC to create something of a brand with its history (the OPC has to have more pages of history per capita than any other Presbyterian denomination) — not even all that history has left the next generation (or their parents) with a sense that they have joined a tradition that is bigger than they are. Sure, 1936 is not as impressive a starting point as 1857, 1618, 1560, 1534, or 33 AD. But conservative Reformed denominations generally have no fixed sense of identity apart from family ties. When membership is part of ethnic identity (say in the case of the Covenaters or the URC), the next generation is more likely to recognize a denomination as being bigger than its teaching and ministry. But when it is limited to teaching the truths of the Bible and the catechism, children after leaving home need only look for another church that teaches the Bible.
I don’t know what the fix is. I really don’t know how to create ties of institutional loyalty among teenagers and young adults who have only been in a conservative Reformed or Presbyterian denomination for possibly only half their lives. If mom and dad switched from an independent Bible-believing church to a Presbyterian communion, why can’t those parents’ children switch to another Bible-believing church? In other words, how do you connect family loyalty to church membership? Or should you when you consider what happens to ethnic denominations? At the same time, without some sort of link between blood and creed, middle-class Christians like Reformed Protestants are never going to set a table as elaborate or refined as the upper-class communions.