Evangelical versus Liturgical?: Defying a Dichotomy
eerdmans, 165 pages, $17
Ever since the 1994 publication of the Evangelicals and Catholics together document (ECT), and with renewed urgency in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and the increased acceptance of same-sex marriage, there has been a growing affiliation between Rome and various evangelical traditions. The alliance has been based largely on the growing awareness that creedal Christian orthodoxy is in a marginal position in the public square. Despite their long history of conflict, Catholics and evangelicals have realized that they will be stronger if they face their challenges together.
However, while the force of necessity does wonders for forming alliances, it does not always forge genuine friendships. While there has certainly been an increase in collaboration between evangelicals and Catholics in recent years, there has not been an attendant growth in understanding of the other tradition’s actual theology. This lack of thoughtful interaction with the opposite tradition’s actual beliefs can wreak havoc on the ecumenical work begun by ECT.
One of the most common tropes in many conversations between evangelicals and Catholicsor even between low-church evangelicals and high-church evangelicalshas been that of the liturgical poverty of evangelicalism. This is precisely why Melanie Ross’s Evanglical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy is so timely in its attempts to translate the liturgical practices and beliefs of evangelicals into language that high-church readers might better understand.
The book is anchored by two useful case studies: Ross attends worship services at two evangelical churches and then talks about how the various aspects of evangelical liturgy fit together, commenting on the singing, the sermons, and the use of prayer in evangelical liturgy. The term may sound oxymoronic to some. Ross sees the low liturgies of many evangelical congregations as based on the idea that you can emphasize liturgical order or the regeneration brought about by the Holy Spirit, but not both.
As a result, evangelical liturgical practices tend to be far more fluid than the practices of more high church traditions, as the practices flow from a belief that spiritual regeneration precedes liturgical practiceand regeneration cannot be reduced down to easily identified physical characteristics. Attempts to compare evangelical liturgical practices to those of more high church traditions are often doomed from the start because of the fundamentally different assumptions that undergird both.
Ross offers a defense of evangelical liturgical practices (perhaps better described as “norms,” actually) by putting Catholic scholar Aidan Kavanagh into conversation with Anglican theologian John Webster. Kavanagh is presented as a fairly typical high-church critic of evangelical liturgy who argues that liturgy ought to take priority over scripture because it is within the liturgy that scripture becomes intelligible. Webster argues against Kavanagh’s prioritization of liturgy, saying that the chief evil of fundamentalism is not, contra Kavanagh, that “scripture has been severed from its liturgical context, but that it has been severed from its Trinitarian context.” By developing the theme of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church through both word and sacrament, Ross is able to lay a foundation that explains much of what is done in the evangelical liturgy.
Ross’s command of primary sources is impressive. She ranges from popular (and deserving) scapegoat Charles Finney whose preoccupation with individual conversions completely removed from the life of the Church led to many of evangelicalism’s worst contemporary excesses, to revival preacher George Whitefield, to the much more obscure theologian John Nevin. Nevin, whose thought has at times been compared to that of notable Catholic convert John Henry Newman, is a particularly intriguing figure to bring in, as he was at the center of a nineteenth-century fight over evangelical liturgical practices; he spent many years debating Princeton theologian Charles Hodge about the role of the sacraments in the life of the Christian and the life of the Church.
Nevin was attempting to articulate an approach to Christian faith that was both Protestant and catholic, placing a great emphasis on Christian unity and on the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life. His disputes with Hodge make for fascinating reading when set alongside more recent sacramental debates amongst evangelicals. By bringing in such a diverse range of voices, Ross manages to highlight the consistent interest evangelicals have had in liturgical topics and the many ways in which they have addressed these questions while remaining consistently protestant.
In one of Ross’s most effective chapters, she argues that low-church evangelical liturgy has taken many of its cues from the Gospel of John, while more high-church traditions have tended to look toward the synoptics. She cites John’s emphasis on personal faith, de-emphasis of high offices, and prioritization of Christology as ways in which this particular gospel has deeply influenced low-church liturgical practices. Ross’s goal here, she tells us, is not to establish which reading or which liturgical practice ought to be favored. She seeks instead to highlight that the breadth of scripture suggests that a breadth of interpretations can be welcomed and affirmed by the Christian church. Ross writes, “Nonsacramental Christianity is one faithful way of embodying the shared confession of faith. My hope is that the discipline of liturgical studies is wide enough to embrace ‘both-and’ without mandating ‘either-or.’”
Yet for all the book’s strengths, it is one thing to demonstrate that a system of thought or group of practices are coherent; it is quite another to demonstrate that they are good. While any fair-minded high-church reader of Ross’s work should be able to finish this book with a greater understanding of evangelical liturgical practices, I am not sure that he will come away from this book feeling more sympathetic to low-church evangelicalism. It is possible, in fact, that greater theological clarity might bring about greater discomfort, as some high-church readers may see their worst fears being confirmed in these elucidating pages, particularly by phrases like “nonsacramental Christianity.” Furthermore, those already suspicious of the excesses of Finney and Whitefield are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise by Ross’s discussion of their role in the formation of evangelical liturgical practices.
Still, it is better to have an informed conversation than an uninformed one. In her book, Melanie Ross has provided us with an affectionate framing of evangelical liturgical practices that will surely bring a greater and much-needed clarity to the conversation between evangelicals and high-church Christians, if not a greater sympathy.
Jake Meador’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, Books & Culture, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.