This is an unusually long post for me, and if I were you I’d skip it. It’s just something I needed to get down in writing.
Every once in a while I’ll pick up a P.D. James book just to get away from theology and immerse myself in a good British murder mystery, and what do I get? Theology!
A sub-theme that runs through many of her books explores the struggles of contemporary British religion in which the C of E is regarded, mostly, as a moderately charming, anachronistic and quite minor adornment to the upper-class pomp and circumstances of British society that have become the mainstays of its tourist industry. Modern Brits who actually have to live in that society must work in an around all of that with a certain respect for what it offers to the economy, and some residual pride in it as well, but they don’t have to take it seriously, and, as far as the C of E is concerned, they are unable to connect whatever it has to offer with the ultimate questions of life that trouble their minds and souls.
Other denominations, if mentioned at all, are perceived as having retained the dead faith of the C of E without keeping the only thing of value it had to offer, its rites and rituals. They are like sails full of wind with no ship beneath them.
Nevertheless, her books are populated by characters who know they are missing something of great value, who constantly struggle with, even battle, the God in whom they don’t believe, and who have a nagging suspicion that maybe the Church actually does hold the key to the most important mystery of all. The fact is that she does a terrific job of describing the contemporary agnostic and atheistic mind sets, and maybe we should pay a little more attention to that if we are to become better evangelists.
Of course we are Americans, not Brits, and Americans believe in God don’t they? All the surveys say they do. So, as evangelists, all we have to do is explain to people who already believe in God why it is that they should do that in our churches and according to our doctrines, rites and rituals. Right?
I’m more inclined to think that we have our own version of the C of E and it’s not the Episcopal Church. It’s Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism may not be a denomination, or even all that easy to define, but it seems to me to be an adornment to America’s own version of tradition. In it’s current form it does that through five tenets of beliefe. It affirms a certain romance connected with the right to bear arms as an icon of our independence by being staunchly protective of the Second Amendment, excluding all others, as if it was one of the Ten Commandments. It gives the impression that once one has said the “Sinner’s Prayer” and accepted Jesus as one’s personal savior, one must turn one’s full attention to condemning homosexuality, endorsing creationism, and becoming rigidly anti-abortion, all in the name of family or traditional American values.
The media portray it not as a lifeless but charming icon such as the C of E, but as part of the life force of America, and to a certain extent they are right. But I think the great, oh what is that term? Ah, yes, the great silent majority, are more inclined to see Evangelicalism, however defined, as an anachronistic entertainment not so much different from Civil War reenactments and preserved colonial villages. Evangelicalism has become a symbol of something that defines America to the world, but in which most contemporary Americans don’t actually live or participate. As a result, Evangelicalism is not likely to draw the questioning unbeliever toward God in Christ, but keep them away.
Nevertheless, like the agnostics and atheists in James’ novels, their questions persist about the ultimate meaning of life, and there is always a nagging sense that, perhaps buried somewhere in American Evangelicalism, is the key to the answers. I think that they are right. The key that is so deeply buried is the truth of God in Christ that is at the very heart of what we Episcopalians and other mainline denominations (including Roman Catholics) are most able to unearth and hand over. To do that we must become bold evangelists, and that’s the subject for another essay.