Liturgy: Praxis & Pistis

A record of the evolving understanding of Christian liturgy by an ordinary Christian who came to faith among the 20th Century great-grandsons of Ulrich Zwingli. Having left his cradle faith for more sacramental and liturgical climes (yet, still within classic Protestanism), Brother Quotidian seeks to understand the impact of liturgy on Christian spirituality and maturity, and to engage the critical comments, suggestions, and contributions to his quest from others he encounters on the same road.

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Location: North Texas, United States

A Christian since 1970, married since 1981, four-time father; vocational Christian minister; and, currently a priest in the United Anglican Church.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

From the SBC to Canterbury

So, how does a young boy, evangelized at a Southern Baptist revival in the middle of the Mojave Desert, wander into the Episcopal Church USA, and from there seek Holy Orders within an Anglican group that went outside the camp the last time the main-line Episcopals drove themselves into a ditch? This story may have interest for any whose spiritual journey has followed similar paths (or is about to). But, for the purposes of this blog, it provides an historical frame for the kinds of questions I’ve been asking the last decade. There is lots of the scenery along this route which will be ignored in what follows, which focuses on the features of the journey dealing with matters relevant to my current interest in liturgy and Christian maturity.


My earliest contact with the Christian faith happened in Vacation Bible School, hosted by the local Southern Baptist congregation in a desiccated hamlet in the Southern California desert. A Baptist matron in the neighborhood routinely gathered up children for a couple of blocks around my home (company housing, provided by the railroad to my father who worked for them) and carted them off to whatever Baptist function was underway – VBS, the latest revival, whatever.

Consequently, church was a combination of fun things laced liberally with fundamentalist religion and techniques for what today I would call spiritual formation. I remember vividly the competitiveness among the boys over who could memorize the most verses of the Bible during VBS. I remember the agony of remaining still and silent during pastoral prayers which seemed to last for hours. I have clear and powerful memories of the lengthy invitations to accept Jesus as your Savior, embedded in never-ending iterations of salvation hymns: “Just as I Am,” “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (what boy would not find occasion for hours of meditation on that image?), “Only Trust Him,” “Softly and Tenderly,” “Almost Persuaded,” “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” and many, many more. When I hear them sung today, they well up within me as I imagined the blood did that was drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. The lyrics of these hymns are quite literally engraved on my heart, and all I need are two or three measures of the melody and those lyrics glow in memory like the Ten Commandments as they were burned into the rock in Cecil B. de Mille’s rendering of that scene on Mt. Sinai.

All these images, scenes, sentiments, “environmental flavors” of church were replicated in other Southern Baptist congregations I encountered when we moved from the Southern California desert to the Texas Panhandle. What I did not know at the time is that my first lessons in the power of liturgy were taught to me by the Southern Baptists, who prided themselves as freed from dead rituals and religious mumbo jumbo.

As a junior in high school, I departed the Southern Baptists. In fact, I departed the Christian faith (there was no difference as far as I was concerned), because I had begun asking many questions which the good Baptist folk (Sunday School teachers, youth workers, my buddies) could not answer. Or, they gave unsatisfactory answers. Or, they chided me for asking. There were, I am sure, solidly orthodox SBC people who could have answered the questions, and had I run into them, I’d probably be a Southern Baptist today. But, I didn’t, and I’m not.


Mid-way through university, I ran into the sorts of people who could provide answers – other university students, well trained in apologetics, looking for some muddle-headed sap to practice on. They practiced on me, found that their apologetic skills were fruitful, and undertook to effect the next step of my spiritual formation: a vigorous immersion in evangelical (or, in many aspects, fundamentalist) instruction in Bible and theology. Happy as a pig in a wallow, I changed my major from the physical sciences (chemistry, then physics) to philosophy, so I could meet the entrance requirements of a premier evangelical, independent seminary (Dallas Theological Seminary). While doing that, I added a Greek minor to the German minor I’d already finished. After completing a 130 hour master of theology degree program, majoring in Hebrew and Old Testament, I embarked upon a vocational ministry as a pastor for the next decade.

As regards my understanding and experience of liturgy, the DTS years (along with the couple of years preparatory for them) made the following contributions:

Detachment from denominational distinctives: Several different streams of American main-line denominationalism converge at the founding of Dallas Seminary: Baptist, Presbyterian (Lewis Sperry Chafer, I’m told, used to argue strenuously for infant baptism when teaching his Anabaptist students), even Anglican (W. H. Griffith-Thomas). Insofar as DTS (and similar institutions) served to train men for pastoral ministry to the orthodox Protestant refugees of the liberalizing main-line denominations, it also implicitly fostered the kind of ecclesiology that produces Bible churches, interdenominational congregations, community churches, nondenominational assemblies, and the like. The ecclesial result is not so much “mere Christianity” as it is “generic Protestantism,” particularly the kind that initially defined itself as much by what it was not as anything else.

Zwinglian and Pietistic Protestantism: Two factors are significant for this discussion – (1) the Zwinglian anti-sacramental and anti-liturgical mindset, and (2) the primacy of pietism as the default mode of spiritual life. The latter was, of course, anti-sacramental and anti-liturgical, but more than that it pressed a positive program of cultivating the interior spiritual life of the Christian, cultivating the kinds of things that “strangely warm the heart,” to use Wesley’s phrase, things like revivalistic preaching, fervent group prayer, rousing hymn singing, personal devotions out of the Bible, and similar things which became staples of Christian spirituality among parachurch expressions of Christianity in America from the 1950s onward.

Sola Scriptura on Steroids: This was, of course, one of the main agendas of Dallas Seminary from the beginning. Because of the Bible’s nature as God’s inerrant Word, it was critical that future pastors trained at DTS be equipped to engage that Word in the original languages, as independent exegetes and expositors. Moreover, all doctrine worthy of the name was “Bible doctrine” – manifestly sprouting immediately from the soil of Scripture itself. While not exactly “suspect,” systematic theology held a lower place of honor to Biblical theology, which was understood (rightly or wrongly) to be “better” to the degree that its organic connection with the corpus of Holy Writ was more immediate.

The Old Testament as Frame and Context for New Testament Gospel: This aspect of my DTS years proved decisive in turning me toward liturgy and sacramental spirituality, and it would be unfair to say that this idea was commonly touted by the Seminary’s faculty. It was touted explicitly by my pastor prior to my entrance into seminary studies, and it was an idea expounded by several professors influential in forming my notions of spiritual life. These professors were mostly in the Old Testament Department (Waltke, Ross, Glenn), though one of the most influential was in the New Testament Department (S. Lewis Johnson). While none of these men (with the exception of Alan Ross) ever went full-tilt into sacramental/liturgical spirituality, they certainly opened a door for me, which I eventually walked through.


I walked through a door from pietistic, anti-sacramental, anti-liturgical Christian spirituality toward something more catholic (note the small “c”) for two reasons. I’ll mention both in turn, but only briefly as I’ll re-examine these reasons in detail in later articles.

The example of a Bob Jones graduate: Yup, that’s right. A graduate of Bob Jones University, who while he was pursuing graduate work there decided that the nonconformist churches of Great Britain were “too legalistic” for his tastes (the mind boggles, no?). Partly out of desperation, partly out of curiosity, partly out of sheer opportunity, he visited an Anglican parish service. Waiting for the service to begin, he leafed through the Book of Common Prayer, recognized it as orthodox and Reformed (reformed enough, at any rate), and discovered he had found a new ecclesiastical home. I heard this testimony some years after that epiphany, during a break in class while at DTS. And, though this did not propel me through the door, it was a testimony that lodged firmly in my memory and eventually reproduced itself in my own life.

The internal contradictions of my own spiritual journey: The inheritance I received from my pietistic, Zwinglian fathers in the faith, coupled with specific features of my DTS education, provoked tensions which matured into kinks and snarls so severe that passing through that door I just mentioned was the only reasonable way to resolve the stresses involved. While rightly esteeming the Bible’s teaching and example higher than any mere manmade tradition, I could not escape noticing that the spirituality of the Bible’s saints bore little resemblance to my cradle faith. Though living and worshipping and serving Christ in a tradition that dismissed tradition, particularly those Christian traditions whose most meager details were haunted by the holy, I was continually confronted in the Old Testament by a system of life, worship, and service designed by God Himself, which was enthusiastically, riotously sacramental and liturgical.

It took the better part of a decade to go through that door, a decade in which I pastored within the Christian communion that brought me a goodly measure of spiritual maturity and set me on a course of vocational ministry. The door itself was always there, though it took some years for me to perceive it. And, once I walked through it I could look back and see that the road I was on stretched all the way back to that those boyhood days among the Southern Baptists.


For the past 15 years (since 1990), I have lived, worshipped, and served within the Episcopal Church USA. Those days within ECUSA were cut off by the consecration of Gene Robinson, an act that was not only a violent repudiation of Biblical teaching, but also a monstrous perversion of sacramental spirituality. But, those years within ECUSA roundly confirmed all the fearful suppositions which prompted me to enter that community. At the time I did so, I knew enough to seek a Christian communion that was self-consciously sacramental in its spirituality and liturgical in its worship. Any number of Lutheran communions might have sufficed (the local LCMS congregation’s Eucharist was closed to me, absent being recathecized and confirmed); or, perhaps, a high-church Presbyterian fellowship (again, the local Presbyterians had a pastor far too theologically liberal for comfort). The Episcopalians could easily have been another disappointment, but in this case the parish priest was a man of sound spiritual instincts, fundamental orthodoxy, and generous enthusiasm for deploying me in the local parish ministry. When I departed ECUSA recently, there was nothing about that sad severance of fellowship which related to anyone or anything in the local parish ministry.

But, needing to break formal fellowship with ECUSA, I find myself also needing to remain within a Christian communion that plays with a complete deck of cards, as it were – committed to the authority of the Bible and the Apostolic ministry found within its pages, and exercised in the patterns of prayer and worship that flow from the Bible down through the prayers and worship of innumerable saints over the past 2,000 years. Again, several different Christian communions would suffice; in the providence of God, I’m settling into one of the “continuing jurisdictions” of Anglican Christianity that have departed ECUSA during the past three or four decades of its slide into apostasy.


This blog will, Lord willing, afford me the occasion to repair some foundations which the old Episcopalianism in America let go to ruin, and to expand some foundations on which the Zwinglian Christian culture of American Protestantism can extend its mission and life. Said another way, I’m past the place where I’m looking for ways to color in all those blank areas of my spiritual canvas, as I mentioned in the first entry to this blog. Instead, I’m wanting to figure out the whys and wherefores of worship so that I may teach others about the blessings I have found.


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