Originally posted November 2004.
In the early part of the new millennium, a large Evangelical church set itself to build a new sanctuary, tripling its seating capacity in the process. It had the usual capital stewardship programme and, having lined up financing for the rest, began construction.
One of the features of the new sanctuary was that it would have chairs rather than pews. This has been an ongoing trend in Evangelical churches for some time. In addition to being less expensive and more comfortable than pews, chairs actually can seat more people in a given floor space because they define everyone’s “space” in the audience. (People tend to spread out more in pews.)
Unfortunately, there were differences of opinion in the congregation on this issue. One group of people, regarded as the “patriarchs and matriarchs” of the church, could not stand the thought of a multi-million US Dollar structure to have chairs rather than pews. They were fully aware of the existing plans; therefore, they waited until the pastor was travelling to present their idea to the building committee. Since the pews would add a considerable sum to the cost of the building, they promised to raise the difference, a doubtful commitment at best since they had failed to raise the cost of an earlier project.
Nevertheless the building committee, lacking the stomach for a protracted fight, gave in. (The pastor didn’t have the stomach for a fight either.) The church was completed with pews, which resulted not only in the additional expense (they did raise the money in the end, but the funds could have been used elsewhere) but also in the loss of about 10% of the seating.
Most Episcopalians and Anglicans are probably sympathetic with such a desire for “tradition” in church architecture. Most of them are better heeled to finance such tradition as well. However, if we stop and take a look at the history of Christianity in the English speaking world since the Reformation, we will see that, from a purely Anglican standpoint, churches such as this have no business spending money in the name of “tradition.”
The years immediately following the Act of Supremacy and the nationalisation of Roman Catholicism in England were chaotic ones; the “English Reformation” was only properly established when Elizabeth I mounted the throne. It seemed that the Church of England had everything. It had a beautiful, vernacular liturgy, penned by word smiths such as Thomas Cramner. It had a Protestant theology, but also had the apostolic succession as well. It was the legal religion of the realm. And finally, it had the power of the state to keep dreaded “Popery” out of the realm. Everyone should have been happy.
They weren’t. There were those who thought the church needed “purifying,” especially of its Episcopal government. So they started campaigning against that. Then they didn’t like the vestments; some ministers had tar thrown on their vestments, others had them dumped in the river. Then there was the matter of the liturgy, which some thought was totally unbiblical. Archbishop William Laud made the fatal miscalculation of attempting to impose it on the pesky Scots; Jenny Geddes threw her famous stool during its first “celebration” in Scotland, helping to precipitate the English Civil War. (I went to college with a Geddes, but she was nicer, probably because she was Catholic.) Both Laud and Charles I lost their heads over the whole thing and Oliver Cromwell essentially abolished Anglican religion during the Protectorate. By the Restoration, England was tired of strong religion, which damaged both Christianity in general in the British Isles and the Church of England itself.
Things got off to a promising start in the New World when, in 1607, Anglican chaplain Robert Hunt prayed that the Gospel would go out from the region around Cape Henry in Virginia to all of the world, a prayer answered by Regent University. Further to the north, though, people of the same ilk as Cromwell were setting up shop in Massachusetts. Moreover the same group of people who threw stools in Scotland were settling en masse in the Colonies, carrying with them their dislike of Anglicanism. In the wake of the Revolution, the Church of England was disestablished in all of the Southern colonies (now states.) In South Carolina, an Anglican minister who made the mistake of going upstate was tarred, feathered and sent back to Charleston. The “rowdies” had not only birthed a nation but taken command of their religion.
The nineteenth century brought more innovations. Led by preachers such as Charles Finney, “new measures” were introduced, such as the “mourner’s bench,” the ancestor of altars in Pentecostal churches. The emphasis on making a decision for Christ indicated that many churches were freeing themselves from a rigidly Calvinistic view of election, a change facilitated by the Anglican John Wesley (and based in part on Article XVI.) But there were other new measures in worship, polity, and music which brought worship in many churches far away from the “uniformity” of Anglican worship. The rise of Pentecostal churches in the twentieth century brought more changes, such as speaking in tongues, emotional manifestations during worship, even drums in church.
Like it or not, the result of all of these things has been the salvation of many who otherwise would have never had a chance at eternal life in Jesus Christ. It also has created a church polity and worship structure that has been carried around the world and changed more eternities. In spite of institutional disunity, it has survived and thrived in places ruled by opposition such as Islam, the Communist Party, and the ACLU.
Yet through all of these changes and shedding of “formalism” there was one quantity that people began to miss: respectability. Evangelical Christianity is eternally torn between its need to win the lost at any cost and its desire to impress the lost at any cost. Hence we have conflicts such as the one over the pews. In the U.S., the Episcopal Church grew tremendously between 1930 and 1965 by catering to the latter, a gain it has completely squandered in the subsequent takeover by the left. Many of those who strive for “respectability” do so oblivious to the fact that their spiritual–and physical–ancestors strove to root out a really respectable, state supported religion in the name of Jesus Christ.
And what of Anglican and Episcopal churches today? Now we see the spectacle of lifelong Episcopalians abandoning their church property and affiliation so they can truly worship the Father “in the beauty of holiness.” Many of the churches whose property they are using are churches of the same kind that rejected Anglican hegemony more than two centuries earlier. Others are forced to worship in their rector’s or a parishioner’s house. They’re not quite to the stage where “They were stoned to death, they were tortured, they were swan asunder, they were put to the sword; they wandered about clothed in the skins of sheep or goats, destitute, persecuted, ill-used–men of whom the world was not worthy–roaming in lonely places, and on the mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:37-38), but if we get hate crimes legislation passed, that’s the next step.
Anglicans–both in North America and elsewhere–have the chance to demonstrate to everyone that their religion is not only worth going to church for on Sunday, but worth living and dying for, as it was for Cramner, Latimer, Ridley and Laud. If they stand firm in the faith, the whole Body of Christ will be the better for it–and that includes the “rowdies.”