On Christmas in New Orleans, Latitudinarians and Evangelicals

This is the time of year when we think of, amongst other things, all the things we were doing and experiencing at this time of the year in days past.  For me, this Christmas is a milestone in one respect: forty years ago now, I was in New Orleans, along with my entire family, on a most un-Christmaslike mission.

Although people have definite associations with why to visit the Crescent City, for me and my family New Orleans has always loomed large for other reasons.  My father’s mother was from there, and she came too, lamenting what a dump the place had become since she had grown up in the Garden District.  A good deal of our family business’ sales went to New Orleans and South Louisiana, so there were business calls to make (we even made a side trip to Morgan City, see photo below.)

This trip, however, was in a league of its own: after four months of traction and messing around back home, the doctors had decided that drastic action was needed on my mother’s intense back pain.  So off we went to the Ochsner Hospital, and two weeks before Christmas she had a spinal fusion.  Initial recovery from this was simple but excruciating: she had to be completely immobile while the fusion started to heal into the spine.  So we retained round the clock duty nurses and waited until the fusion was strong enough where she could be flown home.

My mother was never one to expect (or really want) the “24/7” family room vigil that is ingrained in Southern culture, so when we weren’t seeing Dad’s customers, dining at Commander’s Palace (as my great-grandparents had done,) hitting the Café du Monde or experiencing our first microwave oven (at Ochsner’s automat) we were out in our dad’s rental car.  My brother believed that there were three types of cars made in the U.S.—Pontiac, Pontiac and Pontiac—so the fact that we had a Bonneville was a special treat.  South Louisiana isn’t the best place to really put the pedal to the metal, but we did our best, and we were amazed at just how fast the car would go.  Evidently oblivious to the kind of hurts Judge Perez’ boys could put us in, after another fast run we pulled over, our curiosity getting the best of us.  We were incredulous when we popped the hood and discovered that the car had a 455 cu.in. engine.  Amazed they would equip a rental car in this way, we now understood the performance.

That Christmas, unique in many ways, was a “last Christmas” for several reasons.  It was my brother’s last Christmas before graduating from military school.  It was our last Christmas to live in Palm Beach.  It was also my last Christmas as an Episcopalian.  Before we celebrated our Lord’s birth again, my brother graduated and went on to maritime academy, we moved down the coast, and I swam the Tiber, where I stayed for most of the decade.

It’s only been in the last decade when I meaningfully reconnected with my Anglican/Episcopal roots, and part of that has been a recent reading of L.P. Curtis’ Anglican Moods of the Eighteenth Century.  It’s an interesting look at the two major threads of Anglican life and spirituality in the century the British Empire became the greatest in the world, even with the independence of the American colonies.  It’s also before the Oxford Movement and the emergence of “unEnglish and unmanly” Anglo-Catholicism in the following century.  On the Evangelical side, the central figure was John Wesley, whose Methodist movement eventually made its exit from the Church of England (and ultimately spawned the Wesleyan, Holiness and Pentecostal movements.)  For the most part the figures on the Latitudinarian side such as Joseph Butler and John Tillotson are mere names to most other than Anglican specialists, but one is immediately familiar to political conservatives: John Locke.

The Methodists’ departure in England, and even more so the stampede out the narthex in the newly independent United States, left Latitudinarianism with the upper hand in the Anglican world.  That was very much in evidence in the Episcopal Church I was raised in; in fact, it was one of the appeals the church had.  It’s hard for Evangelicals outside of the Anglican/Episcopal world to think of growing the church via the determined apathy that one found in traditional Episcopalianism, but until the upheavals of the 1960’s, that’s exactly what happened.

It’s tempting to think that the Latitudinarians’ chief mission in life was to give the “box checkers” (to use a Catholic term) comfort, but that’s not entirely justified.  The aforementioned champions of nice English religion were very interested in defending Christianity against the attacks present at the time, principally deism at home and atheism across the Channel.  Their defence tended to run in an intellectual way, albeit nowhere near as rigorous as their Roman Catholic counterparts.  But defence it was.  They (especially Locke) were concerned with the proper ordering and conduct of society, and the principles traditionally associated with American polity bring us to owe a debt of gratitude for this if nothing else.

So why could I not bring myself to continue in a Latitudinarian way?  There were and are several reasons for this.

The first is that the New Testament I read demands a lot more from a person than the Latitudinarians would allow.  That was especially evident in a place like Palm Beach.

The second is that the Episcopal Church, or at least the “radicals” I started to run into in prep school, had stopped believing in it and were more attuned to “social justice” issues, to say nothing of “situational ethics” and other new causes.  An institution which abandons its core beliefs and then demands institutional loyalty is asking too much.

The third is that the world around me couldn’t be survived with just a “nice” religion.  To really work, Latitudinarianism or other belief and practice like it requires ideal conditions.  Those ideal conditions weren’t to be found in a world which had (and still has) lost its senses.  Such a religion also lacks “cred” in lower economic strata, which is why Wesley and his successors have made such headway there.

I still get the feeling that, in spite of—or maybe because of—all of the hard stands and institutional chaos of the last decade, many Anglicans inwardly yearn to return to the church of Butler, Tillotson, Locke or even Anthony Trollope.  But that’s not the world we live in.  Like the Bonneville that my brother and I cruised around our ancestral homeland in, the church needs spiritual horsepower to get where we are going, and that’s best found in the churches and movements that are Wesley’s progeny.

Let me take this opportunity wish all my visitors at Positive Infinity—especially those from the Anglican/Episcopal world, and of course my Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends, along with my fellow Wesleyan Pentecostals—a very blessed Christmas, as we celebrate our Saviour coming into the world.

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