I really liked the Rev. Sarah Condon’s “Cradle Episcopalians: Who Cares?” I don’t think that the post is necessarily anti-institutional, especially considering that it is written by a priest in active ministry. I think it reveals the real strength of institutional belonging.
Condon is most troubled by a classical Protestant anxiety: self-justification before God. Here, self-justification takes as its vehicle an ecclesial status inevitably bound up with familial background, self-conscious performance (“how long we have been going to church”), and bourgeois respectability (“good breeding”). Condon never claims that this form of self-justification is exclusive among Episcopalians. She argues instead that clinging to ecclesial status has become most obviously questionable when in the dress of Episcopalians: the once prestigious church is now in decline; its social cachet now reminds one of the emptiness of Mad Men.
We can argue that versions of ecclesial self-justification exist, if somewhat less conspicuously, in many different churches. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken of “ecclesial introversion,” and, commenting on the Patriarch’s words, Pope Francis has recognized the “sinful habit of the church to look too much at itself as it if believed it had its own light.”
Today in the United States, church membership is often connected to what the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and others have called bourgeois respectability and “a family-centered moral logic,” and congregants often attend “partly as a way of displaying to their fellow congregants, who are often their neighbors and friends, their sense of responsibility and their commitment to familism” and to receive moral reinforcement.
On the other hand, many working-class people, who are unable to attain respectability or show familism (weddings cost money), experience cognitive dissonance and real discomfort in church and do not attend. So, in many churches, ecclesial self-justification seems to be bound up with other forms of social and economic self-justification, many of which may indeed be seen as “good breeding.”
If Condon is opposed to ecclesial self-justification, then, she has good grounds for her objection. But is her opposition corrosive to catholicity? I don’t think that it has to be. She speaks very fondly of the faithful laywomen in her mission church. They seem quite Episcopalian — they turn a trailer into Narnia, after all. They presumably haven’t become the bad sort of “cradle Episcopalian” because they simply lack the usual tools for self-justification: their church is a trailer, and probably not even a Gothic trailer; their church, in the South, doesn’t attract the respectable crowd but is full of “Styrofoam cups” and “cigarette butts” and “tobacco spit.” These women are hardly status-obsessed. In fact, the very last words of Condon’s paragraph — describing how they selflessly picked up trash — are, movingly, “without comment.”
Condon also speaks fondly of Sam Smith. For her, I think, the truth of Sam Smith is that he presents a form of modern religiosity that, in its raw honesty, reveals the inauthenticity of ecclesial self-justification, not least as it forcefully suggests the distance of the self-justifying church from its own texts and the overwhelming, total need for God’s mercy.
The characteristics of this modern religiosity, as far as I can tell, are the positing of a figure in an existential crisis so severe that he must turn to a remembered language of religious gestures and rituals, such as prayer or falling upon his knees. The figure makes it clear that, no, he is not a believer because it would be hypocritical for him to claim that status. In fact, he rejects any form of otherworldliness or dogmatism. He finally ends by being caught in a dialectic between trust and despair (“Maybe I’ll pray, pray, maybe I’ll pray / I’ve never believed in you, no, but I’m gonna pray”). Condon claims that the self-justifying church simply cannot take such a figure seriously, because his quasi-prayer is about the sheer failure of human agency before God (“When I try to explain, the words run away”) and the self-justifying church is about the human achievement of quasi-holiness and respectability.
It’s notable that the figures Condon likes — those faithful laywomen with their trailer/Narnia and Sam Smith with his anguished, authentic prayer for mercy — are still using traditional religious language. For them, however, the religious language is a form of self-emptying, not self-justification. The question is whether we can only learn to use religious language in that way, as opposed to sinfully distorting it into self-exaltation, through identifying with a tradition that has been sustained in institutions over time — over an entire lifetime, perhaps.
That is, I think, the argument of catholicity. Thus, Rowan Williams has contrasted the “instant assent” to “straightforward revelation” demanded by fundamentalism to a more orthodox idea that God’s grace, over time, modifies “the way self and world are sensed” and lets us discern a new narrative of our lives, including the “difficult or unmanageable times.” The recognition that language is bound up to time might be a specifically Catholic idea, and if we can only get away from ourselves through learning how to speak ancient words, it might be good to start learning from the cradle.