The Real Presence Won’t Get People Out of the Episcopal Church

Thad Stevens wonders why it’s hard to get people out of the Episcopal Church:

Most Common Cause parishes don’t compare favourably with neighbouring Episcopal parishes in worship and the Sacraments. In most cases, the problem isn’t due to size or limited financial resources, but to attitude–‘snake-belly’ low services and sloppy celebrations of the Eucharist don’t appeal to most Episcopalians. Aesthetics are also important: the appearance of the sanctuary or other worship site can often be improved without spending a lot of money. Music can easily be adapted to be like that of neighbouring Episcopal or Roman Catholic parishes. But neither of these will be effective without a change in attitude regarding the Real Presence. It is often said in marketing that “enthusiasm sells,” but “sincerity convinces.”

Having grown up in this, I can attest to the appeal of the aesthetics–architectural and otherwise–of old (or old looking) Episcopal churches.  But he makes the a priori assumption that High Church worship and the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are tied together.  My years as a Roman Catholic tell me this is not the case:

Bethesda (by-the-Sea Episcopal Church) wasn’t quite an Anglo-Catholic church then, but the undertow was there: very formal liturgy (and trained acolytes to help with it,) paid youth and adult choirs to make sure they got it right, and very long (~1 hr 30 min) Holy Communions with all of Cramner’s antique prose topped off by the 1928 Prayer Book’s prayer for the dead.  And everyone dressed up for the occasion.

St. Edward’s (Roman Catholic Church) was a whole different story: modern liturgy (the Novus Ordo Missae had only been official for two years,) no music at many Masses, no intonations of “Gawd” from the altar like the Episcopalians did.  Without music and with the right celebrant, thirty-five minutes and the sacred mysteries were done, at which point all of the men stampeded out in their golf shirts, presumably having made a tee time at the Everglades Club or the Breakers.  (Catholics’ way of dressing down for Mass was way ahead of its time.)

Anglo-Catholicism always liked a “frillier” form of Christianity, presumably because it looked and felt good and because it helped to drive home the sacredness of what they were doing.  Roman Catholicism can certainly do the ceremonial when the occasion calls for it, but the efficacy of the sacraments is driven by the nature of the church, not because of how elaborately the sacred mysteries are celebrated.

I am an ardent exponent of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  But that doesn’t necessarily require an elaborate, formal and frilly High Church worship to make it a reality.  For those Pentecostals who are dabbling in liturgical experimentation, it’s a lesson worth taking.  And for Anglicans who are wondering why their Episcopal counterparts don’t leave, it’s something to keep in mind.

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