Since the canonical expulsion of orthodox Christianity from the Episcopal Church my wife and I have worshipped with an Evangelical congregation, primarily because of its pastor--a friend whose thoughtful, learned, and judicious preaching is always worth hearing. Like nearly everyone who has spent years with the Book of Common Prayer, however, we badly miss a thoughtful, learned, and judicious service of worship to accompany it. While this church, is much, much better than most of its kind, it is still subject to the many vaguaries of a free-form worship, undisciplined by any tradition but its own.
Because of this it would take a visitor a while to confirm that the church is trinitarian. The Creed is not regularly repeated, and the hymnody strongly favors the worship of Jesus. The pastor is aware of the problem, so frequently invokes the Name of the Holy Trinity. But there’s not much of this in what Evangelicals call “worship,” which has lately become almost synonymous with the singing of “praise choruses.” The Father and Spirit are not ignored in these, but the praise usually goes to Jesus.
In the paths I travel have heard from time to time some muted remarks about the tendency of Evangelicals to direct their worship to Jesus rather than the Father. This never seemed to me much cause for concern because the Son and the Spirit are to be worshipped with the Father, and Evangelical churches are by definition trinitarian.
Lately, though, it has struck me that the hymnody of churches like the one we attend are indeed very heavily weighted toward the worship of the Son so that the Father, who is greater than the Son and Spirit, and who is to be the Principal toward whom worship is directed, actually is given a place inferior to that of the Son, in a way similar to the elevation of the Spirit among Pentecostals. Perhaps this has always been the case with this form of American pietism and I am just beginning to notice it, but it bothers me that most of what we sing in church could be just as readily be sung in those modalist congregations--and we have a number of these “Unitarians of the Second Person” in our area--which blend the Persons of the Trinity into “Jesus.” But if it is an old problem, certainly things haven't become any better in this regard during my lifetime.
It is a question worth asking whether this soft displacement in the hierarchy of the Godhead in worship may be related in some deeper way to the weakness of Evangelicalism in regard to other divinely instituted orders. I am not only speaking here of its susceptibility to the egalitarian heresy (which begins in anthropological modalism in its definition of “human”) but of nearly everything that has to do with the life and mind of these churches.
A homely example: I am asked by high church Lutheran about the arrangement of the platform (chancel) furniture in an Evangelical church. The pulpit is elevated above the communion table, and in the center. He doesn’t like this, but understands the reason. But what of those flags? What is the meaning of their arrangement? The American flag is given the place the Flag Code demands for it in all such display situations: in the place of honor on the speaker’s right. But what is that other flag over there on the speaker’s left? Ah--that is a fairly recent invention called the “Christian Flag.” The kids learn, or at least used to learn, a pledge to it which indicates that it stands for the Savior’s Kingdom. But why, then, if that is the case, is it given a place on the podium inferior to that of a national emblem--any national emblem? This is a clear symbolic statement that the Kingdom of God is being treated--in a church, forsooth!--as in some sense inferior or subordinate to the United States of America, as the flag of Denmark, for example, would take the lesser place if displayed with the American flag--a statement found in the place of honor to which every eye is lifted in this, a Christian church, to which, according to our doctrine, every Christian from every nation, even enemy nations, belongs. What is a reasonable person to infer from all this?
But this is not a reasoned thing. It wasn’t the intention of those who placed the flags to imply any such thing about the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. They’ve read their Bibles and know better. They have just not thought it through with application to their podium arrangements, and their movement hasn’t gotten around yet to assigning anybody important to study things like this--or rather, some influential pastor hasn't risked being identified as unpatriotic by writing a book on it yet, and Christianity Today hasn’t sponsored a forum, the invariable premise of which is that good Evangelicals can believe anything those invited believe. They’re not heretics, just ignorant, I explained--but my friend didn’t think much of my explanation, for reasons I’m sure our readers won’t find edifying.
I return here to a passage from C. S. Lewis to which I have referred many times because it so vividly explains the normal progress of apostasy, something that has troubled me for many years in my concern for Evangelical churches in which I was born, raised, and had my initial theological training. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes the downward path of a liberal churchman:
Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because we found it modern and successful. . . . Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed in the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point a which (for the moment) he believes another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity, they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.The apostasy of a church rarely happens as the result of an epiphany; it is normally a slow process involving “certain currents of ideas” plunged into because they seem modern and successful, a drift, unresisted, unstudied (or only prejudicially studied), and prayed about dishonestly only after the current has been entered. After years of concentrating on the worship of Jesus (lex orandi), God becomes something subtly but significantly different in our minds than the Trinity of orthodox faith (lex credendi), just as after years of adjusting the scriptures to answer to our sect’s distinctive beliefs, elementally profound departures from the faith and practice of the universal church seem no more than reasonable concessions to the way people think these days, and what they enjoy (how else can we “evangelize” them?). These are now taken up into our doctrine and defended by the same kind of dodging we have always used to avoid the parts of the Bible that trouble us.