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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sizzle but Not the Steak

Is it just my imagination or is dressing up and playing Catholic on the increase among Protestants? Here you may read about this country's premier liturgical outfitters of Catholic vestments to Protestants, C.M. Almy & Son, in Greenwich CT, who are enjoying a banner (not felt, I hope) year, with sales of vestments and liturgical fashion accessories way up. Not surprisingly, Almy's biggest customers are Episcopalians (but followed by Catholics). More surprising, however, is that "Pentecostalists have become major customers."

Does this alb make me look fat?

Meanwhile, Christopher Johnson, in his Midwest Conservative Journal, points to a piece in the Boston Globe reporting the fairly staggering news that increasing numbers of Baptist ministers, particularly black Baptists, are taking the title of "Bishop"and are even dressing the part (in far more authentic and tasteful fashion than many of their Catholic counterparts, I should add).

All of this of course raises a question: why, after stripping the altars, burning the vestments, whitewashing the walls, smashing the statuary, stained glass, organs and icons at the onset of the Protestant reformation have virtually all the mainstream Protestant denominations restored so many of those previously despised elements of Romish worship to their own worship? The Globe article quotes a professor of religion who explains, with regard to the black Baptist bishops, that it is 'now possible because the 400-year-old fear of an all-powerful hierarchy has faded into a distant memory,' "and it now feels" 'safer to borrow and reappropriate historic practices that once were considered to be theologically problematic...' Perhaps.

I cannot help wondering, though, if the real reason behind Protestant efforts at the "Catholicization" of their churches and worship is an attempt to re-infuse the magnum mysterium that was lost in the reformers' mistaken attempts to return to the ecclesiology and practices of early Christian worship. I wonder also if these wistful modern restorers will ever realize how futile and empty their attempts are without concomitant recognition of the central element of the mass: the real presence in the Eucharist. For it is the actual presence of Christ that is the raison d'etre for all those glorious trappings of Catholic worship latter day Protestants seem to admire so much; without it they are no more than pretty decorations. Should you have any doubt of that, take a stroll sometime through the otherwise magnificent Riverside Church in Manhattan and note the palpably leaden emptiness of the place, especially when you reach the apse.

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