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I want to tell you about two performances I attended this weekend. In the first, there were several superb actors, a director, a well-rehearsed script, an intriguing plot about life, love, and responsibility. The setting was positively Shakespearean. The backdrop was an actual Neo-Gothic church complete with gold leafed columns and angelic stained glass.

The trouble was that no one there intended it to be a play. A good friend was having his second child christened as a child of the Catholic faith. Now I realize some of you think RCC is the whore of Babylon or at least the tramp of the Tiber and others of you just disagree or you wouldn’t be protestants. This post isn’t about theological heresy. Its about the play that I saw. My friend and his wife are not Catholic. I don’t even think the supporting players posing as the god-parents were Catholic. And just about everyone there knew it. They had no intention of raising their child as anything other than a good secular agnostic. Neither did the godparents. They had no intention of ensuring the spiritual education of the 6-week old being christened–the actual job of a godparent.

If all of this wasn’t apparent from conversations before the play began, it was evident when all the actors mouthed their promises to renounce Satan and all of his schemes and to raise the child in the faith. They did this with all the passion of Paris Hilton auditioning to play mother Teresa. And here’s the kicker. I think the priest knew it as well. In his short homily he mentioned that everyone always says “Yes” when he asks them the questions. But he also took the opportunity to equate the christening vows to marriage vows as if to say, “I know you don’t take this seriously but the church does.” Of course if he knew this, why did he agree to do take part in this charade?

The priestly soliloquy (for he truly only seemed to be talking to himself) ended with a vague envoi to raise the child with love and discipline since, “There is too much violence and stuff like what happened at Columbine.” No kidding. He actually used the words “and stuff.” So, why the masquerade? The true audience for the play was a few relatives who drove over a hundred miles to see the newest member of the family recieve the Holy Spirit and pronounced a “new Christian.” For his part, the infant accepted his salvation with only a minimum of fussing and possibly a burp or two–so overcome he was with his newfound redemption.

I had to wonder if the relatives didn’t know what was going on as well. They had to have known the parents weren’t religious. She had to know they were merely going through the motions. But I suppose what’s important is that Junior gets the water in the right place so he doesn’t have to wander around limbo with the other unbaptized infants. If I sound a bit more sarcastic than my usual mild-mannered writing, its because the whole thing made me a little ill. I undestand why so many people grow up Catholic and discard their faith. The only thing missing was the popcorn. I have no doubt there are sincere catholics who do not play these stained glass games. In fact I know several. My criticism is not aimed directly at them. Instead I am concerned about what on earth could get us to the point where religious people will settle for the form without the substance.

Let’s set aside the deeply flawed theology that baptism can give a squalling baby boy the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he can be called a new Christian before he can even hold a bottle by himself. (I know, I know, the Catechism might not exactly read  that way but to any outsider watching the play that’s exactly how the liturgy comes across.) Some of that liturgy was precious. The Nicene creed, The description of Christ’s Death and Atonement, important parts of our faith. It also occured to me that the oldest Western intepretation of Christianity would have the most corruption and apathy. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help think that what I was seeing was the last vestiges of Christendom. Dying not with a cry but a mumble. 30 or so people engaging a ritual almost none believed really and none took seriously mouthing words written by saints with all the solemnity of “Two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese on a sesame seed bun.”

Thank God that this tableu of Christendom isn’t the true reflection of the kingdom. That I saw at another performance. Sunday morning. There was a script, but the director knew it by heart as he weaved together the verses of 1 Corinthians as Paul explained the Lord’s Supper. The cup and the bread sat at the end of a aisle inside a room that doubled as a banquet hall for the very secular university. (In fact the “stage hands” dismantle this backdrop every single Sunday and pack it into a truck until the next week when the church meets whereever it can find space.)

No clergy gave out the elements. Each of us walked down the aisle and took the bread and cup freely; our white bread stained red by dipping into the communal cup. There was even gluten free bread for the gluten intolerant among us. The contrasts couldn’t be more striking. The only requirement to take communion was an admonition that this it was for believers only. And no one had to mouth any words. Whether or not unbelievers partook of the service it is known only to God. The contrast could hardly be more striking.

What’s my point? Maybe its just this. I’m not an iconoclast (except in my classroom). I see the value in ceremony, reverence, and the formality of worship. But when liturgy becomes procrustean, a little iconoclasty is a good thing. Likewise I’m not a formalist. There is a way to preserve the heart of the fruit of worship even if we discard some of the peeling. I suppose true communion with God and the saints is somewhere in the middle. 

After all, the RCC may be procrustean but it never accepted Gwen Shamblin with open arms and empty heads. The emergent church can have a habit of treating theological investigation and debate a bit like some people think of bungee jumping: its interesting, but you wouldn’t want to make a habit of doing it. But, the kind of orthodoxy I saw at the RCC church is not good for anyone. But of course, neither is the casual treatment of doctrine as if it were just the outer-trappings of a relationship with God to be added to like gluten free bread to a communion service.  

As is often the case, working out our faith “with fear and trembling” lies somewhere between rigid and passionless tradition and well-meaning pandering to the feelings and emotions of the body of Christ.