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The Limits of Pluralism: Freedom Tempered by Ordered Worship

The Limits of Pluralism: Freedom Tempered by Ordered Worship

by Dr. Roberta Bayer
January 2010

The late Richard John Neuhaus2 observed in his final article for the journal First Things that sociologists tend to view Christian culture in America as a competing marketplace. Neuhaus wrote: "In America, the rival firms in the religious formation of children are the home, the churches, and explicitly religious schools. I expect that serious studies focused on this question would demonstrate that the American way of competition better serves religious vitality and, not incidentally, the pluralism that most consider a strength of this society."3

Religious pluralism has recently brought with it the multiplication of Anglican groups as well. One might plausibly go out on a limb and defend the splintering within the Anglican Way as a good thing because it represents a new vitality in Anglicanism. However, it would seem also that this vitality has a long way to go before it will bear fruit if those who have talent within it are dispersed, vying for the same territory, and sometimes at odds. However, there could be genuine renewal if that divisiveness within the multiple brands of the Anglican Way on offer is tempered by a common reading of the Bible, united in the practice of the faith as instructed in the Book of Common Prayer.

In the 16th century it was more or less agreed that a nation should be unified in prayer and understanding, at least as much as possible. The Monarch, as defender of the faith, ensured this by the sword, the church sought this unity by teaching. By modern standards an established faith offends against the idea of freedom of conscience. Nonetheless the idea of the separation of church of state, of religion being a matter of private choice, was a later development in western political theory.

In 16th century England, as in the preceding centuries, really dating from the establishment of a Christian Empire under Constantine, and then in the West under Charlemagne, the educated and governing classes spoke of having an obligation to teach public virtue and protect the faith. (This was supported by their reading of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and other classical sources.) As Christians, they thought that they had to make available to all subjects of the realm the means to God's grace through sacrament and Word. That meant, of course, the creation of an established church.

Written during this period, the Book of Common Prayer connected prayer and worship to civic virtue. (This is also seen in the communion service, as Dr. Epstein's article relates.) The defense of this idea is found in 16th century works such as John Jewel's Apology of the Church of England and Richard Hooker's On the Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity. Here one may discover a whole theory of a Christian state, where it is argued that private virtue and public good should be combined in a single political and ecclesial system.

At the founding of the United States the leaders of the newly independent nation, while mostly desiring to disestablish the church, desired at the same time to link Christian faith to democracy. It was the faith of the individual they sought to protect, not a particular confession. Thus, although the French Revolution, which took place shortly after the American founding, was virulently anticlerical, as well as anti-Christian, the American revolutionaries sought to preserve the underlying Christian culture because it was linked, in their mind, to civic virtue, and public morality. They argued for religious toleration insofar as it did not abrogate a common moral teaching and did not harm the civic peace, concord, and virtue of the republic. (Hence the eventual suspicion of the polygamous Mormons.) They feared disagreement about Trinitarian doctrine much less than moral license.

In America today one witnesses a great deal more vocal and public disagreement about morals within the various Christian bodies than the founders would have expected. This is due to new interpretations of the faith which have developed within the older sects because of changing cultural norms.

One might note, however, that debate does not take the form of disagreement as to whether or not we need morals, (moralistic statements abound among Anglican and other Christian groups), but about the Bible. The Bible has been interpreted to teach a number of different and incommensurate moral systems, depending upon the philosophical and cultural presuppositions which people bring to their reading. This is because today faith is seen as an expression of a personal world view, and parishioners attend church as an expression of personal belief. In such a setting the idea of a single liturgical expression of the faith, or a single expression of doctrine, is quite foreign.

Religious pluralism does lead to vitality and church attendance in the United States as compared to Europe, but to make a cautionary statement, it may not bring renewal of the faith if that religious liberty is not put to the service of truth. At the heart of religious pluralism is a lack of agreement about the truth of the faith, and I fear this is so even among the multiple churches of the Anglican Way. Now, one may say that if the Bible is at the basis of all this diversity there ought to be a common basis for understanding, but unfortunately the Bible is only a tentative point of unity, and is subject to the lens brought by the reader.

The 16th century framers of the Church of England were perfectly aware of this danger. Indeed, seldom in Christian history have there not existed groups whose independent judgment and interpretation of the Bible did not challenge orthodoxy. In the 16th century the Anabaptists denied the virgin birth, claiming it had no Biblical authority; this is a perspective which gained new life, for different reasons, in the 19th century. From time to time Christian groups have preached different heresies, such as the sharing of goods and wives, (for example the Apostolic Brothers of the early 14th century) and defended it on the basis of Biblical authority.

One thing should be said in defense of the English settlement, with its robust understanding of public virtue, and rather controlled teaching. The architects of the Church of England were quite aware that having an established church was not enough to make a country Christian. (Nor does Christian rhetoric, or the presence of many Christian churches make a country Christian.) A Christian nation is one wherein the majority of the population has made an inward assent to the true faith, and has read and understood the Bible together. The Book of Common Prayer made possible that inward assent of intellect and will through a regularized practice of common prayer and daily reading of the Bible. The church was to shape the culture, and not the culture the church.

However, in 17th century England party difference came to be expressed ecclesially as well as politically, and during the Cromwellian interregnum, the Book of Common Prayer, connected as it was to an established church with a king at its head, was banned by the Puritans who desired religious freedom for themselves. Consequently, the book came to be viewed as a party instrument, rather than a means for conversion to a true understanding of the historic Christian faith. The Puritans were wrong to see in its order an enemy, but this is the danger of commingling church with politics. When Charles II returned to England to claim the throne, religious toleration became the most pressing question of the day, and freedom of conscience more important than common instruction in public and private virtue.

Despite its history, and despite the variety of expressions of Christianity available today, the Book of Common Prayer remains a means to grace through its order and discipline, and in this way it may still contribute to both private and public virtue, even if the book has no political importance. One need not be an Anglican to appreciate its worth because it offers discipline and orthodoxy. Even if churches are firms, each selling a particular brand, the fact remains that the teaching of our Lord is that freedom needs to be tempered by virtue. There needs to be some way of relaying to Americans, who are obsessed with consumer culture and treat churches as possessions, that Christian moral teaching is not a consumer choice, and that freedom in matters of doctrine is no freedom. This means is offered by the Book of Common Prayer, which boldly reminds us that service to God is perfect liberty - a statement that needs much repeating.

Which is not to say that pluralism is bad; pluralism does serve American life and religious freedom, and allows people like myself to argue in the public square that the Book of Common Prayer actually benefits the nation insofar as it enjoins a freedom tempered by the ordered worship of God. But the object lesson of all this diversity has been also that freedom serves party rather than God. People have the freedom to read what books they like, to express whatever their consciences dictate.

The down side is that in a nation of religious consumers, the overwhelming tendency of unredeemed mankind is to seek power for themselves; this is what Augustine called libido dominandi (love of power) The very fact that discipline in prayer is hard, and in the contemporary culture quite undesirable, is a reminder that human nature needs to be redeemed.

Were Christians of the late 16th century in England worse off because they were told when to go to church and how to worship, that certain interpretations of the Bible were proscribed, that education was considered necessary to the faith, that the ordinary person lacked the freedom and the knowledge to shape faith to their liking? They were worse off if one believes that it is absolutely necessary that each person define themselves by what they buy and what they believe.

But my argument is that this has not historically been the view of Christians, that indeed it was not the vision presented by the Reformers, in England or on the continent. Those men thought that the ordinary person needed the discipline provided by a regular cycle of prayer and reading in order to avail themselves of grace, that civil authorities are ordained by God to enforce this discipline, as only through that grace could anyone gain perfect freedom. Freedom was not to be obtained prior to grace.

Indeed, it was not Cranmer's intention to freely express his personal views in constructing the BCP. Many historians remark on how reliably he negotiated the more contentious ideas of his time, such as whether or not to kneel at the altar to receive communion, sometimes in opposition to his own opinions. (There was a question as to whether
kneeling at the altar could be separated from adoration of the sacrament - an idea proscribed by the theology of the Reformation.

However, Cranmer remarked that in receiving the sacrament it was correct to kneel to show proper humility to God, thereby deflecting much controversy and bypassing varying interpretations of the nature of the sacraments.) He constructed an order of services based on historical models rather than personal invention because freedom to consume is not really a goal of Christian life.

Regular service to God, availing oneself of a reliable means to grace through disciplined prayer, confession, absolution, acts of charity, and even education (which is properly understood as a drawing out of the soul from darkness to light, from error to truth), is the very definition of Christian life, and has been from the beginning. There is no virtue without divine grace, but on our part, as a means of asking for that grace, we must humbly submit ourselves to God, sacrificing our natural pride, remembering that Christ is worthy of the sacrifice of our self-will, because in his suffering death upon the Cross he bought our redemption once and for all.


2 Neuhaus argued for the presence of a robust Christian voice in public discourse throughout the course of his career, first as a Lutheran, and then as a Roman Catholic priest and editor of the magazine First Things. As early as 1984, in his book The Naked Public Square, he had warned of the dangers of the growing appeal of a "political doctrine and practice that would exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business." Neuhaus was convinced that mainstream Christian denominations and the educational establishment had lost the will to confront secularized and secularizing popular culture. He argued that American culture had need of a "culturally formative religion," be it Jewish or Christian, that had the capacity to "make theological truth-claims in public that challenge prevailing cultural assumptions."

3 Richard John Neuhaus, "Secularizations," in First Things (February 2009), p. 27.

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