I was talking to a very nice Baptist fellow the other day who was interested in my journey from Bob Jones University to the Catholic faith. He said, “We go to a very liturgical Baptist Church.” I’m not quite sure what he meant, but he assured me that they had had an Ash Wednesday Service and they were ‘very liturgical’.
I expect he means what my Presbyterian mother means when she tells me her church is ‘liturgical’. She means they are starting to observe Advent and Lent. They have a candlelight service on Christmas Eve with classical music and a printed order of service. In fact many Evangelical churches are beginning to go ‘high church’. The preachers sometimes wear robes, maybe they chant the odd psalm, have some candles here and there and they pick and choose other liturgical stuff they like and put together their own mish mash of a ‘liturgical’ service.
Far be it from me to criticize them. I think it is rather nice that some of our separated brethren want to be ‘more liturgical’, and I don’t really mind if they shop in a sort of ecclesiastical thrift store to find some bargains and take them home.
What interests me more is how American Protestant denominationalism is disintegrating. Can anybody really tell the difference anymore between a Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian? What is happening is that all the mainstream Protestant denominations are being ‘Anglicanized.’ In other words, the same range of opinion and practice that used to be the ‘big tent’ hallmark of Anglicanism is now commonplace in all denominations.
So you have low church and high church Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodist and Lutherans. You have radical liberals and radical conservatives in all the denominations. You have those who are ‘Catholic’ in their beliefs and practices and those who are ‘Evangelical’.
Yes, a ‘high church’ Baptist is still lower than a ‘high church’ Lutheran or Episcopalian, and a ‘low Church Evangelical’ Episcopalian is not quite as low as an independent Baptist, but the fine distinctions are secondary to the overall trend that there is no longer a clearly identified denominational style. If you say ‘I’m Baptist’ we used to know pretty much what that meant. Now you have to say, “I’m a liturgical Baptist” or “I’m an Evangelical Lutheran.”
I suspect what is true of their practice is true of their beliefs as well. Do you have to be a Calvinist anymore to be a Presbyterian? I doubt it. Do you have to believe in consubstantiation if you want to join a low Lutheran Church. Probably not. If you are a Baptist do you still have to deny infant baptism? Probably not always.
As a result, what identity do any of the denominations have? They are increasingly defined not by their historical theological or liturgical or ecclesiological views, but by their stance on moral and theological debating points. So Presbyterian Church USA is liberal and Presbyterian Church of America is conservative. Consequently each has more in common with other denominations (either liberal or conservative) than they do with each other as fellow Presbyterians.
PCA members will be closer to Missouri Synod Lutherans and PCUSA members will be closer to the main Lutheran body.
The point of these observations is this: can a particular ecclesial body maintain itself once it loses its identity? I suspect we will see the disintegration of these large Protestant denominations as each congregation increasingly asserts its own identity–and that identity will be determined by the sincere, but individualistic choices of its leadership.
Thus Protestantism will become a collection of independent local churches doing Christianity however they see fit.