Special Report: Evangelicals Discover Treasures Old and New
By Randy Sly
The Washington Post recently ran a story on Evangelicals doing something new – they were adopting historic church practices. Actually, this is not a new thing. For more than thirty years Evangelicals have been on the Roman Road, the Canterbury Trail, and the pathway to Orthodoxy in large numbers. Join us in a three-part exploration on this phenomenon.
WASHINGTON (Catholic Online) – Washington Post staff writer Jacqueline Salmon wrote a nice story about Evangelicals adopting ancient traditions for the Saturday, March 8 edition.
She documented protestant churches and leaders adopting Lenten practices normally associated with historic Christianity. Beyond Lent, churches were reported to be incorporating communion, confession, and more historic liturgies for public worship.
The only problem with the story is that this is not new phenomenon. In 1976 a group of Evangelical leaders began meeting to discuss historic Christianity and ways in which the Evangelical tradition could more fully embrace the ancient faith. From those meetings, led by Dr. Robert Webber, the group which included Dr. Thomas Howard, Peter Gillquist and others, issued a document called The Chicago Call.
The Chicago Call was a formal appeal to Evangelicals for the recovery of theology and practices of historic Christianity, calling them to a faith that was truly Catholic as well as Evangelical.
“We believe” The Chicago Call states, “that today Evangelicals are hindered from achieving full maturity by a reduction of the historic faith. There is, therefore, a pressing need to reflect upon the substance of the biblical and historic faith and to recover the fullness of this heritage.”
The “Call” was made public in the late spring of 1977 at a conference, receiving a favorable but less than half-hearted response from the Evangelical community. A book, Common Roots, written by Webber and published in 1978, chronicles this movement.
Webber continued to develop further work on convergence until his recent death in April, 2007. Following the publication of the “Chicago Call,” Howard later converted to Roman Catholicism while Gillquist joined and was ordained a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
About ten years after the “Call” was issued, another group of Evangelicals and Charismatics in the Midwest, calling themselves the “Fellowship of St. Barnabas,” began to meet regularly to discuss their discoveries in studies of the early church. Their churches had already incorporated several liturgical expressions in their worship services. I was a part of this group.
During this time I was writing a lot on what was being described as “the convergence of streams.” From our perspective, we were experiencing – beginning in the late seventies – a coming together of the three major streams of Christianity, the Evangelical, the Charismatic, and the Liturgical-Sacramental.
Often those involved in this movement talked about this convergence being a re-discovery of the old and a re-introduction of the new. Using Jesus’ words from Matthew 13:52 as an example they stated, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his treasure things both the new and the old.”
Many of the original members of this Fellowship went on to become leaders in the various “convergence” denominations. Others joined one of the historic jurisdictions of the East or the Catholic Church.
We noted during this period that interested Evangelical Churches were not only adopting ancient Church practices, but were making dramatic moves to identify with and become expressions of historic Christianity themselves.
One group, called the Evangelical Orthodox Church, adopted Eastern Orthodox liturgies and practices. About one-half of the group eventually left to become fully incorporated into the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Reverend Stan White and his congregation in Valdosta, Georgia made headlines by jumping from their former Pentecostal denomination to the Episcopal Church USA. They were contacted regularly afterward by other churches and individuals who wanted to do the same thing.
New denominations actually were formed, based on “the convergence of streams.” The Charismatic Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Episcopal Church, and others also found opportunities to receive apostolic succession as a way to tie them more directly to the ancient Church.
The Convergence movement underscored the need for specific expressions of the church to come back together in the “one mighty river of God” with the Evangelical, Charismatic, and Liturgical-Sacramental defined by specific criteria.
The Evangelical stream was defined as the emphasis on the authority, inspiration, and personal study of Holy Scripture along with the call for individuals to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that directly influences and guides daily life.
The Charismatic stream provided a framework of “life in the Spirit.” Contemporary music, more expressive forms of worship and adoration, along with the operation of the “Gifts of the Spirit” were seen as normative for Christians.
The Liturgical-Sacramental framework underscored the importance of ancient liturgies as the valid and essential forms of worship for the Christian Church was weekly celebration of Holy Communion as the center. The seven sacraments of the Church as taught by the East and the West were also emphasized.
Evangelical and Charismatic Churches began by picking and choosing certain elements from all three areas and incorporating that into their services. For example, one Nazarene church I knew added the recitation of the creed, a form of general confession and weekly Eucharist.
Worship services in those who fully identified as “convergence churches” looked similar to what you would find in many Anglican, Catholic, or even Western Rite orthodox parishes, with the addition of more contemporary music and personal ministry using the Gifts of the Spirit.
Not only did these groups organize but they spread literally across the globe. In the early 90’s the Charismatic Episcopal Church was listed as the fastest growing denomination in the world, expanding into 23 countries. Much of the growth came from existing Anglican parishes and independent church networks.
Much to the surprise of these groups, the “journey,” as it was called, into historic Christianity did not stop for many of their members. They continued on, finding their way into the Roman Catholic Church, one of the Eastern Orthodox expressions, or Anglicanism.
This continuing pilgrimage showed that, for many, these convergence churches were seen as a bridge to the fullness of apostolic Christianity, a label not embraced by the denominations themselves. As a case in point, while serving as an archbishop in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I was unsympathetic to those who left until I felt the same heart-tug to come into full-communion.
The move to ancient Faith was one made by many individuals apart from the convergence movement. Some of the most influential figures in Catholic apologetics aimed at the protestant mindset came from the Evangelical world. Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Mark Shea, Tim Curry, and many others were evangelical pastors and leaders whose hearts were captured by historic Faith.
The journey continues for many from the Evangelical and Charismatic world. Some are crossing the convergence bridge while other, as it is called, are simply “swimming the Tiber.” Catholic and Orthodox Churches are continuing to grow.
This is not a new phenomenon, but it is still going on. In our local parish in Northern Virginia RCIA classes are usually very large and many former Protestants are attending. We hear reports of other parishes experiencing the same response across the country.
In this three-part series we will next look at “What Draws Evangelicals?” followed by “A Fresh Look at Convergence.”