From Pop-Tart to Pickle: A Catholic View of Evangelism

Posted by on Sep 3, 2003 in good idea! | No Comments

In May 2003, a conference on evangelism in the catholic was hosted by Affirming Catholicism in Montreal. One of the plenary speakers, Dr. Ellen Charry of Princeton Theological Seminary, spoke on the resources of the Anglo-Catholic tradition for evangelism and Christian formation.  The following is a paraphrase of her lecture.

The formal, highly literate, traditional and reverential character of the liturgical church might seem to be at odds with the informality, short attention span, and desire for personal and instant gratification that mark the prevailing culture. Yet what looks at first like a weakness may in fact be the strength of the liturgical tradition, since “our souls need what our culture has discarded”.

Anglo-Catholicism, despite its formality, is not elitist but actually invites people to enter as they are.  It is a tradition “patient of gradual transformation”, in which one’s faith is developed by participation in the life of the church–the life in Christ–over time. There is also a certain humility in the use of ancient rites we have not created, as well as in the acknowledgment that our understanding of God is always wrapped in mystery and mediated by symbols and images. 

The theology of salvation has important implications for the theology and practice of evangelism. While most Reformation theologies stressed the view of salvation as Christ’s atonement for our sins, Anglicans (whose Reformation was more about practice than about doctrine) have also retained a tradition, common in Orthodox theology, of thinking about salvation as union with God and participation in his Triune life.  Focussing exclusively on the atonement can lead to the idea that salvation is merely a matter of accepting the truth of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, rather than gradually being formed and transformed by our immersion in the life of Christ lived in the church. The contrast is between quick conversion (like the Pop-Tart) and slow transformation (like the pickle). The Anglo-Catholic tradition, with its emphasis on the significance of participation in the life of God through the rituals and symbols of the church, is especially suited to this kind of participationist view of salvation. 

The challenge, of course, is how to carry the theology and practice of the liturgical church into the world. For the richness of the Anglo-Catholic tradition to be made available to those outside the church, lay people and clergy need to learn to live the practices of their faith in their daily lives, and to develop the ability to explain their symbols to outsiders. If theology and practice are allowed to inform each other, laypeople will be empowered to evangelize their children and speak of the life with God to their friends.

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Dr. Ellen Charry is Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary NJ.

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