You can tell a lot about people (and yourself) by how they/you respond to criticism. Now of course some criticism is purely malicious, slanderous, meant to cause a stink. It’s just straight up rhetorical terrorism. It’s only meant to blow stuff up, the more destruction the better. Other forms of criticism may occur in the middle of a fiercely pitched battle. The context may make it difficult to carefully evaluate every bit of verbal shrapnel flying your way. But all things being equal, we should be ready and willing to receive questions and honest critique. And certainly after the dust is settled in any particular tussle, we should ask the Lord to give us eyes to see clearly whatever we need to see. Our prayer should always be: Search me, O God.
This is particularly needed whenever God’s people are praying for and working for reformation. If we only think of our tiny piece of the puzzle, then it’s easy to get busy with the two feet right in front of you and respond to all inquisitors with one-size-fits-all left hooks, as if every question was from an enemy of the reformation. But reformation is a global project. Reformation is about the gospel catching fire everywhere: in our hearts, in our homes, in our cities, in our checkbooks, in our hospitals, in our labs. But this means looking up and looking around. If God blesses us with a real reformation, it will be a reformation of covenant keeping and covenant community, which will mean, incidentally, lots of other people doing their thing in the name of Jesus. In other words, not only must we keep our eyes on our little patches of dirt, we must keep our eyes (best as we’re able) on the whole field of play and watch where the ball is moving. Otherwise, we’ll end up like a bunch of five year olds playing soccer: a directionless blob of feet kicking in every direction.
But my point, in case you missed it, is that David Miller has recently written a lengthy article here outlining his theological and ecclesiastical pilgrimage from presbyterianism into an exploration of Orthodoxy, eventually morphing into a member of the Anglican communion, before working his way back into traditional presbyterianism again. Sort of a There and Back Again, but instead of Smaug there were priests swinging censors around.
Now, I need to throw out a few qualifiers, but first let me just encourage you to go read it. I think it’s well worth reading and well worth thinking and praying through carefully. And that’s basically for two reasons.
First, I don’t know Dr. Miller from Adam, and I don’t know the state of his life. How has his family weathered this ride? Is his life littered with broken and strained relationships? How would his previous elders/pastors/priests describe his demeanor, piety, and manner of life? If Romanist cheerleaders are guilty of putting every shiny new convert they receive from evangelicalism on their billboards (some of whom we know are serious train wrecks), we should be wary of doing the same. But I don’t know Dr. Miller, and I’ll trust in the absence of proof to the contrary that he’s traveled these paths while continuing diligent in his fidelity to his wife and children and sought to work through his various questions and concerns, interacting with his church leaders with respect and charity. But this is merely to insist that if Dr. Miller is a man of integrity, and is not just an ecclesiastical terrorist, then he deserves to be heard, listened to, and considered with care. How you respond to his story is just as indicative of your integrity as it is necessary for his story to have legs to stand on. In other words, rolling eyes and dismissive sighs because this guy isn’t cheerleading your pet liturgy reform is not helpful and calls into question the very reform you so breathlessly wish we’d consider. All that to say, for those of us (and I consider myself in the number), who are supporters, promoters, and practicers of historic reformed liturgy, we need to take this kind of article seriously. I know there are troublers of Israel out there who will make hay with this. There are haters who are gonna hate. But let em hate. I think Miller has a story worth interacting with.
And this leads to my second point. I’m presbyterian and I’m very comfortable in a robust historic liturgy. Some may even use the word “high liturgy.” We use regular set prayers, I wear a white robe, we use liturgical colors that shift through the church calendar, we celebrate Lent and Easter and Epiphany, and do many of the same things week after week. On the other hand, I received high praise from a recent visitor who said if it weren’t for some of the forms, he’d had thought he was in a baptist church. That’s what I call catholicity.
At any rate, this is my point: people like me who want to see more of this kind of thing out there in the church, people who want to see a return to Bible-saturated, Psalm Singing, Covenant Renewal Worship, full of the signs and symbols of God’s grace, have to realize that merely insisting that we’re right and shooting scowls at everyone who objects or raises questions is not going to get us there. On top of that, while I merrily insist that worship is the central thing, I also merrily insist that apart from 2 or 3 particulars, a specific form of liturgy is not the central thing. The central thing is knowing God through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Which means I’d rather have a Charismatic Arminian who loves Jesus with six praise choruses and some straight-forward teaching from the Bible, than six organ cantatas decorated with theatrical spectacles full of lost sheep and three wolves in robes conducting the charade.
Dr. Miller’s story sounds eerily similar to many other stories I’ve seen over the last dozen years, though this is the first I’ve heard of someone coming back from the edge. And this is really crucial: If you don’t read his story and see how this raises significant pastoral questions, then you ought not be reading or writing about liturgy at all. If you can’t read his story and see how he came right up to a steep precipice and leered over the edge, looking down into his own certain doom, then you are part of the problem. You’re not part of a reformation, you’re getting in the way of reformation.
To his credit, Miller quotes freely from the best of the different traditions he’s explored. He appears to continue to have appreciation for the best of what Jesus is doing in other traditions, but has landed squarely back in the Calvinist tradition. Now as it happens, I think I’d disagree with him on a number of particulars here and there. I think a robust covenantal reading of Scripture doesn’t lead us to a naked spirituality with barebones Word and Sacrament, all other symbols irrelevant. I also don’t think it’s wise or healthy to pit truth against beauty. I’m not sure Miller means to do that, but I think it sounds that way in a few places, as though truth is really a “safer” thing than beauty. And finally, I still think the first reformers were far more “catholic” in terms of liturgy (drawing off the historic forms/prayers/etc.) than most presbyterians are today. But I still think we need to have this conversation. Even if we land in different places in practice, if the point is to draw near to God in accordance with His word and not according to our own preferences, our own pet traditions, our own fancy gimmicks, and if we are people just like our fathers, then we need to recognize that just because it sounded like a good idea at first doesn’t mean it was.
If we can’t make course corrections along the way, then we can’t honestly call what we’re doing reformation.