Coming into The Episcopal Church as a severely lapsed Methodist, Dreher's context and journey are quite different from my own. But like Dreher, I find many aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy appealing. Perhaps it's little wonder, then, that parts of Dreher's essay connect for me.
For instance, here's what Dreher observes about the fate of right belief at the parish level:
Here’s the problem: there is very little orthodoxy in the U.S. Catholic Church, and at the parish level, almost no recognition that there is a such thing as “right belief.” It wasn’t that I wanted to throw out all those who don’t live up to Catholic teaching – I would have been the first one shown the door if that had been true – but that I discerned no direction, and no real conviction that parish communities exist for any reason other than to affirm ourselves in our okayness. Though I didn’t have a term to describe it at the time, I was weary to the bone from an ersatz form of Christianity that sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
To be sure, within The Episcopal Church and across the theological spectrum within the Anglican blogosphere, there are many who take right belief very seriously (no doubt, this is true within most of the so-called "mainline" denominations). Nevertheless, I find that Dreher's observation generally holds true. I continue to be surprised by the pride some Episcopalians I encounter take in having the freedom to pick and choose whatever they want to believe. It's as though their freedom to choose is something to celebrate, no matter how far off the Christian reservation the choices may take them. Personal experience trumps special revelation.
Precisely because it contrasts so sharply with celebrations of autonomous freedom, I sometimes wonder what is going through our minds when, in reaffirming our Baptismal Covenant vows, we promise "to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). Making this promise entails a solemn commitment to an obedience that places checks and balances on our freedom to choose personal truths and practices as though such choices could possibly take priority over the faith of the Church. But in the midst of emphasizing peace, justice, and respect for the dignity of every human being, I don't recall ever hearing this.
Another part of Dreher's essay that I found striking concerns sin:
The main reason why Orthodoxy is so attractive to converts, at least to this convert, is its seriousness about sin. I don’t mean that it’s a dour religion – it is very far from that! – but rather that Orthodoxy takes the brokenness of humankind with appropriate seriousness. Orthodoxy is not going to tell you that you’re okay. In fact, it will require you to call yourself, as St. Paul described himself, the “chief of sinners.” And Orthodoxy is going to tell you the Good News: Jesus died and returned to life so that you too might live. But in order to live, you are going to have to die to yourself, over and over again. And that will not be painless, and cannot be, or it’s not real.
Because of that, for all its dramatic beauty and rich feasting, Orthodoxy is far more austere and demanding than most American Christianity. The long liturgies, the frequent prayers, the intense fasts – all make serious demands on the believer, especially comfortable middle-class Americans like me. They call us out of ourselves, and to repentance. Orthodoxy is not interested in making you feel comfortable in your sins. It wants nothing less than for you to be a saint.
For the past 16 years in The Episcopal Church, I've heard very little about "the brokenness of humankind." On the contrary, I'm often struck at how we go out of our way to tell people that they are okay. The important thing is that all of us are affirmed in our faith journeys. The Church is here to be friendly and supportive. And so we readily proclaim the proposition: "Everyone is accepted in Christ." But we seem hesitant to add: "No one is affirmed as they are."
In a posting I published last summer entitled "The Human Problem and Full Permission Living," I wrote this:
I'm struck by how little I hear in The Episcopal Church about the human problem and the seriousness of sin. That's odd given the fact that the Renunciations in the Prayer Book's Baptismal rite underscore the pervasiveness of sin and evil at the cosmic, systemic, and personal levels of existence, and that, in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to persevere against evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 302 & 304).
Then again, we live in a culture in which theological ideas like sin and the Fall no longer resonate, a culture in which the very idea of an ontological problem with human nature is repressive nonsense, and a culture in which the only problem is failing to maximize one's pleasure and fulfill one's "authentic" self.
I believe in the sufficiency of Anglicanism. And so I believe that the Anglican tradition provides the resources we need to do the very things that Dreher found so compelling within Eastern Orthodoxy. We, too, can emphasize "right belief" in our preaching and by showing how, in our liturgies, we corporately pray the orthodox faith of the Church. And we also have the biblical and liturgical resources to appropriately address the problem of sin and brokenness in ways that open us to God's healing, transforming grace.
Upholding right belief, and naming and addressing sin, go increasingly against the grain within our cultural setting. But the resources for doing this gospel work are right at hand. Indeed, they lie at the core of who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition. Dare we Episcopalians be so counter-cultural? Or, in the well-intentioned but misguided attempt to be "relevant," do we take the easier, softer route of optional orthodoxy?