Maybe it took almost 500 years, but the Catholic Church has adopted some reforms originally demanded by Protestants.
Today, in turn, some Protestants are borrowing ideas from the Catholic Church. In an effort to feel more in sync with other Christians, some denominations have created their own Bible-reading schedules similar to the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary; they are literally on the same page as others using that same guide. Traditional elements such as more frequent communion, celebrating Lent, or Stations of the Cross strengthen ties between Christians around the world.
The Protestants who came to these soils may have achieved the religious freedoms for which they set out, but lost something vital along the way. How else to explain the “Plan of Union of 1802” when 2,000 independent Congregational churches traded their autonomy and name for the Presbyterian structure and title?
The pilgrims and pioneers yearned for autonomy, to be free of directives about how to worship or live. The Plymouth Rock Society Toast summed it up: “To a church without a bishop and a state without a king.”
But perhaps the only thing more American than to fight for freedom is to achieve freedom and then look longingly at severed ties. It’s the same struggle I experience on a most intimate level. I want to make my own decisions about spirituality but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to trudge the path alone.
Protestants may be turning back to the Catholic Church for inspiration—but they’re reaching forward too. It wasn’t until I was further along in this journey that I could reflect on some of my earlier church visits and see how popular culture, particularly trends in music, were being incorporated into the services of more established denominations.
“Are you here for the contemporary or traditional service?” a young man inquires of me at the chapel door of a Presbyterian church just a few months after I started my church-going.
“What’s the difference?” I ask. This is the first I’m hearing of two services.
“The music mostly. I think. I don’t know.” He looks around self-consciously. “I always go to the contemporary one. I’ll get Pastor Jeff. He can explain.”
He returns, tailed by a baby-faced man in an enormous blazer. Pastor Jeff has recently lost 100 pounds or he just likes really loose-fitting clothes. Either way, it makes him appear even younger than he already seems, like a kid wearing his father’s suit.
“You’re visiting us today!” He exudes oodles of confidence. He is handsome in a clean-cut way. I nod, picturing him in Christian camp as a teenager, all the girls chastely fawning over him in the mess hall.
“Right on,” he says enthusiastically, using a phrase I associate with surfers. He explains that the contemporary service uses newer “rock” songs and guitar, whereas the other features older hymns and a choir. Besides this, they are the same: identical message and readings and sermon. “The newer music rubs some of the older folks the wrong way,” he says.
I choose the one starting immediately—the contemporary one.
In the main sanctuary, Pastor Jeff says a few words of welcome and then disappears into the corner. Suddenly, a loud guitar riff fills the chapel. I scan the room to spy what I had previously overlooked: to the side of the altar sit the accoutrement of a full rock band including drums, bass, keyboards and two backup singers sandwiched between tall concert speakers.
The pastor spins to face us, an electric guitar strapped to his chest…