Dec 14 2009
This week your intrepid correspondent ventured into the direction of Calvinism with a trip to The Presbyterian Church of Cape Cod located on Iyannough Road (Rte. 132) in West Barnstable near the Cape Cod Community College campus.
A big goal in this year-long journey is not so much spiritual discovery as an attempt to discern – after years of wondering – what the heck the difference is between the various Protestant arms of Christianity: Episcopal, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist …. I hope to finally figure out what stripes or spots separate the different animals in the religious zoo. Do Baptists baptize? Congregationalists congregate? Do Methodists have a method? Today I visited the Presbyterians, to be accurate he Orthodox Presbyterians.
First let me indulge in a little amateur armchair theological history with apologies to those who know better. The Reformation – was a very big deal in Europe in the 15th century that split Christianity into Catholics and Protestants (emphasis on the "protest"). A number of religious thinkers (Martin Luther, Jan Hus) become disillusioned with perceived abuses by the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which was rich, powerful, and doing some sleazy moves like selling "indulgences" to people who couldn't afford them so their dead relatives would be absolved from sin and granted entry to heaven (there were a ton of other beefs, which got hashed out in the Diet of Worms (har-har) when the Holy Roman Empire summoned Luther to come get his comeuppance. The Reformation took hold in northern Europe, focusing not so much on spiritual issues as on governance, in other words: Reformists challenged corruption in the church and how it was run, looking for a more transparent system with more involvement by the laity (the people in the pews). To over-simplify, the Reformation set out to reform the Catholic Church and give more power to the people. (I feel like I just got a C+ on Mr. Keany's 11th grade European History course).
Luther got excommunicated (at least he didn't get executed like Jan Hus) but his movement spread and found a home in Switzerland in Zurich (a guy named Zwingli) and Geneva (Calvin). The movement spread all over northern Europe and hit the British Isles when John Knox, a cohort of Calvin, brought it there from Geneva. Eventually the religion was declared the Church of Scotland.
Presbyterianism is (to be absurdly reductionist), a form of Protestantism that believes the fix is in -- e.g. predestination –- and that the ruling model should be more collaborative and based on a council rather than Bishops, Cardinals, etc.. I won't bother getting into the details based on a 90 minute visit and some web research – but the defining characteristics of Psrebyterianism would appear to be 1) origins in Scotland and the Scottish Reformation in 1560, 2) the guiding religious text called The Westminster Confession of Faith and 3) the system of church governance by pastors, a council and the laity. If you want to be further confused, read in depth about the various Presbyterian splinter movements.
Let me digress here to say there's no wonder I have been confused for 40 years about the difference between a Methodist and a Presbyterian. I am sure every religion has its shadings and hues – but some seem to hang together tighter than others. I am sure there are gradients of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism that track to the many different flavors of Protestant Christianity, but to the casual visitor like myself, they seem like a lot of noise obscuring the basic signal.
Onwards to the service. I intended to visit the Touro Synagogue on Saturday morning for Shabbat, but the 70 mile drive for an 8:30 am service was daunting so I slept in and deferred this week's visit to a "safe" bet closer to home. Not until late on Saturday night did I decide on the Presbyterians for no other reason than I wanted a "safe" church this weekend after the intensity of the last two weeks spent with the Quakers and the Victory Chapel.
The Cape Cod church is fairly young, with the visitor's guide indicating the first phase of the chapel's construction was completed in 1981. It is a one story building with a little steeple. The interior has low ceilings and the feel of an office building – meaning the notion of "narthex" or "porch" is not strong in the architectural design.
I arrived, hung up my winter coat, said hello to a deacon, signed the guest book and took my back row seat in a room about 50 by 50 feet. The wall behind the altar was glassed by a series of tall windows looking out into the gray tree trunks behind the church. A piano provided the only music – an austere contrast to last week's large electrified and amplified band at the Victory Chapel. A bank of poinsettias, a red candle and a few other embellishments put one a little into the Christmas spirit. There were no pews, but instead rows of padded chairs fitted with a wire basket that held a Bible and Hymnal. About two dozen men and women filled the seats to close to half-capacity and the same deacon who greeted me made some announcements.
Following the announcements the pastor, Reverend James A. La Belle, took the podium and began the service. The liturgy and order of the service was very familiar with a greeting, and then, while standing, a call to worship, hymn, invocation, then a rote statement called the Confession of Faith, followed by an Ascription of Praise.
The pastor read Isaiah 51.21-52.12 from the old Testament. I followed along with the Bible taken from underneath the seat in front of me. I have never read the Bible cover to cover or in any organized Bible study group, so I have some issues finding chapters and verses, but the pastor kindly pointed out the page number. The Bible was not a King James version but another which I failed to note. It was printed in large type and the verses were laid out in a strange "stanza" arrangement more like poetry than the usual eye-squinting justified pica type I am accustomed to.
The operative word in Presbyterian liturgy is "confession" – a bit strange to my ears because I associate a confession with a booth, a screen, and a priest in the other booth. The service had a Confession of Faith, a Confession of Sin and that was followed by a Silent Confession of God's People. Reverend La Belle delivered a considerable and eloquent pastoral prayer, which, because of its duration, I initially took to be his "sermon." His prayer – which I estimate at 10 minutes, was directed at God and had a good line about the congregation coming together to help each other sharpen their faith the way "iron sharpens iron." That pastoral prayer was concluded by the Lord's Prayer. I noted that instead of saying "and forgive us our trespasses" the Presbyterian version says "and forgive us our debts" – an entirely appropriate 2009 TARP sentiment in my opinion.
The offering was made, I dropped a five into the bowl, and wondered for a second about the financial affairs of any congregation and how much income came from the offering plate. The thought passed, a hymn was sung, I actually tried singing, and realized my hymn voice is very basso profundo in its native tone-deafedness.
Then came The Proclamation of the Word of God. This was the sermon part and it was a good one – a long but very well argued and logically presented dissection of Mark 8.31-33, a passage from the Gospel according to Mark (patron saint of Venice) where Jesus says he will go to Jerusalem to die and be resurrected which earns him a rebuke from Peter. The whole death of Christ meme struck me as pretty out of season given we're a week or two away from the birth of -- as my late atheist* father would put it: "The Beej" -- the Baby Jesus -- but Reverence La Belle tied that knot neatly by persuasively arguing that Christ was born to die (giving rise to images of Hell's Angels mottos and Bruce Springsteen songs) and in dying became the Son of God. I thought La Belle was a very good Deconstructionist of the text, putting me in mind of my Comparative Literature classes at Yale in the 1970s when deconstruction and the literal analysis of texts drove me nearly nutty with overweening critical analysis.
- This was solid Christianity. Stern, to the point, and very based on the fundamentals without being fundamentalist.
- The Presbyterian God is a stern god.
- This was not fun or entertaining but solemn and pensive.
- The word took precedence over the architecture or the music.
- The crowd was well dressed and I spotted one bow tie on the morning I decided not to wear a bowtie.
- I wondered if most American Presbyterians have Scottish ancestors.
- Rutherford B. Hayes, Bob Hope, and Ulysses S. Grant were Presbyterians.
- Parking lot had no trends in automotive selection worth noting.
- New churches don't smell like churches. Yet.
- This is the second weekend in a row I went to the discount big box store after services.
A Presbyterian cocktail consists of whiskey, ginger ale and Coca Cola. And is ordered as a "Press" as in, "Barkeep I should like a V.O. Press."
Next weekend ….. off to California on Saturday so …. Either a synagogue on Friday night or a church in California.
*On the topic of athiesm, this is a nice observation by the late David Foster Wallace in his recent posthumously published short story in the New Yorker:
"If you consider the usual meaning of “atheism,” which, as I understand it, is a kind of anti-religious religion [emp. mine], which worships reason, skepticism, intellect, empirical proof, human autonomy, and self-determination ..."