Fr. Chori’s piece on attending a local Novus Ordo Mass was a pretty good summing up of the perplexing experience that many Anglicans have when they attend Mass in a Roman Catholic parish. Over the years since I’ve become a Catholic, I’ve played with the analogy that the difference between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism is like the difference between a big-box store and a boutique. I thought I would offer that analogy here, which comes from my own experience doing fundraising and promotion for both.
What follows applies in a very general way to the average Roman Catholic parish in the States and its Anglican counterpart. The language is largely that of business and marketing, but the primary aim is to get at the underlying cultural realities. This is only an analogy, not a comparison of two Platonic forms, so please take it in that spirit.
The Catholic Parish as Big-Box Store
A Roman Catholic parish is like a big-box store. The average parish in the US has around 3,250 members. In theory, at least, you attend a Roman Catholic Parish because it is the parish in which you legally reside and it provides a product that is generally uniform. The Roman Catholic knows that he can walk into a parish anyplace in the English-speaking world and plug in the standard responses, no matter whether a given parish is having a praise band or chanting the minor propers in Latin, because the structure of the Mass does not vary greatly. If you are a Roman Catholic, you don’t need a Missal or a service sheet because there aren’t many different texts. Like at McDonald’s or Walmart, the person who walks into a new parish will know his way around and what’s on the menu.
The parish store is set up to provide what the worshipper needs in a timely and efficient way. There may be six Masses offered on Sunday but, in most places, they’ll be pretty much the same right down to the hymns. The people in the pews are at Mass for many reasons but, at bottom, they come because they believe they are supposed to be there. No matter how much we have heard about the “gathered community” in the last 40 years, Catholics who still attend Mass regularly haven’t entirely lost the sense that you go to Mass on Sunday because it is an obligation you owe to God. There is less thought of how the Mass moves or speaks to the individual and, despite all efforts, the Mass remains very vertical, even if many of its more transcendental features have been minimized in most places and too many priest try to stamp it with their own personalities.
The parish is a franchise of the Roman Catholic Church, an international brand with a high degree of global consistency. The parish belongs to the Church in the same way that the local big-box store belongs to a corporation. While individual priests may put their stamp on a place for a time, they move around like employees of other large corporations. The district office at the local chancellery and headquarters in Rome plant, open, and close parishes based on large population trends to meet the organizational mission statement found in the Great Commission. An individual parish exists to meet the needs of the faithful in an area to serve the larger mission of the Church. The local parish is a means not an end.
The Anglican Parish as Boutique
Anglicanism is boutique religion. The average ECUSA parish has about 100 members. In areas where there is a choice, people belong to a parish because it is Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, ’28 Prayer Book, because they like the rector, because they don’t like the rector across town, or any number of other reasons. Each parish will vary widely based on the Prayer Book it uses, the proclivities of the rector, and its historic churchmanship. You need a Prayer Book or an individual parish’s Mass booklet to follow all of these variants. You need to know how to flip around because there are so many possible options. You need a service sheet to know what Rite you’re in, whether this is a place that says the Agnus Dei, where the peace and Gloria go, where there are and aren’t hymns, and when and where to find coffee hour.
As in a high-end retail store, Anglicans expect service. They expect to be recognized when they come in the door. They expect their priest to know a great deal about them. They expect a service that is congruent with their own ecclesiology and theology and, if they’re not getting what they think they need, they may go elsewhere. The parish is more likely to be seen by its members as a voluntary community and both the clergy and the laity understand this. The parish is their parish. They feel responsible for its growth and well being. They’re proud of what they’ve accomplished and they want to share it with others. The local parish rises, falls, and gets by from week to week based on this commitment.
In most cases, the Anglican parish comes into existence and continues to exist because its members wish for it to do so. There may be four parishes in a small area because local Anglicans had four different ideas about what Anglicanism is. The diocesan office may provide materials and suggestions, but so long as the parish pays its way, it is left to manage its affairs, just as the independent proprietor may sell whatever he wishes in his store so long as he is covering his expenses. National and International bodies may set a few norms and procedures, but the parish, like its members, chooses freely in most cases whether to accept these and may, in extreme circumstances, transfer its membership to another body that is thought to better match the parish’s vision of the church. In this environment, loyalty to an individual place of worship or concept of churchmanship compete freely with and often trump the larger and softer brand identity of Anglicanism.
Hard Times for Big-Boxes and Boutiques
I have been in many conversations in the last few years about the Anglicanization of American Catholicism. In many cities Roman Catholics now drive long distances on Sunday to attend the Reform-of-the-Reform Parish, the Extraordinary Form Parish, the Charismatic Parish, or the Social Justice Parish. While ethnic and order parishes always provided some variety in the system, the geographic model has entered a period of unparalleled flux since the reforms to the liturgy added more variety to what was once a much more uniform product. Catholics of the last two generations have taken a very American attitude toward religion, expecting individual needs and interests to be met. As religious affiliation has become less obligatory in the larger culture, the Catholic Church has for the first time felt the effects of a society where people shop for services that meet their needs before making what has increasingly become a voluntary commitment.
The Anglican model has felt the pinch as well. As attendance has declined, the much smaller parishes of this model have lost their viability even more quickly, despite usually having greater resources per communicant. The Anglo-Catholic parish has often had to merge with the Morning Prayer parish a few blocks away and cook up a suitably anodyne product that is acceptable if not optimal for the members of both, usually leading to further losses. In the Continuum, the Missal Catholics and the Prayer Book Society folks have often found themselves in a similar position. The focus on the survival of the parish looms ever larger as numbers shrink. There is little central planning or management to meet larger trends and little authority to do so. The number of products has proliferated as consumers have become more demanding, but there is often an insufficient customer base to deliver a particular form of Anglicanism in an efficient way and those who are not having their perceived needs met often opt out of the system entirely.
What We Can Learn from Both Models
To my mind, the remaining strength of the big-box model is its understanding of the parish as a means of meeting a larger objective. The good of the brand, which is the Catholic Faith, is primary. Good and bad priests come and go, parishes come and go, but the Catholic identity has shown considerable ability to transcend this and endure. While the services in an individual franchise may be subpar or excellent, people are less likely to shop elsewhere because they believe in and are loyal to the brand. They come not because it’s the best church or the right church for them but because they believe it is The Church.
The strength of the boutique model is its sense of mission. Anglicans know that the success of the family business depends on everyone doing their share, whether it is teaching Sunday School, being a greeter, asking the neighbors to come to church, or giving generously. Each member or potential member is valued for what they added to the success of the enterprise—a shop with 100 customers sees them differently than one with 3,200. In the age of voluntary affiliation and diminishing resources, the boutique model offers a model for stability, growth, and church planting on a scale unfamiliar to most Roman Catholics.
The Ordinaraite offers the wider Church an opportunity to employ what is best in both of these models. The dangers that go with both will be present and there will be many skeptics within and without, but I think we may all learn some very valuable things.
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