Hanging on by a Thread . . . Time to Stop Evangelizing?

“CHRISTIAN HIP-HOP’S FIRST OPENLY GAY RAPPER IS DONE EVANGELIZING” The headline did its work: grabbed my attention. It reached into my insular Roman rite, mildly progressive, liturgical-musical worldview and got me clicking into worlds I barely knew existed, much less knew anything about.

As I read the article, I found myself encountering Jeremiah Givens (rapper name: JGivens), and a synopsis of his personal journey of faith, encounter with his deepest self—including his addictions—and his decision to become an evangelizer for Christ. It also chronicled his ongoing journey out of the world of overt Christian witness to become an artist whose work still has a spiritual aspect (Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper are mentioned as artists in a similar vein), though not substantively connected to Christ. JGivens has stopped evangelizing.

Underneath the sensationalism and exoticism that I confess lured me in, I began to sense a certain resonance with the experiences I know my colleagues and I have gone through. JGivens inhabited a religious context that, though not a church, seemed to have an ecclesiology of sorts, and certainly has its own rites. It was a world he had fit into a certain way, but when he continued on in that world after coming out as gay—revealing his truestself, dealing with his addictions—his relationship with that world began to change. Those tensions and conflicts are what brought him to the point of deciding to cease evangelizing.

Back in my own world, I began to think about my friends and colleagues who have, for roughly twenty years now, described themselves as “hanging on by a thread” to their relationship with and participation in Roman rite Catholicism. The Vatican rejection of the 1998 ICEL Sacramentary and the promulgation of Liturgiam Authenticam was a significant contributor to the thread-hanging, as were nearly contemporaneous revelations about clergy sexual abuse of minors and subsequent episcopal cover-ups.

Further fraying seemed to occur around the 2010 translation of the Mass, and the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. In addition to the “hanging on by a thread” talk came dire predictions of people evacuating the pews in droves over clumsy collects and having to learn what “consubstantial” means. (My own view was that if the sexual abuse/coverup hadn’t driven people from the pews a decade earlier, adjustment of liturgical language wasn’t likely to.)

A more recent liturgy-related, thread-hanging announcement seems to be the one from the USCCB about its impending work on a document related to the Eucharist. Commonly viewed as a forthcoming weapon to use against politicians, it seemed to produce (in my admittedly anecdotal experience) another flurry of thread-hanging. (It did surprise me that I encountered no objection among my liturgical cohorts to the bishops’ isolation of the eucharistic elements and reception of communion from the broader eucharistic liturgy, nor to the co-identification of “eucharist” and “communion”).

With Her impeccably quirky sense of alignment, on the day I’d planned to post all of this, we received the explosive news of Pope Francis’ abrogation of Summorum Pontificum. Like those plants that flower once every ten years and die, I knew that liturgyland (me included) would have attention or energy for little else for several days. Instead of posting, I invited That Wacky Paraclete in, since She regularly draws my attention back to my prideful tendency to worship at the Church of Just-Like-Me. So I meditated a bit more on the spectrum of people with liturgically-generated thread-hanging.

I’m sure that there are people (though I may not know many) for whom this papal pronouncement has them making their own “by a thread” declarations. I also recalled the times during the late 1960s and beyond when the reforms of Vatican II (legitimate though they were) left people in thread-dangling circumstances. It was relatively easy to recall how many of these people I encountered as I progressed in my liturgical education and ministry. Also easy to recall the times I’d not listened, the times I had been dismissive, the occasions that I gossiped about or belittled them (or both). I’m likely not the only one who has some similar sins to confess.

Though I inhabit the liturgical publishing world in an editorial capacity, I have had enough contact with customer care to know this maxim: for every person who contacts you with a complaint, there are others who have remained silent and likely walked away. I believe there is a strong corollary in the realm of liturgy and church. While I do know some people who have publicly and vocally left a denomination, or Christianity, or organized religion, or belief itself, I’m thinking that there may be far more who, like JGivens, have decided to keep some continuity within their life, perhaps still attending church on occasion, trying to live an ethically-intact life, allowing the best of their religious background to remain—if silently—as a positive force.

For all the statistics in circulation about various aspects of faith, religion, church attendance, spiritual practice, and so on, I have yet to see the inquiry made among those in an attrition group about whether their leave-taking was vocal/public, or silent/private, or if the transition was made in an instant of thread-breaking, or if it was a slow, ongoing fraying that resulted in the fabric just no longer being there. Dissolving. Dissipating. Dissapearing.

I’m sure there are numerous—countless—members of the heavenly host who persevered, endured, and evangelized through far FAR worse. Quite likely they are having a good laugh at the luxury of my puffball persecutions. The light shed by their hilarity—their phos hilaron, if you will—turns my eyes again to the Cross, which points me toward Christ and, in hope, leads me on. I know their robes have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb; perhaps some day I will get a closer look at those robes, where I fully expect to find, like the still-visible wounds of Christ, worn fabric, and many a perilously-frayed thread that did—not quite—break.


  1. I have to wonder if the entire Catholic communion is not hanging by a thread? Isn’t the Church in informal schism already between roughly three parties over the nature of revelation (interpretation of Scripture and Tradition), ecclesiology, and sexual morality: the aggiornamento party (more like the Anglican’s), the ressourcement party (more like the Eastern Orthodox) and the 19th Century traditionalists (think SSPX).

    Add to that the sins of the Church such as the sex abuse scandals. And of course the general secularization that is bleeding to death Christendom in all places. Then there is the political polarizations, updates in genetic technology, immigration, wealth inequality and global warming, etc that are just putting a lot of external pressure on the Church. It is kind of hard to be optimistic. I know there are people who have had “enough”. They leave for main-line denominations, Eastern Orthodoxy or SSPX groups, or they just leave with no where to go.

    I take consolation in the sayings of St. John Henry Newman:

    “… looking at early history, it would seem as if the Church moved on to the perfect truth by various successive declarations, alternately in contrary directions and thus perfecting, completing, supplying each other. Let us have a litter faith in her, I say.”

    “Remedies spring up naturally in the Church, as in nature if we but wait for them.”

  2. Ah.

    I’ve been hoping someone would engage this angle/perspective.

    Just because Things Are Not Good doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity in that Not Goodness for … solidarity.

    Especially with people with whom we feel strongly disinclined to be in solidarity.

    I have experienced liturgical and other whiplashes over the decades in my abiding in Roman Catholicism. They’ve come from many directions. I (and of course my peer cohort) had a certain early preparation by first experiencing the Mass in the immediate wake of the initial implementation of conciliar-triggered changes.

    I know what it’s like to have, after years of frustration, found a nurturing spiritual oasis of sorts – only then to have it ripped away. (Again, not only from one end of the liturgical spectrum, as it were.)

    Over the years, Hebrews 11 resonates more and more: don’t develop an expectation of a spiritual home in this mortal plane – instead, be prepared to journey like Abraham and Sarah and trust and salute our ultimate destination from a distance, as it were.

    Like Advent: Now – And Not Yet.

  3. Putting ‘small changes in liturgy’ on a par with the sex abuse scandal and other issues misses the point. People can easily weather not having everything in the liturgy be to their exact taste. People are hanging on a by a thread or leaving for far more substantial reasons. I think there’s a danger in misdiagnosing things and imagining if we just got the liturgy right, all would be well. We have to look elsewhere, perhaps beginning with a blinkered tribalism that sees other denominations and faiths as the enemy.

    1. I didn’t accurately communicate that for those of us who devote our lives to the liturgical life of the Church the issues around the Missal loomed very VERY large; I didn’t mean to suggest an equivalence with the sexual abuse scandals.

  4. I have yet to see the inquiry made among those in an attrition group about whether their leave-taking was vocal/public, or silent/private, or if the transition was made in an instant of thread-breaking, or if it was a slow, ongoing fraying that resulted in the fabric just no longer being there. Dissolving. Dissipating. Dissapearing.

    The German experience is instructive. There, you have to make a public declaration that you’re leaving if you want thenceforth not to pay the Church Tax (Kirchensteuer) that is by default deducted from your earnings if you don’t make a conscious act of opting out.

    It appears that for many Germans it has been a slow process, but now accelerating, with the last straw being the episcopal response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal. On the other hand, there has been no research on the numbers of those who have opted out merely to avoid paying the additional 8% income tax while still considering themselves in some way affiliated with the Church. (even though they often can’t receive sacraments and pastoral care as a result of opting out).

  5. There have been some efforts at exit interviews, such as the one in Trenton in 2012. They have focused on why people leave, not how. But there have been studies of disaffiliation (such as the CARA Going Going Gone study of youth disaffiliation) that describe the stages that people go through, and pastoral strategies for ministry in those situations. These may focus more on the how. Older studies such as Dean Hoge’s 1981 Converts, Dropouts, Returnees are very much out of date, but some of the psychology still may be applicable. Thank you, Alan, for a thought-provoking post.

  6. Alex, “God damn you all to hell” really doesn’t cut it in terms of evangelization. Are non Catholics apes? The secular world allows women in positions of responsibility. Are you sure that Heston isn’t the throwback?

    1. Oh I’m a universalist a la St. Gregory of Nyssa. (I think David Bentley Hart’s arguments on this are more or less convincing though a little hard to square with magisterial teaching.)

      The clip was meant to be an allegorical representation of how I think most Catholics, on all sides of the progressive-conservative spectrum feel more than once in a while. The phrase is an expression of frustration/anger rather than a wish for a state of affairs.

      Heston is surely a throwback, and the apes aren’t meant to represent anyone, though I wish I had the intelligence of Dr. Zaius.

      1. Understood, d’accord. I’ve felt that frustration myself. I overloaded your allegory. You meant it more humorously.

  7. Excellent! Let us let our hearts be invaded by the joyful light and hilarity of heaven even now, in the midst of the valley of tears.

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