A Little Church Around the Corner

A Little Church Around the Corner


Rambling Reflections on Religious Pluralism


by T. Peter Park tpeterpark@erols.com

There's a little church around the corner that will (or won't) do or teach this or that. That's one of the strengths--but some would rather say, weaknesses--of American (and modern Western) religious freedom and pluralism.

A week ago, I worshipped in the original "Little Church Around the Corner" in New York, while visiting the city to help a friend celebrate her birthday. Arriving in the city early, I attended a 5:30 Mass at the Church of the Transfiguration, the "Little Church Around the Corner," on East 29th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

The Church of the Transfiguration is an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church, founded by the Rev. Dr. George Hendric Houghton in 1848. As a church of the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Episcopal Church, Transfiguration is noted for its elaborate, dignified worship, but also for its long tradition of service to the poor and oppressed, and devotion to social justice. It is also famous for its long identification as a special church for actors--which accounts for its nickname as the "Little Church Around the Corner."

Actors, along with Blacks, were among the social outcasts whom Transfiguration and Fr. Houghton befriended in the 19th century. In 1870, the famous actor Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) requested a funeral at another midtown New York Episcopal Church for his actor friend George Holland (1791-1870). Hearing that Holland had been an actor, the rector refused, acting on the widespread 19th century view of actors as dissolute, disreputable, immoral folk. However, the rector told the stunned Jefferson that "There is a little church around the corner," meaning Transfiguration, that would probably do "that sort of thing." Jefferson responded, "God bless the little church around the corner." And indeed Fr. Houghton, who had made Transfiguration a center for feeding the hungry, anti- slavery agitation, harboring runaway slaves, and giving sanctuary to Blacks during the 1863 Civil War draft riots, performed the funeral without question. Across the country, newspapers reported the incident. For actors throughout America, the "Little Church" became a spiritual haven. Many leading actors and actresses, including Edwin Booth, began worshipping there. Booth's own funeral took place at the "Little Church" in 1893. George Holland's funeral and Fr. Houghton's generosity popularized the phrase "little church around the corner."

New York's Church of the Transfiguration was the "little church around the corner" where "that sort of thing" would be done for an actor's funeral in 1870. These days, in most communities in the United States and most other industrial Western countries, there is usually a little church around the corner--somewhere in one's city or town, within a few minutes' walking or driving distance--where "that sort of thing" is done (or not done). "That sort of thing" probably would not refer to marrying or burying actors these days. Nowadays, it may rather mean accepting and welcoming (or rather not welcoming) divorcees, single parents, gays, or lesbians, ordaining (or not ordaining) women or "out" and non-celibate gays or lesbians to the priesthood or ministry, re-marrying (or refusing to re-marry) the divorced, allowing (or not allowing) members of other denominations to receive Holy Communion, encouraging (or forbidding) the use of Oriental meditation practices, playing plain-chant and the music of Byrd, Purcell, Tallis, Bach, Hšndel, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, or happy-slappy praise-songs projected on overhead transparencies, burning or not burning incense, denying (or affirming) the literal physical Resurrection of Christ, his Virgin Birth, or the eternity of Hell, etc.

Without giving up one's Christian (or Jewish) identification, one can simply go to the little church (or big cathedral or little synagogue) around the corner (or 5 blocks away) if one cannot go along with what one's own priest, pastor, or rabbi says. Except in the smallest hamlets these days, there's usually a little church around the corner (or 10 blocks away, or in the next suburb) to accept or oppose evolution, support or reject the ordination of women, preach theological liberalism or fundamentalism, bless or denounce same-sex unions, re-marry or refuse to re-marry divorcees, endorse or denounce contraception, burn or not burn incense, play Purcell, Byrd, Tallis, Vaughan Williams, and Gregorian chants or slappy-happy overhead-projected praise-songs, endorse or disparage pentecostal or practices like tongue-speaking.

The little church around the corner or a mile down the road may be a more liberal or conservative parish of one's own denomination, or it may be a church of another, more liberal or conservative, denomination. Even in the officially monolithic Roman Catholic Church, one can find priests who dutifully perform modern vernacular masses or defiantly celebrate pre-Vatican II Latin masses, who enthusiastically endorse or scornfully ignore miraculous Marian apparitions and shrines like Lourdes, FŠtima, and Medjugorje, encourage or disparage Pentecostal-like "charismatic" practices, and passionately proclaim or discreetly downplay and sidestep official Catholic stands on abortion, contraception, divorce-and-remarriage, and homosexuality. By moving over to a little church around the corner or down the road these days, you can find a theology, moral code, and liturgy more to your own taste or convictions than those of your parents' church, without bearing the stigma among your pew-neighbors of being in their eyes a heathen or a fanatic, an agnostic or a holy-roller, an infidel or a reactionary, a puritan or a libertine.

This is one of the strengths of modern American (and general modern Western) religious pluralism--or, as some religious conservatives might rather say, one of its weaknesses. It has helped make modern Christianity peaceful and tolerant, with no interest in starting crusades, jih‚ds, religious wars, or inquisitions. It may also be criticized for encouraging religious indifferentism, for promoting a "consumerist" or "cafeteria" attitude to religion and a "different strokes for different folks," "we all worship the same God in different ways" view of theological and moral differences. Believers passionately devoted to the truth of a particular theology and morality, and the error of others, may blame the abundance of "little churches around the corner" for encouraging the belief that different theologies and moralities are not true nor false, not in conformity nor contradiction to God's will, not reflections nor distortions of "how things really are out there" in the spiritual world, but rather simply express different temperamental and cultural preferences reflecting different personality types, different class, ethnic, educational, and cultural backgrounds, and different genders or sexualities. Churchgoers may agree in the abstract that there is truth and error in religion, that some theologies and moralities are more true than others--but they no longer care deeply and passionately about this. They no longer think about it in their daily lives or their relationships with friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers. They no longer seriously believe that some friend, classmate, or neighbor will burn forever in Hell for belonging to the wrong church, expressing the wrong religious views, or indulging in the wrong sexual behavior. They find it perfectly normal, natural, and reasonable for individuals to choose the church, theology, and morality most congenial, comfortable, and natural for a person of their class, sexuality, educational level, cultural tastes, and general "life-style."

All this reflects the individualistic ethos of modern Westerm industrial societies, especially the United States. We are a society of social, cultural, and religious walkers, accustomed to "voting with our feet." Our "little church around the corner" approach to religion harmonizes well with the popular wisdom of 20th century secular books of self-help advice like Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness (1930) and Wayne Dyer's Your Erroneous Zones (1976, 1993).

It may sound odd to bring up a militant agnostic like Russell in connection with religious diversity. However, his stress on sympathetic associates in The Conquest of Happiness is in fact quite relevant to the sociology and psychology of religious pluralism. For "almost everybody," he felt, "sympathetic surroundings are necessary to happiness (Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness [New York: Horace Liveright, Inc., 1930; New York: The Hearst Corporation, Avon Book Division, n.d.], p. 83). Because of "differences of outlook" from his family or community, "a person of given tastes and convictions" may "find himself practically an outcast while he lives in one set," although "in another set he would be accepted as an entirely ordinary human being" A young man or woman "catches ideas that are in the air," but then "finds that these ideas are anathema" in his or her "particular milieu." It "seems to the young as if the only milieu with which they are acquainted were representative of the whole world." They "can scarcely believe that in another place or another set the views which they dare not avow for being thought utterly perverse"are "the ordinary commonplaces of the age." Young people thus suffer much "unnecessary misery, sometimes only in youth, but not infrequently throughout life." This "isolation" is "not only a source of pain," but "also causes a great dissipation of energy in the unnecessary task of maintaining mental independence against hostile surroundings"( The Conquest of Happiness, pp. 82-83).When "such young people go to a university," they may find "congenial souls" and "enjoy a few years of great happiness." Also, an intelligent man or woman living in a city like London or New York can "generally find some congenial set in which it is not necessary to practice any constraint or hypocrisy" (The Conquest of Happiness, p. 84).

Russell was mostly thinking of religion (plus politics and sexual ethics) in his discussion of people out of sympathy with their family or community who would be much happier if surrounded by a more congenial circle of people. Russell himself largely thought in terms of a simple dichotomy of ultra-conservative near-fundamentalist religionists versus outspoken agnostics or atheists like himself. However, his observations about sympathetic versus unsympathetic social circles are applicable as well to different shadings of religious belief among believers themselves, between religious fundamentalists versus liberals. Many young people grow up in fundamentalist or ultra-conservative Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian, or Jewish families, but find themselves out of sympathy with the hard-shell beliefs of their families or their home-town church or synagogue. They may be skeptical of their parents', pastor's; or rabbi's theology, or they may chafe at the strait-laced life- style, or they may feel tremendous pain at discovering themselves to be gay or lesbian but condemned as sinners and perverts destined to burn in Hell unless they get "cured." In many cases, they abandon their religion altogether. In other cases, however, they decide to keep their basic Christian or Jewish identification, but choose a more liberal version. They may move to the more liberal wing of their own denomination, or they may join a more liberal denomination. In either case, they see themselves as leaving a "sadly up-tight and out-of-it" religious community where they are "outcasts" with "utterly perverse" views and life-styles for an "enlightened" one where they are "entirely ordinary human beings" holding the "ordinary commonplaces of the age."

Bertrand Russell was one of the 20th century's leading philosophers, and a celebrated, passionate intellectual crusader for pacifism, nuclear disarmament, socialism, educational reform, freedom of thought and speech, and "free love."Wayne Dyer is a more "lowbrow" pop-psychologist, an author of popular self-help books with no interest in any political or social "causes" nor in flamboyantly eccentric Bohemian nonconformity. However, Dyer's a-political, un-ideological, un-Utopian recipe for personal happiness and peace of mind echoes Russell's in its advocacy of quietly walking away from unnecessary, unproductive conflict with people whose values, beliefs, interests, or agendas are opposed to your own. Dyer preached this "walking away" recipe most explicitly in his 1976 best- seller, Your Erroneous Zones [Wayne W. Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones (New York:Funk & Wagnalls, 1976; HarperCollins, "Harper Paperbacks," 1993]

Personal happiness and social progress, for Dyer, depended on individuals who "reject convention and fashion their own worlds," who "resist enculturation and the many pressures to conform." To "function fully" as a free, happy, effective human being, "resistance to enculturation "was "almost a given," though one may be "viewed by some as insubordinate," "seen as different," "labeled selfish or rebellious," and "at times be ostracized." This has "nothing to do with anarchy." Dyer wanted not to "destroy society," but only to "give the individual more freedom...from meaningless musts and silly shoulds." Even "sensible laws and rules" do "not apply under every set of circumstances." We should be free from "constant adherence to the shoulds," cultivating "flexibility and repeated personal assessments of how well the rule works at a particular present moment" (Wayne Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones, pp. 185-186).

To "resist enculturation," one had to "become a shrugger," Dyer's term for one who walks away from useless confrontations. Others would" still choose to obey," and one would "have to learn to allow them their choice," with "no anger" at them, "only your own convictions." Dyer told a story of a Navy friend stationed aboard an aircraft carrier anchored in San Francisco when President Eisenhower visited California on a political tour. His fellow-sailors were ordered to spell out the words "HI IKE" in human formation, so that the President could look down from his helicopter and see the message. Dyer's friend "decided the idea was insane, and decided not to do it, because it conflicted with everything he stood for." But "rather than stage a revolt," he "simply slipped away for the afternoon, and allowed everyone else to participate in this demeaning ritual." He "passed up his one chance to dot the ^—i' in ^—Hi.' However, he did this with "no put-down of those who chose otherwise, no useless fighting, simply shrugging and letting others go their own way" (Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones, p. 186).

"Resisting enculturation" thus meant "making decisions for yourself and carrying them out as efficiently and quietly as possible," with "no bandwagons or hostile demonstrations where they will do no good." The "foolish rules, traditions and policies" would "never go away," but "you don't have to be a part of them," only "just shrug as others go through their sheep motions." If they "want to behave that way, fine for them but that's not for you." To "make a big fuss" was "almost always the surest way to incur wrath and create more obstacles for yourself." One could find "scores of everyday occurrences where it is easier to circumvent the rules quietly than to start a protest movement." (Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones, pp. 186-187).

Wayne Dyer's "shrugger" ethic of quietly following one's own beliefs and interests without "useless fighting," of "shrugging and letting others go their own way" without making a "big fuss," like Russell's recommendation of sympathetic surroundings, might be seen by some observers as a good-naturedly cynical depiction of modern "little church around the corner" religious pluralism. Rather than wasting time and energy in "useless fighting" or a "big fuss," in what Russell called "a great dissipation of energy in the unnecessary task of maintaining mental independence against hostile surroundings," many of us simply leave an uncongenial church for one "around the corner" more suited to our own temperament, cultural style, or mental outlook.

All this, of course, may seem both to some cynical atheists and to some zealous religious traditionalists like basic religious indifferentism or even polite crypto-agnosticism masquerading as "civilized," "reasonable" religion. I recently, for instance, read one such indictment of modern "mainstream" religion by a conservative British Anglican journalist quoted on the Anglican list. On Tuesday morning, January 1, 2002, an Anglican St.Sams list-member posted excerpts from an opinion piece by a Matthew Parris from the UK Times quoted in the previous Saturday's AnglicansOnline that he found thought provoking. Parris was described as arguing that "the events of the year, in particular the fanaticisms represented in the Middle East and Bin Laden, are somehow a clash of values between reasoning, thinking sorts and the fundamentalist fanatics." Parris felt that "modern" mainstream religion may just be agnosticism masquerading as observance, and that "reasonableness in religion comes from a lack of total commitment-- whether you are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian." The Anglican St.Sams list-member quoted Parris' concluding paragraph:

Stronger commitments from some, then, and stronger antipathy from others. Could things be coming to a head? Could we be seeing a polarisation of public attitudes to faith? For more than a century now the dominant attitude in the Western world has been an apathy which I would describe as covert agnosticism masquerading as weak observance. Is Osama bin Laden flushing this agnosticism out? If so, we may see an increase both in the religious enthusiasm of the minority, and the avowed scepticism of the majority. When it comes to the relationship between modern man and religious faith, the century now beginning may prove make-up-your-mind time. I hope so.

Matthew Parris' description of "reasonable" Western religionists as covert agnostics reminded me a lot, when I read it, of atheist H.L. Mencken's 1916 "stage direction" of a wedding in an upper-middle-class church, which I'd just recently re-read. It also reminded me of the agnostic Czech-English Cambridge University social philosopher Ernest Gellner's somewhat acidulous view of modern Western liberal religion, and of the English "Fortean" researcher Hilary Evans' placing of modern "New Age" cults and gurus in the context of declining religious orthodox belief.

Back in 1916, Mencken published a gently satiric "stage direction" for a wedding in a church in a "well-to-do but not quite fashionable" upper-middle-class neighborhood of businessmen, professionals, and their wives in a moderately large American city. The church was "Protestant in faith and probably Episcopalian." The "estimable wives" of its congregation's "well-to-do but not fashionable" businessmen, lawyers, and doctors were "pious in habit but somewhat nebulous in faith." This meant that "they regard any person who specifically refuses to go to church as a heathen, but they themselves are by no means regular in attendance, and not one in ten could tell you whether transubstantiation is a Roman Catholic or a Dunkard doctrine"[H.L. Mencken,. "The Wedding: A Stage Direction," from H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques (Alfred A. Knopf/J. Lane, 1916), reprinted in E.B. White and Katharine S. White, eds., A Subtreasury of American Humor(New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1941), pp. 365-373, on p. 366]

I've been reminded of Mencken's observations on "somewhat nebulous" faith by remarks on doctrinally vague modern religion both by the Cambridge University philosopher and social anthropologist Ernest Gellner and by the English "Fortean" researcher Hilary Evans. Both Evans and Gellner saw much contemporary Western religious observance as an expression far more of social conformity, cultural loyalty, and sentimental attachment to tradition than of deep theological conviction or clear theologicaol understanding. Gellner described religious fundamentalism as a repudiation of what he saw as the "doctrinal vacuity" of modern liberal theology in Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion (1992). Evans placed modern "New Age" UFO cults and gurus in the context of declining orthodox Judaeo-Christian religious faith in a 2000/2001 ANOMALIST article on "Do-It-Yourself Deities and Mail-Order Messiahs."

Since the 17th century, Evans noted, the "unquestioning view" in the universality of religion as a "basic fact of human existence" that "distinguishes man from the beasts" has been "progressively weakened." It was "socially discreditable" until "quite recent times" to "proclaim disbelief," which it "still indeed is in many communities." However, a "substantial proportion" of people nowadays "affirm a total rejection of any orthodox belief." Moreover, "of those who continue to label themselves ^—Christians' or whatever" (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists depending on one's cultural background), it is "clear" that "many are no more than nominal believers who for social or psychological, rather than spiritual, reasons are unwilling to make a final rejection" (Hilary Evans, "Do-It- Yourself Deities and Mail-Order Messiahs," The Anomalist, No. 9, Winter 2000/2001, pp. 14-39, on p.17).

That is, such nominal believers are afraid of the social stigma of being labeled "heathens," "unbelievers," or "atheists," the annoyance of being pestered by well-meaning relatives, friends, clergy, or evangelists trying to "save" them or "bring them back in the fold," or the bleak psychological chill of completely, formally cutting themselves off from cherished customs, ceremonies, and traditions. Many Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists who have abandoned the theology and the sexual, dietary, alcoholic, or Sabbatarian restrictions still cherish warm, nostalgic childhood and adolescent memories of religious holidays, religion-related family celebrations, candles, hymns, organ music, stained glass, incense, "smells and bells," Christmas trees or Chanukah menorahs and dreidls, and familiar well-loved Bible, Torah, Qur'‚n, or Book of Common Prayer verses, passages, and stories. They feel very reluctant to abandon these along with the dogma or mythology and the prohibitions on birth control, abortion, divorce, pork, beef, liquor, tobacco, Saturday work, Sunday amusements, homosexuality, or sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman..For all these reasons--nostalgia, fear of social stigma as "unbelievers," and dislike of meddlesome do-gooders trying to "save" them--they find it socially and psychologically useful and comfortable to maintain a connection with their ancestral religious communities, and to continue attending or even officiating at ceremonies and rituals, while maintaining a discreet, polite ambiguity about their exact actual beliefs. They may privately re-interpret ancient theological, credal, or ritual formulae as metaphoric expressions in quaintly archaic poetic or mythic language of some form of Deism, Spinozism, Kantianism, Neo-Hegelian Absolute Idealism, Emersonian Transcendentalism, Ethical Culture, Heideggerian Existentialism, or New Ageism--maybe just a vague, optimistic belief in a Life-Force or Oversoul slowly but surely working for the eventual triumph of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice. Like Mencken's 1916 "estimable wives," they do not want to be "heathens" who specifically refuse to go to church, synagogue, or mosque, but also are quite happy and even eager to be "somewhat nebulous in faith" with little interest in pedantic hair-splitting doctrinal niceties.

Of "those who abandon traditional religions," Hilary Evans continued, "some reject religion altogether, becoming agnostics or atheists." Others, however, "turn to alternative faiths"--whether to other major traditional religions, or to modern "New Age," Spiritualist, Theosophist, and occult beliefs. "Publicized cases occur of prominent converts from Protestant to Catholic Christianity, from Christianity to Judaism or Islam, and so forth," Evans noted, but he felt that "it is their rarity that makes them notable" (Evans, "Do-It- Yourself Deities and Mail-Order Messiahs," p. 17). Evans then devoted the rest of his article to people who turn from Christianity or Judaism not to Isl‚m or Buddhism but to "New Age" beliefs and especially to UFO cults proclaiming the world's salvation by benevolent saucer-borne "Space Brothers."

Both Mencken and Evans remind me of some observations about modern religion by Ernest Gellner in Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London and New York:Routledge, 1992). Like Mencken and Evans, Gellner took a somewhat bemused, slightly ironic view of the "doctrinal vacuity" of modern bourgeois nominal believers nebulous in faith and unwilling to make a final rejection for social or psychological rather than spiritual reasons. Gellner felt that religious fundamentalism--by which he largely meant Muslim fundamentalism in most of his book--was "best understood" as a rejection of the "widespread modern idea" that "religion, though endowed with some kind of specified validity of its own, really doesn't mean what it actually says, and least of all what ordinary people had in the past naturally taken it to mean." What religion "really means," according to the "modernism" rejected by fundamentalists, was something "radically different from what its unsophisticated adherents had previously taken it to mean," and "far removed from the natural interpretation of the claims of the faith in question." Fundamentalism repudiated the "tolerant modernist claim" that the "faith in question" meant "something much milder, far less exclusive, altogether less demanding and much more accommodating; above all something quite compatible with all other faiths, even, or especially, with the lack of faith." Such modernism, Gellner felt, "extracts all demand, challenge and defiance from the doctrine and its revelation"(Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion ,1992, pp. 2-3)

Faith, Gellner argued, is often seen nowadays "as the celebration of community." Belief in the "supernatural" is "de-coded as expression of loyalty to a social order and its values." The "doctrine de-coded along these lines" was "no longer haunted by doubt," as "there isn't really any doctrine, only a membership, which for some reason employs doctrinal formulation as its token"(Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion, p. 3). Elsewhere, Gellner described this view of religion as simply the conceptual, literary, and ritual expression of a culture or society celebrating its values, continuity, and solidarity as an "auto-functionalist" form of religious "faith" (Nations and Nationalism, 1983, p. 56; Plough, Sword, and Book, 1988, 1990, pp. 207-208).

The "cosmogony of a given faith," in such "softened modernist re-interpretation," was "in effect treated not as literal truth," but rather "merely as some kind of parable, conveying ^—symbolic' truths, something not to be taken at face value, and hence no longer liable to be in any kind of conflict with scientific pronouncements about what would, on the surface, seem to be the same topic." For example, "modernist" believers are "untroubled by the incompatibility between the Book of Genesis and either Darwinism or modern astro- physics." They "assume that the pronouncements, though seemingly about the same events- -the creation of the world and the origins of man--are really on quite different levels," or even "in altogether different languages, within distinct or separate kinds of ^—discourse.'" Generally, Gellner found, the traditional doctrines and moral demands of the religion are "turned into something which, properly interpreted, is in astonishingly little conflict with the secular wisdom of the age, or indeed with anything." This way, Gellner felt, "lies peace--and doctrinal vacuity" (Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion, pp. 3-4).

Pax vobiscum,

T. Peter

Garden City South, L.I., N.Y.


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