Historically, schisms have been rather public, bloody things. This was clearly the case when the church split between East and West. Even though some hope of reconciliation was on the table at various points, excommunications had been traded, Crusades had happened, and everybody knew the two or three theological disputes that needed settling. Roughly the same thing could be said of the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Following a number of bloody wars, mutual persecutions, and martyrdoms, the results were different communions, confessional documents, and other marks of separation.
In their recent book Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy, Andrew Walker and Robin Parry argue that, unbeknownst to many, the Western church is in the midst of a third great schism. Unlike the last two, though, the split hasn't resulted in a clear line between new denominations and old ones, but runs right through the various churches of the West. On one side stand those who affirm a broadly supernaturalist Christian orthodoxy embodied in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. And on the other, you find those who can at best recite the creeds with their fingers crossed. Having embraced the various presuppositions of Enlightenment and postmodern thinking, they are skeptical of supernatural claims and often doubt the very idea of objective truth.
Set against the backdrop of Western consumerism, our “secular age,” and evangelical tendencies toward thinner understandings of the church, Walker and Parry are worried about a widespread loss of the gospel within the Christian community. Taking a cue from C. S. Lewis, the authors propose a vision for recovering what they call “Deep Church,” meaning a thick orthodoxy of belief and practice woven together from the wisdom of our past. They want to help us recuperate from a bad case of “gospel amnesia” by renewing interest in the church’s historical journey.
A Clear Choice
There's much to commend in Walker and Parry's elegant little manifesto for the Deep Church. Walker and Parry write with a style that is comfortably learned, without unnecessary academic clutter. What’s more, while admittedly written in the polemical mode, their arguments and criticisms are leveled with grace, care, and winsomeness.
The authors’ lengthy chapter on the importance of orthodoxy, or right belief, delivers a message that can’t be stressed enough in today’s culture. The same can be said about their picture of the Christian life as unifying right belief, right living, and right worship. A gospel rightly believed and sung goes hand in hand with one rightly lived. What God has joined together, Walker and Parry will fight tooth and nail to keep from separating.
Probably the most important contribution Walker and Parry make is describing the rift growing in the church between orthodox believers and the more progressive elements as a genuine schism. In many ways, their project is reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s still-relevant classic, Christianity and Liberalism. Machen, an early-20th-century Presbyterian theologian, famously argued that the choice facing the church wasn’t between different branches of Christianity, but rather between two wholly different religions. He did so without animus, merely articulating why churches would have no choice but to choose one side or the other.
In this way, Deep Church Rising also helps reinforce that easily-lost sense of a solid, identifiable Christian tradition about which so many younger believers, impressed with claims of “lost Christianities” and the differences between Christian communions, are skeptical. To objections like “Whose Christianity?” and “Which Orthodoxy?”, Walker and Parry are prepared to articulate a solid, coherent vision that restores confidence we’re dealing with a historic, spiritual reality—and not just the arbitrary product of a political power struggle.
I do have a number of misgivings, though. In the first place, Walker and Parry’s narrative about the rise of modernity and postmodernity are a bit tendentious. Walker’s Eastern Orthodox perspective on the church’s historical schisms is evident. In addition, the authors rely too heavily on Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (ably critiqued by Carl Trueman), which lays disproportionate blame for all that ails the church at Protestantism’s door. The book’s treatment of Scripture and tradition, while effective against the worst sort of "Bible-only" mentality (as opposed to the richer Reformation idea of sola scriptura), it fails to grapple with the crisis of authority the Reformers were dealing with in their rejection of the Catholic Magisterium.
Reformed as I am, I appreciate a good argument for the guidance of the creeds and the Christian tradition. In that, Deep Church Rising reminded me of Carl Trueman’s argument in The Creedal Imperative, which was aimed at “Bible-only" types. That said, there was little direction towards practical application beyond a general gesturing towards reading older sources and practicing the Eucharist. At times, the book can seem like a rehash of Robert Webber’s “Ancient-Future faith” project.
Finally, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed by Parry and Walker’s lack of engagement with the challenge of sexual ethics in their chapter on holy living. I appreciated their words of critique on conservative stances on market capitalism and liberal stances on abortion. But their silence on Scripture’s teaching on human sexuality is puzzling: After all, if you want to see a clear culmination of trends the authors decry—secularism, hyper-pluralism, consumerism, and individualism—look no further than the breakdown in modern sexual morality.
Furthermore, Christian teaching on sexuality is a major stumbling block to faith, both inside and outside of the church. It is here where, most dramatically, we see the seductive philosophies of our day bending believers out of shape and tearing at the seamless whole of belief, practice, and worship. On the ecumenical level, sexual ethics are the current fault line that’s actually splitting communions in two, making visible the underlying schism on larger matters of doctrine. While you can’t say everything in every book, leaving sexuality to the side seems like a notable gap.
All the same, Walker and Parry offer us a beautiful vision and some deep wisdom for the spiritual crises in the church today. Deep Church Rising shines an important light on the church’s gospel amnesia, and helpfully points toward the road to recovery.
Derek Rishmawy ministers to college students and young adults at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, California. He blogs at Reformedish.