"One's Own Fashions!"

In Edith Wharton’s, The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer, the young man set in the ways of old New York, has a conversation with Countess Ellen Olenska, who has recently returned from Europe after leaving her wealthy husband for his many affairs. Olenska doesn’t fit into old New York for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is, she is unfamiliar with the customs of her new environment.

At one point, early in the novel, Archer and Ellen have a conversation. Archer speaks according to the form and fashion of the day while Ellen is free and full of candor.  At one point, Ellen does not understand why her house, situated on a respectable street, is not good enough, to which Archer replies, “It’s not fashionable.” This produces a striking and revealing reply from Ellen, “Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that? Why not make one’s own fashions? But I suppose I’ve lived too independently; at any rate, I want to do what you all do – I want to feel cared for and safe.”

I love the old literature for lines like these. Authors think deeply about the human condition and often draw insights that are pastoral in nature. For example, consider Ellen’s statement, “Why not make one’s own fashion?” In 1920 Wharton could only dream of what Sinatra would sing in 1969. “My Way” or “one’s own fashion” seems like the Adamic desire of the human heart. But even that desire understands that such a thing leads to loneliness and insecurity. In other words, fallen people want their independence so long as others are independent with them.  

Thus, Ellen says, “I want to do what you all do – I want to feel cared for and safe.” Ellen understands the importance of belonging. It produces of feeling of being cared for, of being safe. The church could learn this lesson. Often churches spend a good deal of time attempting to tear down walls. In one sense, such a thing is admirable. However, it’s also dangerous. You could spend so much time tearing down that in the end you have nothing that actually defines.  In other words, if everyone belongs, then no one belongs. And if no one belongs, then how can anyone feel cared for or safe?

I have found the church an interesting place over the years. Some people attend worship but leave immediately after the service. Come evening, they are not to be found. They never darken the door of the church school or the fellowship meal or any other mid-week activity. And then a few months later they disappear. However, there are others who come and hang around. They attend the morning service, the occasional church school and even a fellowship meal or two. But Sunday is not a day of rest on their social calendar. So, you may see them and you may not.  However, these people will always speak to me about feeling out of place. Not feeling quite at home.

Here is what I tell them; the world has taught you about the church and Sunday. The world has said, it is a place to go if you have the time, it is optional. Don’t stress about it. It is like a pet; it needs to conform to your schedule. But that is wrong. The church has a culture and your feeling of “not being quite at home” is because you are trying to live independently and according to your own fashion. The church has a rhythm and a flow. It has patterns and practices and those who embrace them will feel cared for and safe. But those who remain aloof will not experience those blessings.

The Covid lockdowns have created a context of independence. Everyone has their own fashion.  A family can worship by livestream in Scotland one Sunday and the United States the next. What is more, many are not coming back to a local church. The last number was somewhere around twenty-five percent.  These people will sooner or later come to the realization that they feel neither cared for nor safe.  So, let me invite all who are not attending a local congregation to stop being independent and start experiencing the beauty of fellowship that the church has to offer.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


Jeffrey Stivason