Sunday, May 22, 2005

Reflections on the Changing Character of Classic Anglicanism

Classic Anglicanism can be compared to many things, but the exquisite beauty of a mature landscape or the subtle magnificence of a fine wine which the palate learns to appreciate are two analogies that come to mind. I have spent a lifetime discovering how to appreciate the richness of this tradition, which is mine as much by an accident of birth as personal conviction. Yet just as I am really beginning to appreciate its majesty I am watching it being devoured in a battle that seems to have some of the characteristics of a deathblow.

Anglicanism is an approach to catholic Christianity that has been forged and tempered by past conflicts and antagonisms. It has had this ability to marry a rich diversity of Christian expressions and experience in such a way that it enables us to live with some of the inevitable ambiguities of the life of faith. Classic Anglicanism also allows for the occasional maverick voice as well as a (sometimes grudging) respect for the convictions of the minority. There have been seesaw swings of influence and relative weakness as the variety of traditions within Anglican culture have rubbed against one another, almost always enriching one another in the process.

Alas, such mutual respect and comprehensiveness is now under threat as never before. The mature landscape is being plouged under. Polarization has taken place to such an extent that the internal debate that has always enriched Anglican Christianity has given way, in the United States at least, to angry accusation, counter-accusation, and what seems to be crass attempts to use raw influence and political power to impress its will on others. Why is it that ever since I heard then newly-elected Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning, say in 1985 that there would be no outsiders in the Episcopal Church, that I, a mainstream classic Anglican if ever there was one, has felt and been treated more and more as an outsider?

Now we are hopelessly polarized. Perhaps it is no accident that this polarization reflects the deep polarizations that there are in our culture. I have during these last weeks watched with fascinated horror as the United States Senate has marched toward what has become known as "the nuclear option." The present majority seem determined to modify patterns of action that have made the Senate marvelously distinctive in American political life so that they can attain what they want regardless of the minority. Moderates have been unable to stop inevitable, and the subtlety and beauty will be lost and replaced by the tyranny of the majority -- and, inevitably, deeper polarization and recriminations.

These same polarizing forces are rapidly wringing the life out of what remains of the Episcopal Church, with the political majority (I do not think they are a majority on the ground), pressing an agenda that reaches far beyond the richness of classical Anglican comprehensiveness. The response of many of those who are being wronged as a result of all that has taken place is either anger, depression, or flight. There is hardly a thoughtful and reflective orthodox Christian in the Episcopal Church that I know who has not at least considered this last course of action. I certainly confess to have considered it, although my flight would have taken me back to England and not out of Anglicanism altogether.

Perhaps we should have realized that when the Boomers became the dominant force within the church and the culture they would rip its fabric to shreads. Our generation, sometimes aided and abetted by the Silent Generation before us, seems to have been more intent on destroying what it has been received rather than conserving, building upon, and enriching it.

Yet here is the interesting twist. Despite this tale of woe, there are still those outside the Anglican fold who look at the treasures of classical Anglicanism and say, "We want it... this is what we have been looking for all our lives."

The other evening I had dinner with Phil Harrold, an Episcopalian who teaches at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, Ohio, and a couple of his students. Neither of these individuals was raised in an Anglican setting but each is drawn to its richness. The face of ECUSA might be extremely off-putting to these fine young pastors, but the substance of Anglicanism is like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. That which the power brokers of the Episcopal Church are so eager to discard, putting the questionable insights of Freud and Jung above those of Scripture and the on-going tradition, these eager and enthusiastic Christians are willing to pick up revive, enrich, and carry forward -- and I am prepared to help them.

I don't know what I had hoped for myself by this point of my ministry, in my sixtieth year, my thirty-seventh year in orders, and celebrating this weekend the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. If I listen to my ego and attempt to be honest, I suspect that I would have preferred to have been like one of those older priests of the early days of my ministry, who we looked up to with a certain degree of awe and whose measured words and wisdom were generally respected.

That is not my lot, however. Instead, I find myself still in the trenches, under God attempting to put together a new congregation that carries within it the riches of classic Anglicanism but adjusted to the stressful demands of the 21st Century. In this ministry there are few of those strokes and acolades that I would have appreciated. There are times when I get up in the morning wondering if I am a fool to be doing what I am doing -- but then I have to remind myself that we are called to be fools for Christ's sake.

I have a feeling, however, that I am doing something. What I am doing is playing a small cog-like role in what might be the re-emergence of genuine Anglicanism, as a coalescence takes place from within our fold and from beyond it. It seems to me that the young emergent churches, who met in conference here in Nashville last week, will have a part to play in this new kind of Anglicanism that builds upon what we have received, not what ECUSA seems intent on destroying.

If this is the case, then I am content. The apostles seem not to have been feted and honored in their own time, and so I feel a little ashamed that I should expect such a thing for myself -- a much less important mortal than any of them were.

Rosemary and I grew up amidst the ruins of England following the Second World War. We watched as heaps of rubble in the heart of London and other great cities were turned into something new, sometimes magnificent, sometims jerry built. What those early years of our lives taught is that nothing is permanent, and that everything can be rebuilt. Classic Anglicanism is too rich a treasure to go under, but we cannot expect the tired and corrupted old wineskins we inherited to last forever -- as new wine surges forth, so new wineskins are required, and that is what is going to be emerging in coming year.

1 comment:

who, me? said...

As a former Protestant who, for a time, found Anglican Riches as the gold at the end of the rainbow, I predict these young people are headed for Catholicism or Orthodoxy in rather short order via the Anglican route.