Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Why I Remain An Anglican -- Part 2

The earlier part of this was necessarily autobiographic, and what
follows is what I understand the essence of Anglicanism to be. For many
years now my old friend and mentor, Dr. Jim Packer, has spoken and
written about the Anglican identity. We have joked together that this may be because Anglican Christianity has suffered from a permanent identity crisis! This may be true, but I hazard that there are good reasons for this, one of which is that we live in transitional times, and a Christian tradition that is attempting to speak God's truth in a
period of such social fluidity is bound to spend a lot of time wrestling
with who it is.

The Jack Spongs and Jim Pikes of this word are aberrations in the Anglican universe, as detached from the mainstream of catholic Christianity and classic Anglicanism as the snake handlers who still crop up in out of the way coves and hollows of Appalachia. Yet, because American Anglicanism has been (at the very best) "theology lite," they have been allowed to be the voice of our tradition on American soil. They are, I suspect, the inevitable outcome of the mantra which has been constantly repeated that Anglican Christianity is not confessional -- something which is utter phooey!

Anglican Christianity is theologically rich and thoroughly confessional, being rooted and grounded in its submission to Scripture as God's word written, as interpreted and understood through the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the historic Books of Common Prayer, and the Homilies. This stream of believing provides an environment that is generous enough to allow for substantial wiggle room, but is without an inquisitional flavor. Yet within our tradition there are clear, substantial, and obvious boundaries that have been set, and we ignore them at our peril.

Classic Anglicanism has had a delightful theological sturdiness that enables it to draw upon the riches of everyone from the Church Fathers to the Puritans, from Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, to the insights of the whole cross-section of great theologians and thinkers of our time, as well as the emerging theologies that are coming from the Global South. The thin gruel that has been the staple of American Anglicanism in the last several generations has played a role in creating a denomination that is so ignorant of its origins and roots that much of it now hardly bears much of the original family likeness. As Robert Morgan of Oxford has pointed out, "the best insights of liberal theology... do not suffice to nourish a minority church in an aggressively secular society" (Quoted by Alister McGrath in The Renewal of Anglicanism, page 121).

It was inevitable that Anglicanism would become more multicultural because of the explosive growth of the worldwide Communion, drawing upon many ethnicities and social groupings, and that with this expansion would come tensions. However, while much of the church in the wider world has read, learned, and inwardly digested the core at the heart of Anglican believing, it has become obvious in recent years that the church in the West would become so deeply enamored by the relativism, cultural and moral narcissism of our times. Neither did we fully recognize the harm deconstructive thinking and scholarship was doing to the way we understand the content of our Christian heritage.

However, having said this, it is the generosity of Anglicanism that continues to draw me, a generosity that is truly Spirit-given. The Anglican way of understanding the substance of the faith has clarity, but at the same time there is room to move and to explore. So I would contend that there is a generous orthodoxy about Anglican Christianity that is enviable -- clear boundaries, but room to move. Having said that, there have been those within the church who have imposed upon our tradition's innate generosity until the outcome has been utter license -- and with it the abandonment of the catholic distinctives that are at the heart of Anglican believing and acting.

Having experienced Anglicanism in many parts of the world I would say that although it is hard to clearly define, there is a certain continuity to our expression of faith that is recognizable whether you are in a mud church in the bush of Tanzania or in one of England's great, historic cathedrals. A component of this Anglicanism, like its theology, is both its generosity and its willingness to engage the
prevailing culture with the heart of the Gospel.

I would take issue with those who identify Anglicanism with Englishness, for although that is still so in parts of the West, our approach to the faith has certainly moved through and beyond this in other parts of the world. English-style Anglicanism may have been the jumping off point, but it has developed way beyond that now. Anglicans worship is a babel of languages, a multiplicity of styles, and with several orchestras of different musical instruments, with a variety of liturgies, and its theology continues to have a rich generosity of expression.

Anglicanism is essentially a tolerant and welcoming way of being a Christian, and that is something I revel in and applaud. Speaking personally, throughout my Christian life I have been given the liberty to explore, ask questions, and also to fail -- both in my vocation and my personal life, and I have been picked up and gently nurtured back to health as well. I have also been expected to live alongside and work with those with whom I have the profoundest disagreements. I can only say that I have been immeasurably enriched by this, uncomfortable as it has sometimes been.

I would go further and say that in my own ministry, and in the midst of one of the deepest crisis of my life, I was nurtured and loved back to holistic health by a bishop whose theology I believe to be fundamental flawed. This had a profound impact upon me, ameliorating my own tendency to "write people off," and demonstrating to me that at its best, the generosity of Anglicanism cuts in several ways. It is for personal reasons like this that I find the present crisis so painful, for in
ECUSA, at least, that generosity has fled on all sides, and the integrity of a valuable component of the Anglican culture has been profoundly weakened if not permanently destroyed.

However, one of the reasons we are in the mess we are is because we have acted with appropriate generosity, welcoming all-comers into our midst. Where we have failed is that we have allowed such generosity to be taken advantage of and devalued until it has become cheap grace, and have shrunk from maintaining the boundaries that are there at the heart of the Anglican confession. Doing both these things together is, I realize, a difficult balancing act, but our present circumstances are evidence of our failure.

We have allowed, alas, the culture of rights to prevail, modifying pastoral care until we are asked to accept as normal what is unacceptable. I am not just talking of sexuality here, for this has merely been the tipping point in what is a multi-generational drift from the essence of classic Anglicanism. My hope, prayer, and dream would be to see the balance restored, for with it would come not only a delightful maturity of faith, but also a revitalized Anglican culture.

The most obvious thing about Anglicans, perhaps our biggest calling card in the New World, is our liturgical tradition rooted and grounded as it is in the brilliance of Thomas Cranmer and the wisdom of the Elizabethan Settlement. Even with all the tinkering that has gone on through the process of liturgical revision, such good stuff cannot help but shine through.

We are allowed by the church to pray with the communion of saints down through the ages, while at the same time recognizing the need for spiritual spontaneity and for local cultural variation. There is extraordinary substance in our worshipping, even the severely watered down offerings of Rite II in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In an age when so much worship is anthropocentric and entertainment-driven, there is great significance in our beginning our time around the Word and the table with the words, "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

We believe as Anglicans that we worship with the mind every bit as much as with the body and the emotions. Ideally, worship for us is not a psychological or spiritual game, but is the setting within which our whole being is brought into the divine presence, fed on the Word, and nourished by the sacraments. While there is great danger that our worship will become rote, there is far less danger that it will be vacuous and trite when it is used reverentially, sensitively, and with great care.

I confess that on those rare occasions when I worship in a non-liturgical setting, however good the preaching, I tend to leave dissatisfied, as if something signficant is missing. I would also have to say that there is some sense of inadequacy in those Anglican settings that mess too much with the liturgical order.

I confess to not always finding it easy to worship in the presence of those these days who I believe to be troublers of the church; but at the same time our presence together before the Throne of Grace is a reminder to me that even if I am convinced their perception of God and God's purposes is wrong, I must accept that there are probably woeful shortcomings in my grasp of what it means to be a faithful Christian. The truth is that we all come into the Father's presence as sinners in the need of grace.

If I were to dream about the future shape of Anglican worship it would be for a doctrinal tightening up and restoring of the standards of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It seems to me that when compared to the magisterial work that 1662 is, and how that is reflected in the 1928 revision, 1979 while "tasteful" for the most part, our present liturgical standard is theologically weak and often doctrinally sloppy. Looking at some of the revising that is going on in other parts of the Communion, it need not be this way, and we have a lot to learn from other Anglicans.

In the period since the Reformation, Anglicanism has been forced by ever-changing circumstances to grapple again and again with what it means to be God's partners and servants in the work of the Missio Dei. Those of us who are evangelical and take seriously the dimension of individual salvation in the Gospel, have had to come to terms with the social and political dimensions of what it means to bring in God's reign upon earth. We have had mixed success in learning that lesson.

But in terms of enthusiastic proclamation of the truth, we can point to the worldwide Communion of churches that is the product of generations of obedience to the missionary impulse whether that was driven by desire to spread God's Word, or it was seen as the spiritual arm of imperialistic and commercial influences of a bygone era. Neither is it any accident that one of the most helpful tools of evangelism now being employed by Anglicans and a cross-section of other denominations, including Rome, has been Alpha -- as well of the various Anglican knock-offs that have followed in Alpha's wake.

Anglicans of a biblical persuasion have taken seriously the Great Commission, and continue to do so -- just look at the proliferation of missionary enterprises that there has been in the Episcopal Church in the last 30 years! The huge growth of the Communion in the Global South is itself a mark of the manner in which the missionary spirit is deeply ingrained in classic Anglicanism as it is today. Furthermore, the vast majority of new church plants in just about every corner of the world come from a a classic Anglican direction, showing us the extraordinary spirit of enthusiasm for Gospel truth that still marks Anglicanism at its best.

While those of us on the evangelical end of the spectrum have made some progress in our grasp upon the imperatives of the Gospel, and its holistic nature, I do not see that same holism in other schools of faith. Indeed, as I look at the broad church's understanding of its mission, I see a loss of nerve which is often accompanied by a discomfort about the uniqueness of God's self-revelation in Christ, and this blindspot feeds our denominational malaise. It also has to be pointed out that actions of some of our co-religionists have set back missionary initiatives at home, caused great embarrassment, and have put the lives of fellow-Anglicans in danger in other parts of the world.

However, walking away from those who work from an understanding of God and mission that is at odds with classic and orthodox Anglicanism does little good, merely deepening animosities and further rending with great tragedy the seamless garment of Christ. I am increasingly convinced that in a tribalized and fragmented postmodern world further fragmentation of the Christian community does not serve the Gospel, it merely hampers our mission.

Having said that, one of the tragic consequences of our sorry state is that those of us who define ourselves as orthodox are forced to take all sorts of measures to protect ourselves from a rapacious discrimination that is often aimed at us, as well as persecutions that I would not have believed possible a dozen years ago. For me the church, Anglican or otherwise, is a Gospel "game," for many of our fellow-Episcopalians it seems to have become a lethal sport of power politics that is being played against the orthodox minority. This is dangerous for all of us, because I am convinced that the insights into the faith and the missionary dynamic of those of us who are discriminated against make us a major component of the leaven in the lump. For our part, the orthodox have not always acted wisely and well, either.

(The final section of this series will be an attempt to draw some of these threads together)


Gary said...

Richard, many thanks for sharing your inner thoughts with us. You have helped affirm my own answer to this question.

I was raised as an Episcopalian in the post WWII period. But when I decided to marry a Roman Catholic (in pre-Vatican II days) I was attracted by their liturgy and their history. I became a "convert" and was very active as a CCD teacher, reader, etc. However, as I matured I came to realize that I was still an Anglican. Although I was attracted by the externals of the RCC, there was something that always troubled me. You identified it well, it was the magisterium. I came to realize that I had never stopped being an Anglican even though I was dressed in "Roman Clothes." So I came back home 23 years ago.

Since GC2003 I have been struggling with the question of where could I go if ECUSA continues down this path, because like you I wear the orthodox label. I did seriously consider Rome for a few weeks, but came back to the fundamental truth that no matter where I go I will always be an Anglican because that is what shaped and formed me.

Thank you again, you have affirmed my decision to remain where I am for that is where God has placed me to serve his people.

Richard Kew said...

Gary, Thank you for your response to what I wrote. I think there is this tendency to see Anglicanism is a poor person's alternative to Roman Catholicism, and therefore, to put the Anglican way down. While among several of my friends who have become Roman Catholics the whole magesterium attracts them, possibly because it seems to provide some sort of firm theological base, I find the whole notion questionable -- and flawed.

Another problem I have had with Rome is that it is has been particularly ineffective in giving its ordinary laity a strong biblical base. I was recently having lunch with an old mentor of mine. He is Irish, and pointed out how in many parts of Ireland there is now a hunger for Scripture among Catholics that is in various ways being met by the Church of Ireland.

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