Monday, July 18, 2005

Why I Remain An Anglican -- Part One

During the last couple of years I, like so many of those I know, have had to reconsider what I had always believed were the commitments of a lifetime. While these have not included my commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ seeking to be his faithful servant, they have included a lot of what I used to consider to be the givens that have for decades followed on from that faith in Christ. Questions have arisen like can I continue to maintain the vow of canonical allegiance to my bishop within the context of the larger church? Should I stay in ECUSA which I have served for nearly 30 years? Should I return to England?

Even more disturbing has been whether it is possible for a person seeking to be faithful to Scripture to remain an Anglican in these difficult circumstances, or has error finally run me off? If I come up with a "no" to this last question, then where on earth might I go and what might I do?

Such is the stuff that has fed countless prayers and had me walking the hardwood floors of our home in the wee small hours. My concern above all else has been obedience to Christ, not necessarily what makes me feel comfortable or what it might do to my income when I retire. This latter attitude is that of the fool in Jesus's parable, for I do not know when my soul will be required of me. While I remain here on earth that soul in concert with the body that houses it must put loyalty to the Lord above all else.

I have always considered myself to be what I would describe as a congenital Anglican, some of this almost goes with being English, but it is also something that has become an ingrained conviction. This means that whether I should remain Anglican is a question that has been the most disturbing. I confess to a continuing deep affrection for the Anglican way of being Christian, although I recognize there are other ways of obedience. I also confess to being increasingly irritated by the way in which we seem determined to constantly put our tradition down.

Yet the Anglican environment has been the setting in which my faith has been nurtured, has developed, and continues (I hope) to mature. Even if I ceased being an Anglican, all the treasures of this heritage would stay with me, enriching and haunting me until that day when I am finally called Home.

This has seriously raised the possibility of being an Anglican in one of the separated Anglican bodies, and I certainly considered this -- especially when I received a couple of flattering invitations from leaders of those various groups. I have learned and benefited a lot from these brothers and sisters, and take great pride in telling you that my own private communion set was dedicated by the presiding bishop of one of those churches. Yet it is not among these good people that I belong.

I have been (and continue to be) profoundly troubled by the actions of ECUSA, whose willingness to diverge from the catholic faith has, I am forced to conclude, as much to do with ignorance of God's revelation as a slide into aping the culture rather than challenging the culture's presuppositions. Yet this has been going on for a long time and we have not adequately countered it until now.

I would have to say that the whole Robinson and human sexuality embroglio is merely the tipping point in a long drift in this province away from the essence of revealed faith, and the institutional orthodoxy that is reflected in a larger part of the rest of the Anglican Communion. I would agree with Harold Bloom that the established religion of America is a modern form of Gnosticism, and much of the Episcopal Church has come to resemble this characterization.

However, over the last couple of years, as I have prayed over, pondered, and sought counsel about being in these circumstances, I have realizing that concentrating my thoughts on the negatives of ECUSA is of no use at all, for all they do is increase the density of the fog meaning that I will myself start hitting icebergs. The whole thing then comes about me and not about the environment in which I have been set to be a witness to the truth.

To use an analogy, there is a lot about the history as well as the current behavior of my own kith and kin that deeply disturbs me, so if I were to cut my ties with them I would have done so a long time ago; but blood is stronger than water, and something far more ontological persuades me that I must stay connected, and even reach out to the ones with whom I have been at odds. Being at one with my own family overrides their attitudes and misbehaviors, although it does not allow me to condone what some of them are up to. So it is with Anglican Christianity, as well as the American mainline incarnation of it, which is the one to which I belong.

However, there have been serious moments when I have wondered if, perhaps, maybe, I would fit somewhere else. I have looked at Rome as an option, for example. I was watching the funeral of John Paul II, and a little voice murmured in my ear that at a push I could handle this. Rome has a magnificence that gives it a magnetic appeal to countless Western Christians who are separated from it, and I have watched a steady trickle of friends swim the Tiber. But as I looked more closely, and as I viewed what was going on outside St. Peter's Basilica on that spring day I recognized that being a Catholic goes with a package that is as troublesome to me as the misdeeds of ECUSA.

In JPII's funeral there were two of them that hit me. The first was Rome's theology of the eucharist, which made me most uncomfortable when they reached the Canon of the Mass, and then there was the place given to Mary in their devotional life. When I was in seminary I had the luxury of being able to spend a whole term just studying the nature of Roman Christianity in the wake of Vatican II. While there was much to encourage my heart, there was also a great deal more that made Roman Christianity indigestible to me -- and I realized on that April day that these concerns have not been ameliorated by the passing of the years.

I can never believe about authority what Roman Catholics are bound to believe, especially the manner in which the church's magesterium is anchored in (what is to me) an unacceptable theology of the papacy and the place in Christian believing of the Bishop of Rome. JPII might have been one of the greatest Christians ever to hold that office who has attracted many into the Roman obedience, but just as one should not judge Anglicanism merely by its shortcomings, neither can we measure the grandeur of Catholicism merely by the life of one of its most significant sons.

I believe that despite the dark stains marring that era, the cleansing that took place at the Reformation was essentially beneficial to Christianity as a whole, and especially Anglicanism. It grieves me that despite Catholicism's richness it was neither prepared then nor has it been prepared since to test substantial elements of its doctrinal edifice against the essence and substance of Scripture.

The trouble is that while the Roman Catholic doctrine of development allows for a piling up for fresh insights into the tradition, it does not seem to have the capacity for subsequent questioning of the accumulated tradition -- or perhaps the reassessment, modification, or abandonment of components that might be inappropriate. This was something that one of the most significant converts to the Roman obedience, John Henry Newman, wrestled with. Newman discovered to his cost that as he sought in those Victorian days to make better sense of the doctrine of development, his rich and helpful work came under the scrutiny, and then outright ban of the Vatican.

While I cannot reach into the hearts and souls of those who have become Roman Catholics in recent years, I am totally unable to follow them. I wish them well, but I also wish they had not done it. I am sorry, too, that most are unwilling to keep in touch with those of us they leave behind.

Eastern Orthodoxy has become a less fashionable destination for disgruntled Anglicans than it was 12-15 years ago, which is hardly surprising, because even in its most Americanized forms Orthodoxy remains distinctly alien and ethnic. Now there is much about Orthodoxy that appeals to me, especially their deep devotion to the Holy Trinity, but having worked closely with the Russian Orthodox for the best part of a decade, I find myself in a position where I can admire them without necessarily wanting or needing to be part of them.

While Orthodoxy is much closer to classic Anglicanism than Rome is, I do have problems with a religious tradition that has not been tried and tested by either Reformation, or the challenges of the Enlightenment that have so influenced those of us who are Westerners.

While many Orthodox Christians might disagree with me, I also find that its liturgy-centered approach to mission and evangelism leaves something to be desired -- and while some of their approaches to outreach might be imaginative, they are major exceptions. A further discomfort I confess to having with Orthodoxy is my perception that it is inflexibly male-dominated, and while I have misgivings about some of the ways we have sought to enrich the ministry of women, I would rather have tried doing something than basically saying the church got it right a millennium ago and we don't need to go back to that.

There are endless other Christian traditions that I admire, and from which I have gained, from Lutherans to the Salvation Army. But I have been formed in a particular way which has so profoundly shaped me, that I could no more adopt being part of something else than I could fly to the moon. Probably the least likely Christian tradition in which I might fit would be that which is either broadly Baptist or broadly Pentecostal, although Christians from each of these settings has played a significant role in my life in the past.

All this brings me back to my lifelong love affair with Anglicanism, and my realization that while things are more fluid in the Anglican Communion now than at any time in my life, as well as the parlous state of the North American franchise of mainstream Anglicanism, as far as I am concerned there are no alternatives. Through my questioning I have concluded that I am in no position to abandon this church until this church abandons me.

At the end of his very helpful little monograph exploring the biblical basis for remaining united or separating from an erring body, Mike Thompson, an American priest who is Vice-Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, writes, "One of the great things the Anglican Church has going for it is that it does not have some of the walls that some other churches have, firewalls that protect the Church of the Immaculate Perception at the cost of people. Tolerance means we leave room for mistakes. Sometimes our leaders make big mistakes, as we do. But I would rather be part of a group that risks erring on the side of tolerance than one that 'safely' errs on the side of separation. The truth is, try as hard as we can, human beings are going to continue to err and make messes until glory. If we can learn to listen to the worldwide church before making big decisions, these messes can be minimized" (Michael B. Thompson, When Should We Divide?, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2004, page 27).

I agree with Mike wholeheartedly, despite the fact that it leaves me in an uncomfortable position. I also still believe, with my old friend and mentor Jim Packer, that at its best Anglican Christianity is the finest way of believing. So, for better or worse, "Here I stand," as was said by the greatest of Reformers. Whatever the outcomes my intention is to work for the restoration and reformation of the church, and in uncertain times that means learning to listen carefully to what God might be saying.

(This is only the first of three pieces I am writing on this topic. More will follow about the richness of the Anglican heritage, which I believe often gets overlooked because we are concentrating on the problems and not the benefits of our tradition).


Sharon Ferguson said...

First of all, are you familiar with the Original Province of the Anglican Catholic church? I am a former RCCer who has fallen in love with the Anglican tradition and have no desire to return to "a two-legged stool," as my priest would put it.

and two : I am curious to know what it is about the Eucharistic tradition as followed by the Roman Catholic Church that you are trouble by? I know of several Episcopalians who were delighted to find our church only to decide that we were too catholic for them because we upheld the doctrine of Transubstantiation ; although, I do have to admit, CONsubstantiation is also accepted (quietly among the members).

Richard Kew said...

Sharon, I am aware of the Anglican Catholic Church, but I have had little involvement with them. While Anglicanism has developed as a tradition that is deliberately vague about the nature of the Eurcharist, my own position leans in a more Reformed direction.

It is a different time than when the XXXIX Articles were conceived, so I would phrase it slightly differently now, but I am happy with Article XXVII which states, "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ... The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith."

benjamin said...

Richard -

Thanks for the post/s.

I am curious, though, as to how it is that you see Orthodoxy as closer to classical Anglicanism than Roman Catholicism? There are, of course, siginificant points of contact and there has long been a push towards full communion from certain groups within both communions.

Yet, Anglicanism still makes the most sense within the story of Western Christendom, particularly Roman Catholicism, and although it borrows from certain Eastern tendencies (which are, of course, shared by all but which have been more prevalent in the East), Anglicanism still seems more Western than Eastern, even if it is its own peculiar "constellation" (to borrow a phrase from Rowan Williams' Anglican Identities).

I look forward to your response.


Brad Page+ said...

Thanks for your word Richard. I have always appreciated your orthodox yet balanced approach to the matters that cause us in ECUSA and the Anglican Communion so much strife these days.

Having said that, here's my not-so-balanced word: It seems to me that Anglicanism has become "deliberately vague" about much more than the nature of the Eucharist. In fact I'd say we are deliberately vague about most things(among the MANY examples one of the latest is the C of E Bishops' Statement on Civil Partnerships for priests).

Many would celebrate the latitude Anglicanism provides individual Christians (who are often orthodox with regard to the Creeds and faithful in preaching the basics of the Gospel). However, as a catholic and apostolic church Anglicanism has become thoroughly incoherant.

It is little wonder that many of our friends in ministry have decided to put their individual opinons, Anglican affinities, and struggles with this or that Catholic standard aside and take the swim across the Tiber.

Richard Kew said...

I would say, Brad, that it is not Anglicanism in essence that is deliberately vague but the manner in which significant components live out what they believe to be Anglicanism. I would also say that at heart Roman Christianity is as confused as Anglican Christianity might appear to be, but they have got it covered up better than we do. Cynical? Perhaps, but not entirely.

Kevin A. Davis said...

Mr. Kew,

I have to inform you that "Roman Christianity" (as you put it) is not as confused as Anglican Christianity. We have dogmas. You do not. If you want to know what we believe, go buy the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. Yes, we have dissident theologians, many of whom have been disciplined by the Church (such as removing Hans Kung from teaching in a chair of Catholic theology at a German university), but, whereas formal members of the Church may hold heretical positions, the Catholic Church does not. She stands strong on the rock of St. Peter.

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