Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ecclesiastical Meditions from a Lawnmower

It is that time of the year again in Middle Tennessee: plenty of rain, warm sunshine, sweet breezes, all of which make the grass grow and bring the mower back to the lawn. Just as against all reason my wife enjoys ironing, so I get pleasure from mowing the lawn, especially during these last couple of years that we have had a riding mower! Mowing gives a person time to think, and this afternoon I did.

As is always the case with lawnmower meditations my mind was initially all over the place, but little by little it became focused on one concern. In this case it was a comment made by a lay friend who left ECUSA for AMiA, and who said to me the other week, almost in wonderment, that it amazed him that folks like me had hung on for so long. I confess there are days when it amazes me, and regularly I have to ask myself whether it has to do with native stubbornness, the fact that I am so deeply entrenched in the Pension Fund, or what?

Besides, aren't evangelicals like me supposed to be sticklers for correct theology, so why on earth am I clinging to the hopeless wreckage of a church that is so compromised some folks find it difficult to think of it as a church? Yes, we are sticklers, and I think that in the last few years I have become more of a doctrinal stickler than ever, but this is precisely the reason I stay rather than taking my toys elsewhere, although elsewhere would a lot more comfortable.

As I rode my mower, the spring breeze in my face, I started to ennumerate reasons why I stay. As I have said before, it is certainly not because I still love the Episcopal Church as a denomination. Respect for ECUSA has long since evaporated, and my attitude toward those in leadership is somewhere along a continuum from disdain to despair. But as my friend, Bishop Ed Little, wrote in Christianity Today just recently, quoting another friend, Bishop Jeffrey Steenson, "The true identity of the church as Christ's body is in no way diminished by the imperfections of its human members."

Bishops Ed and Jeff are neither of them saying something new, because doesn't the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion state that "in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments?" (Article XXVI). The compilers of the Articles did not make this up, they were standing on the shoulders of the likes of St. Augustin of Hippo, and neither was Augustine out on a limb of his own because he was merely extrapolating from the words of our Lord Jesus.

When Jeffrey Steenson was a seminarian and I was his field education supervisor, I remember having several conversations about Jesus's parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30), and about the Net (Matthew 13:47-50), where the Lord makes it blatantly clear that it is not for us to measure the visible community of faith. It is when time is wrapped up and eternity begins that the Sovereign Judge who knows the secrets of all hearts will work that one out, separating sheep from goats.

It is because I want to be faithful to Scripture that I am still part of the Episcopal Church of the USA. The seamless robe of Christ has been torn just too many times for me to want to be part in ripping it further. I understand the discomforts that have led so many to leave, but understanding does not give me permission to follow.

Another significant reason is rooted in the history of our Anglican tradition, especially its evangelical emphasis. We evangelicals look particularly fondly upon Thomas Cranmer, the Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, who did not demolish the historic structures of the church, merely renewed them by cleansing from the tradition unnecessary accretions that had attached themselves to English Christianity during the centuries leading up to the 16th.

Deep within our spiritual DNA is the assumption that if God could reform then, then he will enable reformation again. Of course, we assume reformation is essential for within our consciousness is the Reformation's watchword, Semper Reformandum. The church is, in one way or another, always in need of reformation, and that reformation will not take place if all those with a reformation vision march rapidly for the doors as soon as things get uncomfortable.

But as well as being the spiritual children of Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, we are also the spiritual children of those Puritans who stayed after the Restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War and Commonwealth. With so many of their fellows leaving as part of what became known as the Great Ejection in 1662, it was not easy for those stalwarts who stuck with the Church of England to do so, but they did and much that was good in following generations can be traced back to this particular root.

Since then there have been other opportunities to leave, like the rise of Methodism, and the cruel demise of Anglicans on this side of the Atlantic following the War of Independence, but often from that tiny handful who have stuck it out have come the seeds of future renewals and revivals of faith. Evangelical Anglicanism has this tenacious streak, and deep within it is a providential sense that God has put us in this tradition for an hour like this.

There is still more, for it is love of biblical truth that makes us want to challenge the excesses of overt error. We are not given the truth to keep it carefully protected, wrapped in cotton, hidden in a bank vault, but to be put to use. Being a bearer of truth means willingly entering into debate and dialogue with those who have missed the point when measured by revelation and the catholic faith, for it is only by engagement that minds, hearts, and souls are changed. This does not mean that we believe we have got it right, for all of us are called to measure our convictions against the scrutiny of Scripture's message.

I guess this is why I echo the words of Ed Little:

Why do I not join those who have left or are leaving? Why do I stay? Serving a broken and divided church is a hard calling, and I do not minimize the difficulty of the task or the inevitable disappointments that I will encounter on the journey. But the Lord, for his good purpose, has (I humbly believe) thrown into one church Christians of radically different and sometimes theologically incompatible perspectives. Is it possible that in the midst of this painful discontinuity, he may do a work that none of us can foresee? It is in that hope and in remembering that he is Lord of the church and in charge of the big picture that I follow Jesus in the Episcopal Church.


Jimmy said...

If you hate,loathe and despise so much about the Anglican church it's obvious people are going to ask you-Why stay?
Christians are all the same always going on about-what should be,what could be,what will be,and entirely missing "What Is".

Ashley P. said...

Thanks for this piece. After over five years of debating, the ruling elders of our church are unanimously recommending to our congregation to leave the UCC. We vote in November. I hope we stay. Just as the ECUSA needs churches such as yours, the UCC needs parishes such as ours.

Richard Kew said...

Jimmy, you either did not read with care what I said, or you read it and missed the point. Might I suggest you give it another try?

Phil Harrold said...


The perception among so many of the faithful today is that ECUSA has left them. If they contemplate departure for AMiA, REC, etc., it is so they can continue as Anglicans in the historic or traditional sense.

You have long spoken of a much needed restructuring of Anglicanism. It may very well be the case that this will begin outside of ECUSA, among the continuing groups--if only because of the extent to which ECUSA is so profoundly compromised in its present circumstance.

In addition, I find it is younger families with children that are most likely to "reallign" themselves outside ECUSA's sphere. With much of their life still ahead, and their children's spiritual formation hanging in the balance, ECUSA offers little except unending controversy and dubious Christian teaching.

So, it very much depends on one's situation as to whether ECUSA seems the right or necessary course. I'm glad there are many in your situation who know what that right course is.

But, clearly, ECUSA no longer carries the Anglican banner exclusively in its North American context. That makes terms like 'leaving' or 'staying' somewhat relative.

Recall that ECUSA's own beginnings and early development were mired in all sorts of ambiguities. The ecclesiastical democratization under ++William White certainly contained the seeds of all sorts of innovations and, yes, unilateralisms, in the course of our history that have constantly threatened organic connections to historic Anglicanism.

Isn't it possible that this particular 'carrier' is no longer competent and that others may very well take up the task?

It seems we should be open to this possibility and move in whatever direction seems prudent given our situation in life. I find that many of my evangelical students are more truly Anglican in spirit today than the rector of my local Episcopal Church. They really 'get' Cranmer and what he was up to in the 1552 Prayer Book-- my Rector and my Bishop are, for the most part, clueless.

I'm troubled by this messiness, but that's because I can't fathom the paradoxical combination of unity and disunity that has always marked the Church.

Still, we must strive to see the big picture. John Stott's marvelous commentary on Ephesians (IVP, 1979) is helpful. He emphasizes, along with Paul, just how eagerly we are to struggle for visible unity (spoudazontes).

For this reason, I still highly commend your call and your courage to remain just where God has planted you.

Richard Kew said...

Phil, I don't think that I have ever suggested that the old lumbering ECUSA is going to be the final configuration of Anglicanism in North America, I do not believe it will be. However, what I am suggesting is that there are reasons for staying and fighting error that are biblical and strategically good.