Monday, May 01, 2006

Dreaming of a Future for North American Anglicanism

Today I intend to finish reading James Holland's huge book, Together We Stand: America, Britain, and the Forging of an Alliance. Recently published in the USA by Miramax Books, it focuses on the North Africa campaign of World War Two, when for the first time Americans and Britons effectively fought alongside each other, cooperating and even merging their resources as necessary. The northern coastlands and deserts of the African continent was where the Anglo-American special relationship was properly forged, and political and military tactics that are still being used today were pioneered in 1942 and 1943.

That extended battlefield was the test bed from which has emerged many aspects of our contemporary world, yet even as the leaders on the Allied side were fighting for their lives, and victory seemed anything but a slam-dunk, they were already talking about the sort of world they wanted when the war was over. Churchill, aided and abetted by others from half a dozen nationalities, foresaw a totally different scene than the one which had entered the conflict in 1939.

Foreseeing required dreaming, envisioning, planning, and winning adherents to the vision. When Europe and parts of Asia lay in ruins when finally the hostilities ceased, when Stalin was intensifying his grip on Central and Eastern Europe while the Soviet Union was licking its wounds from at least 20 million casualities, and when the world was reeling at the discovering of the extend of the Holocaust, many of those dreams must have seemed beyond achieving.

Yet the dreamers were not bowed down. They were thinking up the United Nations, NATO, the liberalization of world trade, the extension of human rights and freedoms, and so forth. It may seem that in the intervening years some of their initiatives have gone awry, but we cannot underestimate the good that they did at the time. Where would Europe have been today without the Marshall Plan? What would have happened to Japan if the United States had not picked its old enemy up and helped dust it down? That generation of heroes who made this happen, the Greatest Generation, were extraordinary men and women to whom we owe an enormous amount.

Those who built the world we now inhabit became and arms, legs, and heads of an older generation like Churchill, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and so many others who dreamed how such a world could be born, but knew that age and energy would prevent them from necessarily going there. Like the landowner planting acorns so that generations hence will sit in the shade of mighty oaks, so it is our responsibility to do the hard work of dreaming into being a new kind of church.

Some years ago I read Karl Slaikeu and Steve Lawhead's book, The Phoenix Factor, a helpful little manual to enable individuals survive a personal crisis and grow as a result. The book is full of good advice that I know I have used on myself and with others in my years in ministry. The truth is that even the most traumatic crisis can itself become the springboard for growth and health. In their introduction the authors write, "Crisis theory points to a remarkable fact of human growth and development: newer, more satisfying, and more productive ways of living can come about only after the old ways have died" (Page x).

This book came off my shelves several months ago as I started to think what might be beyond the crisis that the Episcopal Church has inflicted upon itself, the climax of that crisis being reached with the actions of August 2003 that have been so destructive of fellowship and of worldwide communion. It could be that there are all sorts of people thinking long and hard about this, developing a strategy, and I am just not privy to what is going on, if so then discount what I say. If not, then can those of us who are mainstream Anglicans get down to doing the kind of planning and dreaming that enabled the Allies of the Second World War to remake their world.

I tend to see a lot of anger, despair, peeling away from the denomination, finger-pointing, and downward spirals of disappointment. I confess that I have shared these feelings in great depth, and have often wondered on a month-to-month basis whether my own little mission congregation can even survive in the midst of such a troubled pond. There is one chapter of the Slaikeu/Lawhead book that is entitled, Managing Painful Feelings, and I can assure you that I have spent a long time going over some of its pages again.

"In some cases the intensity of the current crisis ties directly to the fact that it dredges up old feelings -- you are now experiencing the pain of the current crisis and the pain of a previous crisis all at the same time" (Page 83). I certainly think this has been the case with many of us who are historic Anglicans within the American Episcopal scene. August 2003 was the trigger, a boil burst and out flowed years of resentment, anger at a compromised theological education system, bitterness at mistreatment by high-handed bishops, and so forth. Like a surgeon on an old-time sailing ship in the midst of battle, we have been knee-deep in blood and guts, and wondering why we are making such little progress.

Maybe the wastelands of the Gulf Coast are a visual aid. Katrina swept through and left behind total devastation. There are now pockets of restoration, and in many places a lot of the mess has been cleared away, but the whole area is a long way from restoration, and that is not going to happen overnight. I saw a piece the other night about the recovery of San Francisco from the 1906 earthquake and fire, and it took about twenty years for the city to get back into its stride -- meanwhile Los Angeles overtook it as the greater metropolis of the West Coast. The Gulf Coast will take years to come back, and right now they are looking toward another Atlantic hurricane season. Anglicanism won't recover overnight, despite our native impatience.

The impact of August 2003 upon the Episcopal Church was not unlike Hurricane Katrina, and while there are pockets of recovery here and there, and while some of the mess has been cleared away, we can see that it will take years to build something new. Meanwhile, we face with increasing dread the prospect of the next "hurricane season:" General Convention 2006. This is likely to be preceded by another destructive firestorm coming from San Francisco and the Diocese of California this Saturday, where any notion of theological sanity seems to have been abandoned.

Yet even in the midst of this we need to be dreaming and trying to envision the sort of future that we want for Anglican Christianity in North America. If we do not start envisioning and dreaming in this way, then the likelihood that we will have little or no future. If we cannot get beyond our anger and hurt, then we will be taken down by our anger and hurt, and in the process will do great damage to the wonderful Gospel of grace that has been committed to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

If we are to rise from a crisis like a phoenix, then we need to start making radical changes -- not just outward changes, but inward changes, too. This process begins and ends on our knees. Those in the secular world who plan for the future have developed all sorts of wonderful tools to help envision what sort of future God might be calling us to, and we should learn how to make use of these. While there are encouraging islands of hope, they need to be linked together and expanded, and instead of a culture of fear and despair, the time has come to develop a strategy that has a vision attached to it that tens of thousands of lay and ordained Anglicans can focus around and move forward toward.

Such a vision will need to be looking not just three, four, or five years out, but ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and be willing to hold our course in terms of the objectives we set ourselves, despite inevitable setbacks. Mission must be the organizing principle of our work, holistic mission that is rooted and grounded in the fact that when Jesus came into Galilee and from there sent us into all the world. He came saying that with him the Reign of God planting a foothold in their midst.

The last few years have finally stripped us of our carriage trade image, and despite the posturing of the Episcopal Church Center and company, we are recognizing that we are a small and almost irrelevant denomination on the American scene. This may be a painful realization, but it is an incredible relief, too. We can now stop pretending to be chaplains to the culture, and can get on with the business of taking the transforming message of Christ into that culture. We may have lost something, but if we are missional people then we have gained a lot more.

Too long we have been living, for example, with the negative imagery of a denomination that is coming apart, if we are to be creative and effective in the future then not only do we need a vision and a strategy for tomorrow, but we must find ways to start thinking like winners again. By that I do not mean replicating the crass morale-boosting sessions that crop up in business enterprises, but by recognizing that we are under the sovereign hand of God and he who calls us will enable us to be his agents in this hard place -- and agents of transformation. He knows exactly where we are because he put us here!

I have a dream of a very different American Anglicanism some fifty years down the road, but as a sixty-year-old I know I will never see it, at least from this side of the grave. I dream of an Anglicanism that has been cleared of the debris of these turn-of-the-millennium crises, and is moving gracefully and faithfully across what will be a very different post-Christendom landscape reflecting in its love and dynamism the Good News of our biblical heritage.

I see it as an Anglicanism that is flexible and not wooden in its structures, recognizing that it needs to be moved forward by mission opportunities not held back by political in-fighting and turf-wars. I see this Anglicanism as self-giving and self-sacrificing, moving ahead without counting the cost, toughened as it engages in spiritual conflict rather than weak, flabby, compromised. I see it as a caring partner with other Christian traditions, teaching them and yet eager to learn from them.

This Anglicanism I envision will be rooted and grounded in the triune God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and thoroughly biblical. It will have thought through the biblical faith in such a way that it will have shed its Enlightenment age packaging and come up with something a lot more appropriate and beautiful for that time. Indeed, because it is missional it will be constantly willing to test all its theology and attitudes against Scripture, modifying them where they are found wanting.

I suspect it will also be instinctively global, engaged in mission with Anglicans in orther parts of the world, and welcoming Anglicans from far away places to share the mission with us. It also has every possiblity of being flamboyantly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

I do not believe that a compromised Anglicanism will have survived in anything but small pockets here and there. Endowments can keep religious institutions alive for a long time, and there will always be those who prefer their faith to be tamed or undemanding. However, I believe the confusing tangle on the orthodox side of the spectrum now will have reached a far greater degree of order and cooperation. We need to remember that division is a characteristic of the Enlightenment approach to Christianity, not the more centrapetal approach that will prevail in these, by then, far post-Enlightenment days.

Slaikeu and Lawhead write, "You know you have successfully resolved the crisis when the crisis event has been woven into the fabric of your life in such a way that you are ready to face the future and get on with the business of living... There is a big difference in people who have integrated the crisis event into their lives and those who have not. Those who have are looking ahead: those who have not are directing their main energies backward toward the past" (Pages 202-203).

I like the look of the Anglicanism that I dream of, and I pray that my generation can, like the Churchills and Roosevelts of the World War Two era, set the trajectory that this future might face, leaving it for the next generation to put flesh and sinew on these bones. If we are to do this, then there is much inner work that we need to get done in fellowship with Christ and one another, and then a lot of planning and dreaming.

Perhaps our mental image needs to be that of King David and the Temple. Forbidden by the Lord to build his Temple in Jerusalem, David said, "Well, at least I can provide the materials for my son to do what is barred to me." So, he made preparations, but it was Solomon who did the building. Let us pray that in the days ahead orthodox Anglicans will stop taking it out on one another and starting sitting down at the table together and say, "Now, how do we rise like a phoenix from these tragic circumstances that have been thrust upon us?"

This, I believe, is the godly way forward.

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