Monday, June 05, 2006

Can A Phoenix Fly? -- Part Two

As I ponder the responses, both published and private, to my last piece with this same title, I noticed a tendency to think of North American Anglicanism just in terms of ECUSA, when the Anglican obedience on this continent has a much wider pull and reach. One of the tragedies of North American Anglicanism has been its tendency to fragmentation, and in this respect (although most Anglicans may not be happy with the comparison), we are much more like Baptists than anything else. I suspect that the roots of so much division are to be found somewhere in the wider American personality, but that is a discussion for another day.

One of the great joys for me during the time I worked on the US Anglican Congress, was to begin to get to know godly Anglican men and women who are part of smaller, separated jurisdictions. I have over the years developed a particular fondness for the granddaddy of all the smaller jurisdictions in the United States, the Reformed Episcopal Church; I suspect that if ECUSA had the same kind of clergy swap arrangement with them that we have with the mainline Lutherans, then I could function very happily in their midst.

So when I talk of North American Anglicanism I mean a much broader swathe of believers than just the old, declining mainline denomination. But I suspect that we need to cut that swathe even broader than that because in the emerging church movement is a great warmth toward Anglicanism. I have been heard to say a number of times in the past that we need to develop relationships with the emerging church types, because whatever kind of Anglicanism is re-born during the next generation or two, they are probably going to need to be part of it.

As I have explored the strengths and weaknesses of post-denominationalism, and as I have sought to understand what it means to be a biblical and catholic Christian as the culture's clothing becomes more postmodern, it has seemed that the denomination as we know it is increasingly an anachronism. This is not to say that 'families' of believers will not continue to affiliate with one another for fellowship, mutual encouragement, administrative support, and so forth, but it is to say that the lumbering top-heavy monster that most denominations have become is a quaint left-over from a bygone age.

Perusing the budgets of the Episcopal Church we can see how much the beast needs to be fed and how little we get from it -- and what I say of ECUSA is said similarly by friends in other mainline traditions. As we watch Ford and General Motors dying on the vine because they are structured for the past, we are also seeing the inevitablity of something a parallel happening in the mainline denominations.

When I was working on the 20/20 Taskforce six years ago, at a time when I was still persona grata in National Church circles, it was obvious that if evangelistic growth was to take place resources of every kind would have to be poured into the grassroots. The denomination could create an environment for growth that would encourage congregations and dioceses to set their eyes on the prize and give a good chance of Gospel expansion. Although there were inadequacies (especially theological) in the report we presented to the Executive Council in October 2001, if it had been acted upon we might have seen fascinating evangelistic things happening.

However, the denomination, led by those whose agenda had more to do with sexuality and redefining what it means to be human, gutted the report, sidelined forward thinkers and actors, and then changed the agenda. The outcome of this is the disaster that we now have on our hands. It is extraordinary hard work to grow congregations, particularly when the culture is in full flow against the biblical faith, and it is much easier to marry the spirit of the age -- which is precisely what ECUSA has done, thus destroying what was its last great hope.

However, as our bishop here has put it, all that has happened does not mean that God rescinded the Great Commission, and even amidst the ruins of what might of been we have work to do. As a mission congregation pastor I have learned to my cost that the actions of the General Convention made my work a hundred times more difficult and significantly reduced funding. This is one of the reasons I find myself shuddering what the General Convention will come up with this time to further hamper the progress of the Gospel.

If Anglicanism is to re-emerge as a potent force for the faith in North America, then like Anglicanism in so much of the Global South it has to be thoroughly biblical and thoroughly missional. This is going to mean faithful Anglican believers finding ways to cooperate and work together. Structure must follow mission, rather than the other way round. Whether inside or outside of ECUSA, faithful Anglicans have an obligation to get together and work together with other believers from other traditions for the biblical faith here in the USA.

Today's world is a bracing climate that takes pleasure in humbling bloated organizations, and ECUSA will not be spared. The car companies are today's poster children of this reality, but in the corporate world we watched this sort of thing going on for a quarter of a century or more. The structures of ECUSA are already living on borrowed time, and as funding further dries up so retrenchments will take place until they are forced to face up to changing realities: whoever is elected, the one at the helm when this takes place will be the next Presiding Bishop.

In the marketplace customers and shareholders ultimately dictate terms, in the ecclesiastical marketplace it is members in ordinary congregations. If structures are divorced from the concerns of the grassroots, then they have already hollowed out the foundations from beneath their feet.

But there also have to be ways of enabling faithful Anglicans to cooperate with one another. One of the tragedies of the fragmentations of the last decade is that folks who once worked together closely now seldom even talk to each other. Not only has the rending of the church broken relationships, but we all then become so intent to build up our own little empire that we do not have the time or spare energy to ask how we might share our resources our outward reach to the glory of God. I believe that part of the thrust of John 17 is that Jesus meant Christians to work together because their effectiveness is decreased when they attempt to go it alone.

If Anglicanism is to experience a resurgence, then whatever our present jurisdictions we are going to have to get beyond our present circling of our own set of wagons to address the bigger and more pressing task in hand. This will require generosity, grace, and humility -- characteristics that are in short supply. It also means that there need to be leaders who are willing to draw divergent groups together, and be prepared to let go of what they perceive to be their power and authority for the benefit of the larger whole.

But just being buddy-buddy isn't going to do it. Those who have separated themselves for ECUSA have done so for what they consider to be good reasons, and at their heart is theology. A worthy Anglican churchman said to me when I was in England several weeks ago, "I perceive there to be something of a theological deficit in the Episcopal Church." That, I told him, was a massive piece of British understatement! However, not only ECUSA can be blamed for theology-lite, the same has to be said for many Anglicans outside ECUSA.

It is vital that the faithful take this deficit in hand. As J. I. Packer said in Nashville a couple of years ago: from the pews upward we have a massive task of biblical re-education on our hands, and we fail to do it at our peril. But it is not just in the pews that a demanding and faithful theological education needs to be undertaken, the institutions that train men and women for leadership have the same challenge before them. I would hazard that we would not be in the mess we are today if the seminaries had been faithful to the revealed faith and doing their job properly. In some cases those seminaries teach almost anything but the revealed faith. I hazard that many of our clergy could not, as Windsor puts it "walk together" with the Communion because they do not really know what historic Anglican Christians believe.

When next I write on this topic, theology and theological education are the issues that I will address.

2 comments:

Rosemary said...

You and my husband have much in common it would seem. In the link below, skip the article and read the last five points he makes!

http://www.assistnews.net/Stories/s06050136.htm

frjohn7@yahoo.com said...

Could there be some similarity in how Toyota grows and GM, Chrysler, Ford diminish and the way in which Islam seems to be on the upswing while traditional denomination groups diminish. Just a though, and a disturbing one to boot.