Ask an Anglican: Are Anglicans Schismatics?


From the 1933 film “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”

Richard writes:

What would you say to the charge that the Anglican Church was born originally only out of Henry VIII’s desire to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and his decision to break from Rome was not over theological differences, but rather over his desire to be “the boss?”

I’m Henry the Eighth, I am…

In 1930, an American priest named Nelson R. Boss wrote a book called “The Prayer Book Reason Why.” It was set up like a catechism, in short question and answer format, with the intention being that it be used as a textbook for those seeking Confirmation in the Episcopal Church. Fr. Boss addresses the question of Henry VIII briefly and succinctly:

Is there any truth in the assertion, often made, that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII?

None whatever. It is an assertion that could only be made by one ignorant of history or regardless of truth.

What part did Henry VIII take in the work of Reformation?

His part was purely political and selfish. After his quarrel with the Pope, who refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage which, uncanonical in itself, had been solemnized under a dispensation granted by a previous Pope, Henry did all he could to free the realm and Church of England from the Pope’s influence and control; but in all other respects he was a Roman Catholic and held the doctrines of that Church, to the day of his death.

Anglicans have never celebrated Henry, neither in his own time nor today. He is not honored on any church’s sanctoral calendar. He is almost never mentioned in our own internal discussions of Anglican history. In fact, outside of conversations like this with folks from the outside, I would daresay that most Anglicans never even give him a second thought.

The political circumstances surrounding the English Reformation are complicated. The actions of almost all the players were too often borne out of hunger for power and realpolitik, both for figures like Henry and for papal loyalists like Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and especially for Pope Clement VII whose refusal to grant Henry an annulment was predicated as much on politics as Henry’s decision to challenge his ruling. Had Henry’s wife not been the aunt of Emperor Charles V, whose troops were dangerously close to the Roman border, the pope might have been more inclined to grant Henry’s request and perhaps the English Reformation would have progressed along a slightly different timetable. Nevertheless, as Fr. Boss points out, Henry was not the originator of Anglicanism. He never held Anglican beliefs. Much of what became the founding of Anglicanism happened long after his death. As Boss says in a later appendix, if we are to consider Henry VIII the founder of Anglicanism then we ought “to say that Constantine was the founder of Christianity because he gave it his royal recognition.”

We are all in schism

What lies behind the question about Henry VIII, however, is a much more interesting question: Is the Church of England a schismatic church? And if so, does that mean that all Anglicans around the world today are the children of schism, poisoned from the get go by our founding? And the answer that I would give to such a question is one that may surprise you. Yes, the Church of England is a schismatic church. But so is the Roman Catholic Church. And at this point, so is everyone else too.

My polemic is bigger than yours

Of course, Fr. Boss would not have said that. He characterizes the assertion in 1532 by King Henry of being the “supreme head of the Church of England” as “merely an assertion of the Church’s right to manage her own affairs without foreign interference.” According to Boss, this did not amount to a break in communion. That break came much later, in 1570, when Pope Pius V commanded “all the clergy and people of England who upheld the claims of the Papacy to withdraw from communion with the Reformers, and establish separate places of worship.” In Fr. Boss’ view, the entire split can be blamed on the obstinance of the pope whose own lust for power simply would not allow him to leave the Church of England in peace. Roman Catholics are the true schismatics. Our hands are clean.

There are versions of this kind of polemic that come up throughout the history of Anglicanism since the Reformation. Many of them were written to counteract similar works by Roman Catholic authors who sought to make the papacy and Roman loyalists out to be blameless. There is a certain value in that kind of writing. In their tenacity to defend a particular party line, such polemical treatises often helped to sharpen where the theological differences between our churches actually lie. The substance of what divides us was therein brought to the surface, which is why these works are still worth reading today. Nevertheless, the manner in which such documents were written betrays a sleight of hand when it comes to how history is portrayed. Very rarely is a conflict the size of the one that fomented the Reformation as simple as good guys versus bad guys.

History as a blunt object

It is a scandal of epic proportions that the Christian Church is as divided today as it is. Jesus prayed that all who believe in Him through the Word “may all be one” (John 17:20-21). We have not been so good at receiving that calling. Divisions began even in the New Testament period, but the real game changer was the Great Schism between east and west that took place in the eleventh century. While disputes and divisions had arisen before, it had never happened on such a grand scale. The east and the west became divided from one another, resulting in a separation that exists all the way down to the present day. So by the time of the Reformation, we were all already in schism. The events surrounding the Reformation made things worse though, as anathemas began to fly back and forth and martyrs were made on all sides.

None of this is to say that there was not then and is not still today a set of very important theological divisions that need to be addressed for us to be in harmony with one another. But how different might the landscape look today if we were able to find ways of working through those divisions  within our relationships instead of outside of them. When it comes to the division between the Church of Rome and the Church of England, we do no favors to history to pretend that what tore us apart did not have as much to do with the politics and the pride of various kings, queens, popes, and priests as it did with the reading of Scripture and the Fathers. At this point in our history, it does very little good for any of us to be constantly looking back through our own lenses and saying, “You come from people who were more terrible than the people I come from!”

The gift of unity

My favorite hymn in the Hymnal 1982 is “The Church’s One Foundation.” In that blessed hymn, we sing, “Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed / by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed / yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” / and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” It is a beautiful reminder that the oneness of the Church that we confess in the Nicene Creed is not ours to build but God’s to grant in His grace and mercy. When we pretend that we are the only blameless souls because we have joined the right tribe, what we are actually doing is attempting to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Schism is ultimately just another form of idolatry. We make our own rightness into a god. May we all eventually come to be cured of such foolishness, and may the day finally dawn when our prayer can be the same as that of Our Lord that we may all be one.

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You Can Confess to an Anglican Priest – But Don’t Take My Word For It

622px-Исповедь_берн_соборFr. George Conger has stirred up a hornet’s nest today with his latest article for Get Religion. As with all Get Religion articles, Conger’s central purpose is not to write theology but to take stock of the way that journalists cover religion. He attempts to criticize an article in the Adelaide Advertiser about a recent move in the Anglican Church of Australia to change the rules regarding priests hearing confessions. His criticism is that the journalist in question confuses Roman Catholic doctrine about Sacramental Confession with Anglican doctrine about Sacramental Confession. Yet, in the process, Fr. Conger articulates a theological position that is very different that the one that many Anglicans would recognize as their own:

Private confession in the Anglican world is not a sacrament, and was denounced as one of the abuses practiced by the Medieval church and was dropped by the English Church following the Reformation… The Book of Common Prayer, the Homilies, the Articles of Religion and other sources of Anglican doctrine do not teach the doctrine that the priest acts in persona Christi or in persona Christi capitis. The traditional Anglican view is closer to the Orthodox understanding of in persona Ecclesiae… This understanding that the priest is not acting in the person of Christ, coupled with the view of the Reformers that confession to a priest has no more merit or imparts no greater grace than to a layman, helps explain what is happening in Adelaide. What we are seeing is a swing of the Anglican pendulum away from Anglo-Catholicism towards the Low Church or Evangelical wing.

The number of assumptions that Fr. Conger makes here is staggering, and many of his assertions are just plain inaccurate. He says that Confession is not a Sacrament, though he does not offer a defense for that position. Many Anglicans do consider it a Sacrament, albeit not on the same level as the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. He also says that it was dropped after the Reformation as an abuse that is somehow related to the notion of the priest acting in persona Christi. In fact, private Confession was retained in the prayer book in the liturgy of the Visitation of the Sick. The prayer book and the articles tell us nothing explicitly about the priest standing in the place of Christ or in the place of the Church. But the prayer book is explicit that the authority to absolve penitents is held by bishops and priests alone by virtue of their office. This comes not only in the language of the absolution (“By [Our Lord’s] authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins…”) but also in the ordination rite where John 20:22-23 is invoked (“Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and  work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained…”). While Conger may be right that there are differences in how Anglicans and Roman Catholics understand Sacramental Confession, he is wrong in what he articulates those differences to be.

Says Who?

Of course, I can say that until I am blue in the face, and many people will never be convinced. After all, why take my word for it over that of Fr. Conger? We are both priests in the American Episcopal Church. Neither of us has been granted any special role as the Grand Poobah of All Things Anglican. So who is to say which one of us is right and which one is wrong? Isn’t it just my word and my interpretation against his?

This is, in a nutshell, the crisis in world Anglicanism today. Whether the topic under discussion is something that draws lots of media attention like gay marriage and the ordination of women, or something that is less interesting to the wider world but no less divisive in the Church like prayer book revision or lay presidency at the Eucharist, the questions that we always come back to are these: Who has the authority to speak for the Anglican Church? Where is our official doctrine to be found? When competing voices speak for the Anglican tradition, is there any way to sort them out besides simply picking the one we like best and going with it?

Anglicanism is not static. It is a rich tradition that includes a great deal of evolution and growth over the last five hundred years. It is extremely helpful, when discussing these matters, to turn to the voices of the past and hear what they have to say. But doing that is not enough. Fr. Conger offers quotations from the past to bolster his case. I could do the same. It would get tedious. And we would still be left at square one, trying to determine who has the authority to speak definitively.

Truth, Justice, and the Anglican Way

However they differed in their opinions on various topics, what united the early Anglican reformers and divines was the notion that our ultimate authority is God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures, as it has been received by the Church through the Fathers and the Councils. It is this conviction, vigorously and sometimes violently defended, that led to the crafting of our Anglican formularies. They are living documents that work together to give us the mind of the Church. Though they are open to amendment, they are nevertheless meant to serve as an authority over us, rather than we over them. Among them, the Book of Common Prayer is primary, containing within it not only the structure of our liturgies but the enactment and embodiment of our faith as it has been handed down to us. Following closely behind are the Catechism and the Thirty-Nine Articles, each serving a separate but invaluable catechetical purpose in interpreting for us the teaching of the Prayer Book and the way that such teaching differs from that of other bodies. Lastly, the Books of Homilies “contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine,” from which we can learn to apply our faith, bearing in mind that their insights are meant to be received as homilies and not as dogmatic texts.

The Formularies are not meant to answer every question. They are purposely limited in how much they settle for us. But they do place a fence around the yard of our theological wanderings. It is a wide playing field, but there are walls. And that means that competing claims actually can be tested when they touch upon foundational issues.

Fr. Conger is wrong about Anglican doctrine regarding Sacramental Confession, but not because I say so or because I represent a competing camp within the panoply of Anglican parties. He is wrong because the prayer book plainly shows him to be wrong. There is no sense in complaining about the way the secular press covers us as Anglicans until we get this ourselves. There may be multiple emphases and approaches in Anglican theology, but there are not multiple Anglicanisms. There is the religion of the prayer book, which is the religion of the Scriptures and the Fathers, and then there is everything else.

(Photo above from Wikimedia Commons here.)

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Biblical Catholicism: Reading the Bible with Catholic Eyes

ICONS,_Sinai,_Christ_Pantocrator,_6th_centuryOne of my literature professors when I was an undergrad once dramatically suggested that the lyrics of the Rolling Stones should inform how we read Chaucer. Even in my post-modernist, granola, college artiste haze, I found that suggestion to be bizarre. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales seven centuries ago. The Rolling Stones are old, but they aren’t that old. Why would we need to turn to something so recent to fully grasp something so old?

Rationalism and the Birth of the Boring Bible

The Word of God does not change from era to era, but we do, and as we do, the way we read that same Word changes with us. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was one of the hallmarks of the continental Reformation, but the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the question of Scripture was not merely about the relationship between Scripture and other sources of divine authority. It was largely a matter of determining how Scripture is to be read. Scholasticism had a major impact on the medieval Church and the reading of Scripture by both Protestants and Catholics was affected by it. Scripture was read scientifically in the sixteenth century, broken into its constituent parts and used to deduce things. On the Roman Catholic side, this included a great deal of philosophy. Scripture was a tool with which to validate and expand upon the deductive reasoning of Plato and Aristotle. The reformers rejected the philosophical mode in favor of what they called the perspicacity of Scripture, its inherent clarity and understandability. If we read the Bible without making exterior demands on it, it will reveal to us the will of God in the plainest possible fashion. Despite their differences, both of these methods of reading Scripture flow from the same set of underlying assumptions. Both approaches are built on a foundation of rationalism. In the use of either of these models, we read Scripture largely to solve problems of logic. Scripture is an explanatory tool. It is a device by which we can ascertain the plan of God for the world in a way that makes sense to us.

The Seeds of Something More

Early Anglicans followed much of the same path in terms of the rationalistic approach to Scripture. It was inevitable that they would. They swam in the same cultural waters which governed the era. Nevertheless, inherent in the Anglican synthesis are the seeds of a different kind of reading. While quotes from the Fathers of the early Church made for great fodder between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the European continent, there was a special reverence held for the Fathers in the Church of England. Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Beveridge–all of them describe the Fathers as the interpreters sin qua non. These same Anglican reformers and divines advanced arguments for the clarity of Scripture and for its special place of authority above all else, but the caveat that we read Scripture in light of the tradition of the Church was never far behind. The preservation of liturgy and the episcopate are signs of how this approach to reading the Scriptures affected the life of the Anglican Church. The Fathers were viewed as unimpeachable because of their closeness in proximity to both the time and culture of the apostles. And yet, the deductive rationalism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was still liberally applied by early Anglican thinkers. Early Anglicans quoted the Fathers, out of order and often out of context, to support arguments that the Fathers themselves would not have been able to understand, let alone offer an opinion upon. This is not because early Anglicans did not understand the Fathers but because they rarely approached the Fathers on their own terms. Anglicanism offered a promise of great patristic revival, but for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, that revival was difficult to make a reality.

Enter the early Anglo-Catholics. The pioneers of the Oxford Movement and their immediate successors were desperate to find a vision of Christian discipleship that was older and more authentic than what they found in the cowed and deflated nineteenth century Church of England. They were voracious readers of the seventeenth century Anglican divines and champions of early Anglican theology, particularly the works of Richard Hooker which had languished in popularity over time. John Keble’s editing of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity remains a standard version of the text today. The early Anglo-Catholics yearned to understand the place of the Church of England within the larger context of the history of the Church as a whole. Reading Hooker and the later divines led them back to the early Church Fathers. First generation Anglo-Catholics imbibed from their early Anglican heroes the desire to affirm a special place for the Fathers. But unlike their heroes, the early Anglo-Catholics managed to capture far more of the idiom and approach to reading Scripture that is found in the writing of the early Church. For Anglo-Catholics, the reading of Scripture was for mystical as well as practical purposes. Scripture was not simply a tool for solving problems. Scripture was a way of entering a great tradition of knowing and being known by God.

Reclaiming a Conciliar Anglicanism (See what I did there?)

ou_chch_17_largeIn his Eirenicon, Edward Bouverie Pusey attempted to ground the reading of Scripture in the authority of the Church as expressed in the continuity of the great Councils. He did so not by evading Anglican sources but by defending them:

The statement in the Articles, “The Church hath authority in controversies of faith,” in itself implies a Divine authority; for none but a Divine authority can have any power to decide in matters of faith. It also implies a necessary preservation of the Church, as a whole, from error (according to our Lord’s true promise, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her,” “Lo, I am with you alway, until to the end of the world”), because it would be sinful to say that the Church has authority to declare what is untrue… The Church of England would not have said, that certain things are “not to be required of any man that they should be believed,” unless it held that other things, which are read in Holy Scripture, and which may be proved thereby, may be so required. So that the Article which sets forth the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, agrees with that which declares, that “the Church hath authority in matters of faith.” It implies the authority of the Church, while it lays down certain limits to it. Nor is this limitation other than what the old Catholic fathers, to whom in the homilies she so often appeals, have from the first so often and emphatically said. There was no contrast between Tradition and Holy Scripture. “We willingly acknowledge,” says Bp. Usher too, “that the word of God, which by some of the Apostles was set down in writing, was both by themselves and others of their fellow- labourers delivered by word of mouth; and that the Church in succeeding ages was bound, not only to preserve those Sacred Writings committed to her trust, but also to deliver unto her children viva voce the form of wholesome words contained therein…”

Pusey goes on to quote from Bishop Hall and other seventeenth century sources, underscoring that what he is doing is merely receiving the wisdom of the Anglican tradition on these matters, not inventing something new to Anglican practice. Throughout his work, Pusey always invokes the continuous voice of the Church in laying out Scriptural arguments. His lengthy book on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is essentially nothing but this, a prolonged set of patristic quotations based on the Scriptural evidence that show the Church’s continuous and unbroken proclamation that Our Lord’s Body and Blood are truly given and received in the Sacrament of the Altar. Continuity, in fact, is a value unto itself for Pusey. “The Fathers of the later General Councils began their office by expressing their assent to the earlier,” he says, “and [they] considered their own work as only expanding what was contained in the earlier, with a view to meet the new heresy which had emerged. So neither is it any undue limitation of the authority of the Church to lay down another limit, that the Church may not require ‘as necessary to salvation’ what is not read in Holy Scripture, or may be proved by it…'”

Measured Mysticism vs. Modern Mush

The purpose of this continuity, though, is not merely to build up a case for why one Scripturally based argument is more valid than another, but to provide a way for the reading of Scripture to become a shared experience of God within the life of the Church. In Tract 89, Keble argues for the recovery of the mystical reading of Scripture found in the Fathers. What Keble calls mysticism is nothing less and nothing more than the shared experience of God’s presence that comes through the receiving of the Word which prompted many of the Fathers to find allegorical and typological meanings in the Scripture. For Keble, the deposit of faith is not just a set of facts but a way of identifying and knowing God’s voice. Reading the Scriptures with the Fathers unites us with their experience of God, which in turn unites us with the experience of the apostles. The Scriptures, much like the Sacraments, give us the reality of God every bit as much as they tell us information about that reality.

This approach to Scripture stands in eloquent contrast with the hermeneutics of our own time which assert a theory of progressive revelation. The assumption in much of the western Church today is that we cannot rely on biblical texts to give us the Word of God. Rather, we have to rely on our own subjective experiences to show us what is and is not useful in the Bible. As with modern atheism, the hermeneutical approach of progressive revelation begins with deep skepticism about the reliability of the text of Scripture. Progressive revelationists and atheists alike proceed from that place of skepticism to attempt to systematically dismantle the credibility of large swaths of Scripture. We don’t need to read 1 Timothy, for example, because Paul almost certainly didn’t write it anyway. For the atheist, this sort of deconstruction is merely a prelude to the dismissal of all religion as superstition. But for the pastor or the academic who remains in the Church and maintains at least some form of theism, the next step is to assert that the real purpose of the Scriptures is not to objectively reveal God’s Word to us, but rather to give us a way of articulating our own experience. The Bible becomes a resource book of poetic inspiration in which God is hiding behind all the uncomfortable bits, just waiting to pop out and affirm whatever our evolving experience of him has shown to be true. And since that experience of God is progressing over time, so that we are far more enlightened about God’s will and purposes today than we were a generation ago, the need for any sort of continuity in biblical interpretation evaporates. Much like reading Chaucer through the lens of the Rolling Stones, we are free to reinterpret Scripture through the lens of our own cultural context, interests, and flights of fancy.

The Catholic approach to reading Scripture works in the exact opposite way. It avoids both the error of assuming that our experience of God does not matter and the error of utilizing our experience to wipe away Scripture’s objectivity. Instead, the Catholic approach uses the objective truth of Scripture to connect our experience of God with that of the Church throughout time. It interprets our experiences through the Scripture, rather than interpreting the Scripture through our experiences. As Keble reminds us, the Fathers were only able to engage in mystical reading because their chief rule of interpretation was “to reserve in every mystical comment the foundation of historical and literal truth.” This is the thread that Pusey traces when he talks about continuity with the Fathers and the Councils. The Anglican principle for the interpretation of Scripture is not that we fossilize our reading in our romantic notions of some by-gone era, but that we receive the continuous stream of the Church’s teaching from the time of the Fathers forward, allowing the rule of faith to open up for us the great riches that Scripture has to offer. As we change, from era to era, the consistent witness of the Church anchors us in our reading of Scripture, so that even when we come to God’s Word with new questions and new experiences, we find that in the Bible God has provided us with everything we need to know the heart and mind of Christ. The reading of Scripture with Catholic eyes sets us free from the tyranny of our individual whims and draws us into a far deeper, sacramental experience of God’s Word.

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The Measure of Successful Ministry

6a00e552e3404e883301543322c1f7970cModern American life is built upon the twin pillars of productivity and consumption. We are all consumers and producers. In our role as consumers, we make decisions all day long about what we want to consume, and how much, and in what color or size or quantity. In our role as producers, we try our best to produce things that others will want to consume. This applies not only to economics and the workplace, but to every aspect of our lives. We have become consumers of education and therefore we evaluate our teachers based on the kinds of grades and test results that the children are producing. We are consumers of news, and thus the news industry has emerged in which journalists are evaluated not only on journalistic grounds but on the salability of the news they report. Absolutely everything we do in our society is evaluated on the basis of how broadly and consistently it is consumed.

The Church Growth Carnival

It should be no surprise then that American Christians look at ministry the same way. The church growth movement exemplifies this at its most grotesque, wherein absolutely everything about a congregation’s life is weighed against the number of people being served and the number of dollars in the bank. The absurdity of this is well documented: Churches that sell lattes in the lobby, extremely popular self-help preachers who barely ever mention Jesus and never mention the cross, worship services that are built to look like popular entertainment, and a revolving door where people exit these churches almost as fast as they join them. It takes only a passing knowledge of the Scriptures to see why this purpose driven, Gospel starved sideshow is inconsistent with the Church’s calling to worship God and set sinners free through the proclamation of His grace.

The Almighty ASA

But even if we reject the Church Growth movement model, parishes and pastors still yearn for some way of evaluating the success of their ministries. Study after study has shown that the Church is in decline across the board. In the Episcopal Church, that decline is more of a free fall. So priests and lay leaders who are out in the trenches, focused on their individual parishes and pushing hard for them not only to survive but to thrive, are hungry for some measuring stick for determining success, some way of knowing if their parishes are on track to survive into the next generation or if all they are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rectors in particular are sensitive to this. As a full time rector myself, I can attest to that fact. Pastoring is incredibly hard work. A whole lot of energy goes in, and yet it is often very hard to tell whether what you are doing is making any difference at all.

At one time, the number of members a church had was an instructive figure for measuring success, but in the Episcopal Church today, many rectors have turned to the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) as the mark of greatest interest. ASA, it is argued, measures not only how many people are officially a part of your church, but how many are engaging with your church on a regular basis, receiving what it has to offer. In other words, ASA is a measure of consumption. Every Sunday, we rectors work with the other worship leaders in our parish to produce something called the Holy Eucharist. ASA tells us how many people, on a regular basis, are consuming what we produce. If ASA is up, we must be doing a good job as rectors since people are responding. If ASA is down, we must not be doing much of anything, or perhaps we are doing the wrong things and need to change course.

Many priests who follow this particular bouncing ball would argue that it is nothing like the excesses of the Church Growth movement. They are not trying to tailor make a church to fit people’s whims, but merely trying to ascertain what state the parish is in. It is true that ASA tells a story, which is why it is something worthwhile to track, but the problem is that the story is not immediately apparent in the raw numbers. A parish with a spike upward or downward in ASA has had some sort of change, but there is no evidence in the raw numbers that the change has anything to do with the rector. It could be that the demographics have changed in the neighborhood, or that there have been a large number of deaths or births, or that an affair has been discovered or covered up, or that a new church has opened up across the street, or that the local little league has changed its game schedule, or a hundred thousand other things. The ASA only points to the existence of a story. It doesn’t tell it.

Selling Salvation

But the bigger, deeper problem is that when we become obsessed with ASA, we commodify and thereby drain the lifeblood out of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Living and dying by the ASA is simply another form of the unending hamster wheel of production and consumption that has become a substitute for the Gospel in the modern American story. Priests who fall into this trap start to think of themselves as producers of religious goods rather than as heralds of the Kingdom. Sooner or later, this translates into thinking of our mission as one of keeping the consumers happy so that they will continue to consume, rather than as one of proclaiming the truth to a world mortally wounded by its love of lies. If we are not careful, we begin to think not only that ASA determines our success, but that we actually deserve the credit for what God is doing in our parishes. If the ASA is up, we rejoice because we are so very good at what we do. If the ASA is down, we lament and try to find other factors to blame for our obvious failure. What we never seem willing to do is to allow God to be the one in charge of whether our parishes grow or shrink. Good or bad, up or down, it has to be us, not Him.

The Biblical Model for Success

Does this mean that there can be no measuring stick? No way at all to judge our success or failure? A very clear model exists, but it is not one that is likely to satisfy our consumerist impulses. The roadmap to successful ministry is laid out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. He gives Timothy and Titus clear instructions on how they are to find, ordain, and train up elders (IE, presbyters, priests). And the measure of success for these priests has precious little to do with anything that can be produced or consumed:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

This is Paul’s constant concern for pastors. When Paul says “be an evangelist,” he doesn’t mean go door to door handing out tracts. He means that if you are a priest who has been entrusted with a parish (or for that matter a bishop who has been entrusted with a diocese), your job is to share the Good News, the evangelium, with the people under your pastoral care. You are to constantly, persistently speak the truth that has been entrusted to you, regardless of the consequences:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:13-15)

If you are truly preaching God’s Word, God may choose to use your ministry to build up the Church and bring many souls to salvation in your midst. But He may also choose to use your ministry as an instrument by which to shame the wicked, force out the false prophets, and cause the institutions of the Church to collapse around your head. Either one is a holy calling if it comes from God. Your concern as a pastor is not with which outcome God chooses to bring out of your faithful preaching of the Word. Your concern is only faithfulness to what has been handed down to you. This certainly requires you to consider how your words and actions may affect the ability of the faithful to hear the truth. Paul repeatedly commends priests and bishops to cultivate godliness in themselves and to avoid controversies that have no bearing on the Gospel. But when it comes to the pastor’s mission, the mark of success is to hold firm upon “the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

Success cannot be measured in terms of outcomes. It can only be measured in terms of faithfulness. For that kind of measurement to work, priests and bishops must come together, under the Scriptures, and give honest leading to one another as to how faithful they are being. Lay people in leadership who wish to understand what is happening in their parishes ought to do the same. This requires a profound commitment to moving beyond the confines of our individual settings and embracing the unity of the whole Church. We can no longer afford to be comfortable with trying to prop up our own congregations or dioceses while ignoring what is happening to the people of God around us. Our task is faithfulness. Our evaluation of our ministries ought to be a discernment process in which we seek to learn how God might be using our faithfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. It is brutally honest and it requires a complete shedding of ego on the part of clergy, but it really is the only way forward. We need to stop pretending that a consumerist model can fix a spiritual problem. Faithfulness may not be sexy, but it is the only thing that can deliver us from our addiction to outcomes.

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Ask an Anglican: Baptismal Regeneration

St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee

Kevin writes:

As I understand you, we receive saving faith at our baptism when we are regenerated by God’s grace. This all fits together nicely in the case of infant baptism, but could you clarify what Anglicanism teaches about adult converts? How is it that they come to receive the sacrament of Baptism? I understand that the Holy Spirit would have to call them, but is their response to this calling considered “faith”? If not, what is it? If it is faith, how is it that their faith comes at baptism?

This is a great question because it gives us the opportunity to sort out some common confusion surrounding the topic of the doctrine of Baptismal regeneration. Though the prayer book is filled with references to our being regenerated by our baptism, by the early nineteenth century many Anglicans had abandoned the doctrine of baptismal regeneration in large measure due to misunderstanding. The Scriptures speak repeatedly of our being regenerated in our baptism. In Titus 3:5, for instance, Paul says that God “saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” But what does that mean? Does it imply that we are saved through Baptism even if we never come to faith? Just what is the relationship between Baptism and faith? All of these things become intertwined and terribly difficult to sort out if we do not first figure out what it means to be “regenerated.”

Rescue Me

If we imagine God’s gracious action towards us in Christ to be like that of a person in a helicopter seeking to pull a drowning man out of the water, the drowning man has only two options, one active and one passive. He can choose not to trust that the person saving him has his best interests in mind. This will cause him to flail around, fighting off his rescuer, which will ultimately result in his drowning. Or he can trust that his rescuer really does intend to rescue him, in which case he will relax and allow the rescuer to do his job unimpeded. Faith represents the second of these options. Faith is not so much an action as it is a disposition. Having faith means no longer fighting God off. But there is a problem inherent in this scenario: How do we know our rescuer? Sin enslaves us. On our own, our hearts are incapable of making the choice to have faith in Christ because sin has dulled our senses. It has made us incapable of recognizing either the goodness of God or the evil of death that has us trapped. To you and I as drowning sinners, the one who reaches out a hand to rescue us appears to be some kind of monster. Would you take the hand of a monster or bat it away? Suppose that you do not even fully believe that you are drowning. Why accept the hand of someone who will rescue you when you are perfectly self sufficient and in need of no rescue at all?

New Birth

In John 3, Jesus confuses Nicodemus, who has come to Him under the cover of night, by telling him that he must be born again (or born from above, as the Greek word can mean either). Nicodemus mistakenly takes Jesus literally, as if what Jesus is telling him is that he has to crawl back into his mother’s womb and come out a second time. But Jesus ignores this absurdity and restates his premise, saying that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The early Church universally understood this to be a reference to Holy Baptism. It is in the waters of Baptism that we are born again because it is in the waters of Baptism that the Holy Spirit is given to us to unite us with Christ. Baptism is God’s action of reaching out to us, grabbing hold of us, and drawing us into Himself. Regeneration is God’s action, within our Baptism, by which He opens our hearts and unstops our ears that we might be made one with Him. It enables us to have faith because it is the bond which makes the fullness of faith possible. To be regenerated is not to be given faith per se, but to be given the possibility of actually being capable of having faith. Baptism is not something that just happens in a single moment. Baptism is something that is sealed in a single moment, but that then works upon us throughout our lives to change our hearts, to renew our faith, and to make us holy. Our sins are drowned daily in our baptism and we are daily raised to new life.

Some Things are Better Together

So what does that mean for the person who comes to faith prior to coming to the font? Perhaps the best analogy for all of this is that of love and marriage. There are many different ways that a man and a woman might come together and decide to be wed. In modern western culture, men and women date before getting married, coming to know one another, and usually coming to a genuine affection for one another beforehand. In other societies and cultures, this has not always been the case. Sometimes marriages are arranged for socio-economic reasons. Nevertheless, many people in these marriages also come to love each other over time. Even in marriages that are borne out of love, most people who have been married for more than five minutes will tell you that the love they had when they got married is not the same as the love they have once they have been married for awhile. So what caused what? Does love cause marriage or does marriage cause love? The answer is yes to both. We get married because we fall in love and we love because we are married. The same is true of the relationship between Baptism and faith. We get baptized because we have come to faith and we come to faith because we have been baptized.

The Holy Spirit works upon people in different ways. Some people first come to know Jesus through the example of a friend or a relative, or through the words of a preacher or an evangelist, or through encountering liturgy. For the person who was baptized as an infant, these other things act as a catalyst for the gift that has already been given. It deepens the relationship that has already been forged in Baptism. For the person who has not yet been baptized, these other things stir up a desire to be baptized and thereby to enter into that kind of closeness in relationship with God. Baptism gives us faith in the same way that marriage gives us love. Our mistake with both faith and love is to assume that either one of those precious gifts can only be given to us in a single infusion, as if we go from complete doubt to complete faith or from complete indifference to complete love in the span of a moment. When two people fall in love and get married, the vows they make on their wedding day establish a bond that allows their love to grow and to be made stronger, better, more like the perfect and holy love of God. When we come to faith and then come to the font, the grace we receive there will continuously regenerate our hearts, so that each day, as Christ drowns our sins anew, we will be able to trust in Him anew, and that trust will become deeper over time.

Further Reading

There are some great passages on Baptism that help to further illuminate all of this in the work of Jeremy Taylor, but for a more modern classical Anglican perspective, I recommend reading Bishop Ray Sutton’s book, Signed, Sealed, and Delivered. Bishop Sutton is a bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church. While some of what he says about the REC’s “Declaration of Principles” is problematic, the majority of what is in this book is very good. The connections he draws are helpful for anyone who wants to sort out the biblical material on this question while keeping an eye on the classical Anglican doctrine expressed in our formularies.

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Blessed Lent

As we enter into Lent once again, I am continuing the practice I began last year of limiting my use of the internet throughout the season. Therefore, there will be no new posts from me until after Easter. But many good things are on the horizon. There are more posts coming in the Biblical Catholicism series, including a post on the 39 Articles in Anglo-Catholicism and one on reading the Scriptures through Catholic eyes. There are also more Ask an Anglican posts on their way, answering questions on baptismal regeneration, the nature of blessing, veneration of the cross, and many more topics. Plus some all new videos are in the works, including an interview with the well known Anglican ethicist Dr. Philip Turner and an exploration, by request, of what I would do if I were Presiding Bishop.

All of that should be fun. I am looking forward to it. But in the mean time, I’m looking forward to a blessed Lent. I pray that this season will be one filled with grace for all of you and that your devotions during this time may draw you ever more into the heart of Jesus. May God bless you and keep you.

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The Anglican Digest

These interviews were conducted at the annual board meeting of Hillspeak, the organization that puts out the Anglican Digest, back in October, 2013. It is a great privilege for me to be a part of the Board. It is also a great privilege to know both Fr. Bryan Owen and Bishop Ed Salmon. They are great disciples of Jesus and servants of the Church. Fr. Bryan is the Rector of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and he blogs at Creedal Christian. Bishop Salmon is the retired Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina and currently serves as Dean of Nashotah House Seminary.

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Ask an Anglican: What’s in a Name?

Romeo_JulietThat’s what Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s famous love story gone wrong. And in our own love story gone wrong, the modern Church, it is a question that gets asked fairly often as well. Thus, Matty writes:

With all the different denominations out there that claim to be Anglican, who are considered truly Anglican? I am a member of the Episcopal Church. Am I an Anglican?

The Way, way Back

In the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians. They were known instead as followers of “the Way.” When the Church spread to Antioch, the people there began to call followers of Jesus “Christians” and the name stuck (Acts 11:26). It is easy to see why the earliest disciples found this to be an edifying title. It is simple, straight forward, and Christ is right at the head of it.

It did not take long though for divisions to creep into the Church and for people to begin to preach a gospel other than what the apostles had received. The term Catholic is one of the oldest and earliest names used by orthodox Christians to differentiate themselves from those in schismatic bodies. Many people have been taught that Catholic means universal. That is not an inappropriate translation, but it does not quite do the word justice. It comes from the Greek words κατά which means about and όλος which means whole. Catholic means that which is of the whole. A Catholic Christian is someone who believes the whole doctrine of the apostles, the whole deposit of faith as it has been handed down, without addition or subtraction. For a very long time, this moniker was sufficient. There were Catholics, who were the authentic inheritors of the historic Christian faith, and then there was everybody else.

Schism, Schism, and More Schism

But then came the Chalcedonian Schism, and then the Great Schism, and finally the Protestant Reformation. In each of these developments, groups of Christians became more divided from one another and therefore felt the need for even more precise terminology to define who they were. There were suddenly people called Roman Catholics who believed they were the only true Catholics because they maintained communion with Rome. There were also Orthodox Catholics, who believed they had the right doctrine and practice, unlike the silly Latins who continued to live under the rule of the pope. Within the Orthodox emerged the titles Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox to distinguish between those who accept the Council of Chalcedon and those who do not (despite the fact that in many ways both groups are saying the same thing with different words, which only underlines the irony that eastern and oriental are synonyms). And of course, there emerged the idea of Protestants, those who protest against the abuses of the Church of Rome, which led to Evangelical Protestants, Reformed Protestants, Calvinist Protestants, Presbyterian Protestants, Lutheran Protestants, and all the other labels under the sun.

Reformed and Catholic

In England, where the Reformation took on a distinctly different character, those who held to what we might call today classical Anglicanism only used two terms besides Christian to identify themselves, Reformed and Catholic. By Reformed, they meant that they were part of a church that was self-critical and that sought to be free from novel teachings and practices by appealing to the teachings and practices of Holy Scripture and the early Church. By Catholic, they meant just what the earliest Christians who called themselves Catholic meant, that they believed in the whole apostolic doctrine of faith and that they were linked organically with the apostles themselves through the Church’s apostolic order. They juxtaposed being Reformed Catholics and being part of the Church of England to being Roman Catholics and being part of the Church of Rome.


By the late eighteenth century, those who came together to form what would become The Episcopal Church found that just two words were not enough. The official name of the newly independent American church was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. That name was chosen carefully and each word in the name was important. Early American Episcopalians wanted to embrace continuity of both doctrine and practice with the Church of England, but in America there was not going to be an established church. Episcopalians would stand on equal footing with those of all other churches. We needed a way to differentiate ourselves. Episcopal meant having bishops. Protestant meant not Roman Catholic. In the United States of America, as opposed to of the United States of America, announced our independence from the mother Church back in England and also let people know that we had no intentions of asserting ourselves as the official church of the land. Episcopalian became the short way of saying all of that, but for the founders of the American church all those words were precious.

Anglican Etymology

Anglican is the most recent and the most narrow term of all. Though it was first used in the 1630s, it did not become a commonplace until the late nineteenth century. Strictly speaking, it refers only to one who is a member of the English Church – Angl coming from Anglo-Saxon. The rise of its popular usage corresponded with the spread of English colonialism and the development of Anglican churches in other parts of the world, originally still under the authority of Canterbury and the crown. As time went on and the colonial churches received first autonomy and then independence, the name Anglican became a way of marking both the heritage and doctrine of these new churches as well as the continuing relationship of full communion between these churches and the See of Canterbury. It was this ongoing connection which gave birth to the Anglican Communion as a global ecclesial fellowship. Even in America, many Episcopalians became eager to refer to themselves as Anglicans, not because they were particularly enamored with being English as the name suggests, but because they wanted to emphasize that the Episcopal Church is not simply another Christian sect. We are part of a body with deep roots that are not only historical but tangible in the here and now. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to be our spiritual father. When we call ourselves Anglican, we are saying that we are every bit as much the descendants of Saint Augustine’s mission in 597 as is the current occupant of his throne in Canterbury Cathedral.

Will the Really Real Anglicans Please Stand Up?

Years ago, I joked with a friend that when I started my own official Anglican church, it would be called “The Orthodox Anglican Communion” (which, as it turns out, is a thing that actually exists – Who knew?). His reply was that he was going to start a counter church called “The Real Orthodox Anglican Communion.” This led me to threaten founding “The Really Real Orthodox Anglican Communion.” And on and on it goes.

A century ago, that joke would have been impossible to make. The idea that there would be so many different bodies claiming to be the true inheritors of Anglican identity would have been ludicrous. Outside of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which was not a body particularly interested in Anglican distinctiveness at the time, there were as yet no great break-offs. The Anglican Communion was the only game in town. And it was a good game to be a part of. There was a great sense of optimism about the Communion’s future. Nobody had invented the Anglican Communion. It came into being by accident. But people were starting to see that accident as providential. Anglicanism had a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant worlds, with a unity that many other Protestant traditions lacked.

Today, the idea of Anglican unity is almost seen as a contradiction in terms. In America, there are almost more Anglican bodies than there are Anglicans. One can hardly keep up with the ever expanding list. On the global level, the drawing of battle lines between groups of provinces within the Anglican Communion has been continuous for more than a decade. What happened to get us here? Some blame the rise of liberalism, particularly within the Episcopal Church in America, but that is an overly simple explanation, and one that is far to easy to use to flatter one’s self for placing yet another stake in the ecclesial sand. Look at me, I’m not like those people. I’m a real Anglican. It says so right here on my website.

Not that those of us in the Episcopal Church, or in any of the western provinces of the Communion, have any right to boast. We are living under judgment today, as our numbers continue to plummet and our theological acumen continues to shrink. Anyone who thinks this is not the case is either willfully blind to what is happening or living under a giant rock.

Matty’s question deserves a straight forward answer, but it won’t get one. Who is considered the real Anglicans? Well, that depends on who you ask. Is the Episcopal Church Anglican? Sure. But what does that mean? Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers. And in the absence of genuine conciliarity, there is no one to adjudicate between them.

People sometimes mistake my love of the Anglicanism of the seventeenth century and my fidelity to the formularies as a desire to recreate the past. Nothing could be farther from the case. We do not study history so as to be captured by it, but so that we come to understand that we live in the middle of a story that is far larger than our small context would dictate. I have no wish to live in the seventeenth century, but I cannot abide the historical amnesia about our own roots that has taken hold so fiercely in the contemporary Anglican world. In the end, it matters very little what we call ourselves – Christian, Catholic,  Episcopalian, Anglican – these are all just words. What Juliet says holds true, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose  by any other name would smell as sweet.” What makes the rose what it is has little to do with the linguistic symbol we assign to it. And what makes us who we are is the union we have with Jesus Christ through His Church. He is the only Word that matters.

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Ask an Anglican: An Evangelical, a Baptist, and a Charismatic Walk Into a Bar…

charismatic-cartoon-2Two semi related questions from Jesse. Here’s the first:

What do you mean when you say that evangelicals and charismatics have brought Baptist ideas into Anglicanism?  In terms of the general tone of the movements at times I can see what you mean, and certainly the laity in some of these congregations are confused.  But overall I have found that evangelicals have come to Anglicanism because they are seeking precisely to move AWAY from Baptist-like Christianity to a faith rooted in the ancient Church, and if anything are criticized by the Anglo-Calvinists as being Anglo-Catholics in disguise…

As I have said before, I think there is value in both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical movements when they are embraced as renewal movements within Anglicanism rather than as attempts to supplant Anglicanism. The problem with some contemporary strands of Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism is that they take a couple of aspects of the Anglican synthesis and blow them up out of proportion to the exclusion of all others. In the case of Evangelicalism, the sufficiency of the cross for our salvation and the need for personal conversion, both of which are important parts of historic Anglicanism, become the crucible through which all else is filtered. If those are the only essentials, then all else is negotiable. Early Evangelicals like John Wesley and Charles Simeon celebrated the Book of Common Prayer and insisted on strict adherence to the liturgy. Today, that is no longer the case.  In many Church of England Evangelical parishes, for instance, one would hardly be able to tell that the service was Anglican at all. There is virtually no difference between the C of E service and the Baptist service down the street.

The American context is a bit more mixed liturgically. Anglicans here, of whatever stripe, tend to at least observe some form of prayer book liturgy, even if it is highly supplemented by the hallmarks of contemporary mega-church worship. But American Evangelicalism in general is saturated with Baptist theology, and that cannot help but have some affect on Evangelical Anglicans in America.

If an American church calls itself “non-denominational,” nine times out of ten what that means is Baptist. Altar calls and appeals to personal conversion replace the sacraments as the means of grace. Baptism is a symbol of one’s personal conversion, nothing more, and it is only appropriate for adults. Classical Anglicanism thoroughly rejects these Baptist theses, but the more Evangelical an Anglican congregation is, the more likely it is for these ideas to be lurking in the background, communicated through music, through bad catechesis, or through a kind of preaching in which all the emphasis is placed on making a decision for Jesus. In that schema, the sacraments become a kind of emotive expression in the same way that Christian rock music, so often called “worship music” in the Evangelical world these days, is meant to elicit a feeling of salvation, rather than to actually communicate salvation through the preaching of the Word.

None of this is to disagree with the point Jesse raises that there are many young Evangelicals who are coming into Anglicanism precisely because they are trying to escape that kind of shallowness while continuing to want to hold onto what is best about Evangelicalism, its emphasis on the Gospel. The problem is not so much new converts coming in as it is a particular kind of old guard that was formed in the a-historical Anglicanism that we have been swimming in for the last century. I have known some very serious Evangelical Anglican clergy who deeply embrace the sacraments, the historic episcopate, the liturgy, and the need to baptize infants as well as adults for the sake of their salvation. But I have also known Evangelical Anglican clergy who deny all of that, who refuse to even utter the word “priest” to describe their ministry, and who have far less regard for the prayer book than many of the Liberals they vociferously denounce. As young Evangelicals continue to find a home in Anglican churches, the question will be which form of Evangelicalism will become dominant.

This is not meant to denigrate Evangelicals. There is certainly room for an Evangelical emphasis within Anglicanism, just as there is room for a Catholic emphasis, but an Anglicanism that is going to mean anything has to be true to the whole of its theological roots, not just the parts we like. Classical Anglicanism is many things, but Baptist is not one of them.

Jesse’s second question:

Could you elaborate on how you see the charismatic movement?  Coming from my background, I tend to have an “open-but-cautious” approach to the movement, but I have been a bit confused since becoming Anglican since opinions vary so widely.  Do you simply see it as the next Montanism, just an intrusion into Anglicanism, or do you think that it is indeed quite possible to be charismatic and faithfully Anglican?

I think “open-but-cautious” is a rather good way to put it. Or perhaps, if I am being honest, “skeptical-but-open” would be better. Charismaticism, or Pentecostalism as it is more often called today (I know that some people see a difference, but effectively they are the same), is a very young movement, really only going back to the start of the twentieth century, so it cannot be said to have historical ties with any Christian tradition that comes from the Reformation or earlier. Nevertheless, the movement has spread like wild fire and there are now Charismatic Christians in just about every church body imaginable. It is a movement characterized by a deep love for and need to experience the Holy Spirit. This comes out in various forms, including praying in tongues, faith healing, words of knowledge, etc.

There is good and bad here, from a classical Anglican perspective. Let’s talk about the good first. Charismaticism embraces a lived spirituality and a lived experience of God. Though some Charismatics would be surprised to hear it defined this way, Charistmaticism is a kind of mysticism, an embrace of the idea that God can be known and experienced directly in a way that is not always easily unraveled by our intellects but that is nevertheless real. God promises to be with us and to send His Holy Spirit upon us. Charismatics actually believe that God is going to show up when He says He will. That is no small thing. Many people go to church expecting to learn something about God, but not everyone expects to actually encounter God. For Charistmatics, that expectation is alive and well. This seems to me to be quite compatible with the teaching of the objective nature of God’s presence in the preaching of the Word and in the Sacraments.

That said, the danger that some Reformed folks see in the Charismatic movement is a real one. In its exuberance for experiencing God, the movement runs the risk of becoming unmoored from the places where God has promised that He will actually be. In some Pentecostal circles, this has led to the development of a theology of “name it and claim it” in which God becomes a cosmic Santa Claus prepared to dole out earthly prizes. In other places, core doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, are denied. While many Charismatics say that speaking in tongues is a gift, some go further and suggest that if you have not spoken in tongues you are not a real Christian. Healing ministries become so central and so cultish that anyone who does not get better is shunned for not praying hard enough. All of this comes out of an unspoken bias towards emotional satisfying “experiences” of God and away from locating God objectively in the plain words of Scripture and the mundane practices of Baptism and Holy Communion.

Now, to be fair, a lot of this sort of thing happens in Charismatic churches that are off on their own and unaffiliated with any sort of larger body. Nevertheless, I have been in Anglican and Episcopal churches with a charismatic bend where lighter forms of this stuff have been present. The idea of “words of knowledge,” for instance, can be particularly problematic because it can encourage a kind of reliance on emotion in juxtaposition to reliance upon the Scriptures for guidance. I once sat through a two and a half hour Mass in an Episcopal church with a strong charismatic contingent where more than half the service was taken up with a lay person at the front of the room announcing various ailments that God was supposedly telling him that people had. “When I name yours, come up for prayer,” said the man. He had no more credibility in saying this, as far as I could tell, than does the man on the street corner wearing a sign announcing that he is the second coming, but people were lapping it up. It became obvious very quickly that this was what they came for, not for the preaching of the Gospel or to receive the Holy Eucharist, all of which formed a surprisingly small part of what was supposed to be a prayer book sacramental service. When allowed unchecked like this, it is easy for such things to grow out of proportion.

All of that said, I think we are still a long way off from seeing what final form Charismaticism will take. Perhaps if wedded with historical Christian faith and practice it will develop into a great gift for the Church. It is difficult to say. What is certain is that the tradition we have been given lays out for us a firm foundation upon which we can come to know and be known by Christ. While there may be many things that can enhance and build upon that foundation, anything that takes that foundation away from us needs to be cast aside.

Cartoon at the top from Dave Walker’s Cartoon Church, used in accordance with the fair use rules set out here.

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Biblical Catholicism: Smells and Bells


Church of the Holy Cross, Dallas, TX. Used with permission of the Rev. G. Willcox Brown, SSC.

I was baptized as an infant in the spring of 1980 into Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. As it happens, it was the Roman Catholic Church where I was raised and where I first learned to call upon the name of God. My experience of Roman Catholicism was not like that of my father who grew up in the pre Vatican II world of Latin Masses and Sister Mary discipline. My parish growing up was part of an “interfaith center” where Jews, Methodists, Unitarians, and a host of others also met. It was church-in-a-box each week as Mass would be set up and then taken down in the main room. There was no organ. There was no stained glass. There were no kneelers or statues or confessionals. There weren’t even pews. We sat in felt lined chairs, when we were actually on time and didn’t have to stand against the brick wall in the back. Kids showed up in their soccer cleats, fresh from the game, still smelling of grass stains and orange slices. Mass was at 4:30 pm on Saturday afternoons. On Tuesday nights, I would go to CCD class where we learned mostly about my teacher’s trip to Fatima and how he had taken some pictures of what he thought was the Virgin Mary showing herself in the clouds.

By the time I was fourteen, I just wanted to be done. We moved to another parish briefly, just so I could complete my Confirmation, “make my sacrament” as they say, and get the whole Catholic thing over with.

Understand, I say all of this not because I have any ill will towards the parish I grew up in. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pastor was a kind and loving priest. The community itself was surprisingly diverse and vibrant. And I picked up some basic stuff. I knew that the “bread” on the altar–if you could really call something bread that looks that much like styrofoam–was being transformed into the Body of Christ. But I did not know why that mattered. I knew the word Gospel, but I could not have told you what the Gospel is. From what I understood of the politics of the Catholic Church, it certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of. So, early on in high school, I dropped the Roman Church like a bad penny. I still had connections, of course. I’d go to Mass with my parents on Christmas and Easter. I kept up with friends in the parish youth group and I would even join them on their yearly retreat. But I did not regard myself as a Christian. I had no interest in being a Catholic. I was hungry for God, but Rome would not, or could not, feed me.

Fast forward almost a decade. I’m in seminary in New Haven, having been received into the Episcopal Church towards the end of my time in college. I’m reading the early Church Fathers, which is blowing my mind and making me rethink everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a Christian. I’m also reading the Oxford Fathers and finding in them the language of the early Church applied. I’m having spirited conversations with classmates who have the audacity to call themselves Anglo-Catholic. I’m going to Mass at Christ Church on Broadway. I’m meeting with an Anglican monk for spiritual direction. For the first time, I’m going to Confession with some regularity. For the first time, I smell incense in worship and hear the Gospel chanted. For the first time, I attend the celebrations of the Triduum. I see Jesus right at the center of all of it. He’s standing there, staring me in the face. His crucifixion, His resurrection, all of it just starts to click. He died for me. He died for me.

I was raised Roman Catholic, but it was not until I became an Anglican that I actually became Catholic.

The point of all this is not to bash Rome, for this story could easily have gone the other way, had I been raised in a liturgically stale and theologically impoverished Episcopal parish and then found my way into some great oasis of traditional Roman piety. Rather, the point is that one of the things that a truly Catholic ethos and spirituality gives to the Church is a direct experience of God that is not outside of doctrine but culminates from right doctrine. Teaching is desperately important. One of the most important missing elements for me, as a teenager, was the lack of clear teaching on what the Gospel is and how my life is affected by it. But what Anglican Catholicism has shown me is that right doctrine is not simply a matter of intellectual exercise. It is an experience of the divine, built on the basis of sound teaching but delivered largely in other ways, through sound and taste and touch, through ordinary means turned extraordinary by God’s grace.

Meeting God at the Altar

Next to Cranmer and Hooker, there is perhaps no more widely cited Anglican divine than Lancelot Andrewes. He was a man deeply devoted to prayer and to the Holy Eucharist, a devotion that came out of his understanding that what God has done in Jesus Christ is not only to take away our sin but also to fill us with His holiness. The Incarnation is a deep act of union by which we become divine even as God becomes human. Andrewes put it this way in a Christmas sermon from 1605:

Now “the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body, of the flesh, of Jesus Christ?” It is surely, and by it and by nothing more are we made partakers of this blessed union. A little before He said, “Because the children were partakers of flesh and blood, He also would take part with them”–may not we say the same? Because He hath so done, taken ours of us, we also ensuing His steps will participate with Him and with His flesh which He hath taken of us.  It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might “dwell in us, and we in Him.” He taking our flesh, and we receiving His Spirit; by His flesh which He took of us receiving His Spirit which He imparteth to us; that, as He by ours became consors humanae naturae, so we by His might become consortes Divinae naturae, “partakers of the Divine nature.”

Andrewes posits here a kind of theosis, salvation by means of our incorporation into God and His indwelling in us, and  he sees the Eucharist as the chief means by which we receive that gift. When we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, we are united with Christ in a bond that Andrewes says is stronger than that between blood relatives or even between a husband and wife.

Andrewes is not inventing anything new here. He is quoting from the eucharistic canon in the Book of Common Prayer, asking the Father that we might “be made one body with [Christ] that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” He is also showing his great reliance upon the Fathers, like Saint Athanasius who famously said, “God became man that man might become God.” And, of course, it is well established in Scripture that Christ’s work is to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).

This understanding had a deep impact not only on Andrewes’ devotional life but also on his approach to ceremonial concerns. In his private chapel, Andrewes maintained the use of copes, incense, a silver ciborium, and candles on the altar. Andrewes understood that there is a direct connection between how we worship and what worship does to us. And he was not alone in recognizing this. Many of the great Anglican voices of the seventeenth century perceived this connection. In his treatise, The Reverence Due to the Altar, Jeremy Taylor argues that the internal worship of the spirit must be coupled with external actions to be genuine because the body and the spirit are not separate but one. This is especially true during the Holy Eucharist because “God is there specially to be worshipped, where he is most present.”

Anglicanism has glorious worship that invokes all the senses right at its center. But in many ways, it was not until the Anglo-Catholic movement that this understanding, built into the DNA of Anglicanism, was unlocked and nurtured.

Ritual Rediscovered

It is repeated often enough now to be a truism that there is a great difference between the ritualists of the second wave of nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism and the original Oxford Movement which was much more concerned with the recovery of doctrine than ceremony. Some historians have attempted to show that the line dividing the ritualists and their predecessors is not as solid as we might think. Nonetheless, even if we accept a strong division between the Oxford Movement and the ritualists, there is no reason to assume that ritualism is anything other than a natural outgrowth of what the Oxford Fathers did, building upon the Anglican divines who came before them. Many of the ritualists were eccentrics, to be sure, and not everything that they did was good. There was a fetishizing of the middle ages that took place, as well as in some cases a developing tendency to hold Rome up as the pinnacle of what it means to be Catholic rather than to follow the classical Anglican practice of following every doctrine back to its patristic roots. The ritualists were often far less educated than their Oxford peers had been. Some of them showed a surprising level of ignorance to history. Yet, despite all of that, what they got right, intuitively, in their bones, is that the way we approach the sacred mysteries incarnates in us the faith that saves us. As Charles Chapman Grafton put it, “What the devout had learned of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was bound to show itself in outward worship.”

To say that the Anglican Church of the nineteenth century had become stale in its worship is a massive understatement. It is breath taking to realize the kinds of things that Anglo-Catholics had to fight for, things that are so taken for granted now that they are found in even the lowest of low church settings. Priests were arrested for placing a fair linen and candles on the altar, or indeed for even calling it an altar at all. The idea of a vested choir and a procession from the back of the church was seen as pure popery. Riots broke out in parish churches if the priest wore a stole or preached in his surplice. John Mason Neale, founder of the Sisters of Saint Margaret, was chased by an angry mob at the funeral of one of the sisters and ended up having to scale a wall in his vestments to find safety. The Church that had been built on the theology of men like Andrewes and Taylor had become hostile to even the smallest glimmer of ceremonial. Reform was needed.

His Best and Our Best


Procession with the statue of the Blessed Virgin, Anglican National Pilgrimage at Walsingham, 2003. Photo by Gerry Lynch, used via Wikimedia Commons.

All of this may strike some people as a bit of arcane aesthetic snobbery. Does it really matter if the vestments and the candles and the gestures are just so? Isn’t Christ just as present if the Sacrament is celebrated in the middle of the woods on a camping trip as He is in the finest cathedral with smells and bells? Certainly, He is. But these things matter. They matter because, as Taylor showed, our bodies and our spirits are one. If we refuse to allow our bodies to experience what we are receiving in our spirits, the question has to be raised as to whether anything internal is really happening at all. Furthermore, ancient ceremonial and ritual give a sense of authenticity to worship and they teach us that worship is serious business in which the real God, the living Lord, comes into our presence and gives Himself to us. The Catholic principle is not that we need to have all the right accoutrements and do all the right things or else Jesus will not show up. But it is  that we give our very best to God, wherever we happen to be worshipping, because He does, always and everywhere, give His very best to us.

It was in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that I encountered for the first time the full richness of sacramental grace, not because the Roman Catholic Church I grew up in did not have it, but because in my case they had buried it under a mountain of lesser things, hiding from sight the pearl of great price. If we truly believe that Christ is present on our altars and in the Word we preach, we ought to express it with the fullness of what faithful tradition has to offer.

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