I’m a seminary student and recent convert to Anglicanism from charismatic non-denominationalism. Since marching down the Canterbury Trail, I have been involved with an Anglican Mission church that is part of the realignment movement. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog as part of my transition and only noticed today that you minister within TEC. I respect your thoughts on classical Anglicanism as a back-to-the-Fathers kind of Christianity, thus a good balance of Catholic and Protestant sentiments, and so I would love to hear what you think about the realignment (ACNA, AMiA, etc.). Obviously the historical fact of the Reformation implies the need to separate from corrupt ecclesiastical authority, but I’ve also encountered many orthodox Christians, such as yourself, who are committed to TEC. Any wisdom/perspective you have on the issue would be of great value to my journey, if you have the time.
Though this question came in a while ago, it seems fitting to answer it this week as the sparks continue to fly in South Carolina, leading many of us to wonder if there really is a place anymore for traditional orthodox Christians in the Episcopal Church.
The Good, the Bad, and the Reformation
Ethan mentions the Reformation as a touchstone which proves that sometimes schism is necessary. If this is the lesson that the Reformation has taught us, we are quite far from the truth and love of God. We can and should celebrate the Reformation for the ways in which it clarified and inspired Christians to return to ancient truths of the faith that had become obscured, but we should also mourn the Reformation, just as we mourn the Great Schism, as a moment in time when the Body of Christ was ripped apart and Christians became even more walled off from one another than they already were. To turn a phrase from Luther, we might even say that the Reformation was both justified and sinful. Much like the crucifixion, it was an unavoidable tragedy that God has used in His mercy to shower the world with His grace and love.
Anglican Alphabet Soup
I do not feel qualified to say much about the Anglican churches that exist outside of the Anglican Communion as my familiarity with them is limited. What I can say is not much different than what I have said in the past. I remain a loyal and faithful priest of the Episcopal Church and I will continue as such, unless the official doctrine of the church is changed so as to be no longer recognizably Christian or I am asked to leave. Despite the fact that the corner I have been shoved into in the current Episcopal Church is getting smaller and smaller, my calling as a Christian is to be a witness to Christ within that small corner for as long as such a thing is possible. I win no brownie points with God for this. I curry no favor. It is, quite simply, what God calls all of us to do, and the fact that we all fail at it does not make us any less culpable for it. If nothing else, it should make us want the Gospel that much more when we realize just how sinfully schismatic we are, how quickly and easily we make orthodoxy itself into an idol.
It is a dizzying array of options that greets the person who discovers the faith of classical Anglicanism and then goes searching for a church, and frankly we should be embarrassed by how quickly and how often we have been willing to break ties with one another. I say this not as a condemnation of those who have left the Episcopal Church, but as an indictment upon all of us for not believing in Our Lord’s promise and call that we all should be one (John 17:22). Every schism is a sin, just as every divorce is a sin, even though there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that might make such things necessary in our fallen world. Our proper attitude towards our own contribution to schism must always be one of repentance. And if you do not think you have contributed at all to schism, you are self-deluded and need to repent all the more.
A Plan for Renewal
But Ethan’s question is about the future, and it is difficult for anyone to look at the Episcopal Church as she is today and see bright things. Truth be told, it is difficult to look at any American church today and be sanguine, but the situation in the Episcopal Church is particularly dire. At the rate we are losing members, it is unlikely that there will be an Episcopal Church for my grandchildren. We are broken from top to bottom, and the problems are insurmountable without God’s grace and mercy. So here is my plan for the renewal of the Episcopal Church: constant prayer for God to be merciful and to use our tiny little mess of a church to bring people to Him. That should be the prayer of every Episcopalian and probably also of those who have gone on to form their own purer churches that have almost always turned out to be not quite as pure as expected. We are Nineveh and we ought to be in sackcloth and ashes.
Tearing Down and Building Up
All of this probably sounds rather grim, but in actuality I am filled with hope for the future of Anglicanism in North America. And that’s because I believe that the best thing that will come out of the current crisis in North American Anglicanism is an abandonment of institutional idolatry.
One of the great strengths of Anglicanism is its preservation of the doctrine that the Church is more than just a fellowship of believers, that she is an incarnational reality, an organic and tangible means by which Our Lord makes us one with Him. Yet this has also been our Achilles Heel as too often Anglicans have confused the mystical reality of the Church with the accoutrements of church life. We have worshiped the clerical collars and the vestments. We have celebrated our property and preached our pension plan. We have glibly pointed to our apostolic succession, as if it were a mechanical process, and we have said to the world and to the rest of the Christian Church, “This is who we are!” In short, we have celebrated ourselves instead of Christ. Is it any wonder we have split into so many pieces?
Yet I am hopeful because the collapse of broken institutions makes it possible for us to rediscover, in all humility, the true glory of Anglicanism which is found in the revelation of Jesus Christ. What Anglicanism has to offer to North America and the world is a surprisingly simple, holy, and beautiful path that leads right to the foot of the cross. It is the ancient and living faith of the apostles running through our liturgy and articles, pulsing within the pages of the greatest works of our theologians, and characterizing the pastoral relationships of countless clergy and people through the centuries that gives us the ability to proclaim that we are inheritors of the Catholic faith. I have no clairvoyance, but my strong suspicion is that the renewal of North American Anglicanism will happen far away from the places where ecclesial machinery is churning out one resolution after another, advocating this and anathematizing that. It will happen in parishes where Word and Sacrament are faithfully preached and administered by priests who find their calling not just in wearing fancy robes and standing in the pulpit but in the regular visitation of the people and in the continuous offering of prayer in the Daily Office. It will happen in small groups of young people who come together in far flung places to form new parishes and to build for the future. It will come in the late night reading of long forgotten books by long dead heroes of the faith who became heroes not through self-initiative but through total surrender to God.
Our Hope for an Anglican Future
Of course, the renewal of Anglicanism could take many forms, but one thing I am certain of is that a renewal is coming. I am certain of it because Anglicanism, at its core, is no less and no more than the Gospel delivered in the clearest way possible. In the end, it really does not matter what we call it. Perhaps the very names Anglican and Episcopalian will die. It will not matter if they do. The death of our structures is inevitable, as much as the crumbling of the Temple was inevitable. Nothing made with human hands, no matter how glorious it may seem, will exist forever. Only God is eternal and only Christ is our refuge. The heart of Anglicanism is Christ. No sin, even one as large as our ongoing institutional idolatry, can even come close to exhausting the saving power of Jesus.