Might you have some encouraging words for someone who is recently converted to Anglicanism / Episcopalianism—who does not want to join ACNA, AMiA, or, for example, the Reformed Episcopal Church—who wants to enter TEC but is frightened because of its current, tragic state?
This is an incredibly distressing time to enter TEC. If I don’t get some encouragement soon, I just may pass altogether. I could merely hold my beliefs but worship elsewhere.
I rarely respond to questions by beginning with my own personal experience. My reason for this is simple: theology should consist of deduction from first principles—and autobiography is not and cannot be a first principle. I don’t wish to deny the importance of subjective hopes, fears, desires, etc. In truth, these have a very important place in human life and thus in Christian life. Most importantly, Christ came not to save the principles of logic, but to save sinners in all their messy, tangled subjectivity. But in Christ, God interrupts our subjectivity—and although our experience of this interruption is intensely personal, it far too big and far too important to be confined to the narrow borders of our own subjective experiences. God interrupts me, but the grace in question extends far beyond the boundaries of my own life.
Two points should therefore be made. First, our life in Christ is a life oriented toward and by the divine Logos, which orders all things (see John 1:1 – 18, where the Greek ‘Logos’ is translated as ‘Word’). In Christ, our subjectivity is called and enabled to look beyond itself. Second, theology is for the wider community of the Church. If we have a question concerning the Christian life-in-community—if we are concerned with being in and remaining part of the Church—we must ultimately turn to those catholic truths—those catholic first principles—which have been shared by all Christians, in all times and in all places. In what follows, I begin with my own story. I then turn, however, to wider, shared points of Christian belief and practice. (Readers should note my assumption that William, like myself, holds to the orthodox nature of the Creeds, the effectual nature of the Sacraments, the inspired nature of the Scriptures, and the normative nature of the historic threefold ministry.)
A Very Brief Spiritual Autobiography
I was not raised Episcopalian, but come from a non-denominational, charismatic background. When I was 16, my parents began attending a Reformed church, and I left that decisively not long after turning 21. I spent a little over a year attending a ‘continuing’ Anglican parish of the EMC (Episcopal Missionary Church), where I grew to have both an appreciation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and a sense that it was somewhat outdated and in need of revision. I later moved on from that parish and drifted for some months between various liturgical churches, but shortly before I finished my undergraduate degrees, I was invited by a friend to visit the Episcopal student center, affectionately known as ‘Chapel House’. I did so, and when I first walked through the doors of the chapel I felt like I was home for the first time in my life. It is an experience which I had never had before and which I have never had since. It is an experience that profoundly shaped me; I do not exaggerate when I write that it is an experience and a memory that I still carry and feel in my bones.
I was confirmed about a year and a half later—on May 22, 2005, to be exact (my confirmation certificate hangs on the wall of my room)—after reading a good bit of Rowan Williams, Michael Ramsey, William Reed Huntington, Lancelot Andrewes and the Greek Fathers. Andrewes was the most moving of these authors; Ramsey, more than anyone else, gave me a sense of the Anglican ethos. His closing words in From Gore to Temple: An Era in Anglican Theology made a tremendous impact on me shortly after my confirmation: ‘the theological coherence which a Gore or a Temple exhibited came, not from a quest for tidiness, but from a vigorous wrestling with truth for truth’s own sake’ (p. 170). These words move me even now. And yet, as intellectually compelling as I find such a view, at the end of the day my movement into Anglicanism was an event of the heart, which was then followed and confirmed by my head. Put somewhat differently, my move into the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion was not just the result of study, but the result of an unexpected, charismatic experience. My conversion to the Anglican way was the joint action of both Parakletos and Logos; the former inspired unexpectedly, and the latter enjoined communicable discourse on the matter. (One without the other, or one set against the other, lacks the fullness of orthodoxy.)
Why be Anglican/Episcopalian—and, why be Christian?
Does one convert to a church because of its current state or because of the integrity found in the depths of its tradition? As the above shows, my own conversion was not inspired by the current state of Anglicanism! Without question, now is a distressing time to enter the Episcopal Church (USA), and I recognize that not all readers can appeal to a charismatic experience or the deep movements of the heart. But at the same time, as noted above, I sought to test my experience by turning to the study of church history and theology. In studying the roots, I found not just traces but effectual signs of life. I converted because of these; I embraced these, I learned from these, and I sought and seek to live faithfully according to these. Grounding these are the universal theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity—and charity is nothing if not patient and longsuffering, rejoicing in the truth. Ultimately, love fails to fail because it never fails (see 1 Cor. 13). If I may be so bold: if one’s current frustrations cause one to lose sight of the simple fact that the greatest of Christian virtues is charity, then one’s problems with church membership are located less in a particular church than in oneself.
None of this is to deny the binding nature of Christian duty. Sadly, it may be difficult to observe one’s Christian duties in a particular church. Some churches, whether ‘left’ or ‘right’, are genuinely destructive of one’s wellbeing—for example, they may undermine one’s marriage, or inhibit one’s ability to be a faithful Christian parent, or even be abusive in any number of ways. If this is the case, then yes, by all means leave that church and go elsewhere! Other churches call ministers who are not fit for their position because they do not adhere to the duties of the Christian ministry. Perhaps their sermons are heterodox, or perhaps they lack Christian character, or perhaps they are impious and/or irreverent toward the sacraments. If this is the case, I fully sympathize with the desire to go elsewhere. In truth, it is important for churches to be reminded that they cannot do whatever they wish; bad decisions can and should have negative consequences, and there is nothing remotely Christian about allowing oneself to be bullied into ‘unity’ by a negligent church hierarchy.
However, we must be careful; it is tempting to say that you should seek a church where you can be fed (note the passive voice of this statement)—but this borders on two falsehoods. The first error is the heresy of Donatism and Puritanism: the assumption that the means of grace are invalidated by erring clergy and/or erring laity. On the contrary, Christian faith—both the orthodox faith that I believe (fides quae), and the personal faith by which I believe (fides qua)—is stronger than the errors of anyone in any given time or place. No less importantly, the gifts of God remain pure and undefiled gifts even if misused by laity (which Puritanism cannot accept), or by a particular church and/or its particular ministers (which Donatism cannot accept).
The second error is that of making one’s own subjective experience the measure of objective truth. I suspect that this is the real problem today, not Donatism and Puritanism. People too often think that the answer to their discomfort is to find a place where they feel fed right where they are, but this is false. Insofar as you pray in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you sing hymns in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you profess the Creed in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you hear the Scriptures in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you participate in the Eucharist in church (any church), you are fed (and this literally!).
The bulk of the Christian life is lived outside of church, and thus the bulk of Christian discipline and Christian maturity must be pursued and attained outside of church. However, church membership and the Christian life are identical in this: neither is about us; both are about faithfulness to the promises given and the way of life enunciated in Word and Sacrament. Such faithfulness may make us uncomfortable at times, even in our own church, but discomfort and struggle are part of becoming a mature human, not to mention a mature Christian (and I fail to see how you can attain the latter if you neglect the former). When it comes to both motivation and action, the weight of my pleasures should always be outweighed by the weight of my duties. Maturity recognizes this and lives accordingly, while immaturity does not.
Discomfort and struggle are not, in and of themselves, a free pass to go off in search of more comfortable surroundings. One is certainly not free to leave a church because it is supposedly ‘dead’; this excuse is usually used by people who do not wish to accept their duty to be Christian toward other Christians within the Church. Rather, they simply want to be fed (and again, note the passive voice of this statement). Sometimes it is our job to feed others (now note the active voice of this statement), and it is always our job to crucify our own egos and judgments through service and the love of our neighbors. A church with just one member is a living church; a church is not dead until it ceases to exist—and until that happens, we are all bound to our Christian duty, which calls us to be the ‘living stones’ (1 Pet. 2:5) which help enliven and sustain all that happen within the four walls of a church.
Discipline your own appetites and then you will see the rest clearly. And thus we are left with two catholic truths. On the one hand, we are bound by our Christian duty. If a given church fundamentally undermines our ability to be faithful to our Christian duty, then we must leave and go elsewhere. This is not a mere hypothetical; this can and does happen, and no guilt should haunt those who, in obedience to the dictates of faith, hope, and love, must leave one church for another. On the other hand, we are bound by orthodoxy and must repudiate any Donatist or Puritan heresy which claims that the good gifts of God might be fundamentally vitiated by human sin or error. If you leave a church, leave in love to the best of your ability. If the direction of the will is not toward charity in such a situation, flee from resentment and keep from slander, insult, and the like when you discuss your former church. Wherever you are, be faithful by recognizing the objective goods in the objective gifts of prayer, hymnody, creed, and Word and Sacrament.