The Reflections, Ruminations, Predictions and Manifestos are on the rise.
There have in recent weeks been a remarkable number of very fine essays on Anglicanism, the current predicament in the Anglican Communion and the need for new theological work by liberals to match the work done by conservatives.
Archbishop Rowan Williams on June 27th published “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today,” a rumination that gave rise to all sorts of grasping at straws, but itself was filled with hints of possible “solutions” no matter how temporary, that would give a semblance of unity to the churches of the Anglican Communion. It was immediately snatched from its “reflective” context and made the jumping off point for groups and bishops in the Episcopal Church seeking to be the “real presence” of Anglicanism in America.
Three important essays followed:
On July 7th, Theo Hobson wrote, “Sowing the Seeds of Change” for “Commentisfree” a Guardian web publication. That essay challenged the possibility of liberal Anglicanism and holds out the hope for a renewal of liberal theology. Hobson sees no possibility for a liberal middle ground in Anglicanism, at least as currently constructed. He argues that Archbishop William’s solution is a catholic minded solution that favors unity over reform. “Real Catholics,” he wrote, “do not pursue reform that endangers the unity of the church. They feel the church’s authority as terribly real; the church is their ‘spiritual mother.’ Williams has learned the hard way: that Catholics can not afford to be liberal too.”
On July 10th the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, held out precisely that hope in his article, “The Heartlands of Anglicanism.” He argues that Anglicans ought to remember and hold onto the Via Media of Catholic and Reformed tradition as the churches respond to the issues of contemporary life, attending to all three elements.
He holds that we need to trust the Provincial (that is to say actual Churches) of the fellowship of the Anglican Communion to be the primary context for the work that needs to be done, and that the “instruments” of communion in the Anglican Communion be adjusted to better make sharing of that work possible. He holds that if we keep that vision we may be able to work our way forward as a community of churches.
To my mind the Archbishop of Cape Town is the strongest voice in support of the integrity of The Episcopal Church and its processes and for every other Province of the Anglican Communion insofar as they are committed to the struggle to hold together the several strands of a biblical base for doctrine, a catholic sacramental life, and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility.
Following on a talk given at a gathering of former and current college chaplains in Columbus at the time of General Convention, The Rev. William Coats produced a Manifesto, the primary purpose of which is to recall the Episcopal Church to its distinctly American vocation: “We have become the Via Media not between the Roman Catholics and Protestants but between that phalanx of groups and churches that harbor a deep suspicion or rejection of secular thoughts and developments… and those bodies which have become so open to the culture as to be but simply the religious version of the latest liberal trends.”
Bill Coats begins his Manifesto with a timely quote from William Stringfellow, “Let it be remembered…that God does not need the churches. The concern for purity, fidelity and unity of the churches as the Church originates in the need of the churches of God, not the other way around. God makes his own witness in the world and makes that witness even in the very weakness of the churches.”
He believes the time has come to “stand firm and fight,” meaning to fight for the place of the Episcopal Church as a community committed to the core doctrines of the faith, open to being informed by the best of the culture and a community having its own identity and vocation.
Coats contends that the cost of continuing as part of the Anglican Communion is too high if it includes specific matters of discipline (in this case the exclusion on moral grounds of gay and lesbian relationships, sexual or otherwise) raised to the level of core belief.
He says, “It is time to call this campaign against our church what it is – the power of death… Recall that being an Anglican is not the same thing as being a member of the Anglican Communion, particularly if sinister forces have indeed hijacked that Communion. It will be good to be apart for a while. What is unacceptable is cooperating in our own death.”
So the Archbishop of Canterbury ruminates possible ecclesial futures for the Anglican Communion, and in rapid fire there are three responses: liberal Anglicanism is dead and Catholic thinking killed it; liberal Anglicanism lives in the “heartland” of the middle way between catholic and reformed traditions; and the middle way is no longer between church traditions but between all church authority and culture, and the concerns for the Anglican Communion is a distraction from the vocation, always a matter of location.
Perhaps the most hopeful thing said was by the Archbishop of Cape Town: “It is the Provinces that have the final say – through their constitutional processs and the deliberations of their synods. This is ultimately where the future of Anglicanism lies – this is where the authority to take decisions is found. We should be entirely clear about this – no matter what certain groups, or the media say. Anglicans should not be daunted when the press makes much of this group’s statement or that group’s communiqué, as many do not carry substantive authority. Rather, we should encourage the whole people of God to contribute to forging our future together.”
Having read these several documents over and over, that of Archbishop Ndungane struck me as most essential. The “Heartlands of Anglicanism” are, in his mind and mine, worth fighting for. He, like Bill Coats, calls on us to stand firm. Coats ands “and fight.”
The Archbishop said, “I want to underline and affirm that the territory on which we debate our future can only be that of these broad rich heartlands of our Anglican heritage. It is not something to be fought out at the limits of conservatism or liberalism, as if they were the only possibilities before us.” We stand firm, then in the territory of the ‘broad rich heartlands’ of Anglican sensibilities about how to be Christian in a profoundly unsettled world.
When Coats says, “fight” he is quite right in putting that word to the act of standing firm. Between “that phalanx of groups and churches that harbor a deep suspicion or rejection of secular thoughts and developments… and those bodies which have become so open to the culture as to be but simply the religious version of the latest liberal trends” lies the Ndungane heartlands. And that heartland must be defended.
My sense is that standing firm and fighting for this heartland requires that we move beyond conservative and liberal theologies, as well as the party conflicts that swirl through our deliberations, to some new place. The Archbishop speaks of the tools for this fight as “God’s Grace in Anglican Style.” The tools he speaks of are tolerance, trust and charity – tools he says are “in the diversity found not the least within our church walls on Sunday morning.”
For these to be tools for the fight, for the ‘standing firm’ they need to be more than “cheap” tolerance, trust and charity. Standing firm requires our best efforts to fulfill the injunction of Jesus to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. And it requires our ability to live with decisions by the majority of the members of our synod (General Convention) and also with the outrageous democratic principle that if we don’t like the decision made we can always through the bums out later. Patience is no friend of Justice, but then again Justice has no friends. It will roll down like waters and sweep us all away.(Amos 5:24) We will be surprised, I believe, to know on the great getting up morning just what justice is and just who sits up higher.
For now, justice sometimes waits, sometimes demands, sometimes makes its peace with oppression, sometimes not. For now we are called to “give justice” to opinions not our own and see justice done for a wide variety of people who constitute the diversity of our church and society. The call from the one is for time to make their claims; the call from the other is for justice now.
None of this is satisfactory. Liberal Anglicanism, as Hobson wrote, is about dead. Catholicism, liberal and otherwise, has favored unity over reform. The Archbishop of Cape Town speaks of the heartland, but how is that not simply the central and some claim disappearing middle ground?
The answer, of course, lies in the point the Archbishop makes, that of “the solid center, focused on Jesus Christ, to which we are constantly drawn back by the counterbalancing pull of the other strands, if any one threatens to become disproportionately influential.” This cannot become the simple folk remedy “what would Jesus do?” Rather it is the heartland of a deep holiness, in which we are wrapped in Jesus and become the heart at the center, the mind of Christ in this place.
There is a richness in the Archbishop’s essay that deserves our close attention.
2. Sweeping House:
Each of these essays has served us well. They provoke new conversation, new ruminations. And, for me, they provoke a sense that the time has come not for a revival of liberal theology, but a new theological sensibility for Anglicanism.
Hobson is correct, I think: liberal Anglicanism is dead. And Coats is correct: the Episcopal Church is, since the Second World War, a genuinely American church, absorbing in itself the full crisis of American religion. And the Archbishop of Cape Town is correct, that Anglicanism draws on a great reservoir of holy struggle. The question is, what becomes the Anglican sensibility suitable to what is increasingly to be understood as a time when systematic theological constructs are less engaging and experiential, and obviously provisional and experimental possibilities, are on the rise?
It’s time to sweep house. There have been so many attempts to compromise between the conservative (perhaps the realignment gang, but certainly the “phalanx of groups and churches”) and the liberals (certainly the inclusionists or the progressives). Now maybe it is time for something different than that provided by liberal and conservative, both products of modernity.
Now maybe we need to become visionaries. That is why I like Ndungane’s image of the “heartland of Anglicanism.” Here he is speaking of a visionary’s place, a place where we stand firm, a place as solid as Christ Jesus.
What Anglicanism, the Anglican Communion, and The Episcopal Church need now is a renewed vision of a faith informed by, not driven by, the biblical witness, the sacramental life, and the wonder of experience.
Our work, as members of a particular Church, The Episcopal Church, is to do our best to make this a place where the heartland is the heart of Jesus Christ’s love, and not a stony patch of righteous people from the left or the right. In this place we will not meet everyone’s needs. We will seem weak. We will not be satisfactorily orthodox, not completely progressive (for there too are the righteous), and not in any way a passive Via Media. We will be at the task of being who we are as a peculiar people of God, Anglican in sensibility and firm in Jesus Christ. We will not be the church that meets everyone’s needs. But we will be The Episcopal Church, a more or less democratically induced child of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, in fellowship when possible with other church in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere. Here we stand.
There is work to be done.
And about those who have other needs, a few words from Bob Dylan,
“Go away from my window,
go at your own chosen speed.
I'm not the one you want, babe,
I'm not the one you need.
You say you're looking for someone
who's never weak, but always strong,
To protect you and defend you
whether you are right or wrong.
Someone to open each and every door . . .
But it ain't me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain't me, babe.
It ain't me you're looking for, babe.”