Look to the Tyger and Anglicanism Again

Way back in the middle (not the beginning) of the troubles, following the General Convention of 2003, I wrote an article "'Tyger!' Anglicanism and William Blake" for the Witness Magazine. In the eleven years since there have been charges that we did not then weigh what we were doing and we did not give an accounting.  We did, and this essay was a small part of that accounting.

I re-post it now with the thought that we can, from time to time, reflect the mind of Christ in ways that are prophetic and that point forward to an element of method, Anglican at least in part, that is mostly undervalued and unspoken - the poetic imagination. Towards the end of this essay I speak to the matter of  Anglicans becoming a community of "poetic sensibility."  It is perhaps this sense of poetic sensibility that most powerfully speaks in the whole business of a continuing Anglican Community.

Note too the mention about half way through the essay of the notion most recently brought forth by the Archbishop of Canterbury, that of "scrutiny."  I wrote, "I believe that when we who voted for these resolutions come before the Anglican Communion for scrutiny we ought not attempt to justify ourselves on the basis of received theology, biblical or otherwise, but rather ought gather our strength and support from the One source who calls us to do a new thing."

It may well be that the 2012 General Convention is in need of the vocation to poetic sensibility as well, for which we need not, if we respond, be ashamed.
Well, hope you find this of some value.

“Tyger!” Anglicanism and William Blake

The Prophetic Spirit and the 2003 General Convention's Disputed Decisions

There have been demands that the Episcopal Church give an accounting of itself before the bar of that strange yet beautifully elusive entity called the Anglican Communion. These come primarily in the form of the request for a rational theological justification of General Convention's consenting to the election of Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire and for that same convention's passage of legislation affirming unbroken community with those dioceses and clergy who have gone on before the rest and blessed same-sex relationships.

Contrary to some critics' suggestion that such theological work has not been done, a good bit of theological conversation has taken place and considerable debate has been engaged. Edifying essays, books and discussion resources have been produced. More are likely to come.

But there has been a widely felt and deep dissatisfaction with the results, for no amount of reasoning by those who voted for these measures or approved of them and by those who voted against or disapproved seems able to persuade across the divide.

This may simply mean that the disputed matters are not subject to resolution, or more implausibly that the key propositions that would convince one side of the truth of the other have yet to be found. But another possibility exists, namely that the arguments have taken place in an artificial context, in a court established by those dissenting from the majority opinion, and that the assenting majority have simply allowed themselves to be drawn into a conflict unrelated to the values out of which they formed their decisions.

As one who took part in the 2003 Convention and voted with the majority in the disputed pieces of legislation I believe many of the deputies and bishops who voted in favor knew precisely that this was a momentous break with the past and that it challenged the theological thinking that heretofore had held. I believe many of us were quite aware that these resolutions were not at all business as usual – the same dull round. Contrary to those who charge us with acting foolishly and with abandon, many of us saw our decisions as small movements towards a future to which we are being drawn, drawn by the light of Christ.

The assertion that the majority opinion of General Convention on any given piece of legislation reflects, even dimly, the mind of Christ, the light of Christ, is not to be taken lightly. Legislation seldom has that weight. Yet I believe the tenor and weight given the decision-making, and the careful discussions that proceeded the voting, are indications that we knew full well that finding the mind of Christ was precisely the issue. If these decisions reflect an effort to know the mind of Christ, its proponents are accountable to that mind, and not finally accountable to the workings of previously established theological understandings. It is not judged by the past, but by the future when all things are revealed.

It is the contention of this essay that these two decisions of General Convention are indeed attempts to reflect the mind of Christ in the matter and are to be judged as prophetic in intent rather than systematic reflections of a known science, in this case theology.

This essay takes its title from William Blake's poem, “The Tyger,” which begins:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

(p. 109, The Portable Blake , Viking Press, N.Y., 1946, hereafter referenced as TPB)

We Anglicans are deep in the fores of the night, and the disputed actions of General Convention seem much like the Tyger burning bright, but sensed with terror by those of us sharing the comfort of the fire with the forest all around.

And surely, we ask can of these actions, as we do of the persons the subject of the legislation, as did Blake of the Tyger:

Did he smile his work to see,
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? (p. 109, TPB)

Are these decisions regarding ordination and blessing in some final way the work of the same One who caused the Incarnation? And are the ones to be blessed?

William Blake: Poetic and Prophetic

William Blake is no one's idea of an easy poet. He is not theologically manageable. He informs on difficult levels and from a seemingly wild agenda. Yet his insights are at times profoundly Anglican, and I believe he is a prophet for our times as much as for his own.

In a highly condensed argument published in 1788 titled “There is No Natural Religion,” Blake concludes the First Series (or Argument) by stating, “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again” (p. 77, TPB). He ends the Second Series by saying, “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is” (p. 78, TPB).

The “Philosophic and Experimental” are closely related to the typology of the discussion that is currently taking place in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Much of the argument between those dissented from the legislation and those who assented consists of charges by the one that the other is doing bad theology, and the other that the first is ignoring matters of justice. But both are stuck in what Blake calls the ratio: the limitations of modernity in which theology and practice both are bound to the empirical world, to the world of the senses.

“The clear sense of scripture” is no less a matter of dogged empiricism than is the clear sense of right action. The reality is that there is nothing empirically clear about either scripture or right action, save for the dogmatic assertions of “orthodox” theology. The plea that “we be reasonable,” and that we provide a rationale for our actions are derived from this sense that something is only justified if it “fits” the ratios we have come to believe constitute sound philosophic and practical theology.

The reason, then, why the arguments for and against the justification of the actions of General Convention do not satisfy is because they are based on the false premise that the arguments for the new can be encompassed in the typology of the arguments of old. Put simply, why should we expect that new insights into the matters of Christian living be judged by the “same dull round”?

In another short essay, “All Religions are One,” Blake warns us all, “As none by traveling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more: therefore an universal Poetic Genius exists” (p. 79, TPB). This Poetic Genius “is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy” (p. 80, TPB). It is this Spirit of Prophesy that undergirds the argument for doing a new thing in the theology and practice of the church, and the appeal to that Spirit is our only real defense, if defense we must have.

The better argument before the world, and certainly before the member bodies of the Anglican Communion, concerning the actions of General Convention 2003 is perhaps this: What we experienced and responded to in General Convention was the universal Poetic Genius working its way through our decisions, and the validity of our actions must be judged, not by their conforming with the various opinions of biblical theologians and social activists of the moment, but by the extent to which these actions concern the affirmation of a new insight in the Spirit of Prophecy.

Invoking the Spirit of Prophecy

When we look at the two controversial decisions made at the convention, they do not seem on the surface to concern matters of prophetic utterance. They are viewed as matters for rather more traditional discussions concerning the received faith and church order. The marshaling of evidence for these actions being within the permissible boundaries of the received faith and order or outside those boundaries has occupied the energies of these days, often to the delay of attention to other matters of significance and concern. Still, the constant demand of the detractors of the actions is for those who acted by approving to justify ourselves.

To the extent that we who voted for the actions of General Convention feel the need to justify ourselves by the reasoning of the church's constructs regarding public, private and ecclesial morals, to that extent we will fail to satisfy either our opponents or ourselves. There can be no return to reuse the old wineskin. What we did will rip the hardened leather open.

Anglicans, both in the U.S. and worldwide, believe that the matters of consenting to the specific election of Bishop Robinson and the passage of a compromise piece of legislation regarding the issue of same-sex blessing carry important consequences. They do, but not for the reasons supposed. The actions themselves were entirely normal for a General Convention. What was not normal was the thought that they signaled some new understanding. The real issue, then, is whether this something new derives from the Spirit of Prophecy, for if it does its justification is not to be found in a better argument before the bar, but rather in the bold proclamation that God is with us.

I believe that when we who voted for these resolutions come before the Anglican Communion for scrutiny we ought not attempt to justify ourselves on the basis of received theology, biblical or otherwise, but rather ought gather our strength and support from the One source who calls us to do a new thing.

Blake says, “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation's different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy” (p. 79-80, TPB). We find ourselves in the Episcopal Church in the United States living out the Spirit of Prophecy in ways different from that found in some other parts of the Communion (other ‘nations'). If our decisions were claimed to be about issues of universal right or wrong, we might well be damned, but they are not. Our decisions should be thought of as the result of the reception of the prophetic spirit, whose fullness is known in the End, and not now.

One can see the danger, of course. By focusing our justification forward into the hands of the Spirit of Prophecy received, we might be accused of denying that the theology or moral law of the past has no merit. Such an accusation did not leave Jesus untouched. The New Testament witness recalls that he was accused of discarding the Law and the Prophets. The New Testament is not clear about how the church actually dealt with that accusation, for Jesus, while among us is reported to have said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). But, referring to the Christ at the end of time, The Revelation of John reports, “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new'” (Revelations 21:5). By the time the Revelation is written, the church seems to have been more interested in God's future and its formation than the past and the regulations that sprang from the old dispensation.

What is at stake here is whether or not the General Convention in these actions was in reception of the Spirit of Prophecy. To deny that it might be so is to take away any hope we have that the church will move beyond “the same dull round” which condemns and does not give life. The answer to the demand that we present ourselves at the bar is to either go believing in our hearts that we have been receptive to the Spirit of Prophecy or to stand condemned for having made the decision without warrant, for without the faith in the presence of the One who pulls us forward into the light there is no vision, and finally nothing new at all.

Revisiting the matter of an agenda for Anglicans and the matter of Poetic Sensibility: in 1998, I suggested in an article that an agenda for Anglicans in the 21st century might include the following: 

Anglicans ought to practice a mutuality that does no violence and that is not arrogant. We must practice incarnational awareness, seeing in others and in all creation the presence of God.

Anglicans ought to practice compassion that does not avert the eyes, but sees the suffering, and in that responds with the heart of Love. We must practice compassionate presence.

Anglicans might serve the faith well if it were to become a community of poetic sensibility.

By an agenda of “poetic sensibility," I envision Anglicans as having a Christian vocation to understand the Word, biblical and otherwise, and compassionate action, from a poetic standpoint, in which we expressed their meaning in ways that open our imagination to the new world for which they are the signs. The poetic sensibility is vital to the project of carrying the Good News in Jesus Christ into a world beyond the edges of western enlightenment thinking, in which the same “dull round” of theological debate continues seemingly without end.

For us as Episcopalians and Anglicans, in the forest of our night the Tyger burning bright has come: action beyond the edges of rational biblical theology has been engaged. With small hesitating steps, the Episcopal Church moved beyond the dance of rationality and into the prophetic and poetic moment. It is, I would suggest, our agenda, and perhaps our vocation.

We may not indeed be in step with others in the Anglican Communion. But the vocation to poetic sensibility can be a source of strength even for those who disagree with the decisions we made. If the Episcopal Church can manage to get out from under the feeling of being ashamed, or scared, or nervous about it, we can be the light we are called to be, knowing that the answer to the question, “Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” as it regards the Episcopal Church, its collective action in General Convention, and its gay and lesbian members blessed in relationship and ordination, is YES.


  1. Mark, back in about 1986, Bill Countryman, NT professor at CDSP stunned me with the suggestion that anglican spirituality is fundamentally an aesthetic spirituality. by that he did NOT mean the aehetics of using the right fork, but the deper sense of aisthanomai ...to perceive. In the debates that preceded 2003 ..going back at least as far as the early '80's, we stressed that the question should NOT be posed as "why is it ok to ordain and marry openly gay, partnered people, but, Why is it NOT okay today to do so? the point being that the traditional excuses for discrimination --sin and illness-- have been proven wrong, and the burden is thus on the other side. The tactic of demanding theological explanations for this and that before proceeding could not work, for congregations had ben fully including gay and lesbian baptized members of Christ for some time. We did it because there was no longer evident reason not to, and of course, once GLTB are no longer considered notorious sinners and in need of excomunication, the doors opens to also allow access to ALL the sacraments. The poetic/aesthetic part of this tale has to do with the ability of GLTB people and our friends to imagine ourselves as full memebrs of the church, and to envision the church we are becoming.

    The hand wringing over the state of the church might be a good thing if it encourages us to imagine a different Episcopal Church, and I agree that the poetic imagination has a huge role to play, for God did also make the tyger too. --Juan Oliver

  2. I second Juan Oliver's comment that it is the other side that needs to prove its case. As I've always said, the right tries to frame the issue as one of permission; is same sexuality permitted and should it be permitted, and about 6 passages in Scripture say no.

    This isn't about permission, it's about fairness and common decency. Whatever the Bible is, it's not a science textbook. The idea that same sexuality is criminal and pathological lies in ruins in the face of 6 decades worth of medical research, and even more importantly, in the face of the direct personal experiences of millions of people, both gays and lesbians and their families and friends. Why cling to something that is so glaringly wrong and to practices that are manifestly unjust and harmful?

    William Blake was not a theologian or a philosopher. he was a visionary living at a time of momentous change that frightened most people in his native England. He spent all of his life in poverty, and most of it under police surveillance. He recognized before most other people did, the profundity of the change that was upon the world, that the ancient idea going back to prehistory that the human condition is immutable is now proven wrong. Modernity began with the conviction that the human condition can be changed, that our destiny as human beings is no longer to toil in pain and sweat only to survive, and that some are born to rule and most to be ruled. Now, we can make our own destiny and legitimately claim a say in the determination of the history of our own communities.

    Blake saw what frightened most others was the dawn of a new day full of hope.
    Blake reminds us over and over again of the true revolutionary character of Christianity, conveniently forgotten as the Church gladly took on the role of spiritual legitimization and enforcement for established power. Blake reminds us with poems that people still find shocking.

    See his poem, "The Everlasting Gospel"

  3. I have always loved your posts regarding the poetry of faith...and this is no different. It is only from this poetical position I arrive at understanding the reality of Faith at all and the abundant life in the promises of Christ.

  4. Kind of sad that your article, Mark, is still current today. Good work. Thank you.

  5. John Sandeman12/3/12 7:30 PM

    So is Anglicanism only for those who have an aesthetic spirituality?


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.