Who We Still Are
Every General Convention is disconcerting if you are a theologically traditional Episcopalian. So it was this year in 2022, not least because it is not yet clear what the eventual consequence for doctrine and worship will be at some future convention. We ‘see in a glass darkly,’ though I am still hopeful that a way will be made for the continued use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. (Those of us who are long-time Episcopalians smile to hear the 1979 Book referred to as the ‘traditional’ one - such is the pace of change nowadays). There are not only liturgical, but cultural and political cross-currents in our disrupted time, not to mention the usually unexpressed anxiety about institutional decline. But on such occasions, it is always valuable to return to the foundations, to our vocation, to the ‘why’ of our common life and mission - before we are too tangled up in means, to recall the end.
Our time and Church culture have in large measure forgotten theology. The discipline of listening to Scripture as the Word of God has declined. Too much we imagine that ours is ‘the Episcopal Way,’ with its own kind of exceptionalism, rather than simply an expression of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. As a result, our sense of being members of a global communion is reduced. Spiritual life at present has become thinned; only a generation ago there were still lots of charismatics, old-fashioned Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and hybrids thereof. And of course, we post-moderns are an impatient lot; we think doctrinal and liturgical change is measured in triennia. In all this, as I said in an article in The Living Church when I had just been elected, we in Communion Partner dioceses are a bit of theological biodiversity, like those seeds that are an important part of our agrarian inheritance.
It would be easy to suppose that there is nothing but confusion of political, cultural, and religious views, all the more baffling in the distorted light of our electronic devices. It may seem that, as at the end of the Book of Judges, all do what is good in their own lights. But it is not really so. In the Word of Scripture, we continue reliably to hear the voice of the risen Jesus Christ, who is Himself the way, the truth, and the light. Is there disagreement about interpretation? Surely. But in what matters most, the Scriptures, read with the aid of the Creeds, remain clear, and communicate to us all that we need for salvation. This is a rock under our house, and a light in a dark place. It is here that what C. S. Lewis called ‘mere Christianity’ begins and ends, trustworthily. And of that the Church as a whole can always use reminding, not because it is our claim, but because it is His, and we are its servants.
We live in an age of anxiety, anger, and trauma. Such an age needs the reclaiming of the ‘whole counsel of God,’ its word about human brokenness, about the atoning death of Jesus for us, about the Last Things. And the Kingdom of God. The bits that theological liberalism discarded turn out, in our time, to be particularly compelling. Against their background shines brightly the Gospel of the unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of the judgment and mercy of God in Christ remains perfectly capable of being the point of departure of dialogue with our age. But it also renders ideologies of both right and left uncomfortable.
It is in this context that we Communion Partner clergy, bishops, parishes, and dioceses have a continuing vocation to foster practices of theological recollection and discussion of Christian doctrine. We have been greatly helped in this regard by the Covenant Blog sponsored by The Living Church, as well as a number of theological writers.
I am not claiming like Elijah that there are no others left, but I believe that we have a unique and important contribution, one particularly attentive to hearing the Scriptures as the Word of God with the aid of the tradition. Our calling is to reclaim a hermeneutic (or guiding principle) of gratitude for what we have received and retrieval of the great Christian tradition.
Secondly, we are full members of the Episcopal Church who endeavor to minister constructively and charitably in every way we can. We are enthusiastic supporters of the Presiding Bishop’s emphasis on evangelism and church planting (especially urgent in rapidly growing north Texas). Quite frankly, our ability to encourage and draw evangelicals to our ordained ranks makes a significant contribution to this endeavor. Likewise, we are summoned to engage in racial reconciliation. We have been blessed by our contacts and relationships with largely African-American churches in our wider community, and so we have been endeavoring to pray and serve together. Let’s serve as Church together because we are, by the blood of Jesus, already Church together. Let’s be willing to allow this to challenge our presuppositions, our ignorance, or willful blind-spots. These are together part of that holistic mission which springs directly from the Gospel. We are already reconciled by Christ - as a result we are summoned to be agents of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:19-20).
Another contribution we can bring to our common life in the Episcopal Church is the series of connections we still have with the Churches of the Global South, many of which are growing dramatically. Being part of this communion challenges, among other things, the tacit assumption that we have progressed or evolved further. Here too, it is simply a matter of recalling that we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I hope that our own diocesan missionary teaching at the seminary in Alexandria can be a symbol of our being ‘mutually responsible and interdependent’ globally. And of course, the cultural breadth of the Communion may be experienced in our own diocese, where congregations pray every Sunday in Spanish, Urdu, Igbo, and Dinka, among others.
Think of the Church as ‘deep and wide.’ Of its global, ecumenical wideness, spanning races and nations (as our Canticle from Daniel and Revelation says), I have already spoken. But it is also deep in the sense of spanning time and generations. It is in this sense that doctrinal change involves the patience and testing which are faithfulness to generations past and future. It is on their behalf that the new marriage rite is not yet ‘settled doctrine,’ (as Professor Sonderegger of Virginia Theological Seminary recently said in When Churches Disagree); considerable time is required for the process of ‘reception.’ This process includes listening for consonance (or lack thereof) with Scripture, in league with fellow Christians in other Anglican churches. In other words, the new rite cannot be considered doctrine for us, but is rather an experiment. For our part, we continue to espouse the traditional doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman, the teaching that Lambeth 2022 recently confirmed as ‘the mind of the Communion’ consistent with Scripture. (At the same time, we appreciate the B012 arrangement that respects ‘communion across difference’ and allows space for us to make our witness in a peaceful and charitable way).
It is in the context of all that I have said above that we should understand ourselves as ‘Prayer Book Christians.’ This is a rich tradition flowing from Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century and further back. It is a Biblical way of being a Christian, since the Prayer Book organizes Scripture for us. It is also a global way of being a Christian, as the Book has been most fruitfully translated into a plethora of languages, thereby invigorating local cultures (this was the insight of the late Lamin Sanneh, a teacher of mine). It is a flexible tradition, its rites being the skeleton that allows the Body to have freedom of movement. The Book of Common Prayer is a treasure being discovered even by non-Anglicans in our time - it would be a shame if we fail to appreciate it fully ourselves!
These may seem admirable but distant to the realities of week-by-week parish life. But what is true extensively, in the world at large, should also be true intensively in our own congregations. Here locally we wrestle with the truly urgent issue of the day, the precipitous decline of our, and other mainline denominations. We do not propose some new programmatic solution, but rather the historic practices of the Church evangelical and catholic. We reach out to invite others in to hear the Gospel. We hear the Gospel of grace together as we gather weekly. We care for one another. We come alongside neighbor congregations of other traditions and backgrounds. We appreciate and enact Prayer Book worship, designed as it is for the local parish. We respond to God’s call to ‘do justice and love mercy.’ We live out friendships within our global communion. We invite members to learn more about how to pray, to explore the richness of our faith, and even as they ask hard questions, to bring the events of our own life-cycles into relation with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. We understand all of these features of our life together as holistically interpreting one another. In all of this we are reminded that our Lord is ‘with us, even to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).