Anglican Nominalism As ‘Anglican Comprehensiveness’
Reading this interview about Harvard’s Episcopal chaplain — a former lesbian who had a sex change and is now a man married to a woman — made me realize something. First, this excerpt:
Q: You found a home at Harvard Divinity School and in the Episcopal Church. What did each of these two institutions provide?
A: To me, HDS is a space of intellectual rigor, and of openness and empowerment to various identities and practices of ministry in multiple traditions. It’s a privilege to now serve in roles that open up that space for students there.
Being Anglican is just in my bones. It was such a fantastic experience to discover in college that the tradition in which I grew up was the one I wanted to embrace as an adult. I love the centrality of the Eucharist, the fairly wide range of communities under our umbrella, our history as both reformed and catholic, our intellectual bent, and our increasing boldness to be about the work of justice.
But most of all I appreciate what’s called “Anglican comprehensiveness,” which often calls us to embody ambiguity. Sometimes that causes us discomfort, even conflict, but it’s at the heart of who we are as Anglicans. I love that.
When I read that, I thought of this passage in the first chapter of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s memoir Facing East, about how she and her husband, who was at the time an Episcopal priest, decided they could not longer continue as Anglicans. Here it is:
As I shifted my aching feet on the floor of that dim church I wondered whether Gary’s new direction would ever make sense to me. What had pushed him in the door of this [Orthodox] church in the first place was growing unease with changes in the Episcopal Church, changes both moral and theological.
For example, in July of 1991 I was present for a vote of the Episcopal House of Bishops, a resolution requiring ordained clergy to abstain from sex outside of marriage. When the ballots were counted, the resolution had failed. I remember thinking, “This isn’t a church anymore; it has no intention of following its Lord.”
Meanwhile, it became fashionable to doubt Jesus’ miracles, the Virgin Birth, even the bodily Resurrection. Before his consecration as England’s fourth-highest ranking cleric, David Jenkins claimed that miracles were in the eye of the beholder. Of Jesus’ physical resurrection he sniffed, “I’m bothered about what I call ‘God and conjuring tricks.’” He was consecrated Bishop of Durham in York Minster Cathedral on July 6, 1984; two nights later, lightening struck from a cloudless sky and burned down a wing of the building. Beholders thought they might have seen a miracle.
Home in Baltimore such shenanigans were wearing on my husband. He banded together with five other “troublesome priests” and wrote a document asserting seven points of theological orthodoxy; they called it the Baltimore Declaration. It prompted a minor dust storm, but the national church lumbered on its way as undisturbed as a water buffalo by a mosquito.
Gary at last decided that he could no longer be under the authority of apostate bishops; he had to be in the line of Truth. But where to go? He briefly considered the “continuing” Anglican churches, but felt he couldn’t climb further out from the branch to a twig; if anything, he had to return to the trunk. Also, he began to believe that the compromising flaw lay at the very heart of Anglicanism. The beloved doctrine of “comprehensiveness” suggested, “Let’s share the same prayers, the same words about the faith, but they can mean different things to you than to me.” Not a common faith, but common words about the faith—mere flimsy words. A church at peace can survive this way; a church attacked by wheedling heresies must tumble into accommodation reducing orthodoxy to shreds.
Look, I’m not interested in having another boring argument about gay-straight stuff. We all know where each other stands on that. What I’m interested in is the question of “Anglican comprehensiveness” and small-o orthodoxy.
When I read the transgender Episcopal priest praising “Anglican comprehensiveness” because (in part) it allows for transgender priests, I think that whatever this is, it’s not Christian, except in name. I think Frederica was exactly right when she wrote those words back in the 1990s: “not a common faith, but common words about the faith — mere flimsy words.” Trust me when I say that I don’t mean this combatively, but I genuinely don’t understand how a church with such radically (= at the roots) contradictory ideas about God, sexuality, and the human person can hold together. I’m not trying to insult Anglicans, so please, readers, don’t take this either as an insult or as an invitation to do that. It’s just that reading a transgender priest praise “Anglican comprehensiveness” as license to “embody ambiguity” — well, it puts the theological chasm in sharp perspective.
I have dear friends who are faithful Anglican Christians, and who are surely better Christians than I am. I am not questioning the integrity of the faith of individual Anglicans. What I’m trying to express is my utter bafflement at how this works at the corporate level. It’s particularly on my mind this afternoon because for Orthodox Christians worshiping in the Slavic tradition, today was the Sunday of the Fathers Of The First Six Ecumenical Councils. We heard a great sermon this morning about why the concept of orthodoxy (right belief) is so important, and how very much depends on it. It’s not so much that I reject a church that can welcome transgender clergy (though I do), but that I do not understand how that can remotely be squared with Scripture and tradition — with, in a word, fundamental Christian orthodoxy. And more to the point of this post, I don’t understand how Anglicans who do profess fundamental creedal Christian orthodoxy remain in communion with the Episcopal Church. I mean, I know they do, because my friends are good and faithful people, and they do. Still, reading that interview just now was jarring, really jarring, and brought all this to mind. There really is no sexual innovation that the Episcopal Church will not embrace. The only orthodoxy, it appears to this outsider, is banning Christian orthodoxy on sexual matters.
This is a topic that always heats people up, so let me stress again: I’m not angry or emotional about this — it’s not my church, after all — only genuinely puzzled. Let us discuss it civilly. Be critical, by all means, but if you’re going to call your opponents bigots or sodomites, or use language like that, I’m not going to post your comment.
[H/T: Andrew Sullivan]