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Conservatives And Their Churches

One thing that being a convert to Orthodoxy in America teaches you is that there is no necessary relation between adhering to strong theological conservatism and adhering to political conservatism, and another thing that it teaches is that what you thought was political conservatism may have been woefully lacking in wisdom.  The two do tend to reinforce one another, but theological conservatism can draw one to hold views very much at odds with what conventionally passes for political conservatism in Western countries.  I say this by way of introduction to the question of whether theological conservatives who are defending scriptural authority and tradition must eschew language that is, in political contexts, normally associated with the left without being found intellectually bankrupt.     

That is not to say that Demophilus, one of James’ new cohort of pomocons, is wrong when he critiques the anti- or post-colonial language of conservative Anglicans when they reject Canterbury’s primacy as a “colonial structure.”  Then again, considering that a huge number of conservative (or, perhaps more accurately, traditionalist) Anglicans now hail from what is sometimes euphemistically called “the global South” and usually live in former British colonies in Africa and Asia, they would be more inclined to use such a language in defense of their religious traditon.  There is also some truth to the claim that global Anglicanism has had a “colonial structure,” not least since the existence of Anglicanism in most of the countries where most theological conservatives reside is a product of British colonialism, and Demophilus acknowledges this history as well. 

You might say that this is an exceedingly literal way to take this statement, and certainly the phrase is intended as a rebuke as much as a description, but one should also consider the audience that the conservatives are addressing.  They are not simply talking to themselves, but are appealing to their fellow Anglicans in language that the latter may find persuasive or at least reasonable, and nothing induces feelings of shame and remorse in liberals, whether theological or political, than to suggest that they are acting in a neo-colonial fashion.  Respect for history and contingency is valuable, but I don’t think it follows to say:

To not go through Canterbury would be, simply, to no longer be Anglican. 

If communion with Canterbury is “the basic principle of being Anglican,” I would have to suggest that “the basic principle of being Anglican” does not mean very much.  It seems to me that conservative Anglicans today are seeking to understand how to be fairly orthodox while remaining in their theological tradition, and they are concluding reasonably enough that remaining in communion with a see that puts little store by such orthodoxy may not be compatible with their own respect for scriptural authority and the ecclesiastical tradition they have received.   

Demophilus’ post also reminds me of last week’s Spectator, which carried a lengthy article on Anglicanism and what the clash within the “global” Communion has done to the Church of England.  The article seems especially relevant to this discussion, since, in addition to its reference to the Gafcon meeting, it starts off with a telling anecdote:

Some years ago a vicar gave a sermon in which he tried to explain the latest developments in the Anglican Communion to his congregation. Afterwards an old lady came up to him, a bit bemused. ‘How does all this stuff about Anglicans affect us?’, she asked. ‘Well,’ he replied, smiling warmly at the old biddy, ‘we’re all part of the global Anglican Communion, aren’t we?’ She looked still more bemused: ‘I thought we were Church of England.’ [bold mine-DL] 

Of course, to be CofE is to be Anglican in a very obvious etymological way, but as the CofE has enmeshed itself in global Anglicanism conservative Anglicans have become increasingly frustrated with ties to the CofE, because Canterbury seems to embrace or tolerate all of those trends within the Communion that they find intolerable.  Indeed, conservative Anglicans should receive some credit for pursuing what is probably an ultimately thankless task of trying to maintain some measure of theological orthodoxy in an inhospitable ecclesiastical tradition.  They are to be given credit precisely as conservatives for attempting to persist as Anglicans despite the failings of many existing Anglican institutions.  If the problem really is Anglicanism in itself, as Demophilus proposes, this necessarily defines Anglicanism to be at odds with any serious scriptural orthodoxy.  Now I am not party to the dispute, but it seems to me that this is an extraordinary claim to make when half of the Anglicans in the world believe that orthodoxy and Anglicanism can in some way still coexist.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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