Saturday, January 18, 2014

Week of Christian Unity

This week is supposedly the week of Christian unity. Anything the World Council of Churches has its fingers in makes me immediately skeptical, but the Vatican also has a Pontifical Council that is involved. Catholics call it the Octave of Christian Unity, which is really more a call for prayer for Christian Unity. I am more inclined to something like that. I always pray that the Church would be One, which is very much what Christ taught over and over. The image of the Church as the Bride of Christ is used over and over again in the New Testament. Christ does not have many brides.

Given my own personal circumstances, the question of the Church being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic is really what began to completely unravel my understanding of the Church and ultimately signaled the end of my career as clergy in a Protestant denomination (more on that in a moment.)

When I say I had a crisis of faith, I suppose that is not completely correct. I did not have a crisis of faith in God; I had a crisis of faith in trying to answer the question of "What does it mean to be one?"  What I had was a crisis of ecclesiology. (No, Mr. Auto-correct, I am spelling 'ecclesiology' correctly.) Ecclesiology is the theological study of the Christian Church. In a way, it is Christianity's existential search for self definition and meaning.

I linked to the Wikipedia article on Ecclesiology because the second sentence of the first paragraph completely amused me. It reads, "However, when the word (i.e. ecclesiology) was coined in England in the early 1840s, it was defined as the science of the building and decoration of church buildings and it is still, though rarely, used in this sense." If that is not the root problem of Anglicanism, I do not know what is.

Anglicanism holds to this rather bizarre "branch theory" of ecclesiology.  For some years, I accepted this notion but was never completely comforted by it. Branch theory is that there are three major branches on the tree of catholic Christianity. Rome, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. As a theological son of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, I always thought of myself a catholic, even if I was an Anglican. I rationalized Anglicanism's separation from Rome as a mere political happenstance from centuries ago, that we were separated but would one day return to full Communion with our Roman brethren. Certainly there was much rejoicing in the 1980s by many of the Anglo-catholic Anglicans at the prospect of Anglicanism being somehow rejoined with Rome through the work of the ARCIC and ecumenical dialogue. And Archbishop of Canterbury even went so far as to proclaim the "provisional nature of Anglicanism," meaning that Anglicanism would eventually cease to exist as a stand alone denomination unto itself and, presumably, be reunited with wider Christianity in the coming years or decades.

This dialogue lead to what I can only describe in a term used by a former Fed Chairman on the 1990s economic boom on Wall Street as "irrational exuberance." Anglo-catholics, and I think some Roman Catholics, were very much irrationally exuberant about some form or manner of reunification with Anglicanism in some meaningful way, even somehow recognizing each others' holy orders and sharing of clergy. Looking back on some of the theological pronouncements and journals from that period is really a study in naivety and Compass Rose-tinted glasses. Perhaps this might have actually happened had Anglicanism not decided to dive head long into moral relativism. With the ordination of women, discussions of getting rid of the rite of Confirmation entirely, homosexual activism (the list goes on and on...), Anglicanism began to fragment and meaningful dialogue basically went out the window.

Long story short, Anglicanism went down the path of becoming full bore liberal Protestants, which is why in my second paragraph above, I infer that Anglicanism is a Protestant denomination, which it very much is. Episcopalians like to pretent like they are not Protestant. They use flowery language about being a bridge between Catholics and Protestants, but the problem is, nobody lives on a bridge. Within Anglicanism, there are those that are clearly Anglo-catholics and those that are clearly liberal Protestants and those that are clearly Evangelicals. No one theological exists within Anglicanism as a true moderate bridge because Anglicanism by its very inception is Protestant. If you doubt me on this, read the Episcopal Church constitution. The title page clearly labels itself as Protestant.

Classical Anglicanism from the English Reformation until the time of John Henry Newman clearly defined themselves as Protestant. Ask any Episcopal clergy to submit to catholic teachings on life or women's ordination for instance, and you will see Protestant rebellion in their eyes, if not their answers. Just because one dresses up with finery and clerical collars, has clergy that refer to themselves as Priests (though a term not used for Ministers in any Anglican Book of Common Prayer from 1552 until the American 1979 BCP), it does not make you catholic. In fact, it was against English law for Anglican clergy to refer to themselves as priests or to wear vestments that smacked of popery for many years, sometimes on pain of death.

Being a good Anglo-catholic, I finally came to realize the truth that the Episcopal church was Protestant. Yes, it had retained some Catholic elements, but it was Protestant. The church was divided. To say otherwise is delusional at best. You are either Catholic or you are not. If you are not, that is fine, but is a whole separate bunch of issues. When I came to this realization, I could no longer be a Protestant minister that cannot even clearly decide how many sacraments there are. If you disbelieve me, look at the Catechism in the back of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. There are sections on the two sacraments that were "instituted by Christ" and then a section on other 'sacramental rites.' The language is extremely squishy if you examine it because Anglican cannot clearly decide the issue of 2 or 7 sacraments, or if confirmation is done away with (the first draft of what became the 1979 BCP had no Confirmation rite at all, and was only added at the last minute when a bishop got up on the floor of General Convention and asked, "Well, if there's no Confirmation, what are we going to do when we visit parishes???"

I have digressed somewhat, but I am speaking of Christian Unity. I guess I have a unique perspective on the issue and always have. When I was still an Episcopal priest, I was president of the local ministerial association and helped lead a weekly lectionary bible study for clergy, two things I am still immensely proud of. I think ecumenical dialogue is fruitful. However, I always wanted to hide under the table when we had to discuss the annual Thanksgiving ecumenical service because it always degenerated into what I called "liturgical lowest common denominator." Several pastors and priests would help put together this squishy Thanksgiving prayer service, with bland prayers and hymns that were more 4th of July-ish nationalism than anything. We didn't want to "offend anyone." Communion was obviously out. A clear Trinitarian prayer was clearly out. Any bible reading that was even remotely challenging was out. What we always ended up with was this bizarre 1984ish Civic Religion fest (God bless America!) with prayers to the unknown God(s) and pumpkin pie to follow. I always advocated (though it never got out of committee) to just have one church host the service and just do the Thanksgiving service completely in that tradition. If it was UCC, then have a UCC service, and the next year if it was at the Catholic church, do the service from the Roman missal. I think that's more respectful of everyone's traditions instead of ending up with re-enforcing civic religion that has no real substance for anyone.

To me, if we really want unity, then we have to be willing to have hard discussions and give up power and pretend were are not divided. Protestants protest Rome and are divided. That's reality that we don't need to backpedal. Until we come to the realization that were are not all friends here in communion with each other, we don't need to pretend that we are. That is why we pray. That's why we have relationships with Christians from other faiths. But to pretend there are no real differences between us or to come up with bizarre notions of visible and invisible churches is not helpful. Call a spade a spade. Until we can do that, the disunity of Christianity remains a scandal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing those personal comments! (Even though you have clearly tried not to go on at length about your coming into full communion with the Church and avoid any related triumphalism on this blog.)
I share your view that ecclesiology is the key. In any faith-related discussion, sooner or later everything boils down to it. And with the right ecclesiology, every other piece of the ‘puzzle’ fits in the right place immediately (sacraments, the role of bishops, priests and laity, sexual morality, etc.).
May our Lord, through the intercession of St Kateri Tekakwitha, shower you and your family with His blessings and surprise you with some unexpected yet positive developments this year!
JRM from Central Europe
BTW, my MS Word spell-check tool does not know the word ‘ecclesiology’, either.
Nor does it the word ‘Ordinariate’, but this I can accept for a time-being ;-)