Have they lost the ability to see and comprehend implications of the Christian Faith?
Perhaps the most difficult place in the whole world to be a Christian in is the United States of America, the land of “the free” and the home of “the brave.” Perhaps also the most difficult place in the whole world to know where to find the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of God is in the same “land of liberty and of democracy.”
Why? There are various reasons and here are a few: there are so many persons and groups claiming to present and offer authentic Christianity that it is very difficult to know how to choose; many forms of American Christianity are tied to party, political theory of the right, left or center in terms of their expression of the practical content of the Christian life with the result that the secularization and politicization of religion are overwhelming; so often there is an uncritical conflation and equation by Christian groups of the “secular” freedom and liberty so highly prized by the American “dream” with the “Gospel freedom” of which St Paul so passionately speaks in his Letter to the Galatians; and it is not always clear that opposition to Christianity by modern American secular humanists is actually against Christ as the Lord & Savior, or against cultural, social and political wrappings around the Christian Faith.
It is in this situation of the competitive supermarket of American religions, and the unclear lines between religious and secular, church and society, that Anglicans/Episcopalians, as one tribe/extended family, are having their own severe testing and crisis of identity, faith and morals (even as are others like Lutherans and Methodists).
If we look to the New Testament for guidance, we find that it does not address, does not even contemplate, what is absolutely normal for Americans – the existence of denominations, of competition between them, and further the existence within denominations of competitive sub-divisions, along with a massive number of congregationally based units and groupings.
Certainly the New Testament addresses divisive actions and teaching, tensions, bad leadership, sinful and immoral actions within churches but in the apostolic age you were either in the Body of Christ, preparing to enter the Body of Christ, or suspended for disciplinary reasons from the Body of Christ. So we have always to remember that when using the New Testament for calls for unity in faith, hope and love in one of our modern denominational churches or congregations we are using the New Testament in a way that is not wholly in accord with its own context, principles and content – for it assumes and looks for the unity of all Christians in one geographical area in one congregation or in several congregations which are all in fellowship with each other in that area. This solemn fact should not put us off or deter us from using the New Testament as Word of God to the “Church” today; but surely it calls us to do so with reverence, wisdom and care, and NEVER with denominational triumphalism.
Of course, in a denominational congregation and between churches in one denomination there ought to be true Christian faith and practice – and further there ought to be the continuing recognition that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior and Head of the whole Body and that any one denomination is not that whole Body. (Of course the R C Church claims to be so and so do the Orthodox Churches as a Group; but, however weighty their claims by reason of antiquity and continuing in space and time are, the fact remains that alongside and around them are millions of professing Christians in “denominations” which also claim to be “Christian.”)
If we do look at the present state of the Anglican Way in North America within this perspective (of the religious supermarket of competition and differences against the background of the One Church proclaimed by the NT) ,then we see not only The Episcopal Church (itself divided into factions) but also many spin-offs or schism from it during the last 150 years or so – from the Reformed Episcopal Church, through the Continuing Churches (late 1970s and into 1980s), and the Anglican Mission in America (1990s), to the 80 or more congregations currently affiliated with a large variety of overseas bishops. And to all this we have to add missionary Anglican dioceses/ networks founded from Nigeria and India. Here we have “one extended family” where brothers and sisters, cousins and half-cousins, adopted brothers, sisters an cousins, do not ever meet as a whole tribe, often shut each other our, but do have some minimal coming together of sub-groups (which we may term small nuclear families). In fact, the whole extended family or tribe shows the same characteristics of division and competition as the warring sects and denominations within the one religious supermarket of the USA.
And (from the viewpoint of the archangels above) the massive tragedy is that for most of us this situation is normal and we do not worry about it in the least – or maybe only challenged to do so by an over-enthusiastic preacher; and it is normal for us because we have become habituated to view the whole Church and the small branch we call Anglican through the prism of the religious liberty and competitive supermarket in which we live and breathe within the “land of the free.”
Perhaps after self-examination, some of us may be ready to hear the Word of God addressing us from the pages of the Old Testament, coming on the wings of the Holy Spirit. God chose and loved his covenant people but they rebelled against him so often. So there is more in the OT books about the apostasy of the covenant people than of their obedience and faithfulness. Often they were under the chastisement and judgment of their covenant LORD who, because he actually loved them with an everlasting love, withdrew his blessings and sent his judgments (famine, plague, drought, invaders, civil war etc). And this situation was only reversed when they heard his call to repentance and turned to him in obedient faith/faithfullness.
In terms of the Anglican Way, may we say that what is happening to all the parts of the extended family and tribe we call Anglican/Episcopalian is that they are experiencing the chastisement – probably also the judgment – of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is seen not only in their seemingly permanent dividedness but also in their pride and all those sins of “the flesh” that St Paul lists often (see e.g. Galatians 5:16-26). Of course, within this situation there are some holy people who are seeking to do what is right and acceptable before God and they feel intensely the pain of it all and are often bewildered and cry out in pain. But, there are probably too many who do not recognize the chastisement upon them from heaven, and carry on in their “Americanized” mindset and policies as if the divisions were approved and required by God himself – for after all they are part of the way that things just are in the “land of the brave.”
May I suggest that to think that the judgment of the LORD is only upon those who have brought into the “tribe” major innovations in doctrine and morals (the ECUSA leadership) is to miss the whole point of the OT teaching. The chastisement is upon all the people and even the godly receive it. But the truly godly and innocent are few; all of us with few exceptions have contributed to the malaise and sickness of the Anglican way, if not by sins of commission then by sins of omission (e.g. laity have funded erring clergy for decades and also funded seminaries where error reigned in the ECUSA; further, outside ECUSA they have funded small continuing jurisdictions in separation from others and from brothers and sisters of life mine; many who call themselves biblical and orthodox are very selective in what they take from the Bible and from orthodoxy etc.) .
[In fact, too many of us have behaved, and continue to behave, as if we hold the extreme Protestant doctrine of the Church which has long justified denominationalism, sectarianism and competition – that the real Church of God is invisible and is with Christ in the heavens; that one becomes a member through individual regeneration and faith through direct access; and that in comparison visible churches on earth are mixed in membership and through useful are insignificant, for the real Body of Christ is not visible but unseen and invisible.]
As with Israel and Judah of old, so with us – (is the Lord saying?) until we hear and receive the word of judgment, and seek to amend our ways and unite as the people of God, then we may expect the chastisement to continue upon North American Anglicans (despite whatever is done by Primates overseas and by political machinations within the U.S.A. or Canada). Here is what the LORD once said to King Solomon:
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain; or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive them and heal the land. (2 Chronicles 7:13-14)·
In his penetrating critique of The Virginia Report and The Windsor Report in The Fate of Communion (Radner & Turner, Eerdmans 2006), Philip Turner has shown that – even at the highest level of reflection -- there is a serious tendency to view the problems of the Anglican Communion without reference to the message of both OT & NT that human sinfulness, pride, idolatry, divisiveness and the like are the major causes of our current predicaments – and that failures in good manners and exercising worldly virtues are very secondary in comparison. I recommend this book for study by the serious-minded for, while it is not easy reading, it can be very rewarding reading, in pointing to the fact that Truth without Unity is hardly real Truth in divine terms.
Please use some of the prayers provided at www.anglicansatprayer.org
Dr Peter Toon September 18, 2006