Monday, October 30, 2006

Anglicanism from two perspectives: some sobering thoughts

One can look at the churches which make up the Anglican Way in the U.S.A. from various perspectives. Here I choose two to view and then comment on.

1.At the ground level in a small town. A parish of around 100, with a hard-working, long serving priest as the rector and pastor, a group of dedicated women called “the altar guild” who keep everything clean and beautiful for divine worship, a small group of committed men who regularly do yard work and maintenance at the church building, a competent organist who tries to keep the singing lively and reverential, a few Sunday School teachers who look after the small band of children, and a solid proportion of the membership who tithe to keep everything afloat. Here there is a real sense of belonging and of commitment, even though there is only a minimal sense of evangelization and mission in locality and in general. There is a great appreciation of the Sacraments but (regrettably) only minimal appreciation and desire for solid and sound biblical exposition in preaching—so sermons are usually short and minimal in expository power. Most of the folks here are only minimally informed about the depth of the Anglican Crisis affecting the whole movement, and they prefer it to go away and allow them to be what they have been and want to be, a stable worshipping parish.

2.Viewed from above, the whole scene. From the vantage point of looking down, the first task is to separate the Anglican [Episcopal] churches from the others, for they are often difficult to find amidst the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and other churches. When separated into meaningful types, we see that they belong roughly speaking to various groupings (where significantly each grouping is itself subdivided into several or many competitive parts). (a) The Episcopal Church leads the way in size in terms of both buildings and numbers (two millions on paper but 800,000 each Sunday) but is itself deeply divided into “Windsor compliant” and “Windsor process” dioceses. (b) Then there is the group that has left this Church in recent years and stayed in the Anglican Communion by a slender or strong thread through pastoral association with an overseas Bishop or Province—and this is truly “an alphabet of affiliations” which may involve as many as 25,000 people and grows weekly. (c) There is the group who claim to be the real “Continuing Anglicans” who left the Episcopal Church in the 1970s and are now split into several small jurisdictions and altogether they may involve some 20,000 people, and they tend to be high church or anglo-catholic, emphatic that a woman cannot be a priest. They are not officially within the Anglican Communion. (d) Also there is the small Reformed Episcopal Church which dates from the late 19th century and a host of other small jurisdictions which may be as many as thirty, which claim to be a real embodiment of Anglicanism, and here we may have another 15,000 people. Again these are not officially in the Anglican Communion.

One can be a member of the kind of parish in (1) above and carry on without reference to the larger scene and without allowing one’s mind to take seriously the profound relation of unity to truth in the High Priestly Prayer of the Lord Jesus (John 17) and the powerful presentation of St Paul in Ephesians 1-3 of unity in the full purpose of God for the Church and cosmos. One can keep busy with so many good things and thereby avoid asking the difficult and probing questions, which—let us be honest—disturb our equilibrium. [Another kind of local parish different in style to the “high church” one described, where there could also be minimal interest in the “Crisis,” would be that which is charismatic and generically evangelical and is involved in “church growth” schemes.]

On the other hand, one can (as belonging by birth or choice or accident to any grouping within U.S.A. Anglicanism) have gained by study such a sense of the whole picture of a very dysfunctional, divided, warring, impotent family that one feels depressed and without energy. And here one can decide, for example (a) to soldier on where one is, facing the reality and recognizing that there is little hope of change for the better; (b) to change ships (go to Rome or Orthodoxy or interdenominational evangelicalism or whatever), or (c) to determine to work for unity with truth and truth with unity in this complicated situation and thereby risk everything and be maligned by some, with little hope of changing much (despite what voices from abroad may be saying).

Even the most optimistic of us, at least briefly and occasionally, asks whether or not the chastisement of God (even his judgment) is so obviously now upon the whole Anglican Way in the USA (no exceptions!) that heaven is telling us that this ancient way of being Christian (going back via the Church of England, the ecclesia anglicana, to the patristic period) has lost its purpose and meaning in this country and that, unless (read Revelation 2-3) there is a widespread repentance and coming together for unity in truth and truth unity, this Candle should (and will) be put out!

However, if we study the phenomenon of the massive supermarket of religions, sects, denominations and churches in the U.S.A. we see that many groups continue long past their “use-by” date and exist with minimal purpose and energy alongside newer groups, much energized and intent to march successfully to Zion. Maybe, in this land of religious liberty, the Anglican Way will exist for a long time, not as the Way of Reformed Catholic Holiness, but as a powerful example of what happens to an ancient and once united Church in the U.S.A., when it does not repent of its sins and when it is empowered more by the centrifugal forces of American individualism, human rights and secularist culture than by the Spirit of Christ.

How different it would be if—as in not a few countries where the Anglican Way is pursuing holiness and growing in numbers—there were for Americans a real, visible alternative, militant religion in their midst (like Islam in Nigeria). No doubt this would create powerful centripetal forces within the Christian Church(es) and especially within Anglicanism and the search for truth in unity and unity in truth would be a genuinely powerful and sincere one. But where, as now, American secularism is naturally and easily embraced in whole or part by most American churches and denominations, especially Anglican, centrifugal forces win hands down as they have for many years now. And the pattern will continue for there is plenty of shelf and storage place in the supermarket! A worrying prospect…..

If only U.S.A. Anglicans were more aware of the real ENEMY and were ready to put on the whole armor of God to fight him and all the manifestations of his presence and influence—read Ephesians 6:10ff.—then the story would be very different.

October 28, 2006

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