The New Season: The Emerging Shape of Anglican Mission

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Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Advent now shifts into the manifestation of God’s good will in the Nativity feast.  So too the church takes its self-scrutiny and penitence, and turns in hope to the gift of God’s own and new life among us.

The final text of the Anglican Covenant has now been sent out for adoption by the churches of the Communion.  The slow process by which this text and its official dissemination for action has occurred has frustrated some, yet its persistent progress forward to this point at last puts the lie to the naysayers and early eulogists of the Covenant’s purpose.  Joined to the restarting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic international dialogue, to be focused on substantive matters of ecclesiology and moral decision-making, what seemed merely slow now appears to be the visible sign of a tectonic shift in global Anglicanism and Christianity itself.  It is one in which the Episcopal Church in the United States has placed itself on the far side of a widening channel separating the ballast of Christian witness, Catholic and Pentecostal, from marginal spin-offs of liberal Protestantism in decline.

And so some stock-taking is in order.  I would like to speak as honestly as I can about the Episcopal Church, of which I am and remain a member, as we enter this new decade.  The purpose of doing so is not to provoke response or to encourage reactive apathy.  Honesty is necessary, simply and straightforwardly, for anyone who seeks God’s will, and surely that is all of us, and especially those of us who are Anglicans in America and in the Episcopal Church.

To be sure, this is not a favorable time or place for honesty.  I am about to speak what, from my point of view, are hard things to receive.  But I do not wish at all to play into the greed for TEC’s failure that is fueled by the anger of some former Episcopalians and former Anglicans.  I do not count myself in this group. Nor do I want to confirm the consistent dismissal of traditional Episcopalians by others as defeatist and in love with misery. The moment of the Covenant’s finalization and ARCIC’s reinvigoration are far from miserable;  they betoken new promise!   More importantly, I do not want to discourage the many faithful Episcopalians who look for hope in the face of too many voices of hopelessness about their church and about most Christian churches.  There are many people, especially among the young, who are seeking to serve because they are in fact called;  and I believe they are called by God to serve in this strange Anglican place, but they are rightly questioning.  And there are many who are wearied of the struggle in this church over the past few years, and simply afraid of their own anger;  they neither wish to be challenged anew nor reminded again, and in so doing have failed to speak to the genuine questions that are now in our midst.

But true encouragement comes from honesty before God and self and the strength of purpose to serve in the face of disappointment or uncertainty.  Or so it should.  I know a young person who sneered at the faith of an Episcopalian – a more conservative person – who chose to leave TEC for another set of ecclesial structures.  “You would do such a thing”, this young person said to him:  “yours is the generation, after all, who invented no-fault divorce”.    In fact, in this case, the complaint was less directed at a purported hypocrite, than at what he perceived to be the witness of an impotent God, unable to garner the sacrificial steadiness of His adherents.   But either way, faith is scandalized by those who do not have the strength, nor certainly seek the strength, to stand in the face of upheaval.

I will come back to this at the close of my remarks: honesty need be neither angry, miserable, nor defeatist.  It should be the seed for hope, because it is the first and necessary turn to God who alone saves.

The Current Season

What is the difficult thing to speak, honestly?  It is this:  the Episcopal Church, as it has been known through the past two centuries, is no more, in any substantive sense.  TEC is simply no longer the church filled with even the strength of purpose we saw only 10 years ago – yes, even then, a church with a good deal of vital diversity and disagreement;  but a seeming sense of restraint over pressing these in ways that overwhelmed witness and mission.  And as a result, even then, it was church that was growing in outreach and faith.  That church, shimmering still with some of the vibrancy of love spent for the Gospel seen140 years before, even 90 years before, is now gone.  And TEC will not survive in any real continuity with this past and its gifts.

This is something we must face.  To be sure, I am not speaking here of this or that diocese or bishop or congregation or clergy person within TEC:  there are many through whose service the Gospel shines bright and the witness of the Kingdom flourishes.  I am speaking of an institution as a whole – not even in terms of its legal corporation, but in terms of its character and Christian substance given flesh in the Spirit’s mission.

1. There are some rather stark objective or quantifiable elements that force this taking stock.  For instance:

a.  TEC, over the past decade, and after a few years of reinvigorated growth, has plummeted in its active membership.  The statistics for Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) show a decline inching up towards 20% — or one fifth – from 1998-2008.   In many dioceses, the decline hovers around or over 30%.   In a diocese like Colorado (my own), the decline is 25% — a full quarter! —  and much of this comes after the defection of congregations and clergy to the AMiA in 2000.  These statistics are not newly publicized, although the national leadership rarely acknowledges them.  But they are, in the absolute sense, shocking.  TEC has lost between a fifth and a third of its participating membership in many of its vital geographic areas in but a few short years.

b.  The fact that average financial giving to the church per pledging family has actually increased over this time is a sign of willing support by this dwindling membership.  But it is also an indicator of a likely terrible collapse in resources some time soon.  One cannot expect fewer and fewer people to support to greater and greater extents the financial demands of a failing institution.  This is a bubble that is bound to burst soon, for personal and demographic reasons, and the result of this bursting threatens to be an astonishing unraveling in resources that will affect dioceses far-flung and poor, as well as nearby and seemingly well-off.   We shall hear of bankruptcies soon enough.

c.  It is a bellwether of this set of dynamics that several of our seminaries have faced or will soon face their own inability to continue in existence.  The demise of Seabury-Western, the selling off of the Episcopal Divinity School’s real estate assets, the well-known financial travails of Church Divinity School of the Pacific and General Seminary, not to mention the long-standing challenges of the Seminary of the Southwest – all this suggests not just that theological education in TEC needs a more rational institutional basis (something argued for some time), but that the “institution” is incapable of sustaining the theological education of its ministers, period.  This incapacity, it needs to be said, threatens more conservative as well as liberal seminaries.

On the latter front, and from my own particular experience as well as from an admittedly more subjective perspective, I would note that Episcopalian ministers and scholars generally have received some of the best-resourced educations within the Christian churches;  in their ranks are some of the most lively minds and engaging personalities. (Oh, how I wish we could better invigorate and sustain one another!) But they remain among the most intellectually lazy Christians I know, most of whom stopped reading rigorously years ago, prefer arguments based on prejudice, and have contributed virtually nothing to the Anglican and larger Christian theological forum for decades now.  There are exceptions, of course, some of them wonderful;  but the problem frankly colors the leadership across the board, from the top down and the bottom up, from Left to Right, Liberal to Conservative.  The Anglican intellectual tradition that is embodied by and that has derived from TEC is bankrupt, long deflated in comparison with even recent witness from other parts of the Communion.

The goodbyes here are hardly debatable as far as I can see, and the fact that they are shared, to some extent, by several other Christian denominations hardly mitigates the farewell’s stinging force.

2.  Perhaps more debatable is the moral unraveling of TEC – debatable among conflicted Anglicans, in any case, although not much among onlookers to our arguments.

a.  For 6 years now, TEC has descended into a morass of public and expensive civil litigation among its members and former members, mostly about who has the legal right to hold on to church property.   The excuses made by all sides in this travesty of evangelical witness, clearly and pointedly condemned by our Lord and by the apostle Paul, make for pathetic reading.  Meanwhile, upwards of $30 million dollars, by my reckoning – probably more – has been expended by the gentle Christian leadership of North American Anglicans, all the while claiming to take Luke 6:27-31 (among many Scriptural texts) seriously.    It is blasphemy, pure and simple, not entered into through passion’s fury, but through deliberation and careful, cold planning.

b.  Meanwhile, the public malice exhibited by Anglicans – many still members  of TEC, others who have left – one towards another, on blogs, and in public statements, has so tarnished the image of decency and sobriety among the followers of Christ in this family of churches that it is hard to see how the “woes” of the Jesus could possibly escape us.  May the Lord be merciful!

c.  Bound up with this spiritual  disintegration, given voice in lawsuits, idolatry (greed), and anger, have come calculating and Pharisaic twisting and whole-scale negligence of canonical order, ignoring precedent, creating it on the fly on Left and Right as if leaders were immune from the responsibility of their vows and unaccountable to the laws by which common life is properly secured, let alone gained through the grace of Christ Jesus.  Much – but by no means all — of this has come most visibly from the leadership of TEC, but it has trickled down to parochial levels – ignoring Eucharistic discipline and the responsibilities of being “stewards of the mysteries” of Christ; altering the gifts of liturgical order on personal whims, spewing misinformation from pulpits while indulging idiosyncratic spiritual predilections with complete disdain for the gifts of former generations.

d.  To be sure, much of this is simply bound up with TEC’s rapidly accelerating habits of despising tradition, and this from across the board of the theological spectrum;  something that amounts to the rejection of the Communion of Saints, and therefore a rejection of the Creed itself.  For some generations, the Episcopal Church was the guardian of liturgical and spiritual order among Anglicans, as much from a practical as from a scholarly perspective.  But this too has long slipped through our church’s fingers.

e.  I leave aside the notorious matter of sexuality, at least from a theological perspective.  But even from the vantage point of some kind of common sense prudence, what shall we say to this?  It is hardly “homophobic” to make this observation: The attempt that the majority of TEC’s leaders have made to normalize the sexual behavior of a tiny minority of people, and then to build normative moral and even biological principles upon this behavior designed to restructure the form and character of human relations in general, including marriage, family, and civil order,  will surely go down as one of the great follies and social distortions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  That TEC has now so clearly committed itself to this project remains an astonishing act of moral betrayal, intellectual irresponsibility, and self-destruction, done brazenly in the face of the endemic needs of the Communion’s majority of members whose own social fabric – again, leaving aside theology altogether – cannot sustain such self-regarding actions by their “friends”.

TEC has no more moral capital in the bank.  It is all gone.

3.  And so, to the missionary accounting.

For the consequence of this squandering of resources is simple unfaithfulness in the great calling of the Christian and Christian Church:  proclaiming the Good News of Jesus and His Kingdom, drawing others to such faith, teaching the commandments of the Risen Lord, and praising God before creation as a people redeemed and reconciled.

Of all times to run from this calling, when the roots of Christian faith and life have been so steadily and severely weakened in the West, and when that faith and life are but new shoots elsewhere, however vigorous in the short run, nonetheless under enormous threat!  Every study made of Christian commitment in America (and in the West more largely) demonstrates the current vulnerability of Christian witness, especially among the young.  Yet TEC has become the (necessarily shrinking) institution of the aging, who have less and less to offer to others of the light given in Christ in a time of increasingly desperate spiritual need.

Meanwhile, there are all kinds of reasons to think that an ongoing economic and political “progress” among non-Western nations – Africa especially – is unlikely.  The imbalance of resources among nations shows every sign of continuing and increasing here, and with it, the peculiar relationship of Christian responsibility between West and “global south”.  In the face of this, TEC’s insouciance to its location economically, morally, and historically, is hard to accept as anything but hardness of heart.  The notion that TEC’s moral agenda will ever be of use to other cultures springs in part from a refusal to see that American material blessing hangs like a curse around the necks of those who take such blessing as an excuse to see everyone else in their own image and to insist that the world belongs to them and they have nothing to give up.

As if there were nothing to fear, in a world where all things of importance come upon us “like a thief”!  Do we think that we will escape when others have not?  Our laziness before the inevitably gripping realities of death, procreation, sacrifice, and necessary and hard-won courage has left us empty before the future.   As an integral ecclesial institution, TEC has become a hollow vessel.

And it is hard for me to say all this – after almost 30 years of ministry, once high hopes, and actual experience for some brief but glorious times, if mixed with struggle, of witness in all of its giving, forgiving, and abundantly receptive modes, bound to persons whose lives once shared are now the fodder of division without quarter.   There are days we weep.

But one must say all this, nonetheless.  The young especially – but all of us! — need honesty and bravery, not collusion in whitewashing and indulgence.  The poor need strength and perseverance and generosity, not constantly re-jigged strategies of self-justification from the wealthy.  The sinful need the offer of God’s promises of redemption and newness of life, not the insistence that those who offer are something other than the beggarly sick like them.  All is not well, and this we have long known:  thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ!

It is on this promise of victory in Christ, not on the integrity of the Episcopal Church or something called Anglicanism or even some “greater” Christian body apart from the body that is Christ’s, that we move forward.  The world’s and the Christian Church’s moral compromise, economically and politically has, over the past century (not decade!), provided a sad spectacle of ecclesial treachery, marked by only some brushes of light, though with countless individual offerings enlivening the more somber scene.  Few have resisted this compromise, from either Left or Right on the theological spectrum.  Certainly not Anglicanism as a whole, such that our Anglican vocation could arise from a deserved self-satisfaction.  This could never be.

The New Season

But there is a reason to be brave and to be strong, through the pleading for divine grace and its promised self-giving.  For Anglicanism’s witness has been valuable in all this, and still has a gift to offer other Christians and the world at large.  If not to a superior moral achievement, her witness has been to a certain realism and penitence, politically and otherwise.  And, to a remarkable degree, Anglicanism has also embodied a persistent hope that has been peculiar in its modesty, and in its willingness to humble itself before the Spirit of Christ, a convergence that has in fact meant missionary release along with its internal disarray.   To me, this moment, in which the tectonic shift of the Anglican Communion now surfaces into view, is one of enormous hope and a testimony to the grace of God in a continued calling.

The Anglican Covenant, in its final form, points to the likelihood of a growing core of covenanting Anglican churches – the Covenant becomes “active” as soon as any church adopts it – whose critical mass will soon shift the character of decision-making as a whole among the Instruments.   TEC’s place in this process, even should she presume to adopt the Covenant  (which at present could only be in a posture of already-set disregard of its meaning and purpose), is simply one of entering a current that is now gathering force in another direction than her own insistence on isolated and unrecognized sexual prophecy.  She has become irrelevant to Anglicanism’s own missionary calling and the rising willingness to meet it.

I am not counseling people to “leave” TEC;  I have never done so and do not do so now.  One must let the processes of the common church unfold, obediently.  God shepherds His people, wherever they may be. These processes, however and now more clearly than ever before, involve the Anglican Communion’s movement into a more focused global witness that will no longer be substantively restricted by TEC’s official distractions.  And the Covenant, founded on a commitment to mutual care and accountability in the gifts of Christ, will prove a means by which faithful Anglicans, in TEC and elsewhere, will also be able to join in this movement.   How exactly that will happen, in terms of structure and institution, is not yet known; but happen it will.  That I am willing now to say clearly.

So that what I am doing now is offering both an assessment of where we are, but also a prediction of where we are headed.   I am not at all sure what will take the place of the atrophied TEC that we now see embodied in our governing structures.  But I believe that, from the Communion’s missionary perspective, this will include, surely, the reinvigorating reconfiguration of existing and healthy dioceses, and the refashioning of broken ones and the building up of new things.  Anglicans have been through these upheavals before in similar and different ways: 1559; 1658;  1785; 1918; 1960’s Africa or 1990’s Rwanda.   At each stage, an opening up, that emerged from a going down.  And at each stage, there emerged a larger breadth in Christian communion, however contradicted by the failings of our apostolic calling.  God’s grace is bigger and wider – and so Anglicanism, with its evangelical-charismatic and scripturally ordered worship, is now called to enter the mission of reconciling grace the contours of which Catholicism and Pentecostalism have most clearly described for the coming century, with Eastern Orthodoxy offering a parallel vocation.

And we – older and younger – can, because we must, bear with a continued hope that, though still demanding new orderings, does not seek the overturning of the hope of the past.  Still, in Christ, we hope for common prayer in the Scripture’s formation;  still we hope for ordered debate and discernment;  still we hope for mission that reforms us even as it touches the world;  still, for unity.  These have been among the Anglican essentials of life in the face of challenge; they remain so; and they continue as means of grace that can strengthen the ministry of other Christian bodies and draw us closer together.  But now we must appropriate these essentials, in all humility, for a deliberate mission of seeding the Kingdom – every one of us, a sower who walks in the wake of the great Sower’s passing through the fields.  What could be more enlivening than such a vocation and invitation?   Let those young people who are called to service in this way be encouraged at this time, above all times!

It is important that grand plans and strategies be put aside now that the direction of our future has emerged so clearly.  The legal maneuverings will continue with who knows what fruits;  but we know the larger outcome now and the larger outcome’s fruits are more clearly promised, and perhaps we can lay aside the anxiety of the past few years more fully and carry forward with the mission we have been given.   Anglicans in North America, encouraged by the Covenant Working Group itself (see its most recent Commentary on their revisions), can, through their dioceses and otherwise, formally “affirm” the Covenant, and in so doing formally join themselves to the core of the Communion that will, I hope, quickly adopt the Covenant and become the motor quickening the shift now taking place.  Even as some of us are still members of TEC, we are no longer standing on the far shore of the widening channel but, like the worthies of Hebrews 11, we are joined with those “not apart from whom” we will have our faith made perfect.

The legal and institutional aspects of this are less important to nail down, frankly.  For there is much to cooperate on, as Anglicans even in America become anew missionaries of the Gospel of Jesus in the expanding landscapes of unbelief.  There is much over which to mend relationships with a view to going forward.  But we cannot go forward without properly understanding that this is now God’s work, and not the arena for individual self-assertion, including the building up of structures only loosely capable of breaking free of individual rancor.  God has not yet finished breaking us down in order to make us strong in hope and gentleness.  At least, we should be ready for such work, because it is a work we need for the sake of the world.

My wife has been studying the miracle of grace that permitted the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to harbor and save scores of Jewish fugitives during the 1940’s in France.  Recently, she procured some copies of sermon notes written by the village pastor, André Trocmé, sermons now preserved at Swarthmore College.  That Trocmé formed this village in its capacities of witness no one disputes.  In one sermon, given to his flock in June, 1940, he speaks of the need for all the people of the parish to “humble” themselves before God, seeking pardon for the sins in which they are complicit, sins that have caught France up in the Nazi grip and collaboration.  But self-humiliation, Trocmé says, must be properly understood.  “We must not confuse self-humiliation with discouragement… faith is not lost; … rather humiliation takes our faith more deeply into God, and kindles within us a stronger will to serve Him”.  Nor should our humiliation somehow be projected onto anyone else but ourselves!  Finally, in humbling ourselves before God, we must guard against giving ourselves over to anything other or less than the Gospel itself.  We must “abandon all our Christian divisions… abandon our suspicion and hatreds… abandon our slavery to the ways of the world… We resist the world by loving it freely, without cowardice, but bravely”.

The Episcopal Church, as we have known it and given ourselves to its ministry, is over.  But the Gospel is alive, and the Church that is Christ’s Body given, takes us to a new place.

December 22 2009 10:40 am | Articles