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Local Choice

An old friend wrote to me about how one decides on a local church community in which to share faith and practice in the light of ancient and present divisions in the church.

I suppose I’ve become something of a practical minimalist in my old age (68 tomorrow) in that while my ecclesiology remains firmly anchored in the concept of the bishop, surrounded by all Orders of the faithful, in communion with other bishops and faithful, in practical terms belonging to a local community of faithful people, where Word and Sacrament are “validly” observed in a sustainable community seems vital.

Orthodoxy isn’t primarily private. “I” don’t own it. It is one of the outward signs or symbols of the community of faith present visibly. Thus such a reality is marred where community exists but the minimal “signs” are not there or are formidably obscured, or where such a community lacks minimal viability in terms of stability and at least potential growth. I also have doubts about the problem surrounding the admittedly subjective area of whether a local community of faith (or collection of communities) exists to be in normal terms “the church” or on the other hand whether it exists to assert an almost exclusive emphasis on dissent or on a substantially unbalanced articulation of faith and practice.

The presence of an active and practiced “charity” would seem to me to be an essential demonstration of genuine piety. Charity includes the absence of judgmental attitudes although not of positive and evangelical criticism. Charity includes the practice of tactile love towards all whose lives are marred by poverty and disease as well as by sin and corporate and private failings.

This then boils down to a determination about whether there exists “close by” a place where the people of God assemble “viably” for common prayer and the sacraments and where the Word of God is heard. I would also stress here, as the later English Reformers stressed that we hear the Word primarily as the Scriptures are heard, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested and only secondarily in preaching. (One yearns for reliable preaching but that is not always the result of orthodox belief!!)

I would further argue that in communities claiming to be the church in which, in worship and community, the Triune God is liturgically offered those normal outward gifts which have “always” been transformed by the Spirit into means of grace, there exists potentially, using that word technically, all that a Christian needs personally and communally to practice the faith in daily life. I would therefore place much less stress on the personal ability or “reliability ” of the priest who may preside in such a community for the time being, while stressing the usual “marks” of the church being present in Liturgy and Formularies.

In this present moment of division and dissent, making decisions about participating in local communal faith and practice isn’t simple. Granted America has long been a place of religious pluralism, a marketplace of faith and thus those who are detached, one way or another from their original religious community have always been presented with choice. Nowadays that choice may also be between local communities attached to a single jurisdiction or “denomination”. Anglicans may once have made such a choice based on what we used to term Churchmanship, although that choice always weakened the essentially parochial component of the Anglican tradition even in the United States. Today, as you know, other perhaps more formidable considerations exist. I have tried to point to two of these above in comments about the absence of “minimal” signs or their fundamental obscurity on the one hand or on the other an unbalanced dissent or articulation of faith and practice.In the latter matter I’d mention an articulation of the Gospel divorced from a “Gospel” ecclesiology or one that seems to magnify institutional division as a means of restoring orthodoxy.

I would perhaps cautiously reiterate that the lack of “institutional” self-sacrificing love and a spirit of reconciling forgiveness at least weakens formidably protestations of orthodox faith and practice.


I always chuckle when I hear a politician denouncing others for “playing politics”. It’s almost as farcical as a multi-millionaire criticising a rival for not having the common touch. Before I get too high and mighty myself, I remind myself that to some extent we are all hypocrites and that is why we are able to make room for some more in church on Sunday.

In an election season one is obliged to watch media figures and those they “cover” parsing words selectively and often completely out of context in order to promote a story or create an artificial crisis. Obviously such otherwise frightful conduct draws an audience and pays for advertisements or they wouldn’t do it. We get what we pay for. I am often reminded of the classroom sneak, who lurked around and then spread distorted stories or told the teacher in order to get someone in trouble. In totalitarian societies such people are dangerous, often mortally dangerous.

The church is a porous society. We take into it the habits we practice in what we term our secular lives. Very often we don’t seem to notice the great gulf fixed between what we profess as Christians and how we behave. When confronted, our justifications are often plainly pagan. It’s a bore to be told to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, forgive until seventy times seven, to forgive “because they know not what they do.” All that sort of stuff is just fine for sermons but in the “real world” we have to be practical.

Today the Pope arrives in the United States. He is a brilliant person. Because the non-Roman Catholic Christian world, and even Eastern Orthodoxy, has become so divided on denominational, cultural, ethnic and over belief and practice, the papacy today occupies an extraordinarily powerful position in Christendom. Perhaps Benedict is less well-known and certainly less than an extrovert than his predecessor. Nevertheless he demonstrates that a Bishop of Rome may still speak for Christendom and draw the attention of even a Methodist, ex-Episcopalian President Bush.

Certainly there will be voices who raise what they call “justice” issues as an excuse to attack the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and all and everyone who does not agree with their agenda. I could join them in lamenting aspects of Roman Catholic official teaching. Were that not true, I wouldn’t be an Anglican I would convert. What I do lament is that there no longer seems to be much difference between the vocabulary of political discourse and the language of faith. All is fair, it would seem, in politics, love and war! Thus the lamentable conduct of some Roman Catholic priests -and they too are humans towards whom we have a duty of prayer and reconciliation – is jumbled up with a list of causes such as abortion and the ordination of women without any attempt to create a hierarchy of importance. The result may well be as blind a set of prejudices as once lurked in the drawing rooms of devout Anglicans as they placed in honor Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs, together with the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version of the Bible. (Foxe, you will remember wrote lurid biographies of those “Reformers” who were executed by “bloody” Mary 1.)

I am not for a moment suggesting that prejudice has been one-sided. My devout (sometimes) Roman Catholic aunt, whom I loved dearly, often chided me as an heretical and schismatic Anglican who was probably personally responsible for the deaths of the Elizabethan Roman Catholic martyrs. Yet we are not permitted surely to justify our own misdeeds on the grounds that those we oppose are just as bad!

My good friend Fr. Dan Martin, on his blog, has called for constructive empathy towards the liberal Establishment in the Episcopal Church and has been attacked for so doing. Yet it should be possible surely for Christians and even Episcopalians to entertain the thought that even those with whom we most disagree share with us elements of faith in very vital areas. We may wonder how they may recite the words of Creeds and Liturgy (what the language of those prayers actually say) and hold the beliefs they do, but while we have the positive duty to speak the truth in love as powerfully and winsomely as we may, we have no right to judge and condemn personally someone who has been baptized in the same water through which we have passed and shares in the same holy meal.

No doubt television reporters will slyly drop in controversial and negatively critical morsels as they “cover” the papal visit. Benedict XVI may get off a bit lighter than our own Archbishop Rowan does from the words of bloggers and pundits many of whom haven’t and maybe can’t read what he actually says. Our own Presiding Bishop, whose recent actions may hardly be viewed as non-controversial (her actions and those of our collective episcopate assembled in Texas may have done more actual harm in the Communion than controversies over same-sex blessings ) is daily insulted and attacked in a manner which goes far beyond the issues themselves.

As I write these words, after a bit of a silence as I get used to this new sphere of ministry, I reflect just how easy it is to tear down, to go for the jugular, to deride a person rather than a policy and then toddle off to eat lunch and have a nap. True the writers of scurrilous pamphlets, like the Elizabethan Marprelate tracts, have always been with us. Blogs just get the word out quicker, although I suspect mostly with far much less abiding affect.

I notice that the Church of England bishops are considering just how to protect parish priests from bullies. After forty-two years in the ordained ministry I still get a tummy ache when the righteous attack often under the guise of principle or virtue. Perhaps one should merely shrug ones shoulders and say “That’s life.” Yet surely there’s a more excellent way?