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ON THE EDGE

In November I shall have been a pukka Episcopalian for ten years! Shortly after I was received and licensed to function as a priest I was asked to join The New Commandment Task Force. The task force was created around the time of the 2000 General Convention in an attempt to bring together liberals and traditionalists for regional meetings which lasted a few days and included worship, dialogue and controlled confrontation. Eventually I was asked to serve on its board which included such people as Mother Elizabeth Kaeton and Bishop Peter Beckwith of Springfield. At the first regional meeting I attended Louis Crew labeled me a moderate.

In many ways I have always regarded myself as a moderate Anglican. As a youth my peripatetic mother moved from parish to parish and I experienced almost every flavor of Anglicanism and in the process added to my spiritual and theological baggage elements which then would have been regarded as Catholic, Evangelical and Broad Church, or perhaps I lacked that ingredient in my character which would have enabled me to cast my lot fervently in any of the parties as they then were in the Church of England in the 1950s.

I embraced the Evangelical party’s conviction that personal faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord was vital, that the Gospel was to be preached, embraced and lived and gloried in the social Gospel of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury who campaigned against slave labor, brutal exploitation of workers and children and appalling housing conditions and health care. I abhorred those elements of Evangelicalism which tended towards “puritanism” and self-righteousness.

I embraced Catholicism, the sacramental system, devotion to our Lady and the saints, an Apostolic Succession of Faith and Holy Orders and a strong sense of the Church and its mission in every age and generation. I admired the work of the slum priests and the strong social conscience of the best of the Anglo Catholic priests. I loved the mystery of worship, good ceremonial and lovely churches. At the same time I was troubled by those aspects of Anglo Catholicism which seemed arrogant and cultic and produced the aura of the movement being a church within the church looking longingly as Rome as it is as ones true home and its distaste for other Anglicans whose convictions and worship were snootily described as “unsound”!

I confess I had less in common with what was then described as Broad Church particularly in what seemed to me then and now as a quest for intellectual and theological respectability and a willingness to use the pulpit and the teaching forum as a place to glory in those things which cast doubt on the central biblical and doctrinal teachings of the Prayer Book and our formularies. On the other hand I loved the freedom Anglicanism gave to scholars and parishioners to use God-given reason to explore the Bible and Christian origins and the liberality and civility of discourse and scholarship. At the same time I deplored a growing Liberal gnosticism which suggested that the faith of ordinary believers was childish and unreasonable and delighted in pouring scorn upon traditional Christianity. While leading ecclesiastics and scholars were described as courageous as they trumpeted disbelief in the essential doctrines of the Church I tended to think that many of them loved the notoriety and spot light and in defying the promises made at Baptism, Confirmation  and Ordination.

Over the years of my adult life and ministry I have witness Catholics and Evangelicals adopting more rigid and isolated positions in the face of Liberal triumphalism and in the process become more and more distressed by the abandonment of many in all sections of what we used to term Anglican Comprehension of a commitment to mutual tolerance and symbiosis. It is as if Anglicans have divided into two camps, the one planted in dogmatic conclusions about a past “golden age” of Anglicanism as  solely authentic and the other intent on burying for good the traditions, spirituality and theological conclusions of Anglicanism in its “past” multifaceted ethos.

And now I find myself on the edge, on what a friend of mine describes as a conveyer belt leading out of the church I have loved all my life, first in England and now in America. Even during my long years as an extra-mural Anglican bishop, as I sought to serve those who left TEC, I worked hard to keep at the fore the breadth and depth of an Anglicanism which embraced the truths taught and lived by men and women of many forms of what we once termed Churchmanship which made up the whole cloth of our tradition.

I have mentioned before the irony of my entering TEC because it was the American expression of worldwide Anglicanism in communion with the See of Canterbury and now finding myself in a church which may purposely sever its links with that Communion as it affirms independence over mutual interdependence and may become the largest of those groups which have abandoned Anglicanism for sectarianism: a liberal trendy modern Deist group wrapped in the garbs of sacramentalism or a respectable form of Theosophy.

Thus I find myself on the edge now that many have opted for schism and radical neo-evangelicalism or nostalgic Catholicism. Today I sought to sooth the mind of a parishioner who doubts whether he may introduce his friends to our parish because he cannot defend the notorious utterances of leading ecclesiastics in TEC. It was so difficult to get across that this parish and our diocese do not mirror that which seems to be the “flavor” of contemporary Episcopalianism but affirm the teachings of Scripture, the Creeds, the Catechism and the Prayer Book.

I support totally the witness of those who work for an Anglican Covenant and the right of Episcopal parishes and dioceses to embrace the Windsor Report and our rights to continue within this church while we preserve robust ties with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the Anglican world, but I fear we will become the latest Anglican ghetto, a church within the church and perhaps for all our evangelical ideals a mutual funeral society. I fear that the next General Convention later this year will drive us closer and closer to the edge.

I deplore schism or the alternative of a “pure” church locked in temporary reaction and suspicious of scholarship, liberality and civility, a church for and of the right wing of secular politics. Yet in the end the choice of remaining in an ecclesiastical body in which I must cross my fingers or of being part of a body which proclaims the Creedal doctrines without cynicism or cavil yet with a temper far from Anglican moderation, places me and many others in a position which is uncomfortable and conscientiously taxing. I take comfort in knowing that this is not the first time Christians have found themselves in such a case and in my conviction that God IS, and that his purposes are firm and true. I don’t want to sacrifice my belief in the comprehensive witness of Anglicanism for ideological conformity. And so I say my prayers and do my best to be a good parish priest, and to retain that “moderation” I grew to love as a lad.

4 Responses

  1. Reading this, I wonder if you are the Bishop Anthony Clavier of the American Episcopal Church that I was in correspondence with some 20 years ago, after being visited by one Louis Traycik.

    I was then on my way out of the Anglican Communion, and Louis Traycik tried to persuade me to join the “continuing Anglicans”, but I was put off by their apparent commitment to right-wing politics, and being much clearer about what they were against than what they were for.

  2. Dear Father Tony,

    Many thanks for such a perceptive and moving account, which resonates at many points with my own experience, both in my journey to this point, and my present work as an English bishop.

    I know the Church is, in a sense, unfinished business. There are so many spin-off centrifugal directions to be taken, so enticing in an age like this. There is, however uncomfortably, a greater centripetal force that bids us hold together… Thank you for articulating what that is about so clearly.

    I’m sure we serve the Lord as surely by undertaking the core business of our vocation, as by agitating, even agitating for what is right.

    +Alan Wilson

  3. Dear Steve:

    Yes I am!

  4. Thank you, and I’m glad to meet you again, and will add your blog to my blogroll.

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