For the past couple of days or so a page has appeared on Facebook which proclaims “The Episcopal Church, Resisting Fundamentalism since 1784”. Let me begin by being characteristically pedantic. Fundamentalism is a term which was first used at the beginning of the 20th Century as a rallying cry among Presbyterians who feared their denomination was being taken over by those who were taking seriously what we loosely term Biblical Criticism. The word “criticism” even then carried with it overtones of negativity in the same manner as the word “myth” presses buttons nowadays. In theological terms both words are neutral, with no particular relationship to devaluation or untruth. The fact that they worry non-scholars warns us that in the modern world, Christian scholars have the difficult task of pursuing study while having a duty not to create stumbling blocks for ordinary Christians. After all the Gospel is for all and not merely for an elite. Yet because Christianity involves the mind and reason, scholarship is an important vocation and has been since Paul and John probed deeply into the meaning of that which Jesus did and taught. Recently a good deal of nonsense has been proposed by those who reject the word religion as being something negative and in opposition to faith.
In short at the moment when the Episcopal Church became a particular church within the Anglican Church, no one was resisting fundamentalism. Indeed the Episcopal Church survived in part because of the witness and passion of evangelicals, a group often dismissed today as being fundamentalists despite the fact that Anglican evangelicals have embraced much of Biblical Criticism in their biblical scholarship.
My unease about the slogan to which I draw your attention has another dimension. A particular church which seeks to describe itself as existing over against some other form of Christian expression narrows itself, in fact becomes as reactionary as the body from which it distances itself. The slogan is sectarian.
One understands that many converts to Anglicanism in America enter our red doors to escape forms of Protestantism in which they have felt oppressed and constrained. Fair enough. Similarly many converting from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism are driven by similar motives. Again, fair enough. Yet one hopes and prays that their conversion is conversion to rather than conversion against. One also hopes that their aversion to elements in their former church homes isn’t a means of avoiding disciplines which are merely Christian in the odd belief that Anglican churches are places where one may believe anything or nothing, or worse still places where their secular political and social beliefs are embraced unquestioningly. Our Liturgy, our Creeds, our submission to Holy Scripture as God’s revelation demand a positive and yes a submission of mind and heart and lifestyle. When we perhaps clumsily proclaim that Anglicans have no theology of their own, we say something important but not something vague. We embrace the faith of the Church with a capital C. When we state that human language cannot fathom the mind of God we don’t mean that God has failed to reveal in Jesus all we need to know and believe for our salvation. If God has not so revealed himself he is not a God to worship and adore.
Anglicanism offers and presents at its best the way of salvation which takes seriously not merely selected proving texts from the Bible, nor a religion which panders to local political opinions and parties, but fundamentally -there’s that word – foundationally or basically a vision which takes seriously the Church, the ministry, the sacraments and a treasury of spirituality, personal and communal through which cultures, races, nations may apprehend and embrace the Gospel of Jesus the Lord. It seeks not merely to offer a way of death or after death, but a way of life which embraces the whole person in their context. Anglicanism at its best is not dismissive but admissive, neither belittling intelligence nor confounding what we sometimes patronizingly term a simple faith.
If we are to recover our patrimony we must tell our story without indulging in dismissive parody. We have no title to superiority, called as we are to servanthood, compassion and mercy, to be reconcilers in a divided nation and world rather than contributors to division and arrogance. Can we not rather advertise ourself as “The Episcopal Church, Telling the Story of Jesus since 1784”?
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