Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Anglican Is What Anglican Does

By Robin G. Jordan

The attack on the protestant and reformed principles of the Anglican Church, which characterizes the official doctrinal positions of the Anglican Church in North America, is not confined to its constitution, canons, and ordinal. It is also quite evident in Texts for Common Prayer, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, and the proposed ACNA rites for admission of catechumen, baptism, and confirmation.

With each new doctrinal statement that has been issued, that attack has intensified, suggesting that absence of widespread objections to the doctrinal positions taken in these documents has emboldened those behind them to move in a more extreme direction.

One cannot, however, assume from the absence of such objections that the congregations and clergy forming the ACNA embrace these doctrinal positions 100%. Other dynamics are at work in the ACNA that account for the lack of any observable pushback. Five such dynamics have been discernible to date.

One dynamic is the belief that a united front must be maintained at all costs. This belief is associated with an irrational fear that the Episcopal Church’s liberals will take advantage of any disunity to damage and destroy the ACNA. This is not going to happen. The liberals in the Episcopal Church provide a convenient bogeyman to distract the attention of congregations and clergy in the ACNA from one faction’s concerted efforts to shape the denomination to their liking.

A second dynamic is that congregations and clergy in the ACNA display a naïve trust in their leaders. They credulously assume that their leaders always have their best interest at heart. They do not consider the possibility that their leaders might have a hidden agenda or might act out of self-interest. In the case of ACNA leaders such an agenda may not so much be hidden as congregations and clergy are blind to it. Anglo-Catholic and philo-Orthodox leaders in the ACNA are pretty forthcoming about their aspirations for the denomination.

A number of congregations and clergy in the ACNA have bought into the inane idea that their bishops are more “godly” than the leaders of other denominations, investing them with a kind of infallibility with which no bishop is endowed. When they use the term “godly” in association with a bishop, they are not referring to his belief in God and in the importance of living a moral life. What they are alluding to is a special charism or charisma which they believe that the bishop in question has received from the Holy Spirit. This charism or charisma sets him apart from other bishops. Essentially they are claiming that ACNA bishops have a special anointing that is lacking in other denominational leaders.

This attitude toward denominational leaders is a dangerous one. As a result ACNA bishops have been allowed broad discretion on matters which demand reasonable limits to their discretion. Negligible accountability has been required from them for their decisions. Their irregular and unlawful actions have been explained away and rationalized.

The notion that the ACNA bishops have a special anointing goes hand in hand with the belief that the formation of the ACNA is a special movement of the Holy Spirit. The ACNA represents the next if not ultimate phase in the evolution of the Anglican Church, purportedly uniting in one denomination three disparate ecclesiastical traditions and forming from these traditions a new synthesis.

Critics of this particular view of the ACNA point out that the new synthesis is nothing more than Anglo-Catholicism in a new guise. The positions that it takes on key issues are identical to those that Anglo-Catholicism takes. Those who are taking these positions may have come to them by a different route than traditionalist Anglo-Catholics but how they came to the positions does not make the positions any less unreformed Catholic. Anglo-Catholics have also appropriated the thinking behind this view of the ACNA and are exploiting it to further the teaching and liturgical practice of their school of thought.

A third dynamic is that disagreement with what ACNA leaders are doing is equated with disloyalty to the ACNA. Consequently people in the ACNA are reluctant to voice their disagreement. Those who do voice their disagreement generally elicit a strong negative reaction from their peers. If they are outspoken, they may be subject to pressure from ACNA leaders to moderate their criticism or to discontinue it altogether.

A fourth dynamic is that people in the ACNA are weary from the struggles of the past 30 years. They may not be happy with developments in the ACNA but they are not prepared to change denominations or to start a new denomination. They acquiesce to teaching and liturgical practice to which they would have strenuously objected at an earlier stage in their lives. They have lost their will to fight for what they believe and value.

A fifth dynamic is that people in the ACNA do not recognize the extent and seriousness of the problem. Some take the position that doctrine does not matter. Others take the position that the ACNA is a work in progress. What is happening in the ACNA today, they argue,  is no indication of how the ACNA will be in the future. They are oblivious to the lessons of history. The ACNA is moving along a well-defined track with predictable outcomes. The ACNA shows no signs of switching to a new track.

The ACNA does have its share of people who mistakenly view Anglicanism as a pope-less variant of Roman Catholicism, an independent form of unreformed Catholicism. The ACNA also has a contingent who view the supposedly undivided Church of the eleventh century before the East-West Schism as a golden age of Christianity and whose aspiration is to reconstruct Anglicanism along the lines of that Church.

A group that is well-represented in the ACNA as well in the Episcopal Church are those who hold that “Anglican is what Anglican does” – a view of Anglicanism that echoes the words of Forest Gump’s mother, “Stupid is what stupid does.” This view of Anglicanism ties Anglican identity to whatever beliefs and ways of doing things have come to the fore in a particular jurisdiction, in a particular locality, in particular time period. In other words, Anglican identity is ever-shifting and is defined by the moment, not by a particular doctrinal foundation.

Within such an environment it is fairly easy for one faction to establish the doctrinal positions of its school of thought as the official doctrinal positions of the denomination and exclude the doctrinal positions of other schools of thought, including positions on key issues, which are more biblically orthodox and authentically Anglican and which are consistent with what the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans identifies as the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, defining core Anglican identity. Having firmly ensconced its doctrine as the official doctrine of the denomination, this faction need not fear a major reform movement dislodging its doctrine from that place as it has left no room for such a movement to develop. It has robbed of their standing the other schools of thought represented in the denomination and relegated them to the fringe of the denomination. This happened in the abortive first Anglican Church in North America and the Continuing Anglican Churches into which it splintered. It is happening in the second Anglican Church in North America today.

The Anglo-Catholic ascendancy in the former Protestant Episcopal Church contributed to the present state of affairs in the Episcopal Church. It helped to pave the way for the spread of liberalism in that denomination. The Anglo-Catholic Movement would reshape attitudes toward the Bible, the Church, and the clergy in the Episcopal Church and would foster an environment in that denomination, in which false teaching could flourish. In a denomination in which the laity were expected to defer to the clergy and inferior clergy to their superiors on matters related to doctrine, discipline, and worship, congregations and clergy would prove easy prey for false teachers. 

The spread of ritualistic practices in the worship of the Episcopal Church, through the influence of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, also facilitated the spread of liberalism in the denomination. As long as clergy spreading false teaching did not make any alarming changes in the worship of a congregation, the congregants would accept such teaching as they had that of previous clergy. Ritualism would provide a convenient smokescreen behind which liberalism could make inroads into the denomination. 

Here in western Kentucky Episcopal churches are fairly Anglo-Catholic and high church in the way that they worship. Anglo-Catholicism was an important influence in the Diocese of Kentucky from the 1830s on. One does not detect the radical liberalism of their clergy until they begin to preach or teach. Those who continue to attend these churches do so in large part out of loyalty to a particular church and due to a preference for Anglo-Catholic and high church worship, not because of the liberal preaching and teaching of the clergy.

Anglo-Catholicism’s occupation of a dominant position of influence in most Continuing Anglican Churches in the United States has not resulted in the growth of these jurisdictions but has led to their decline. As a member of the clergy of one of these jurisdictions belatedly pointed out, the focus of the Continuing Anglican Churches has been upon the maintenance of doctrinal purity, not evangelism and church planting.

As this writer sees it, the Anglican Church in North America in failing to rein in the more extreme Anglo-Catholic and philo-Orthodox element in the denomination and to show generosity to congregations and clergy in the ACNA who are faithful to the protestant and reformed principles of the Anglican Church and to ungrudgingly make room for their beliefs and values in the denomination is sabotaging itself. The incorporation of these beliefs and values not only into the doctrine, disciple, and worship of the ACNA but also its form of governance would counterbalance the worst tendencies of Anglo-Catholic and philo-Orthodox extremism in the denomination. In the long-term it would strengthen the denomination and show to the world that the ACNA had the requisite maturity to become a member province of the global Anglican Communion. 

Photo credit: Pixabay, public domain

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