By Robin G. Jordan
I have been taking note of how different members of the Anglican Church in North America react to the observation that the College of Bishops is taking the denomination in the direction of unreformed Catholicism. As I noted in yesterday’s article some ACNA members dismiss it as a passing phase. They insist that it should not be a cause for concern. These ACNA members, however, cannot offer anything in support of their belief. What they are essentially doing in engaging in a form of denial. They are using this particular belief to convince themselves and others that nothing out of the ordinary is happening in the denomination. It enables them to ignore what is a serious problem in the denomination—the favoring of the teaching and practices of one school of thought in the Anglican Church in North America to the exclusion of the teaching and practices of the other schools of thought in the denomination, particular that school of thought which is committed to the Biblical and Reformation doctrines and convictions of the Anglican formularies and authentic historic Anglicanism.
A number of member of the Anglican Church in North America show a willingness to give much greater weight to the opinions of their bishops than they warrant, at times surrendering to the bishops the interpretation of what is happening in the denomination rather than interpreting developments for themselves. If a bishop denies that the College of Bishops is favoring the teaching and practices of one school of thought in the denomination, they will believe the bishop rather than draw their own conclusions from the available evidence. This is a very dangerous tendency. They are essentially allowing the bishops to define reality for them, choosing to accept what the bishops tell them over what a careful examination of these developments shows. They are failing to recognize that bishops may be motivated by special interests and are capable of behaving unscrupulously and rationalizing this behavior just like everyone else. Nowhere in Scripture do we find anything to suggest that bishops are free from the taint of sin, not inclined to evil, or infallible. This tendency also shows how quickly members of the Anglican Church in North America have forgotten what happened in the Episcopal Church when its members were uncritical in their acceptance of the opinions of their bishops, increasingly giving more credence to these opinions than to the revealed truth of God’s Word.
While one segment of the Anglican Church in North America is committed to making the denomination unreformed Catholic in faith, order, and practice and is a strong influence in the Prayer Book and Liturgy and other task forces and the College of Bishops, another segment has this notion that the Anglican Church in North America is—to borrow a description from the writings of J.C. Ryle--a kind of Noah’s ark in which orthodox Anglicans of various stripes rub shoulders, united solely by a common acceptance of the creeds and a traditional view of marriage and human sexuality and a tacit agreement to tolerate each others’ opinions. Clearly this view of the denomination is not reflected in its constitution and canons, which favor the opinions of the unreformed Catholic segment. It is certainly not reflected in Texts for Common Prayer and To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. They favor the beliefs and thinking of the unreformed Catholic segment over any other theological outlook.
This view of the Anglican Church in North America is more than a harmless delusion. It inhibits those who hold this view from making a realistic appraisal of Texts for Common Prayer and To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism and making sure their own beliefs and thinking is comprehended in the denomination’s Prayer Book and Catechism. The unreformed Catholic segment is able to take advantage of their hesitance. It has no such inhibition.
Those who hold this view of the Anglican Church in North America also show a tendency to see as a form of intolerance the observation that the College of Bishops is taking the denomination in the direction of unreformed Catholicism. They themselves do not want to be perceived as intolerant toward the denomination’s unreformed Catholic segment. For this reason they are reluctant to agree with the observation despite the fact that the College of Bishops is not making room for their theological outlook in the denomination’s official doctrinal statements. One is left to conclude that they do not take what is happening with the seriousness that it deserves or they lack a strong instinct of theological self-preservation. What they believe and think does not really matter that much to them. Being perceived as tolerant is more important.
Those toward whom they wish to be perceived as tolerant, however, do not exhibit such a concern and take advantage of their preoccupation with being perceived as tolerant. It is as if the two segments of the Anglican Church in North America live in entirely different worlds—one segment going out of its way to show how tolerant it is toward the other segment while the other segment devotes itself to undermining what that segment believes and thinks.
What keeps some ACNA members from responding with alarm to developments in the Anglican Church in North America is they are safely cocooned in a local church that is not presently moving in the direction that the College of Bishops is taking the denomination. They are not directly affected by what is happening at the provincial level. Since they are not experiencing the immediate effects of these developments, they do not take the developments with the seriousness that they deserve. This may change when the Prayer Book in preparation is completed and becomes compulsory along with the Catechism, when their diocese gets a new bishop, or when their current rector moves on to a new church.
Among the things that trouble me about these reactions is that they are similar to the reactions of a segment of the Episcopal Church when the direction which its bishops were taking that denomination was drawn to their attention. It was slow if not reluctant to grasp the full implications of what was happening. One of the results was that nothing was done about it at a stage when doing something might have made a difference. The situation was allowed to get out of hand.