Between Geneva and Canterbury

Response to Randall Balmer, Anglican Tradition
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Reformed Tradition

Between Geneva and Canterbury

Frank Griswold served as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1998-2006. During that time, I was General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. About a dozen of us who held similar positions of leadership in U.S. denominations would gather at the end of each year for a retreat. We’d share what the year had been like confronting the problems facing our churches, spend a day in silence and prayer, and then worship together. It was the perfect way to end the year, and nurtured deep unity among us.

All of us faced the challenge of preserving unity within our denominations in the face of debilitating divisions. We’d share what was working, and what wasn’t. I remember so well Bishop Griswold saying that the deepest source of unity in the Episcopal Church wasn’t found in doctrine or confessions, but rather in the practice of using the Book of Common Prayer. When Randall Balmer repeated this explanation, it resonated deeply. In my ecumenical experience, I’ve been captivated by the question of whether a major, mainline denomination could be held together as followers of Jesus by the practices of how they worship and pray together, rather than through rational convictions around doctrinal standards.

It’s an open question, of course. But I’m grateful for how Balmer has presented it. The Reformed tradition starts at the opposite end of this spectrum. Rejecting various dogmas of the established church, the Reformers were compelled to clarify what they believed. This came in the form of “Confessions,” intended to provide a definitive rational statement of theological convictions. Unity would have its foundation around agreement and adherence to those propositions.

Balmer is right to call out the danger which emerged— “the cult of Enlightenment Rationalism, especially the logic choppers who slice and dice and reduce faith into tidy theological categories.” The truthful irony is that between 1520 and 1650, around 40 to 50 such Confessions were written revealing various disagreements, leading to the endless splintering of Protestantism into a variety of competing traditions, continuing to this day. It was hardly a formula for unity. The counter point of Anglicanism elucidated by Balmer has an appeal: “I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play that I cannot begin to understand, much less explain…” This challenges the Reformed tradition. Is there a way forward to follow Jesus that is less reliant on rational adherence to confessional propositions?

Reformed voices would be quick argue that there is no simplistic dichotomy here. We’re told to love God with all our mind, as well as our heart and soul. Yet, within Reformed circles in the last two to three decades there’s been renewed interest in the vitality of worship and liturgy, going beyond an almost singular focus on the pulpit. The Eucharist—what we call the Lord’s Supper—is being celebrated somewhat more frequently, and worship styles—whether traditional or contemporary—are becoming more textured, evoking deeper feelings as well as thoughts.

When we lived in Grand Rapids for a decade, my wife and I were part of Church of the Servant. It’s a unique, large congregation and part of the Christian Reformed Church, a sister denomination. Communion is celebrated every Sunday, a rarity among Reformed congregations, and is the more like the climax of the service. Participants form successive circles around the altar (prior to COVID) and the consecrated bread and wine are shared from one to another while congregational singing envelops the community. Great care is taken with the liturgy, utilizing historic and creative elements as well as incorporating sacred dance.

Congregational members include college and seminary faculty, executives from Grand Rapids’ several Christian publishing houses, and people from the business and non-profit world, as well as several refugee families. Mostly, those at Church of the Servant are well-read, intelligent folks raised in the Reformed tradition. But they are drawn to the richness of its worship life. Preaching, of course, remains a central element with highly gifted pastors who do their homework. But as a member once said to me, “If the sermon doesn’t do anything for you, don’t worry. You’ll be enriched by communion.” Church of the Servant has been described as “the Episcopal branch of the Christian Reformed Church.” It’s an example of how the Reformed tradition can stretch and be enriched by the gifts of Anglicanism.

But there are limits. In 2005 the RCA published Worship the Lord: The Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America. Its 250 pages contain a marvelous collection of the liturgies and prayers that can enrich our worship life. However, in the denomination’s divisive struggle over same gender relationships, no one ever suggested we could find a deeper unity through shared practices and prayers found in Worship the Lord. Many congregations, in fact, hardly ever use it. Our Confessions serve as our “standards of unity,” even while failing to keep us unified.

The Reformed tradition believes that process of confessing our faith is ongoing, rooted in foundational truths but responsive to changing historical contexts. In 2010 the Reformed Church in America adopted the Belhar Confession as an additional standard of unity. It was historic and remarkable. Our three other Confessions had roots from the 17th century, and we had never added to them. The Belhar Confession was drafted in 1982 as part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It confronted theologically the sin of racism and became a vehicle for reconciliation among reformed churches there and contributed to the nation’s transformation in overturning apartheid.

The Belhar’s emphasis on the theological sin of racism and unity of all people, its call for reconciliation, and its focus on God’s justice speaks far beyond its historical roots and is deeply relevant to the church’s witness in our own time and place. By making this a confession, the church declared this is central to how faith is understood and practiced, and a means for defining our unity. It provides clear pathways for faithfully following Jesus.

At its best, the Reformed tradition asserts that putting our faith into words, responsive to the Word and to the world, guides us into witness and action proclaiming the reign of God. Our tradition contends that the shared practices of liturgy, sacraments, prayer, and the Eucharist are essential to ground our faith in Jesus Christ, but they don’t complete our witness. Confessions can curate the words of faith so they can shape lives of disciples and renew the world. We might ask, could the Book of Common Prayer have overcome apartheid?

Yet, I’m drawn to Balmer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury, recognizing the rich gifts it offers to the Reformed tradition. In similar fashion, I’ve been changed by my own pilgrimage 0n the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I learned that in the end, we don’t think our way into faith. Its mysteries and power can’t be fully contained in neat confessional boxes. Rather, we walk our way into faith, through embodied practices that rewire our hearts. Balmer shows us how the Anglican tradition offers this pathway. He leaves me wondering how long it is from Geneva to Canterbury.

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