Response to Anglican/Episcopal Comments

I’ve often said that a scholar can receive no greater compliment than to have others interact seriously with his ideas. I thank all of you for your thoughtful comments, and although I won’t be able to respond to every point (due to limitations on space and your patience), I shall try to address at least something from each post.

Orthodox: David Ford, I thank you for your observations about the affinities between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, in part because of a rejection of scholasticism and a mutual suspicion of papal infallibility. Although I have reservations about ecumenism in general, I agree that our two traditions have much in common, something I tried to argue when I was (briefly) a member of the Episcopal Church delegation on ecumenical relations. Yes, I’m sure it’s true that some in the Anglican tradition deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus (a position I find truly regrettable, even heretical), but to foreswear the possibility of intercommunion because of the ordination of women or the acceptance of those with “alternate” sexual identities is, in my view, both short-sighted and not consonant with the teaching and the demeanor of Jesus that we find in the New Testament.

Roman Catholic: Some of my comments in the preceding paragraph apply here as well, and yes, Christina Wassell, I’m very aware that papal infallibility has been invoked sparingly since the doctrine was devised during the First Vatican Council. That does not diminish its hubris. As for being “niggled” by the origins of Anglicanism (because Henry VIII wanted a divorce), sure, I wish I could point to more noble beginnings. But the formation of the Church of England underscores the flawed and very human character of institutions—not unlike Peter himself and the Roman Catholic Church—and all the more reason that those of us who follow Jesus should strike a pose of humility rather than grandiosity when it comes to claims of truth or supremacy. As St. Paul says, “we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). Ms. Wassell raises the issue of politics, particularly surrounding the abortion issue. I have no reason to question the sincerity of many of those who line up in the antiabortion camp—including, I have no doubt, Ms. Wassell herself—but the irrefutable fact remains that the Religious Right mobilized in the 1970s in defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions, not in response to Roe v. Wade. And it’s not simply a matter of shrugging this off by professing to judge a tree by its fruit. My sense as a historian is that unacknowledged and unrepented racism tends to fester, as we saw in 2016 when the Religious Right finally abandoned the pretense that theirs was a movement concerned with “family values” and 81 percent of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump. (Here is an instance where the tree and its fruits metaphor might actually be instructive, though it leads to a far different conclusion from the one Ms. Wassell favors.) Opposition to abortion may be a worthy crusade. (I believe it is, by the way, although I think it should be addressed as a moral issue, not a legal issue. Put another way, I have no interest in making abortion illegal; I would like to make it unthinkable.) But it is also undeniable that a singular focus on abortion has distorted our approach to other, equally important, matters. As I asked in an earlier posting, in what moral universe do the Catholic bishops consider censuring Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, while heaping praise on Donald Trump?

Lutheran: Mark Ellingsen, I love your invocation of the communion of the saints, one of my favorite phrases from the Nicene Creed. That sense of connectedness both to the past as well as to fellow (contemporary) believers is compelling—and comforting. Mr. Ellingsen’s comments also prompt me to wonder if there is indeed a correlation between a liturgical focus and a (healthy) suspicion of too strong a reliance on reason. And yes—of course!—justification by grace, which entails freedom from the law. Finally, in response to the final question: “But is there a place for the Lutheran emphasis on freedom and spontaneity in Anglican circles (esp. as we celebrate the liturgy together)?” I’d sure like to think so, and it is certainly true that alternate forms and liturgies are used extensively, depending on the parish. At the same time, Episcopalians, “God’s frozen chosen,” are not often known for spontaneity!

Anabaptist: I appreciate Michael King’s “catholic” tastes when it comes to spirituality; Frederick Buechner has long been a favorite of mine (though I think you confused title and subtitle in your posting), along with the inimitable Anne Lamott. And I love the fact that Mr. King, having ranged far afield, has chosen fully to inhabit his own Anabaptist tradition. I think that’s admirable, and I honor it. (I’ve tried to do the same, and I think to some extent I’ve succeeded, but failing to speak out against the execrable politics to which many evangelicals have succumbed would, I believe, constitute moral cowardice.)

Reformed Tradition: My friend (and neighbor) Wes Granberg-Michaelson raises an important point: The Reformers’ break with Roman Catholicism necessitated the formulation of various creeds so that these breakaway movements could “clarify what they believed” and “provide a definitive rational statement of theological convictions.” Having rejected the twin bases of authority that underlay the Roman Catholic Church, scripture and tradition, Reformers had to devise their own formulae based on their reading of the Bible. This led inevitably to the splintering of Protestantism because the Bible, as we know, admits of many interpretations. I’m also heartened to hear that many congregations in the Reformed tradition are paying more attention to the Lord’s Supper. (I was aware of this anecdotally, but Mr. Granberg-Michaelson is an authoritative source.) Could the Book of Common Prayer have overcome apartheid? A fair question, and one that probably cannot be answered definitively. But it is undeniably the case that an Anglican archbishop (and lover of the Book of Common Prayer), the late Desmond Tutu, certainly contributed mightily to that struggle.

Baptist: Another dear and admired friend, David Gushee, has recounted his own flirtation with the Episcopal Church, but he, like Michael King, returned to his Baptist roots. (What is it about you Baptists!) Mr. Gushee wonders “whether there is enough shared substance for the discipleship journey” within the Anglican tradition. He goes on to say that the primacy of liturgy over theology (a point I may have oversold) has not spared Anglicans/Episcopalians from schism. A fair argument, though I’m not sure that doctrinal uniformity would have forestalled that development. Mr. Gushee points out the relative absence of Anglican contributions to his field, Christian Ethics. Yes, I suppose that’s true, and I’m hard-pressed for an explanation. (It’s been a long time since I was Paul Ramsey’s TA in his Christian Ethics classes at Princeton, and I haven’t kept up with the field; the only Anglican reading I can recall was a pamphlet on the issue of divorce and remarriage.) Thank you, finally, for acknowledging the capaciousness of the Anglican tradition, and yes, there is “something biblical about that.”

Pietism: I’m gratified to hear that my essay resonated with Christopher Gehrz, and we have yet another testimonial to the lure of the Anglican tradition—the Choral Eucharist, Evensong, Epiphany Carols, and worship “in the beauty of holiness.” I love Mr. Gehrz’s invocation of the followers of Jesus as a “people of faith and doubt” as well as Pietism’s commitment “to seek a via media around the Reformation’s most destructive dead ends, that Pietists can certainly celebrate in Anglicanism.” And yes, I also believe that diverse pathways of faith lead to similar ends. Amen.

Wesleyan: Thank you, Sarah Lancaster, for reminding us of the close historical ties between Anglicanism and Methodism. The Wesleys’ Methodism, with its emphasis on warm-hearted piety, was part of a broader eighteenth-century reaction against scholasticism, a movement that encompassed Continental Pietism, Quietism among Roman Catholics, and even Hasidism among Jews. And yes, it is probably true that the Methodist-Episcopal divide developed because the latter “felt a greater need for maintaining proper liturgy and sacraments,” although the evangelical in me certainly agrees that personal experience is more important than “tidy theological categories.” You have my sympathy as a denomination for the current contestation over LGBTQ+ issues. I fervently hope before I pass on to my reward to see some denomination threaten to split over how well they are fulfilling Jesus’ injunction to love their neighbors and care for “the least of these.” Now that would be a fight worth waging!

Black Church: Farris Blount heralds the “creative freedom” in a tradition not defined principally by doctrine, but he wonders “to what degree such an openness can be detrimental to those who are new to the Anglican tradition, as there is no orienting theological structure to help them make sense of their faith in and commitment to Jesus.” That may be true (though it wasn’t for me), but I would emphatically contest Mr. Blount’s assertion that the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t contain “the actual words or instructions” of Jesus. To the contrary, the Prayer Book brims with the words and the teachings of Jesus, and one of my revelations when I began attending an Episcopal church was that each service contained a whole lot more reading of Scripture than I heard in evangelical churches. I quite agree that too often Christians, evangelicals especially, have elevated the words of Paul over the words and the example of Jesus. I’ve often said that you can construct a pretty reliable taxonomy of Christian denominations by tracking which portions of the Bible they gravitate to. For evangelicals, it tends to be the Pauline epistles—most likely because Paul is a moralist, and he tells them what to do. But if you believe (as I do) that Jesus is the “word of God” (see John 1), then it seems to me that the Gospels merit greater attention.

Latter-day Saints: First, let’s agree that my friend Robert Millet crafted by far the best title in this round of postings: “From the Sawdust Trail to the Canterbury Trail.” Brilliant! Mr. Millet was kind enough to refer to some of my earlier writings, and to do so with appreciation, even suggesting that they have helped him in his commendable efforts to forge new understandings between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. At first blush, I find Boyd Packer’s reflections on the importance of doctrine quite compelling: “The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.” But as I reflect further, I’m not certain that I agree that the purpose of doctrine is to regulate behavior. That sounds a bit too much like works-righteousness to me.

Pentecostalism: As someone who is afflicted with the hobgoblin of consistency, I know that I should address my colleague J. Terry Todd with an honorific, “Mr. Todd,” just as I have with others in this thread. But I’m not sure I can do so. Terry and I go way back (longer than either of us cares to tally), and he is one of my favorite people on the planet. So, here goes . . . Terry opens with a poignant and heartrending account of Christopher Ssenyonjo, an Anglican bishop in Uganda who was barred and banished from the Church of Uganda for his advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights. Terry follows this story with a simple, powerful sentence: “Ssenyonjo paid a heavy price for following Jesus.” He proceeds to point out that the worldwide Anglican communion is plagued by divisions and saddled with an imperial and colonialist past. “Of all the traditions we’ve considered so far,” Terry writes, “it’s probably the Anglicans who are most beset by their imperial and colonialist heritage, which has shaped churches of the Anglican Communion in ways difficult to untangle.” I think Roman Catholicism probably merits a shout-out on those grounds as well, but I take the point. Terry recalls fondly, as do I, our visit to Church of the King (later, Christ the King) parish in Valdosta, Georgia. This was an erstwhile Assemblies of God congregation that, through the influence of a young minister, Stan White (sadly, recently deceased), found its way to the Episcopal Church, all the while maintaining its Pentecostal enthusiasm. I was present on Easter Sunday, 1990, when more than two hundred congregants were confirmed into the Episcopal Church by five bishops. “Midway through ‘Sing unto the Lord a New Song,’ ” I wrote at the time, “Church of the King looked more like Tuesday night aerobics class than Easter Sunday in an Episcopal parish.” I loved that place for its receptivity to the Holy Spirit, and even more so when Terry and I returned there to film the Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory documentary. So yes, I certainly feel at home in the evangelical quadrant of Anglican life.

Once again, my thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments.

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