Sunday, October 10, 2010

The once unexamined Anglican life

Growing up in a religiously mixed household, I spent the first half of my childhood as a Presbyterian, the second half as a High Church Episcopalian. Obviously the latter stuck, since today I’m an Anglo-Catholic (although I could just as easily see myself as a member of a LCMS or PCA parish with a strong liturgy.)

The 60s had not yet done its full damage to ECUSA or the other mainline Protestant churches. In retrospect, it was at the end of an era, a period of blissful ignorance for American Christians. I had never heard of the late Bishop Pike while Jack Spong was still an obscure nominally Christian parish priest in North Carolina or Virginia.

Thanks to the splintering of TEC and the larger counter-revolt against unbiblical Christianity, I am far more knowledgeable about doctrine and the reasons for picking a church than I was when my parents were picking churches with nice music in close driving distance. As a preface to observations about where we Anglo-Catholics are today and what we claim to believe, I want to summarize a few memories of what ECUSA was like before battles over Women’s Ordination and the 1979 prayer book changed the church forever,

At our weekly service didn’t do bells and smells, but after attending some more “liberal” ECUSA parishes I knew we were a very high church ECUSA parish. Robes, liturgical colors, reverence, genuflecting, great organ music and three choirs (boys’, girls’, adult) and lots of acolytes were the norm. My parents made reference to “High Church” vs. “Low Church” Episcopalians, but I didn’t realize that was a 200+ year old term from the Church of England.

I knew we had a 40-year-old prayer book, but not about Hooker, the 1549 BCP, the 1662 BCP or the Oxford Movement. I knew we had a 30-year-old hymnal, but not about the 1916 or 1892 predecessors — let alone The English Hymnal, Hymns Ancient & Modern or Medieval Hymns and Sequences.

I knew we were Protestant, and compared to other Protestants we were fairly big on formal liturgy and ritual. (I didn’t realize how big the differences were until as an adult I attended a Fundamentalist church with no prayer book, no formal liturgy, no instruments, but really long sermons.) I assumed Catholics had fancy music and lots of bowing, not realizing that post-Vatican II that most US parishes were drifting towards pop music services.

I didn’t understand the crucial theological differences among Protestants, particularly between the Reformed tradition of Calvin, Knox or Zwingli — who rejected almost any Catholic liturgy or theology — and those Protestants who like Luther who had sought to reform Catholic excesses while holding to Apostolic tradition. But then I was relatively na├»ve about prejudice: growing up ost-JFK, I was actually in my 20s before I first saw any examples of anti-Catholic Protestant zeal.

Over the last decade, I’ve lost my innocence as one-by-one all the traditionalists have been driven from the Episcopal Church in California. I now know that being an Anglo-Catholic is a minority of those who claim the Anglican tradition in North America, and from my European travels it appears that’s almost as true in England as well.

But the most important thing I didn’t know then — but know now — is that historically differences of Anglican liturgical style were associated with far more important theological differences.

The 19th century forebears of Anglo-Catholicism — the priests and scholars of the Oxford Movement — were fighting a two-front war in the Church of England. On one front were those “liberals” who, like today, sought to minimize the importance of doctrinal inerrancy. The other front was against the Evangelicals, an unresolved tension from the first decade of the church in Tudor England.

Why does Anglo-Catholicism matter? As John Henry Newman wrote in 1834 (during his Anglo-Catholic days) in Tract #38 of the Tracts for the Times:
The glory of the English Church is, that it has taken the VIA MEDIA, as it has been called. It lies between the (so called) Reformers and the Romanists.
and in Tract #41:
I would do what our reformers in the sixteenth century did: they did not touch the existing documents of doctrine [Note 7]—there was no occasion—they kept the creeds as they were; but they added protests against the corruptions of faith, worship, and discipline, which had grown up round them.
In short, Anglo-Catholics believe in the historic catholic (small c) church. We are divided from Rome in much the same way the Orthodox divided from Rome — with differences over specific doctrine (and of course certain ecclesiastical authority), but not over the importance of the ancient church that culminated with our three creeds. (One of the key doctrinal issues with the Orthodox is of course over the exact wording of those creeds.)

As far as I can tell, there are very few Protestants who place continuity with theological tradition (at least from the first six centuries) on par with Scripture. (Perhaps a few American Lutherans feel this way, but certainly not those in the national churches of Europe.) Thus, the Anglo-Catholics hold a crucial niche in Christian theology, as well as offering a possible avenue for reunification of the Church catholic — as witnessed by Orthodox ecumenicism that has abandoned TEC for the ACNA.

1 comment:

jleecbd said...

You've inspired me to start a whole series now. We'll see how it goes!