Contemporary culture always provides context, usually of the combative kind, to religious faith. Yet it provides opportunities as well. I have been struck by an observation of Walker Percy’s in his 1980 novel The Second Coming. One of the novel’s characters, Will Barrett, reflects on the religious dimension of contemporary culture:
Marion had been a conservative Episcopalian and had no use for changes in the Church. Leslie and Jason were born-again Christians and had no use for anything liturgy or sacrament, which got in the way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Ed and Marge Capp were Californians….Jack Kurl, the minister had no strong feelings about women priests or the interim prayer book…He attended ecumenical councils in the Middle East and Latin America …He wore jump suits. Kitty believed in astrology. Yamaluchi was a Jehovah’s Witness. He believed he was one of the 144,000 who would survive Armageddon and reign. Yamaluchi’s wife, the cook, was a theosophist who believed in reincarnation….Is this an age of belief, he reflected, a great renaissance of faith after a period of mass materialism, atheism, agnosticism, liberalism, scientism? Or is it an age of madness in which everyone believes everything? Which?
Percy’s biting commentary on the confusion which exists in religious America, as significant today as it was then, reinforces in me a conviction that is at the heart of the Episcopal Church’s understanding of the Christian faith. It does indeed make a difference how you understand the Christian faith, and it makes a difference what tradition enshrines it.
In our pluralistic world, we tend to blur denominational differences because of our understandable desire to be both charitable to our neighbors and open to expressions different from our own. I share this spirit. But I am concerned when our desire to be open to others cuts us off from what our own tradition holds to be true. I am committed to an ecumenical view of the Christian church, but not at the expense of denying aspects of my own tradition that I believe must be part of any ongoing dialogue. I believe there is an “Anglican Way” that has much to contribute to the whole church and to which we can witness with conviction. There are three elements of this tradition that I would like to affirm. I do so realizing that we share some of these elements with other churches, but that in our own tradition they take a particular shape.
From the time of the reformation in the sixteenth century, the Anglican Communion has been committed to doctrinal comprehensiveness rather than uniformity. Comprehensiveness involves being able to hold together a number of seeming opposites within a unified whole. It allows for consistent theological debate and inquiry, but others find it hard to understand. A Roman Catholic priest once asked me, “Where can I find clearly stated what Anglicans believe?” My response was, “In the Bible, in the creeds, and in the way we worship. It is all there, but it can only be spelled out in the living of it,” and I believe that to this day.
William J. Wolf, late professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the Anglican tradition as a “pastorally and liturgically oriented dialogue between four partners: Catholics, evangelicals, and advocates of reason and
experience.” And the word “partners,” he notes is deliberately chosen to emphasize the need for each aspect of our tradition always to cooperate with others.
This comprehensiveness produces a certain way of understanding Christian faith. It means that we take seriously the need for intellectual integrity that is often obscured by religious fervor. There is a difference between conviction and dogmatism. The difference is faith. Jesus does not offer us absolute certainty. He offers us a relationship of incredible intimacy and power. The church offers tradition and the world offers change. Faith involves living in the tension between these three realities – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the tradition of the church, and the change that reflects the ongoingness of the world. We remain open to the wonder and mystery of what we do not know and alert to the movement of God in what is new. If our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is serious, we need not fear the hard questions which the world presents to us. We need not fear uncertainty or new ideas or even doubt, for Jesus Christ is our hope and our promise, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Our church has struggled to maintain this comprehensiveness down through the centuries. It is not always easy or without pain, but I think God for what he has allowed us to be.
Secondly, as Anglicans we see personal spirituality emerging from the inter-relationship between liturgical participation, solitude and compassion. All three are necessary and interdependent. Our tradition weaves together a concern for personal freedom with an emphasis on beauty and joyfulness and awe – a tradition made rich by such notables as Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and Evelyn Underhill.
Our greatest spiritual treasure is The Book Of Common Prayer – revised many times since its creation in 1549, and today enshrining many strands, shaped by the experience of countless millions. To be a liturgical church, however, involves more than having a book. It is a view of worship that is dialogical, where each person has a place and a part. We gather to pray not only for our own nurture, but on behalf of those who never pray or never darken the church’s door. This being an intercessory community on behalf of others is epitomized in our understanding of the eucharist where we share in Christ’s self-offering on behalf of the world. This understanding of worship does not depend on celebrities or charismatic preachers, but on the work of the people where clergy and laity each take their part and claim their ministry.
One of the phenomena of our time has been the surge of interest in Eastern religions, Christian fundamentalism, mega-churches, and the place of solitude in human life. Young people have left our churches because they did not see what they felt they badly needed. For Anglicans, the recovery of our spiritual roots – roots nourished in a liturgy but deepened and expanded in solitude. It is only in this way that we will become more compassionate and more centered people.
Thomas Merton once observed that the most pervasive form of contemporary violence is activism and overwork.
The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation with violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the rot of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
These words, written by a Trappist monk (who himself was quoting a Quaker), reflect a strain that is deep in our tradition as well. It is a tradition of liturgy, solitude, and compassion that speaks to a profound hunger in our world – a hunger we see also in ourselves.
Finally, I want to hold up that aspect of the Anglican tradition which might be called a holy worldliness. It is life affirming rather than pleasure denying. It calls people to faith not out of guilt or fear, but out of a vision of God that invokes response rather than commands it. It is a way of living shaped by words in the first book of the Bible, “And God created the world and it was good.” This is not to say that we are not serious about human sin, but rather that we emphasize what our redemption in Christ makes possible. We are a sacramental church that sees the presence of God’s love in the most mundane of things. We affirm wholeness, sexuality, and human pleasure, not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the love of God. This is why, when we distort or misuse these things God has given to us, the consequences are so serious.
We are surrounded by forces that play on our guilt and our fears, our understandable frustration and concern over much that goes on around us. There are days when, in the words of the song, we want to cry out, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” There are days when it seems that only simple answers and clearly defined enemies will satisfy the uneasiness we feel. But to give in to these feelings is to deny something fundamental in our baptism. We are people of promise who even in the midst of death can proclaim hope. We are part of a tradition that affirms that life is richest when it is given away on behalf of others. It is a tradition that refuses to live by fear or by coercion – regardless of how noble the aim – and lives instead in freedom and in loving response to what God has given us. This is holy worldliness.
Henri Nouwen tells a story that illustrates what such a view of the world might mean: There was once an old man who used to meditate early every morning under a large tree on the bank of the Ganges River in India. One morning he saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current of the river. As the scorpion was pulled closer to the tree, it got caught in the long roots that branched far into the river. It struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled. When the old man saw this, he stretched himself onto the extended roots and reached out to rescue the drowning scorpion. The animal jerked and stung him wildly. Instinctively, the man withdrew his hand, but then, after having regained his balance, he once again stretched out to save the agonized scorpion. Every time the old man came within reach, the scorpion stung him, so badly that his hands became swollen and bloody and his face distorted by pain. A passerby saw the old man stretched on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool risks his life for the sake of an ugly, useless creature. Don’t you know that you may kill yourself to save that ungrateful animal?” Slowly the old man turned his head and looking into the stranger’s eyes, he said “Friend, because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”
Well, that’s the question: Why should we give up our nature to be compassionate, life- affirming people, even when we get stung in a stinging world? Should we give in to biblical fundamentalism and moralism because we are told this is what makes the church grow? Why should we cease to give of ourselves on behalf of others simply because the world says to protect yourself and draw back lest you be hurt?
As members of the Episcopal Church we belong to a worldwide family that shares a common heritage. In our commitment to Jesus Christ we are at one with all Christians, but in our expression of the commitment we have something unique to give: a tradition of comprehensiveness, personal holiness shaped by a common liturgy, and a life-affirming spirit. Episcopalians treasure other things as well, but these speak with grace and power to a world divided and afraid.