Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Ecclesiology

...and it won't be the last you'll read about it from me, because, of all the different theological disciplines, it is the most critical for this particular season in the life of Anglicanism.

Over at (the award-winning) Stand Firm there are two items that have generated a fair amount of traffic in the last couple of days. One is an upstream excerpt from my own humble blog that they picked up on. The comments took a turn in the direction of what it is, really, to be a Christian. Is it purely a matter of belief (faith) in Christ? Commitment to Christ? Exhibition of Christ-like behavior? Is it as simple and observable as being baptized or not? The other was this post by Matt Kennedy+, in which he expresses his hope that the in-process Anglican realignment in America will coalesce around the likes of Bishop Duncan and the Anglican Communion Network rather than Bishop Wimberly and the "Windsor Bishops."

I'm already on record as having High Church theological convictions, which I explained here. That would incline me to answer the "who is a Christian?" question by the objective measure of baptized status. If you're baptized, you're a Christian; if you're not, you're not. And the Church, per the catechism (1979 BCP) is that "body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are the members." Of course, by this standard, there are a whole lot of pretty bad Christians out there, including some professed atheists, no doubt. And certainly also some genuine believers in Christ who are not, technically, Christians.

Of course, the necessary codicil to this definition is the acknowledgment that being a Christian--that is, being baptized--is not a free pass into the beatific vision and an eternity in the nearer presence of God. One priest I spoke to on the phone this week likened baptism to a bus ticket: It gets you on the bus, but not necessarily to your destination. For that, you have to stay on the bus. Baptism gets us on the ark, and we know that those on the ark will be saved when the waters rise. But that presumes we don't go on any unauthorized midnight swims.

The reason I like this definition (aside from it being the one embraced by traditional Catholic theology) is its objectivity. The emphasis is on God's sovereign grace ("the bond that God establishes in baptism is indissoluble"--BCP) rather than on experience or feelings. It leaves room for everything from Wesley's crisis wherein he felt "strangely warmed" to full-blown charismatic manifestation of the "power gifts." But it isn't grounded in any of those places. I celebrate and honor the various experiences of "conversion" to which Christians bear witness. I believe whole-heartedly in a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Indeed, I have one. But having such an experience should not be confused with "becoming a Christian." That happens in the font.

This applies directly to a rhetorical battle that erupts from time to time among Episcopalians (and recently former Episcopalians). Even this week there have been passionate exchanges on the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv about whether the leaders of the Anglican Communion Network, particularly Bishop Duncan, have said that top leaders in the Episcopal Church, including the Presiding Bishop, are "not Christians," or something to that effect. By my lights, the Presiding Bishop is definitely a Christian. The leaders of the Episcopal Church are all Christians. They indeed do say things that are not compatible with Christian teaching--heck, even the teaching of the Episcopal Church--but they are still themselves Christians. I counsel my theologically orthodox confreres who are of an evangelical stripe to mind their rhetoric, and keep it in line with Anglican theology as it is actually articulated in the liturgical rites that they employ in their worship.

I would also freely wear the label Anglo-Catholic. This is a more elusive definition. Like High Church, it conjures up all sorts of liturgical associations, and in this case that is actually within the ball park. But it's not the whole story. And it is precisely here that one aspect, at least, of Father Kennedy's observations runs into...well...foul territory. He calls for an reconfigured Anglicanism that has an explicit confessional basis, something like the Augsburg Confession is for Lutherans. He suggests that the Articles of Religion should form the foundation for said confessional basis.

This I have a problem with because it is fundamentally un-Catholic, perhaps as fundamentally un-Catholic as could be imagined. It makes Anglicanism into a denomination rather than either a church or a community of churches. One of the hallmarks of Anglicanism is that it claims to be nothing unique, nothing substantially distinctive, only incidentally so. It is simply an expression of the one holy Catholic and apostolic church of the creeds, with no peculiar beliefs or practices other than those of the ancient undivided church. As soon as we add conditions or qualifications to that identity, we have made a new thing--in fact, a much "smaller" thing, a particular thing, no longer kata holos, no longer "of the entirety."

Being truly Catholic is risky and uncomfortable. Many of Father Kennedy's commenters expressed their concern that unless the Anglicanism-that-is-to-come has an explicit confessional basis, it will be susceptible to the same sort of theological drift that has infected the Episcopal Church, making it sick perhaps unto death. They may be correct. There are no guarantees (although the Anglican Covenant that is now taking shape--which I expect will be more a relational than a theological document--will probably be an effective check). It's a risk we just have to take.

If we fail to summon the collective nerve to take that risk, I fear that Anglican orthodoxy in America will sink back into the old High Church-Low Church (Catholic vs. Evangelical) wars and consume itself in revolutionary fervor.


Ann said...

Thanks Dan for your thoughtful reflection on what it means to be Christian. Maybe the operative concept is "a" -- to me the community is needed to balance the "me and Jesus" idea of Christianity. Prophet is often one alone calling to the community, while priest is communal. Both can get off track. The arguments about afterlife do not hold much attraction for me. I am more interested in the concept from Luke of the Kingdom of God is in your midst. I have written on this several times on my blog and as always I am a work in progress (I hope) on this.

Daniel Martins said...

Ann, I agree with you that the "kingdom of heaven" is as much "here and now" as it is "then and there." The Church's kerygmatic task is to always be saying, "Look what God is doing!" But fear of death is humanity's primary existential angst. If we can't help turn that fear into hope, we haven't got much to say.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Father, the problem in the Anglican Communion has been a lack of discipline. In Rome they have a Pope; in Orthodoxy they have the Holy Tradition that may not be contradicted.

I think the idea of the covenant is to have some similar basis of authority that could be used to define who gets to claim they are teaching Anglican Theology. At least that's my impression. Inclusion of all the baptized is something I agree with the reappraisers on; what I don't agree with is baptism as the sole qualification for pastoral, leadership or teaching ministries in the church.

If the Romans and the Orthodox do it, how is it not catholic?

If I have a misapprehension here, I would welcome a correction.