Anglican Chaos: Duane W.H. Arnold
“…I am saying ‘Anglican family’ rather than ‘Anglican Communion’ because we’re a very fractured communion but we’re still family – like so many families, quarreling till the cows come home… We are, at the moment, in the middle of a period of colossal uncertainty in the life of our Anglican family. There is uncertainty, division, a measure of suspicion still and a sense that our conventional and inherited ways of being Anglicans together across the world have come under almost unmanageable strain.”
Rowan Williams, September 24, 2019
While it may be unfashionable, I have, for decades, liked and admired Rowan Williams. I first met him at the International Patristics Conference in Oxford where, with fear and trembling, I was presenting my first paper on Athanasius. He attended my paper and was kind in his comments. A few years later, as Oxford’s Lady Margaret Professor, Williams was one of the external examiners on my PhD thesis. Knowing his sardonic wit and towering intellect, it was yet another time of fear and trembling on my part. In this viva, as we made our way through the 371 pages of text (and almost 900 footnotes) he would fix me with his gaze as he asked questions, but then allow a slight smile as I answered. Following the three hour examination, he was the first to seek me out, shake my hand and whisper, “Well done!”, letting me know that the examination was a success. When, later in his career, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, I was very pleased, even though his time in that position was fraught with difficulties and controversies.
It is with this background that I approach his recent remarks on the state of the Anglicanism. I tend to agree with Williams that reference to an “Anglican Communion” in 2019 is an oxymoron. As a substitute, Williams has offered the term, “Anglican Family” as being more descriptive, even if we are a “quarreling” family. Yet, in the current circumstances, this may be too generous. In my mind, a more descriptive appellation might be that Anglicanism has become a highly dysfunctional family that refuses to go into counseling. Yet, Williams is right in his observation “that our conventional and inherited ways of being Anglicans together across the world have come under almost unmanageable strain.” I would go further, however, and suggest that the “unmanageable strain” is quickly devolving into chaos.
Williams, like me, comes from the Anglo-Catholic tradition within Anglicanism. While many today view this tradition only in terms of high ceremonial, ritual, vestments and the like, it is important to remember that Anglo-Catholicism arose as a theological protest movement with the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America. Arising in the 1830s, it desired to restore the High Church ideals of the seventeenth century over against the post-Enlightenment theology that characterized much of the Church. By the 1830s, there was (as in our day) a general decline in church life. The Church was increasingly viewed as a political entity subject to unwarranted secular intrusions.
The early advocates of protest, based in Oxford, coalesced around some basic ideas. They viewed the Church as a divine institution set apart from the politics of the day. They had a deep understanding of Church History, especially that of the early and medieval eras. Their knowledge of Scripture and biblical languages was profound. They knew, studied and assessed the 39 Articles of Religion. They used the Book of Common Prayer as a rule of faith, keeping their ordination vows to say the Daily Office as a integral element of their own priestly formation. Members of the Oxford Movement, as they became known, instinctively recognized that Anglican identity and the reform of Anglicanism began with them as individuals. This was at the heart of “the vision glorious”. Williams understands this. Moreover, because it was about individuals rather than a group or cohort, the movement quickly extended itself beyond the confines of the rarefied atmosphere of a university to city slums and rural parishes alike.
Unfortunately, Williams is right in his recent assessment. Anglicanism, has devolved into a bickering family. Yet, as one surveys the current scene, we are not alone. We see it among Methodists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Presbyterians and, even, among Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Many of us have forgotten who we are, as churches and as individuals. As a result we look for “big answers”. We turn our gaze to the new “break away” denomination. We attend conferences on “contextual missiology”. We hire hipster pastors and worship leaders who, we are told, will bring in the “nones”. We align ourselves (and often our churches) with the politics of the Right or the Left. We twist and turn and contort ourselves until we become unrecognizable… even to ourselves… and then we wonder at the chaos.
Yet, I think Williams used the image of a quarreling family for a reason. I think we’ve all seen it when one member of a family recognizes the dysfunction and decides to address it, not by changing all the other members of the family, but by looking at themselves first. The only way to be an agent of change in a family is to embody change yourself. If that happens, even though the process may be long and beset with failures, there’s hope.
It has been said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If, indeed our churches are dysfunctional, I would say, “Be the change you want to see in the Church”. I would also add, especially for pastors and priests, there’s no shortcut. It can’t be done in the space of a weekend conference. It can’t be done on the basis of a fast Google search. It can’t be done by quickly flipping through the latest popular book on worship, or patriarchy, or contextual missiology. A good theological education takes time and work. The practice of daily prayer or the Daily Offices takes discipline. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be. Confronting chaos and reclaiming one’s identity, whether as individuals or churches, requires more than “the moment”.
It requires an individual commitment. It requires a life.