Markers – Recovering Identity: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
In my previous article I ended with this statement: “Recovering identity will be different for each tradition, but until we know who we are, we will lack the content to truly enter into mission, no matter the context.”
So, how do you recover identity?
Most of those I wish to address in this short piece come from an evangelical background of one sort or another. I come from that same background. Perhaps it is too many years of conferences and seminars, but among many coming from this background, there is often an assumption that one can change their theological identity in a manner similar to changing one’s clothes. “I used to have a buzz haircut, a beard and wear skinny jeans and hoodies, but I grew my hair out, shaved and bought a suit.” “I used to read James Dobson and Rick Warren, but now I read N.T. Wright and some Rachel Held Evans…”
I hesitate to say it, this has more to do with fashion – sartorial or theological – than with identity.
There is a common misperception that we can change our identity, or recover our identity, according to an easy pre-made mix of certain elements, already prepared, just waiting for us. It is as though we can go to our “ecclesiastical grocery store” and find labeled packages on the shelf – “here’s Calvary Chapel, here’s Reformed, here’s Southern Baptists, here’s Anglicanism, here’s Orthodoxy, here’s Lutheranism…” – and all we have to do is add water, stir, and bake for twenty minutes, to have the ecclesiastical identity of our choice.
Unfortunately (or maybe, fortunately) it really does not work like this. There is no instant recipe. Identity does not come pre-packaged in a box. It has to be made from scratch and then lived. Yet, there are markers or, if you like, “distinctives”, that allow us to identify with this church or that church, this tradition or that tradition.
This is owing to the reality that one’s ecclesiastical identity is made up of what you know, as well as what you do. It is made up of intellect and emotion. It consists of thought as well as practice. It is about the way in which you express your identity as a believer. It is also about the manner in which you are spiritually nourished.
I believe this differs with differing individuals and differing personalities. There are some people who are simply at home in the world of Anglicanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism. Others need the certainty of Reformed systematics or the Lutheran confessions. Still others find comfort in the informality of a Calvary Chapel or a Vineyard. I take this reality as a “given”. Yet, finding such a home is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the beginning of an exploration of, and walking in, that new world that we are calling home.
As an example, let me speak of my own Anglican tradition. As Anglicans, we speak of the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Yet how does this work out in practical terms? What makes up the identity of an Anglican, or an Anglican Church or an Anglican cleric? What would be the “markers” of this Anglican world?
Well, first and foremost, would be the use of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in one or another of its many iterations. In large measure, the BCP allows Scripture to become prayer. There are liturgies, prayers and readings for every day, every week and for every “life passage” from birth to death. Loving Scripture and the language of Scripture, the BCP is foundational for Anglican identity. These are the prayers and the services that are common to almost all Anglicans across the globe. Many date from the English Reformation or, more distant, the medieval Sarum (Salisbury) rite. These are the words that form the background to an Anglican sacramental life that is centered in Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
Secondly, I would ask if the clergy of an Anglican community pray the Daily Office, morning and evening, as has been done for almost 500 years (and before that in the monastic enclosures of the Medieval period for a thousand years). Indeed, in my tradition, the neglect of the Offices in which we pray for the Church and the world is, in a real sense, the abrogation of one’s pastoral ministry.
Thirdly, is there a sense of “sacred space”. In Anglicanism there has always been a sense that a worship space, and the actions observed in that space, should reflect a particular ethos of reverence. It is the application of our God-given abilities in art, design and music in worship and our corporate life as believers. Do we engage thought, sight and hearing in our worship? While we show joy in worship, do we also show reverence?
Fourthly, is the community of faith nurtured through those Offices provided for pastoral care – visitation of the sick, confession and absolution, marriage and the burial of the dead? Indeed, is this a community in which one does not merely look the part of a priest or pastor (yet another issue), but in which the clergy actively engage themselves in the work of pastoral care according to the Book of Common Prayer?
Finally, is the tradition of the Church – Scripture, history and practice – reasonably taught and faithfully shared? Are people prepared for Baptism (if adults) and Confirmation, helping them to recognize that they are more than singular members of a local body of believers?
Now, those are some of the “markers” for my tradition. Yet, they would be similar for Lutherans, the Orthodox and Roman Catholics. You will notice, however, that this is not an “add water, stir and bake” recipe! Instead, it is a way or living. In some ways, it is even a particular way of thinking. In my mind, it is also an identity.
I would not, however, want to limit this short reflection Anglicanism or just to “liturgical” churches. So, what are the markers you would apply to a Calvary Chapel, or a Vineyard fellowship, or a Baptist church, or a non-denominational church plant?
When we find the markers, we might begin to find identity.