Friday, September 9, 2011

Finding the Anglican Way - Part 1, Unity in Diversity

This is the first of what will be several installments that attempt to explain how and why my wife and I have made the journey from independent evangelical churches into the Anglican church. I don't know how many of these I'll do in total, but I hope to give a sense of the breadth of this decision. There was no one element, single event, solitary theological ideal, or particular point of polity that brought us to this crossroad. Rather, it is the culmination of many diverse factors which I hope to address through this series of posts. To begin with I suppose I should explain why I even allowed myself to think outside the tradition of my upbringing.

I had been taught at various times through various means a certain way of looking at the ecclesiastical landscape not only in America but around the world. This teaching happened not only formally through lectures and varied assignments, but also through books I was encouraged to read, blogs I was asked to follow, pod casts I was sent, sermons I heard, and the casual conversations I shared with church leaders, fellow students, and other random people. Although one might think that such a varied assortment of brushes would create a multicolored vista of the church, I've come to realize that the landscape that was painted was actually rather monochromatic.

Here's the crux of the matter. There is a tendency for American evangelicalism (which was my upbringing) to consider itself to be uniquely correct in its biblical interpretation, ecclesiastical structure, and moral consideration. I'll concede that confidence in one's view of Holy Scripture is to be applauded, but trouble brews when non essentials are propelled to the forefront and people with other views who should be considered equally brothers and sisters in Christ are questioned as to the status of their relationship with Him based on these non essentials.

I find this troubling particularly because of Christ's impassioned prayer the night before He was betrayed. The Gospel of St. John records that prayer as it reads,
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. (17:20-23)
Christ prayed for a church that would be unified. Paul wrote of a church that has one Lord, one faith, on baptism. He also wrote of the mystery of a church in which Jew and Gentile can share table fellowship together around the cup of the New Covenant. Jesus instituted this covenant while the one whom He knew would betray Him partook of the same bread as Him. Unity is not a foreign concept in Holy Scripture, yet it is my experience that in the 21st century church in America it is anything but one. The more time that elapses from the reformation to today the more denominations are established which can't seem to get along with the others. The church fractures, splinters, and dissipates. As it stands currently there is a flavor of church for nearly every moral preference, musical style, rhetorical method, ethnic group, economical class, generational mentality, and ministry trend. I don't think that variety is the issue, though, for as we allow ourselves to grow in our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit we may find a certain attraction to certain subsets of society, but so often these subsets become reclusive and vindictive of the others.

You may ask what the value of theological education or doctrinal study is, or whether I'm advocating the watering down of all our beliefs to one common denominator. My answer would be that God is honored by our pursuit of knowledge about Him, but we need to tread with care in what we choose to consider as dogmatic truth and what we choose to hold loosely as we pursue Him. There is value in arriving at different conclusions in this pursuit when we maintain the unity of the church universal (or "catholic church") and allow those differences to further mature us. In short, it comes down to this. You can have two God-honoring individuals who cherish the worth, power and reliability of Holy Scripture, desire to serve God, and are open to being moved by the Holy Spirit to better understand Him, yet they arrive at different conclusions about some interpretational issue, moral dilemma, or doctrinal nuance. Who is correct? For if they arrived at mutually exclusive results then surely only one can be correct and the other must be wrong. Perhaps both are capturing a facet of the infinite truth of our infinite God so that we as the church understand Him better yet have not exhausted the mystery of Him. The value of such a realization is that multiple theological traditions and viewpoints can work in harmony to contemplate God in a way that no single tradition could do on its own. While there are limits to this concept (for heresy is a legit danger of which we must be wary), suffice it to say that in a general yet profound sense the church is strengthened and bolstered by the unification of diversity.

As I observed this through my own various experiences I began to look outside my own tradition to see if I was alone in my musings on unified diversity or whether there were others like myself. What I found was the Anglican church. One facet of the Anglican church is its concern for unity. It is a refreshing ecclesiastical trait and one I am learning to greatly appreciate. You don't need to leave your own church tradition to foster this mentality, though. My wife and I are confident it was the obedient choice for us given the moving God in our lives, but I believe all theological and ecclesiastical traditions would benefit from a dose of unity and hopefully God uses you to foster this value in your own church.

Allow me to close with the prayer for the church from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
O GRACIOUS Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy
holy Catholic Church; that thou wouldest be pleased to
fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify
it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is
amiss, reform it. Where it is right, establish it; where it is
in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for
the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever liveth to
make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.
Amen.

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