Michael Peers has said that “evangelism is too important to be left to the Evangelicals.” What then does evangelism look like in other Anglican traditions? This edition of good idea! examines evangelism in the Catholic Anglican tradition.
My friend was wealthy enough. He spoke of the financial goal that would allow him to retire. Thinking of the church’s pension plan, the amount he mentioned seemed astronomical. Then he told me that he had already achieved it. “So I raised the amount.” He shrugged amiably, as if to say, “I know it’s absurd, but it was the only thing I could do.”
Imagination is the drama in which bodies are invested
So my friend invests his body daily in a drama of more. He works hard, and I don’t begrudge him the results. But it’s not a drama worthy of him–of his more-than-usually curious mind, his spiritual hunger, his generous heart. He knows that, and he knows that he hasn’t found a way to be free of the drama that claims him. But for the years I knew him, he was a fixture in worship at his local parish church.
He’s not so very different from many of the people I encounter. They know there is something about the way their lives are unfolding that doesn’t stack up. They know that wealth (or status, or power) is an inadequate measurement for their lives. The drama in which they invest their bodies is, they know, somehow unreal. John Gertner’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “The futile quest for happiness” (September 7, 2003) explores the dissonance between what we think will make us happy or unhappy, and what actually does. Tellingly, most of the people interviewed in the research of psychologist Daniel Gilbert, whose work forms the basis of Gertner’s article, would choose a trick knee over a broken bone, even though a trick knee would be unpredictable and persistent, while a broken bone would heal and its consequences limited in time.
Much of our society is living with the spiritual equivalent of a trick knee, living, that is, with the knowledge that at any time, without warning, their lives could buckle and collapse. I am convinced that they know that it could happen, does happen, has happened. Moreover, most of them have a sneaking suspicion that they have chosen this condition, though, unlike those polled for Gertner’s research, they don’t know what the alternative is.
Part of evangelism in the Catholic Anglican tradition is to haunt people with the alternative. Because they have invested their bodies in a drama that they know, at some level, to be flawed–as much by what is missing as by what is there–our evangelism might come alongside them, not with a full-fledged alternative, but with encouragement for their suspicion. In fact, we might better and more effectively encourage their suspicion, since part of the claim of stuff, status and power on their lives is in its unwavering command, “thou shalt have no other gods but us”. The totalizing nature of the drama in which they have invested themselves, its shrill insistence that critical reflection is treacherous, makes many of our contemporaries wary of any absolute claim. The first step in evangelism among them may be to help them become atheists when it comes to the unexamined claims of tacit and totalizing gods. As Jose Miguez Bonino reflects in Room to Be People, “Only an atheist can be a good Christian.”
If the lives of our many of our contemporaries bear muted witness to their own ironic self-suspicion, it will not be enough simply to nurture that irony. It is our mission to bear witness to another possibility, to invite the suspicious into a world in which what is missing in “real life” begins to become visible. Catholic Anglicans, like other Christians, are stewards of two key endowments for life in that world–the sacramental witness of font and table, and the storied witness of scripture.
Font and table call us into an investment of our bodies that is at odds with the world’s dominant image of what it is to be human. They do not begin by telling us what we should do, but by reminding us (anamnesis, “unforgetting”) who we are. In these two sacramental acts, it is easy to be stranded on the level of the individual–the communicant member, the baptismal candidate–and forget that these are the actions of a public body possessed by an alternative imagination. The recovery of this corporate dimension of public sacramental life lies at the heart of Catholic Anglican evangelism.
Becoming inviting communities
Jamie Howison’s conviction that evangelism occurs by invitation (see page 3) is one that I share, but it begs a further question–how can our communities become inviting, in both senses of the word? How can they be communities who make invitation to others to enter the alternative imagination of font and table? And how can they become communities whose corporate life is transparent to an inviting, even beguiling Godly presence? In many churches of the Catholic Anglican tradition, that sense of invitation is not evident, and I suspect that many in our churches could not articulate a deep gladness capable of meeting the profound spiritual hunger of the world.
The second endowment–the Bible–is even more opaque in many of our churches. I suspect that the majority of our members feel ill-equipped to approach the biblical landscape with confidence. Perhaps this is because for so long the public face of the Bible has been dominated by a propositional approach to its truth. But when I read the Bible, it feels rather like a passionate, loud, and contentious dinner conversation among ancestors whose encounters with the living God are at the heart of their lives. Perhaps it is the fear of being wrong that strikes such fear into Anglican hearts in approaching the Bible. Perhaps it is the triumph of modernity, with its unexamined assumption that anything outside the bounds of current understanding is a boondoggle. Perhaps it is a rising fundamentalism that treats the Bible as a source of pithy simplicities. Whatever the cause, there will be no sustained evangelism in the Catholic Anglican tradition until we find ourselves a place in the Bible’s strange and holy conversation.
We are surrounded by people who have chosen the trick knee of living in the world without reference to its creator and redeemer, who struggle to understand human life without reference to its author, whose imaginations are constrained by the absence of a drama more compelling than the piling up (and fearing the loss) of stuff, status and power. We are entrusted with a drama (eucharist) and a landscape (the Bible) that bear witness to our creator and redeemer, that disclose the author’s intent, not by his comments on human life, but by his human life among us, that offer us holiness, communion and servanthood to nourish souls left starving by the empty calories of stuff, status and power.
The guy up the street works for a “services” company whose specialty is signing up consumers for things like cellular phone service. They have all the codes for the company’s customer billing list–the company itself does nothing at all, and pays a per-capita cost for every customer that my friend’s company uploads into their database.
Christendom used to be the “services” company for the churches. It delivered people to our doors as part of their citizenship, without any effort on our part. We paid a price, higher in some places than in others. But Christendom has withdrawn its services–whether because we decided not to pay the price or because our role in society diminished. We are now required to re-enter the marketplace of the human soul, and stake a claim for a way of life that we call abundant, sometimes without much sign of that abundance in our common life.
Evangelism in Catholic Anglicanism, then, has these features:
- A conversion and renewal of liturgy as an inviting alternative to the “trick knee spirituality” that plagues our contemporaries;
- an engagement with scripture as a story capable of bearing the weight and complexity of the human predicament,
- and a willingness to engage the searching hearts of those around us with intelligible, compassionate and inviting witness.