Does the Anglican Church have a Future?

Posted by on May 31, 2004 in Lectures | No Comments

One of the things that we expect in a postmodern world, and rightly so, is that people will be upfront about where they are coming from, about what their story is and about their biases, so that they don’t pretend to an objectivity they don’t have, and so that we can have honest conversation.  This being so, I need to tell you as I begin that at my core I am an Anglican of the evangelical variety, but at the edges I am quite fuzzy. (Well, maybe to say “fuzzy Anglican” is redundant anyway.) When I say fuzzy, let me be clear: what I mean is that I know God can’t be contained in my little box, or indeed in any human box, so I want to be open to God wherever God is to be found. Like the late Bishop John Robinson, who in many things is not a hero of mine, I want to be clear at the centre and open at the edges.  I also want to acknowledge that this event tonight [Convocation] doesn’t take place in a cultural vacuum. I don’t need to tell you that the Anglican Church of Canada is facing what will in all likelihood be the most contentious of General Synods since the ordination of women was debated, and perhaps moreso. Friends of mine on both sides of the issue of blessing same sex unions are threatening to leave the Anglican Church if the vote goes against their preference.  If that makes you nervous because you think that I am about to pontificate on The Issue, you can relax. It’s not my job, and I’m not sure I’m that courageous anyway. (I had lunch with Michael Peers a few months ago, and I said as we began, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to talk about the homosexual issue.” And he said with a wry smile: “That’s OK. Most people don’t. They just send me emails.”) I only mention this because it is the situation in the background for this evening’s convocation, and I think it would be naïve for us not to acknowledge it.  Where then to begin, and which direction to go? In trying to be open to different ways of thinking, one of the schools of thought I have found helpful in recent years is postliberalism—people like George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas—and I want to borrow their term “retrieval.” They would say in order to understand the present and to be ready for the future, we need to have a strong sense of who we are, and in order to do that, we have to reach back into our history, and “retrieve” a sense of what it means to be a Christian.  I want to suggest there are perhaps three areas of Christian faith that we need to “retrieve” in order to understand the present and to be ready for the future, whatever it may bring: 1.      We need to recover a sense of what story we are living in You may know that wonderful line from philosopher Alasdair McIntyre on this subject. He says: 

I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” (After Virtue 216)

Human beings need to know their story: it gives us identity and it gives us purpose. If I may adapt an old joke, you may know of the son who wouldn’t get up on a Sunday morning for church. His mother tried to get him up, but he said, “Why should I go to church? Nobody likes me, it’s boring, and I’m not sure I believe that stuff anyway. Give me two reasons I should get up.” And his mother replied, “Well, you’re thirty years old and you’re the priest.”  What is the mother doing? She’s trying to get him to do the right thing by reminding him of the story he belongs to! 

For the most part, Anglican Christians don’t know the story they belong to. We are biblically illiterate, maybe because we still live with a Christendom model of the church, where we assume everybody who walks through the door is already a mature Christian, or maybe we prefer to be biblically illiterate so that no-one will mistake us for Baptists.

What then is our story? We are part of what is basically a very simple story. Our story says God created the world good and beautiful and full of life; the story says we spoiled God’s creation by refusing to follow the manufacturer’s instructions; but the story says too that this is not the end, that the Creator has not given up, indeed that the Creator is seeking to restore this world to a beauty even greater than it had at the beginning. And, as we understand it in the Christian community, the centrepiece of God’s restoration project is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Does this make the Christian story a metanarrative, bete noir of postmodernism? Frankly, I don’t see any way around saying yes, it is a metanarrative. But I would say with Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh in their book, Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, that the Christian story is a uniquely benign metanarrative, whose intention is to bring freedom not oppression. Now the Christian story is not the same story a Muslim or a Buddhist might tell (though that’s no reason we can’t be friends). Neither is it the same story an atheist would tell. And, frankly, it’s not the story most Canadians would tell. So Christians need to be familiar with their distinctive story in order to answer the question, “What am I to do? How should I behave? What are wise choices?” Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has a great analogy for this, which I will adapt slightly. He says, suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s was discovered, but with one act, Act 5, missing. What could you do? Perhaps the best solution would be to get together the world’s most experienced Shakespearian actors, get them to read Acts 1 through 4, and Act 6, till it is second nature to them—and then set them loose to act out the play. When they came to Act 5 they would improvise, they would make it up. Now, if they are going to do that well, they would have to be true to Acts 1 through 4, the characters and the plot would have to be credible—and their improvisation would have to connect with the start of Act 6.  Now, says Wright, that is where we are in relation to the Christian story. God has given us a framework for our lives in Acts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Act 1 is creation, Act 2 the fall, Act 3 the formation of the people of

Israel through the Old Testament; Act 4 the coming of Jesus and the founding of the church; and Act 6, eschatology. All the clues for how to perform Act 5 are right there.  An Orthodox friend said to me recently, “It seems to me that Anglicans are more interested in being Canadians than they are in being Christians.”  I found there was too much truth in that to be comfortable. As Anglicans, we do not know our story, we don’t know how it is distinctive, we don’t know how to live in the light of our story, and often we don’t even know why it’s important to know our story. Which leads to my second point: 

2.      We need to retrieve the story of the Gospel . . . because at the heart of our story is Good News. When you ask what brought the Christian church into being, it was, in a word, the Gospel. Those first followers of Jesus had stumbled on good news–the good news that Jesus had risen, that sins could be forgiven, that God is for us, and that the whole world looks different because of this. And the reason the Christian church spread so rapidly throughout the ancient world, and the reason it continues to spread in many countries today, is exactly that—that Christians have amazing good news to share. I think of one young man who became a Christian not long ago, who said to me, “I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before!” That’s what the Gospel does to people. Now Anglicans are not exactly known for their (what shall I say?) unbridled spiritual exuberance. But unless we rediscover the Gospel, we will die—it’s as simple as that. Do Anglicans know the Gospel? I remember asking this question at a diocesan gathering once, and an elderly man in the front row said, “Well, I’ve been an Anglican for 60 years, and I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever heard something called the Gospel.” His priest, who was sitting beside him, turned to him in horror and said, “But you hear it every Sunday!” Who was right? Well, probably both were right. He had heard the words all right, but not in such a way that it came home to him as good news, not in such a way that it gave him joy or hope.   We say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”—and the greatest facts in the history of the human race just make us yawn, whereas, if they are true, surely they should make us want to shout and dance and sing and weep for joy all at the same time. Although as Anglicans, we would do it in a reserved and liturgical way, naturally. That doesn’t matter. Part of the problem, I think, is that we have not helped people discover the Christian good news in their own experience. Think of it this way. Suppose a war has been won and a country has been set free from oppression. That’s great news. (My father used to tell us children how he had liberated

Italy at the end of the Second World War.)  But how does that victory affect people? For the country as a whole, the good news is that the yoke of oppression has been cast off. But then there is a trickle down effect: the victory is going to affect different people differently. For a child, the good news is simply that Daddy (or Mummy) is coming home from the army. For business, the good news is that the economy can begin to get on its feet again. For the media, the good news is that they can express their opinions freely once more. For the people in general, democracy is restored. And so on. The good news will look different according to how the war affected you.  The death and resurrection of Jesus are like that victory. It is the best news ever. But I think all too often we have not encouraged the trickle down effect. What does the Gospel mean for each person? For one it will mean that the fear of death is lifted. For another, that there is hope in the most hopeless circumstances. For another, that Jesus is with us. For another, that the burden of guilt can be lifted. For yet another, that healing and restoration is possible.  I confess that I have heard too many sermons that can best be described as flabby and anemic. Their message amounts to: be a nicer person, try harder, pull your socks up, be a responsible citizen, pray more, give more money, and so on. Who’s going to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to hear that? Frankly, that’s not the Gospel. The best we can say is that it might be the fruit of the Gospel!  The Gospel itself is that the death of Jesus has brought us into the friendship of the Creator. And because we can enjoy the friendship of the Creator, the whole of life looks quite different. I could stand some more sermons about that. (You know the advice of the old priest to the new deacon when she asked what to preach about? “Preach about the Gospel and about 15 minutes.”) One way to begin to think about this is by asking, “In what ways is Jesus good news for us, for me, for you?” And it wouldn’t be fair to ask you the question without volunteering my own answer. I would have to say in my life in recent years the personal good news flowing out of the cosmic good news of the cross and resurrection has been that God is able to make all things new—in my work life, in my marriage, in my spiritual life. So what is the Gospel according to you? I don’t know what the answer will be for you: but I do know that we need to begin to retrieve the Gospel by rediscovering its power in our own lives. And that leads to my third point, the heart of the story, the heart of the Gospel: 3.      We need to retrieve the story of  Jesus  Some Anglicans are allergic to Jesus. My friend Harold Percy tells the story of a clergyman who said to him, “We don’t like to talk much about Jesus in our church. We find it a bit embarrassing.” To which Harold promptly replied, “If you go to Canadian Tire and ask for a wrench, do you expect them to be embarrassed to talk about wrenches?” Six months later, that minister called him and said, “I just want you to know we are learning to talk about Jesus.” Another minister said, “But at seminary I was taught not to talk about Jesus.” Yet if we can’t talk about “the J word,” what on earth does it mean to be a Christian community as opposed to some other kind of religious community? Now don’t misunderstand me. My colleague David Reed is a world expert on a small sect of Pentecostals called the “Jesus only” Pentecostals: among other things, they baptize people in the name of “Jesus only.” I’m not suggesting we become a kind of “Jesus-only Anglicans.” We are inescapably Trinitarian. But there is a tendency for mainline denominations in general to become binitarian Christians, to focus on The Creator and on Spirit, in liturgy and preaching and even conversation, to the neglect of Jesus. Somehow life is more comfortable that way. It’s strange, isn’t it? In the 60’s, people said they liked Jesus (Jesus the guerrilla leader, Jesus the radical) but they didn’t believe in God, of course. Now somehow the roles have got reversed: everybody believes in God, but Jesus makes us a little uncomfortable. He’s a bit too specific, a bit too concrete, for our liking. Now, I am not a Barthian, but I do appreciate Barth’s emphasis that Jesus is the key to what we know about God, and what we know about the Spirit. Jesus, in other words, is not an afterthought, to be understood in the light of the Creator and Spirit: Jesus is the beginning point for understanding both Creator and Spirit. Some are worried that if we go back to emphasizing Jesus, we will become sectarian and cut ourselves off from other religious traditions. I suppose it could happen, but not necessarily so. We still want to build bridges to our neighbours of other faiths, we still want to emphasize similarities between the faiths, we still want to work together wherever we can. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a no-brainer. But I don’t expect my Muslim neighbour to pretend the Koran isn’t important to him when he talks to me. So why do I feel I have to set aside my commitment to Jesus in order to talk with him? The nature of a postmodern world is that we encourage people to affirm their distinctives, and we don’t try to homogenize everybody into a bland uniformity. Is it possible that our problem is that we’re not mature enough to have friends we disagree with?  Another part of our problem with Jesus, I suspect, is that we don’t have good images for thinking (for example) about the Incarnation. Of course we’re going to have problems believing in the Incarnation if we think of Jesus as somehow leaping down from heaven, or of God putting on a human disguise, like Zeus. But are there no better ways to think of it? William Temple and C.S.Lewis both talked of the Incarnation as being like Shakespeare writing himself into the text of Hamlet so he could interact with Hamlet. Isn’t that good? I don’t know if you read the cartoon strip called “Overboard,” about three pirates on a pirate ship and their

Labrador dog, Louie. Sometimes another character appears in the strip, a man not dressed like a pirate, normally sitting at a drawing board with a pen, and with a shingle on the wall next to the desk saying “Overboard Inc.” Who is it? Well, it’s the cartoonist, of course, writing himself into the script of the cartoon. Sometimes the pirates complain to him about the things he wants them to say; sometimes they refuse to do the things he wants to draw; and sometimes they ask him to create scenarios they like, which he may or may not do. Does any of that sound familiar?
 I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who said, “What the church needs is not better arguments but better metaphors.”  Arguments are goads that try to force us where we don’t want to go; metaphors are windows that invite us to a new view of truth. We need new metaphors to bring home to us afresh what a delightful, infuriating, intriguing, attractive person Jesus Christ is, so that he remains at the centre of Christian worship and service. 

Conclusion

For some years, I served on the Primate’s Evangelism Commission. I remember Michael Peers once reflecting how in his lifetime he had seen the church’s involvement in social action move from the margins of church life, where it was just the pet peeve of a small ginger group, to the centre, where these days we take it for granted that social action is the church’s responsibility.   So my question, I suppose, is this: Can the reality and drama of our story move back to the centre of the church’s life? Can we grow again into loving the story, being passionate about the story, centering our lives and our congregations’ lives, around the story? Because in a world where many lack a story, this is a story that gives life, this is a story that is full of hope.  Does the Anglican Church of Canada have a future? My answer is a definite . . . maybe. But in the big picture, you know, that’s not really the most important question to be asking. In the long run, if survival is our number one priority, one thing is clear: we will not survive. (You will recall that Jesus said some pretty strong things about those who tried to save their own lives.) No, our job is to be faithful to the story, not least because we believe it is God’s story, and our job is to retell the story and to live out the story—as Tom Wright puts it, with faithfulness on the one hand and creativity on the other. And to leave the consequences to God. 

Queen’s College,

Newfoundland

May 2004 

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John Bowen taught evangelism at Wycliffe College from 1997 till 2013. He now directs two departments of the college: Wycliffe Serves! which co-ordinates the external ministries of the college; and the Institute of Evangelism, which helps churches across the country with resources for congregational vitality and evangelism. He is married to Deborah, an English professor. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.