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Benjamin Guyer's avatar
Marriage, Family, and Anglican Viability

Or, Why We Need a Backup Plan
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Friday, November 13, 2009 at 6:50 pm
It is without malice when I write that Rowan Williams’ greatest failure as Archbishop of Canterbury has been his persistent belief that Christians can and should act like Christians. The reality of the Episcopal Church has forced my girlfriend and I to ask whether or not we will be able to stay in the church that we met in.
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On Thursday afternoon, my girlfriend Rachel sent me a brief text in which she indicated her upset over Gene Robinson’s NPR interview earlier that day. I immediately called her and asked what about the interview was so upsetting. Her reply first touched upon the descriptive reality of Robinson’s own profound self-denial about the state of the Episcopal Church – “there is a new kind of peacefulness, really, in the Episcopal Church,” he said – and his advocacy of a GLBTQ platform that gives no substantive place to theology. Rachel then moved from the content of the interview to a prescriptive consideration. Is either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in our future? This is not the first time we have had this sort of conversation. The reality of the Episcopal Church – its indifference towards orthodoxy, its recent turn towards an unfettered advocacy of abortion on demand, its unashamed neglect of pastoral care for youth and young people, and its self-important, non-existent intellectual life – have forced us to ask whether or not we will be able to stay in the church that we met in. Rachel and I are not alone in asking this question; we have friends that are wrestled by the same. I love my girlfriend very much, and I believe that we will someday be married and have a family. But in what church will we be married, and where we will we baptize and nurture our children? This is a question that presses on me – sometimes acutely, and always without apology.

The future of the Anglican Communion depends upon young people such as Rachel and myself being able, and not just willing, to remain Anglican. Rachel was raised in the Episcopal Church; I began attending the Episcopal student center at the very end of my senior year at the University of Florida, and was confirmed a year and a half later. The process leading up to confirmation was, in many ways, a difficult one. My parents are ex-Catholics and I was raised in a fundamentalist, charismatic church, but at the age of sixteen I began attending, with the rest of my family, a rather unhealthy Calvinist church. Those were very difficult years for me, and my choice to leave evangelicalism at the age of 21 was preceded (and followed, as it turned out) by years of study, struggle, and tears far removed from merely youthful angst. My choice to seek out a different church was met with considerable hostility by some of my family members, but by that point in my life, I knew enough theology to recognize that liturgy, the sacraments, the creeds, and apostolic succession were necessary and essential features of historic Christianity. At the invitation of a friend, I attended the Episcopal student center in late December 2003. The moment I walked through the doors of the chapel, I experienced for the first time what I have never experienced since: I knew that I was home. Reflecting upon this moistens my eyes; the gratuitous plenitude of that life-changing moment exceeds my command of language. I know what it means to be suddenly and miraculously converted only because of that event.

There were several Anglican doctors whose writings gave theological substance to my prior ecstasy – Rowan Williams among the living, and Michael Ramsey and Lancelot Andrewes among those who now sleep. In the years since, I have been shaped by the metaphysical vision of Richard Hooker and the creative rigor Austin Farrer; I have been nourished by the poetic meditations of Divine Herbert and R. S. Thomas; I have been inspired by saints such as Trevor Huddleston and the recent martyrs of Melanesia. In the last year and a half, I have been amazed to learn of the once-central cult of monarchy, complete with miracles, relics, and liturgical commemorations, which suffused Anglican devotion and self-understanding for hundreds of years. And, I remain fully committed to the conciliar ecclesiology that has increasingly defined Anglicanism beginning with the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. I want to pass on this heritage to my children. How do I do so, when I cannot be certain that I will have a church to raise them in – let alone a church for myself and my girlfriend? The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon for 01 November 2009, delivered in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of All Saints’ Margaret Street, London, does a wonderful job recognizing the importance of saints, such as those mentioned above, in the Christian life. And yet, although a good bit of ecclesiological realism, united with Christian charity, will go a long way towards healing the wounds that have been – and continue to be – inflicted upon our Anglican body, the faithful lay person who attempts to plan something of his or her future needs to know what the prospects are for continued communion. I want a stable and healthy church in which I might begin and nurture my family. The lack of this as a viable option within the North American context witnesses less to those sad vicissitudes of life that we might learn and grow from, and more to a profound breakdown in pastoral care.

It is without malice when I write that Rowan Williams’ greatest failure as Archbishop of Canterbury has been his persistent belief that Christians can and should act like Christians. This, of course, is not a commentary on Williams himself, but a comment on the current moral, ethical, and theological condition of the Anglican Communion and its bishops, particularly those in places such as the United States of America, Nigeria, Sydney, and Uganda. As the good Archbishop knows, the present situation is indeed chaotic and it is unclear what the future will be, despite the creation of an Anglican Covenant. Given the uncertain timeframe that lingers between the Covenant’s proposal and final adoption, Archbishop Williams would do well to clearly articulate a backup plan that addresses what to do when either a province or a diocese desists from signing it. In particular, this course of action needs to give clear and strong guidance on the messy question of what to do when loyalty and submission to the Anglican Covenant causes a diocese to shatter. Everyone knows that this tragic event will play out time and again across the Anglican Communion, especially within my own province, the Episcopal Church (USA). If no ecclesiological road map is conceived and disseminated before the Covenant is rejected in certain places, a taxing and chaotic situation will be made far worse, and the fruit that it bears may carry bitter seeds for many bitter harvests to come.

No less importantly, but perhaps more painfully, this plan needs to comprehend the realities on the ground. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of faithful Anglicans who are in canonically irregular (invalid?) parishes, not because they find the situation desirable, but because at the end of the day they don’t want to leave Anglicanism. In order to maintain the communal telos of the Episcopal Church’s own constitution, they removed themselves (some, admittedly, for less noble reasons than others). In fact, when it comes to Anglican friends close to my own age, almost all of them have left the Episcopal Church (USA) for such parishes, although I do not know if this gives an accurate indication of the concentration of young people in groups such as the AMiA, ACNA, etc. The opening paragraph of the Episcopal Church’s Constitution, dependent as it is upon Resolution 49 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, is worth repeating. The Episcopal Church, like all Anglican provinces, is constituted as

a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

Those who are fueled by this same desire and self-understanding need to be brought into full, visible communion with whatever remains of orthodox Anglicanism within the Episcopal Church (USA). The Anglican Communion has the prerogative to care for itself, to maintain its health, and to discipline and reconstruct its provinces as it sees fit. Simply stated, the Anglican Communion is responsible for seeing that the “the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer” is maintained. This is not done by way of power, however, but by way of self-abasing pastoral care. The membership of the Episcopal Church (USA) is declining at the rate of one diocese per year. Rachel and I are the future of not just the Episcopal Church (USA), but of Anglicanism itself. We need a form of pastoral care that provides a way forward. So do our friends. Our children will need it, too. Is it ironic – or, is it the interruption of grace – that a seemingly basic matter such as the anticipated birth of a future child might so efficiently address the most intractable of theological conundrums?
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