Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Anomic Anglicanism

In another posting, I distinguished between two ideal types of the Church: the Monolithic Church and the Over-Personalized Church. As their defining characteristics suggest, these two Church types are negative mirror images of each other. I noted that both of these Church types are in a conflict to dominate the Episcopal Church and global Anglicanism. And I concluded that neither of these Church types alone constitutes a Via Media Church.

In this piece, I want to explore some of the reasons why it is becoming more difficult for Episcopalians to live into the identity of a Via Media Church. A couple of recent (and, I believe, by no means unique) experiences raise the relevant issues.

First Experience: An Episcopal friend shared with me that her EFM mentor has confidently declared to the group that Jesus’ death was not an atonement for anybody’s sins and that the resurrection of Jesus never happened. Jesus simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the resurrection is just a 'myth.'

Second Experience: I’ve recently been using the Nicene Creed as a resource for teaching a Youth Confirmation class. Because we recite it every Sunday in the liturgy and it has been repeatedly affirmed by successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions as "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877), I think they need to know something about what we’re affirming as the faith of the Church.

So one day I’m working on the second part of the Creed with its affirmations of the uniqueness of Jesus as Lord and Savior, the union of Jesus' two natures (one divine, one human) in one person, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, etc.

Later that evening, I attend a gathering of other Episcopalians and hear much of what I was working on earlier in the day rejected and opposite views affirmed – including Gnostic and Arian Christologies, a Marcionite view of the Bible (an OT God of judgment and wrath vs. a NT God of love and acceptance), and a radically subjectivist understanding of religious truth.

These sorts of experiences trouble me, not because I don’t embrace religious and theological inquiry (I do), and not because I wish to affirm a Monolithic model of the Church against an Over-Personalized model (I don’t). They trouble me because they are not uncommon in the Episcopal Church. And because they provide empirical evidence for ecclesial anomie.


A + nomos: literally, “against rule" or "against law.”


Anomie is a situation in which the norms that define and make the shared life of community possible are (a) forgotten, (b) known, but rejected, or (c) never known to begin with.

In the Episcopal Church, the norms that give us our identity and make common life possible include Holy Scripture, our Constitution and Canons, and the liturgies and rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer.

We have the norms we need to sustain a common, faithful life. But the evidence for anomie is mounting. It arises especially in the growing chasm between praying and believing. We pray using The Book of Common Prayer, but our common prayer does not necessarily shape what we believe about God, Jesus, the Church, etc. We corporately affirm what the Eucharistic prayers say about Jesus and what the Nicene Creed articulates as the faith of the Church. But as soon as the liturgy concludes, we individually feel free to revise or repudiate everything we’ve corporately affirmed.

We are no longer sufficiently formed by the norms we already have.

Take the first experience I cited above. It troubles me that someone who says they don’t believe in the atonement and in the resurrection is willing to pray belief in the atonement and the resurrection, yet is also apparently unwilling (or unable) to allow that praying to shape his/her believing. This doesn’t simply turn the old patristic maxim that “praying shapes believing” on its head. It implodes it by shifting the locus of authority away from the liturgy (the “work of the people”) to individual conscience. When that happens, the overriding norm for truth is private and subjective rather than corporate and intersubjective.

This issue becomes even more serious when we look at the vows taken by clergy. In the ordination rites, the ordinand makes this vow before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly (including signing a statement to this effect, which is then signed by witnesses):

“ … I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 513, 526, & 538).

The “Oath of Conformity” represents a deeply countercultural commitment. For as fashionable as it is for many bishops, priests, and deacons to take a stand on any given issue because their conscience dictates it, we clergy have promised to be conformists. We have solemnly promised that the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church over-rides individual conscience by setting the boundaries for what is and what is not normative. As a consequence, we clergy have voluntarily given up our “right” to ecclesial disobedience.

When Episcopal clergy ...
  • alter the language of the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer, or even write our own Eucharistic Prayers for use in place of authorized prayers;
  • dismiss the directives of rubrics;
  • substitute a “new and improved” creed for the Nicene Creed, or even drop it from the liturgy altogether;
  • act contrary to canon law and encourage others to do the same (by promoting communion for the un-baptized, for example);
  • support the belief that we can achieve Anglican ends through Congregationalist means by allowing parishes to vote on whether or not they choose to remain members of the Episcopal Church;
  • substitute the “spiritual authority” of the Primates’ Meeting (which has no grounding in legitimate, conciliar authority) for the Constitution, Canons, and General Convention of the Episcopal Church;
  • and/or publicly affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, but only for persons who choose to accept him as such

... then we reject the norms of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church for the private judgment of individual conscience.

This is anomic Anglicanism.

Its consequences are far-reaching. Not only does it make it increasingly difficult to see the background of agreements against which our disagreements are recognizable (and perhaps bridgeable). But the extent to which we treat canons, rubrics, approved liturgies, ordination vows, etc., as arbitrary impositions to be ignored when convenient (or when circumstances trouble our conscience) is precisely the extent to which we repudiate our membership in the Episcopal Church.

Most of us wouldn’t dream of tolerating this kind of anomie in our society (“Sure, Congress passed that law, but we’re going to do things differently in this town!”), or in our marriages (“Yes, honey, I promised to be faithful to you in the marriage vows, but my conscience leads me to have sex with someone else on the weekends.”).

And yet we tolerate it in the Church.

Some even actively celebrate it.

If our praying shapes our believing less and less, and if clergy are unwilling (or unable) to keep their vows and promises, then it makes perfect sense why the only available alternative to the subjectivism of the Over-Personalized Church appears to be the objectivism of the Monolithic Church with its insistence on the individual’s inflexible submission to hierarchical authority.

Embracing conscience over conformity with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, we bring the crisis of anomie upon ourselves. It's a crisis that makes the Over-Personalized and the Monolithic Church types - and their inability to co-exist - appear to be the only viable options. And one which makes normlessness appear to be the only norm.


Tobias said...

Thanks for this. You are thinking along similar lines to myself, and we share some of the same annoyances. The thing that bothers me most is I sense that most of the "heresies" are really not well thought out doctrinal objections, but rather casual dismissals, without much regard for the implications. Thus when folks cavalierly discard portions of the Creed they find literally "incredible" (now there's a contradiction in terms) I get the strong feeling they are doing so more as a result of culture than real engagement. Perhaps I do them a disservice and they really are committed heretics, but that isn't the impression I get. I do think they are throwing the baby out with not only the bathwater, but the tub, towels, and probably the accessory porcelain appliances. As I noted in an earlier essay at my blog, some of the rootedly orthodox doctrines actually provide a way to an understanding of some of the vex'd questions of the last quarter-century.

It amazes me that given the wide diversity allowable under our rubrics folks still seem to get the liturgical itch to amend and elide even more.

In any case, thanks for this essay, and for pointing to it in the comment chez moi.

Marshall said...

My thanks as well.

This is why I am concerned about service booklets replacing use of the Prayer Book. There is so much else in there for the worshipper to see! All that additional detail can indeed stimulate reflection and contribute to the formation process.

Bryan+ said...

Tobias and Marshall, thank you both for your comments. It's heartening to know that I'm not alone with these "annoyances."

Tobias, I look forward to reading the essay you cite in your response to my piece when I return from the MS Conference on Music & Liturgy.

I suspect that you are correct that much of what is going on with what I am calling "Anomic Anglicanism" has more to do with lack of sustained engagement with Tradition and Scripture - sloppiness, or even ignorance - than it does with a well-thought-out intellectual commitment to heresy. If so, that substantiates one of my concerns about our Church today - that we are not doing a very good job of spiritual and intellectual formation.

I continue to be amazed, for example, at just what the EYC kids preparaing for confirmation don't know about the Church, the Bible, God, Jesus, etc.

More frightening still is when someone comes out of seminary and still doesn't know much about these things.

I've seen this kind of stuff too many times to not draw the conclusion that - for reasons beyond my grasp - we are failing in the Christian formation department. Perhaps we (meaning both lay and clergy leaders) are creating "heretics" simply by our own laziness and/or our own ignorance?

Tobias said...

Sadly, as you note, it's not just the EYC. I was astonished in seminary to find the level of biblical ignorance on the part of many of my classmates. There were whole swaths of Scripture they simply had never even encountered. Although the faculty did their best, I'm afraid the whirlwind of seminary is no place to gain a real "enculturation." Part of the problem being that once upon a time seminarians received basic biblical formation in Sunday School -- and now much of seminary is fulfilling that elementary function of initial exposure to the text, instead of deeper engagement.

I'm for making seminary a four-year experience, with the first spent in remedial training in the disciplines of prayer and scripture reading. Those who have been saying the Daily Office can "test out"!

Bryan+ said...

Tobias, I'm with you on the Daily Offices. Just following that discipline alone can make up for a whole lot of ground missed in other areas.

My sense is that many seminaries and divinity schools assume a level of formation that does not exist among many students. If they didn't engage basic stuff in Confirmation preparation, EYC, etc., then it's probably not going to help them to start off their first year in seminary by reading Foucault and writing their own "constructive theology."

I like your idea about four years for seminary. Before even getting to the academic stuff, the first year could be akin to a monastic life with a laser focus on (as you say) scripture reading and prayer. Adding another year probably wouldn't go over well in dioceses that financially support seminarians, but I think this stuff is too important to let money be an obstacle.

In my diocese, our bishop is thinking about requiring aspirants to read a bibilography and then undergo written and oral evaluation as a check on the front end before the completion of discernment. It would be one way of ascertaining the level of formation and knowledge persons have before they complete discernment. I think that's a great idea.

Anonymous said...

amen to all this! i can affirm that my brother's experiences in seminary are anticipations of my own here at VTS.

but i would add that the faculty help this attitude along, in many ways. i can't speak to GTS.

Bryan+ said...

Interesting and a bit distressing observations about seminary faculty, Thomas. I've heard similar stories from others, especially folks who recently attended the now (or soon-to-be) closed Seabury-Western.

I wonder if anybody ever - in any of the seminaries - actually walks seminarians through the ordination rite and the vows (including and especially the "Oath of Conformity")? I seriously doubt it, particularly if they are explicitly or tacitly nurturing the illusion in our seminarians that ordination confers on the individual the power to make/revise liturgy and/or church teaching.

The closest thing I ever saw to anything like this was when I was at Sewanee. In a "Spirituality for Ministry" class, Tom Ward noted that, in the "Oath of Conformity," the ordinand solemnly swears that they believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments "to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation." One of my classmates admitted before us all that he wasn't sure he believed that, to which Tom responded that he better get clear about this matter over the course of his next two years in seminary BEFORE getting ordained!