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.