American Anglicans made me change my mind on church
Disillusioned with the C of E’s ambivalent attitude to liberalism, the US Episcopal church was like a breath of fresh air.
- guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 January 2011 12.44 GMT
As regular readers will know, I’ve spent quite a lot of time on this site, and elsewhere, arguing for a rather extreme sort of liberal Christianity. I started off fulminating against the establishment of the Church of England, and went on to argue that all major forms of church were full of illiberal assumptions. Really liberal Christians must try to develop a new, anarchic, post-ecclesial Christian culture, I said.
I have changed my mind in an important respect. I now feel that organised religion may not be such a bad idea. Its various authoritarian forms may be avoidable. It may be redeemable.
Two things have led me to this rethink. First, I have admitted that, after a few years of looking, I have failed to find any significant manifestations of a new, post-institutional Christian culture. Second, I have encountered a form of church that does not offend me.
Almost 10 years ago, prompted by the post-9/11 debates, I rethought my allegiance to the C of E. I believed that it must reform itself by ditching its established status. Wasn’t it obvious? Apparently not. I found that there was very little will for such reform within the church. Rather, conservative voices were becoming more dominant: secular liberalism was being talked of as a dark threat by bishops and theologians. My disillusion was completed by the C of E’s role in education. It was becoming more involved in running semi-selective schools, which encouraged phoney church attendance.
No other church grabbed me: all institutional religion seemed fatally conservative. Non-established churches seemed to gravitate towards some form of bossy dogmatism, and failed to proclaim the affinity between Christianity and liberalism. So I began to argue for a new, more radical, liberal Christianity that affirmed secular liberalism and was wary of institutional orthodoxy. In place of the traditional church, I proposed a loose culture of informal meetings, celebratory events, artistic expressions of faith – a new, freestyle religious culture.
But I found very little such culture to get involved in. Annoyingly, the few attempts at alternative worship I came across were run by the dastardly C of E! I met some Christians who were detached from any church, but they seemed too laidback to do anything, beyond meeting up for a chat. The awkward fact, it seemed, was that only institutionally rooted Christians understood the primacy of ritual. Only they were committed to the ritual worship of a certain ancient Palestinian chap. And, away from such a commitment, there is surely no Christianity worth speaking of.
It was a catch-22. Organised religion was intolerably illiberal, but only organised religion seemed able to organise Christian ritual – without which Christianity is just a bunch of vague ideas. My desire was for ritual to be liberated from the institutions but, frankly, I didn’t know how this could happen. After a few years staring at this question, I was no nearer to answering it.
Then, last year, I moved to New York. I wanted to see if there was a stronger post-institutional Christian culture here, a more substantial “emerging church” movement. There is, but I’m not yet sure what I make of it. I was also curious to see what I would make of the Episcopal church, the American branch of Anglicanism. It is proudly disestablished, and has broken with the homophobic legalism of the rest of the communion, so would I find it a model of liberalism, or still complicit in the various ills of organised religion? I was assuming the latter. But, to my surprise, a taste of Episcopalian worship got me asking: “What’s not to like?”
Looking back at the crisis in the Anglican communion, I find that I am impressed by the boldness of the Americans. Instead of backing down over Gene Robinson’s consecration, they insisted that a basic Christian principle was at stake: the need to oppose moral legalism, and spread the good news to everyone. This was Paul’s project – which is why it is so ironic that Paul also supplies the conservatives with their main ammunition. You could say that the crisis is an argument within the mind of Paul.
I grew up believing (vaguely) in liberal Anglicanism, and then gradually found that it was mainly a myth: the C of E had always been ambivalent about liberalism. Instead of daring to face up to this, it shrugged smugly. Surely there are some intelligent liberal voices in the C of E? Yes, but their scope is limited: they have pragmatically agreed to ignore the elephant in the room, the old illiberal curse that hangs over their church.
The air is fresher here. The American branch of Anglicanism has emerged in the past decade as the global pioneer of liberal Christianity. It has persuaded me not to give up on the church just yet.
Sunday morning here in Aotearoa – off to the CandleMass Celebration at Saint Michael’s, where we welcome everyone who comes – whatever race, colour, ethnic origins, sexual-orientation or political beliefs. We believe God will Bless all who come – just like Theo Hobson’s personal experience of the welcome he got from TEC. Deo Gratias!
Have a Blessed Sunday, Father Ron Smith, Christchurch