Friday, December 26, 2014

Anglican Exceptionalism

"Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it," wrote George Bernard Shaw.  Is my fondness for Anglican tradition anything more than self-congratulation for following the Episcopal church's call to me 40 years ago? On a day when Atlanta's dreary grey skies might as well be England's, minutes after the radio broadcast of the Christmas Eve service from King's College, while I sip Earl Grey tea, the time is right to consider the question of Anglican Exceptionalism. My heart and my mind do not agree on a single answer.

[Photo: Choir of King's College, Cambridge]

My heart was drawn to the Episcopal church through style;  the substance, I would absorb over time through participation in music, liturgy and study.  Teacher Frank Boggs prepared me to appreciate the distinctive quality of Anglican music by directing our high school chorale in Vivaldi, spirituals, and contemporary gospel music, all expressing faith from different angles.  In 1974 he introduced me to a recording that King's College choir made of church music by Britten and Bernstein.  The echo of organ and overlapping voices in a vaulted stone chapel still creates a space of its own inside me, where I find comfort and energy. 

This year's Christmas Eve broadcast from King's College featured hymns spanning eight centuries composed or arranged by the likes of Holst, Howells, and Willcocks.  These selections, so different from each other, are alike in words that develop, not just repeat, ideas; stately pace; contrasts in dynamics and texture; and harmony used to color the text.  Singing such music with our parish choir at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, takes me to the vaulted nave and candlelight, even if it's just rehearsal.  I respond emotionally to this sound, to this repertoire, and to the richly-worded Book of Common Prayer that provides context for the music. (Read O Praise Hymn, my reflection on King's College Choir's recording of "Best Loved Hymns.")

Yet an Episcopal priest deflates my swelling pride.  In The Bush was Blazing but not Consumed (Chalice Press, 1996) Fr.Eric H. F. Law warns against "put[ting] God within our cultural frame." I shouldn't need reminding that "ethnocentric towers" can't contain God.   Law writes how we build our towers to isolate ourselves from others (Law 27) and how we make "golden calves" of rules (31) and rituals (33).  Jesus trampled the  Pharisees' prized rules, so he said, not to "abolish" but to "fulfill" the law," i.e., to re-open the path to relationship with God (29).  As Law orders responses to cultural difference in a spectrum that ranges from "(1) Difference does not exist" to "(7) I know there are differences, but they are not important," I'm not piggish enough to think, ""(3) You are different; therefore you are bad."  I'm somewhere between "(4) It's okay for you to be different, but I am better" and "(6) If you don't include like I do, you are bad." (I don't go to the oddball position, "(5) You are different, therefore I am bad," though I'm sometimes embarrassed by Americans' image).   I love the Anglican tradition for its present openness to otherness, even while I'm aware that others are alienated by our rituals and by our openness to evolution in our theology as well as to evolution by natural selection.

That openness flows from our earliest history, though I recognize a strong under-current of chauvinism and bitter conservatism that also surfaces from century to century.

[Photo: Westminster Cathedral — London.]
The Anglican tradition has been tolerant of difference since the Church of England's inception at the time of St. Augustine (missionary to Canterbury in 597 C.E., not the theologian from Hippo in North Africa of 100 years earlier).   On a stroll through Rome with Augustine, Pope Gregory I, "the Great", quipped that fair-haired slave boys from the British Isles may be "Angles, but they look like Angels" ("non angli sed angeli" - see image, dedicated to Anglican choir boys), and sent Augustine to reclaim the church of England for Rome.  Historian Diarmaid MacCullough tells how Gregory, motivated to prepare the world for its last days that he was sure must come soon, gained for Rome "an empire of the mind greater than anything which Octavian had created by force of arms in the time of Jesus Christ" (MacCullough 329).  But Gregory was "two hundred years out of date" (336).

Augustine found a church fragmented among various Anglo-Saxon kings, mixed with older animist traditions and sacrifices to Roman gods.  Writing 100 years later, the "venerable" historian Bede reports that Gregory's advice, "It is a good idea to detach [temples of the people] from the service of the devil, and dedicate them to the service of the true God" (Marshall 43).  Regarding meat sacrificed to the old gods, Gregory told Augustine to "let some other solemnity be substituted" and then let them eat the meat: "If they are allowed some worldly pleasures in this way, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joys."  Gregory adds a note that expresses today's Anglican approach to Scripture: "[T]he man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.  It is in this way that the Lord revealed himself to the Israelite people."  We don't see Scripture as God's final word; we believe that God still reveals himself "step-by-step" as we are ready, by the interaction of reason and Scripture through the processes of our traditional institutions.

Gregory also was first to emphasize the important work of the lowly parish priest to preach and care for the local congregation, compared to the lofty work of contemplative scholars (MacCullough 329), an emphasis on "the local" that has been cited as central to the development of Anglican theology in other recent books by theologians Timothy Sedgwick and L. William Countryman.

At the same time as Augustine, England was being evangelized from a different direction from Ireland.  From the early 400s on, thanks to a former slave named Patrick, who became an "apostle to Ireland" after education in Gaul.  Patrick, with near-contemporaries named Ninian and Columba, helped to create a "network" of monk-scholars.  The monks copied manuscripts and wrote commentaries alone in their beehive-shaped rock huts along the rugged coasts of Ireland and Scotland (MacCullough 331), supported by hundreds of different local "kings."  The monks' writings, perhaps inspired by the "terrifying beauty" of their environment, emphasized grace at work throughout "a constant series of little setbacks" that could be paid for by acts of penance (333) -- an idea that, along with preservation of ancient texts, was their gift to the wider Roman Catholic church.  MacCullough characterizes this as an "optimistic" view found in a stark environment, especially compared to other Christians' view of humans helpless in their depravity.

Augustine and Gregory won the Anglo-Saxons over, creating unity through the Anglican church and, with it, "a precocious belief among the English in their special destiny among their neighbors" (MacCullough 341). According to MacCullough, Bede's own history helped the English to think themselves exceptional, "a covenanted people like ancient Israel, a beacon for the Christian world" (341).

Later history shows an independent streak in the Church of England.  Thomas Becket and Thomas More both represented the authority of Rome when they faced down Kings Henry II and VIII who asserted independence of England's church; both Thomases lost their lives.  Before Henry VIII was born, Renaissance scholarship had spurred questioning of Papal authority and independent study of Scripture, and even its translation into English.  When Spain interfered with the eighth Henry's desire to annul his marriage to Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, Henry instead divorced England's Church from Rome.  He had been something of a religious scholar himself, publishing arguments for Rome against the Protestants across the channel.  He wanted to retain the outward forms of Roman Catholic worship and governance while he appointed Bishops and authorized translation of the Bible into English, opening a Pandora's box: bloody massacres of recalcitrant towns, Catholic reaction, and martyrdom of faithful on both the Protestant and RC sides.  Elizabeth, third of his children to ascend the throne, decreed a "middle way" between "Popery and Puritanism" (Marshall 50).  She demanded support for the institutional Church of England, but no attendance or statements of belief: "I make no windows into men's souls," she said. 

In Elizabeth's time, theologian and priest Richard Hooker (1554-1600) made this "middle way" more of an "intersection" of truths and traditions, giving it a "solid theological platform."  Hooker's theology emphasizes God's presence in all things, allowing for experience and observation of the natural world to inform our faith, supported of course by Scripture.  Puritans, emphasizing depravity of mankind, relied on individual interpretation of Scripture, leaving them open, in Hooker's view, to confusion of "private fancies with the promptings of the Holy Spirit" (53).    As to ritual, Hooker advised, "Willful singularity must be avoided, but so must rigid uniformity among churches" (54).  Regarding the Catholic-Protestant controversy over the nature of God's presence in the elements of the Eucharist, Hooker reduces the question to an academic one with his meaningful common-sense approach:  "The real presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood, is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament" (55). 

Subsequent history of the Anglican church involves swinging between Puritan emphasis on scripture, Roman emphasis on ritual traditions, and "latitudinarianism," a kind of indifference to both in the name of just getting along.  I've seen the ineffectual church of Jane Austen's time mocked in Pride and Prejudice, and I've experienced personally the bitterness in communities that have broken away from the Episcopal church for a list of grievances -- updating of the 1927 prayer book, re-introduction of older hymns with newer music in the 1982 Hymnbook, ordination of women, ordination of a gay bishop.  (I say more on that subject in Tradition Isn't What It Used to Be, a blog post from the time of 2008's Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops). 

So, eyes wide open, acknowledging that the "middle way" is not the only way, I still can't help feeling when I open the Book of Common Prayer that God is on the same page.

Sources Consulted

Countryman, L. William.  Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

Law, Eric H. F. The Bush was Blazing but not Consumed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996. 

MacCulloch, Diarmaid.  Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  New York: Penguin, 2011.

Marshall, Michael E.  The Anglican Church Today and Tomorrow. Wilton, CT: Morehouse Barlow, 1984.

Sedgwick, Timothy F.  The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety. New York: Seabury Books, 2008.

Find links to many more of my reflections on the Episcopal church, scripture, and on others' perspectives of the same topics at my page Those Crazy Episcopalians 

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