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the church's wholeness and my agenda

In the past, when I've been asked why church unity, and therefore inter-Anglican and ecumenical dialogue, are important, the first words out of my mouth are usually a summary of Paul's ecclesiology of the church as one Body of Christ with many members of distinct gifts and vocations cooperating to further God's mission in the world.

That's an honest answer, as well as a natural one for someone dissertating on St. Paul to make. Still, I haven't in past conversations done justice, I think, to something that's a more personal motivation for me.

I have a high view of the church. I was just skimming an evangelical critique of Emergent Village in which the writer (Brett Kunkle) expressed dismay and perhaps even shock that a Christian leader (Doug Paggitt, in this case, in his book Re-imagining Spiritual Formation) would suggest that the bible is authoritative because the church has found and continues to find it so, when in Kunkle's view, "Our communities do not confer authority upon the Bible. The Bible is authoritative because of the kind of book it is," that "kind of book" being, in Kunkle's view, "the very word of God" -- a single genre populated by a grand total of one volume.

I have intellectual objections to that kind of argument, to be sure -- like what on earth it could mean for the bible to be "the very word of God" if no community had ever experienced it as such. How could the words of the bible have meaning if no one read or understood it? I suppose that arguments along the lines of what I'm saying here are very unlikely to be taken up by someone to whom "postmodern" is almost a synonym for being heretical, godless, and/or having no ethical standards whatsoever.

I also have a more intuitive and, for me anyway, more important objection to what Kunkle is saying: I don't think it demeans the authority of scripture in the least to say that it's an authority derived from the authority of the gathered church of God because I have a very high view of the Church. By that I don't mean that I believe that whenever Christians gather in council they do what is both right and loving; I've read too much history and been burned too many times personally to think any such thing. What I mean is that God works through human beings, and particularly through human beings gathered in community, and therefore that we who call ourselves Christians ought both to strive to live into that language of church as "the Body of Christ" -- a metaphor we hear so often as to be too often jaded rather than jolted by it -- and to have faith that as we seek to do that, God will work within and among us to make it real, to empower us to be Christ's presence and to do Jesus' work in the world.

And therefore I'd argue that saying that our scriptures are authoritative because the Church has found and continues to find them so is a very high view of scripture if we have a very high view of the Church. But after a bit of head-scratching as to why Kunkle seems to find this patently objectionable, even offensive, or practically heretical, I found myself saying, "well, I guess that's why I'm more Anglo-Catholic than evangelical."

At the same time, though, some of my sensibilities are decidedly evangelical. I believe that Jesus gathered communities specifically by calling upon individuals to decide for themselves, as individuals, to follow him. That kind of call to women and men to make such decisions for themselves was in some ways even more counter-cultural in first-century Palestine than it is in the 21st-century United States. The cultures in which Jesus taught and healed were profoundly patriarchal, and more explicitly so than ours. Patriarchy isn't the rule of all men over all women, but of some men (patriarchs) over everyone. When Jesus said, "follow me," he didn't add, "... if that's acceptable to your father, of course"; he said, "follow me and let the dead bury the dead."

That call could and often did mean abandoning family, as the canonical gospels show Jesus saying explicitly in a number of ways. It was profoundly counter-cultural to call upon men and women to make such a decision, received by some as Good News and others as unparalleled chutzpah or even (in suggesting that GOD acts this way) blasphemy. So, in my view, it's not crazy or awful to speak today of a "personal decision to follow Jesus." I would dare say that while it's silly and unhelpful to insist on that particular language no matter how meaningless it is within a particular cultural context, inviting persons to make a personal decision is a necessary part of what we sometimes call "evangelism."

The emphasis in my understanding of the Good News on individuals needing to make personal decisions is, I think, decidedly evangelical. Where I think many (but by no means all) evangelicals are misguided is in speaking of "a personal decision for Christ" as not necessarily involving more than saying a particular prayer or kind of prayer and in speaking of that decision as something we do only once. I do it all the time. Just about every time I spend money or don't spend it and every time I have a conversation with someone, I am deciding whether and how to follow Jesus. I love a track ("Mercy") that U2 recorded and has yet to release officially, that ends with the lyrics, "I'm alive / Baby I'm born again -- and again, and again, and again and again and again." Yes, when we use and never critique the lens of Western individualism, language of "a personal decision" and being "born again" can take us in unhelpful directions -- for example, to a political passivity ("it's all gonna burn") that aids oppressors and ignores the oppressed. We should never mistake individual piety for the fullness of discipleship, but I think that the "personal decision" language is sometimes and even often helpful.

So I have profound sympathies with both Anglo-Catholic and evangelical concerns, though I often suspect that to evangelicals I seem more Anglo-Catholic and to Anglo-Catholics I seem far too evangelical. Either way, I feel most at home in communities and traditions that include both. When evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics leaving The Episcopal Church, I feel a personal sense of loss; I find myself thinking, "crap -- there goes someone I wanted to learn more from," as well as "drat -- it's going to be much harder for us to accomplish things in God's mission without that person." Even strictly in terms of my own agenda in church politics, I lose out when people leave The Episcopal Church -- I'm losing an ally in advocating for biblical literacy, or for beautiful and excellent liturgy, or for justice for the poor, or for other things, and most likely in multiple categories. I guess that's what happens when you're a charismatic Anglo-Catholic evangelical progressive. And I know that for personal as well as theological reasons, I'd like it to happen less often.

January 19, 2007 in Churchiness | Permalink


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thanks for these thoughts.

Posted by: Julie Clawson | Jan 19, 2007 11:15:26 AM

You and Dan Martins seem to be on the same track on this.

Posted by: Ann | Jan 22, 2007 8:37:41 AM

Thanks for this. I have hope for a communion of Anglicans that can maintain the breadth of the Anglican tradition. I fear in the short term for the Communion as-it-is.

In the interim, I have hope that this division may have evangelical consequences, based on the thought that "different members of the Body have different functions" (http://episcopalhospitalchaplain.blogspot.com/2006/06/varieties-of-gifts.html). As Joseph told his brothers, "What you meant for evil God used for good;" and I have hope to see that beyond our current stresses.

You do have me thinking about what I might write on this topic....

Posted by: Marshall Scott | Jan 23, 2007 10:08:59 PM

Sarah, you are truly Anglican, embracing the fullness of the Anglican Way. You are also an asset to Anglicanism. Keep writing!

Posted by: Alice C. Linsley | Jan 24, 2007 9:52:17 AM

Sarah, while I agree with most of what you say and also grieve about the divisions within the body of our church, I'd have more sympathy for your concerns if you had decided to publicly distance yourself from Dan Webster's unproven claim in The Witness (still un-retracted by him or un-disputed by you) that certain Anglican bishops in Africa have two or more wives.

Posted by: Marcus | Jan 24, 2007 10:25:56 AM

I enjoyed this very much. As a "reasserter," it's nice to know that some progressives still see value in us, after all. If the Church should split, it will be a very heartbreaking thing.

Posted by: Jennifer | Jan 25, 2007 9:56:05 AM

So, having had a few days, I have had some thoughts on this (posted on my own blog). Thanks for the inspiration. I think it would be helpful if more of us were to do this. It expresses that relatedness that is, I think, fundamental to being Anglican, and fleshes out the canned expressions of the Anglican tradition that are thrown around so indiscriminately.

Posted by: Marshall Scott | Jan 25, 2007 1:50:13 PM

Sarah, I met you at the Episcopal Majority meeting in November, though I wasn't at your workshop session. We appear to be spiritual near-twins, however! I've tagged myself for a long time as "liberal Anglo-Catholic with charismatic and Quaker tendencies". It's true, and it has also stirred up a number of people for whom those tags were mutually exclusive.
Keep writing - you keep us all honest.

Posted by: Robin D (VA) | Jan 27, 2007 9:11:28 PM

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