Thursday, January 25, 2007

I Love to Tell the Story: Thoughts on Being an Anglican

Mark Harris, whose blog “Preludium” I read regularly, recently posted briefly to point to two other posts, one from Dan Martins and one from Sarah Dylan Breuer. Both deal with what it means to them to be Anglican, and for The Episcopal Church to continue in the Anglican Communion.

This, of course, got me to thinking about what it means to me to be an Anglican and for The Episcopal Church to continue to be part of the Anglican Communion. Now, to answer this fully would, I think, require a memoir and possibly a detailed autobiography to address thoroughly. At the same time, I do have some thoughts to share after pondering for a few days.

As a preliminary note, let me say I must speak of being an Episcopalian before I speak of being Anglican. I am institutionally an Anglican because I am a member of The Episcopal Church. The Anglican tradition was mediated to me through The Episcopal Church. Since I didn’t learn it somewhere else (much less receive it through divine revelation), I can’t speak of one without the other. A corollary of that is that I can’t speak from some sort of “global Anglican perspective.” While I may be better educated about the Anglican tradition and the Anglican Communion than most Episcopalians (hey, I’m a priest; it’s part of my responsibility), I know I can’t speak for Anglicans half a world a way except in the most qualified terms.

So, to the task at hand:

I often say I “grew up breathing Southern Baptist air.” I grew up in the Southern Appalachians in the United States, and that religious culture pervaded the civil culture I knew. It also pervaded my family in one way or another. Most of my relatives were active members of congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention, or, where Southern Baptist congregations were unknown, in congregations of denominations of similar culture. My parents had left Southern Baptist congregations over issues of intellectual freedom, first to the United Presbyterian Church (called the old “Northern” church) and then to the Episcopal Church. So, whether in acceptance or in rejection, that evangelical and frequently fundamentalist culture (theological differences not so integrated then as today) shaped my experience.

One thing that I did carry away with me was the concept of “story.” I also often say I grew up in a “story telling culture,” and for virtually any point to be made there is a story to illustrate either application or antecedents. That was reflected in civil culture in any number of ways, from a powerful sense of history and one’s place in it (two of my great-grandmothers shot and killed Confederate soldiers) to a clear understanding that one was recipient of both a civil and familial tradition that made you who you were. In religious culture it was reflected most clearly, if not always most fully, by that wonderful hymn,
“I Love to Tell the Story:”

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know 'tis true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.

I love to tell the story, 'twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

What I find powerful about The Episcopal Church is that we tell and have told that “old, old story” in so many ways. We tell it first in the centrality of Holy Scripture in our life. I won’t say that I’ve never met an Episcopalian, clergy or lay, who didn’t understand Scripture was central and critical to our faith, but they’ve been so rare as to give the lie to those these days who claim Episcopalians are “unscriptural.” It is certainly central to our corporate life, reflected in worship that includes four explicit readings from Scripture in our worship together (three on those occasions when it’s appropriate) and includes biblical language and cadence in almost every liturgical paragraph. (Now, there’s an idea for an interesting study by someone with more time and scholarship than I have: a concordance clause by clause of the scriptural underpinnings of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, published in parallel.) As an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, working at maintaining a daily ritual of two Offices each day, I have reread Scripture even more.

Scripture is fundamental, then, in what it means to me to be an Episcopalian and an Anglican. I continue to believe, as I did when I signed the statement at both ordinations, that Scripture “is the Word of God and contains all things necessary to salvation.” At the same time, I certainly don’t understand that as was common in the “Southern Baptist air” of my childhood. It is the Word of God and contains all things necessary to salvation because it tells the old, old story of how God’s Word has been revealed among poor, struggling, limited, stiff-necked people. Being poor, struggling, limited, and stiff-necked, they didn’t hear it clearly. The story tells us how they grew generation by generation in their understanding of God’s Word, and how, when it still wasn’t enough, God’s Word came to us incarnate in God’s Son. God’s Son is the clearest expression of God’s Word, and continues to be among us in his Body, through his Spirit. So, God’s Word written is always derivative of God’s Word Incarnate. And we, still poor, struggling, limited, and stiff-necked, still can’t hear perfectly.

So, we still tell the story. We don’t tell it uncritically. We look at God’s Word written, and especially those things written before the Incarnation, through the prism of God’s Word Incarnate and still Present. We seek to discern those “things necessary to salvation” among all the difficulties that come with poor, struggling, limited, stiff-necked people trying to get down into words their experience of the life of faith. We acknowledge those other perspectives on history that might help us understand better what our siblings in faith, now long gone, experienced in their own times. But we continue to hold Scripture as fundamental and formative because it is how we first heard the old, old story.

We also understand that the story doesn’t end with the Pastoral Epistles while we wait for the fullness of God’s plan foreshadowed in the Prophets and the Apocalypse of John. We tell the story of how God’s Word Incarnate has continued to work among God’s people since the end of the Apostolic Age. We continue to proclaim that the Ecumenical Councils (at least four, and perhaps seven) and the writings of Church Fathers (and Mothers, where we can recover them) are also formative for us. We tell particularly of how faith in Christ arrived in the British Isles quite early, and how our forebears were able to reconcile differences of practice so as to better share in telling the story. We tell of how those who told the story in the Isles interacted with others who told the story elsewhere (within the limits they faced, generation by generation, on communication and travel). Sometimes differences were reconciled, sometimes there were agreements to disagree, and sometimes reconciliation wasn’t accomplished (after all, they were still poor, struggling, limited, and stiff-necked).

But through it all, we found that they were continuing to tell the story. Emphases differed from time to time, from a focus on personal piety (as Benedict’s Rule has so often been used) to one of social responsibility (whether the Evangelical opposition to the slave trade or the Anglo-catholic commitment to the poor of London). Both had foundations in Scripture and expression in the ongoing life of Christians seeking to live in God’s Word Incarnate. As such, both were important parts of the ongoing old, old story.

Moreover, returning to our worship, we continue to live that part of the story. We worship in forms and words reflecting those forebears, as well as Scripture. We reflect the way the story has been made incarnate, tangible, in how we have worshipped together. Practices of the Celtic, Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and distinctively Anglican churches have shaped Sarum and Canterbury and Prayer Book after Prayer Book. They have shaped how we have experienced the story.

Those different emphases and antecedents and arguments (in the best sense of the term) also illustrated our participation in a living Body of God’s Word Incarnate – living and growing. Some of the members of that Body were particularly good at theological reflection and writing, translating in each generation the faith received into new verbal and cultural languages. We recognized that each of us, each “member of the Body,” as Paul wrote, had a place in the story, a place that each of us had to discover “with fear and trembling.” That required us to take responsibility in thinking through the story as we had received it and how we could best live it in our own times. That old epigram that The Episcopal Church was one church where “you don’t have to leave your brain at the door with your hat,” expressed that call for each of us to take responsibility, using the capacity to reason that is part of “the image and likeness” of God, to seek those “things necessary to salvation” in the story of God’s Word Incarnate, both in God’s Word written and in the continuing story of God’s people. That capacity to reason has its limits (remember, we’re still poor, etc.), but it has also helped us to better understand the experiences and understandings of our Christian forebears, and to better understand the language and culture into which we are called to translate the faith received. It has helped us better understand the story that we have received, and better prepare to tell that story to new generations.

So, for me what it means to be an Episcopalian is to be part of telling that story, conveying those things of God’s Word Incarnate that are “”necessary to salvation,” as we have seen them in those who lived the story before us. Their experience of the story is conveyed to us in Scripture and Tradition, and appropriated by us through Reason for ourselves and for those who will follow us. Despite being poor, struggling, limited, and stiff-necked, we love as best we can to hear the story and to tell it again. By God’s grace, made manifest by the presence of God’s Word Incarnate in his Spirit, we will continue to tell the story until God brings us to its end.

Now, a postscript: I have said that I am an Episcopalian and so an Anglican. When I was taught the Anglican tradition within The Episcopal Church, I was taught that all that I have said applied across the Anglican Communion. We might see differences of opinion, and different emphases, from place to place and time to time; but we all shared in the commitment to tell the story, to learn it together, to reflect on it together, and to share it together. If, God forbid, communion should be suspended between The Episcopal Church, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council (which would also mean, then, participation in Lambeth and the Primate’s Meetings), I will mourn. If, as seems sadly likely, communion should be suspended among enough Provinces that the Anglican Communion must be significantly reshaped, I will mourn. After all, we can know the story better together, and tell the story better together, than we can separately. I will not call myself an Anglican in the same way, not except in the most qualified terms. I will, however, continue in the Anglican tradition as I have received it. It will still be the Anglican variation that shapes the way I tell the story. I will not claim an Anglican Communion that does not claim The Episcopal Church. I will still embrace the Anglican tradition within which I heard and from which I will “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

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