At times in my life I have pondered what I call “the sin of memory.” The “sin,” in essence, is essentially justification of bad acts by selective recall. In other words, I can remember that injury I need to justify my actions today, and can conveniently ignore or discount other events, especially those that might mediate against the action I wish to take.
I grew up in the midst of it, really. In one sense it was all around me. I grew up in Tennessee, a state that to this day in some sense revisits the Civil War with every statewide election. For the past half generation that’s been muted: as the Republican Party came to represent social conservatism the divisions became less visible. Still, the cultural differences remain between the agricultural West (once cotton and now soybeans), the financial and governmental Middle, and the industrial and mining East within Tennessee. My mother’s ancestors fought for the Union Army, from that part of the state that in referendum voted against secession. The president who could not stop Reconstruction came from that region; and the other parts of the state have not forgotten either event.
In another sense I grew up with it in the house, albeit still at a distance. I grew up hearing folk songs, including many Irish songs of Republican resistance (an entirely different group, and an entirely different meaning of “Republican”). As a child I sang “At the Rising of the Moon” with enthusiasm, with no clear understanding just whom those folks were so ready to fight. I came to realize, of course, what history that referred to; and there were more than enough news stories in my youth to demonstrate just how acutely folks felt that history.
In my lifetime we have seen many such instances, and have been educated to many others. We know the names. As Yugoslavia broke into smaller and smaller pieces, for each group, whether Serb, Croat, Bosnian, Albanian, or Macedonian, there was some date, some event, some “battle” won or “massacre” suffered, that justified combat, resistance, and sometimes horrific personal and political violations. When Rwanda fell into bloodshed, we in the west did not know the history that motivated Hutu and Tutsi; but they certainly did. In the past three years we in America have learned of the events that shaped and separated Sunni and Shia within Islam. They shouldn’t surprise us, if we’ve been paying attention in the past half century to the history that has shaped violent acts and violent responses in land that is Holy to more than half the human race.
I’m mulling this over now, and the way this “sin” seems to be playing out in the current differences in the Anglican Communion. In all the discussion, framed as “what it means to be an Anglican” or “an Anglican church;” or “what are the essentials of the Anglican tradition,” all of us – all of us – find the way to those citations that each of us finds compelling. We begin, of course, with Scripture, each of us citing those “proof texts” that make our point, and interpreting in or out the “proof texts” that seem compelling to those with whom we argue. We all deride “proof-texting,” of course, as poor scholarship; even as we continue in the practice.
But I find we do the same thing with history. Sometimes we agree on the event, if not on its import. We all acknowledge that the decision regarding ordination of women to the priesthood at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1976 was important. We disagree whether it was a triumph or a disaster. We also tend to forget that the first decision regarding a woman in the priesthood was not made in “western” America, but in “eastern” Hong Kong.
And so I have heard referenced many touchstones of what might be essential to the Anglican tradition. I have heard reference to the Book of Common Prayer; but to which one? I have heard reference to the reformation theology of Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and 1552 (growing more Reformed with a capital “R” from one to the other). I have heard reference to the 1662 Book, still the official prayer book of the Church of England, as for many others around the Communion. On the other hand, I have heard reference to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer of the then new Episcopal Church, its faithfulness to Bishop Seabury’s promise to follow the forms of the Scottish Nonjurors, and its discontinuity with 1662. I have heard almost nothing of the 1559 Prayer Book, that often took the Lutheran phrases of 1549 and the Reformed phrases of 1552 and simply tacked them together.
By the same token, I have heard raised up the memories of Thomas Cranmer to anchor the Reformed foundations of Anglican theology; or the Tractarians to anchor the Catholic foundations; or F. D. Maurice to anchor the Modern tradition. I have seen little discussion that would recognize the tradition as embracing all three. I have seen the arguments just what Hooker meant when he recognized Scripture as the “first” source of authority. I have heard little of Hooker’s insistence on “all things in Measure, Number, and Weight,” or of his commitment to Thomist method or Natural Theology. I have heard almost nothing of John Jewel, Hooker’s teacher and colleague, who argued against the Roman tradition as Hooker argued against the Puritan. Yet these are also part of the foundations of the Anglican tradition.
Indeed, we have been from the beginning, we Anglicans, people of paradox. There have always been two perspectives being expressed. The Lutheran and Reformed scholars who were tutors to Edward, Cranmer among them, would be met with Elizabeth’s sense of the pastoral need to retain more “catholic” services for the people in the pews. The early shape of Anglican theology took almost as much from Jewel’s Apology for Church of England as from Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Even a cursory knowledge of English church history highlights the movements between Puritan and Catholic. And in that history, the Elizabethan Settlement and the coexistence of the 20th Century were something of an exception. More often there were broad swings, with one group or another dominant for various periods of time. We have survived significant movements from one side to another, significant periods of “reappraisal” and “reassertion” over the centuries.
We have been a significant, too, if not unique, in our commitment to working, or at least talking, with other Christians. In the past generation we have had conversations on national and international levels with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran, Old Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Moravian, and Reformed Christians. We have managed to acknowledge the Christology of the Separated Churches of the East and of the Oriental Orthodox churches, even though they will still not recognize each other. We have held up for ourselves a self-image as a “bridge” church – between Catholic and Protestant, between Word-oriented and Sacramental traditions, between contemplative and active lives.
We have not maintained a single, simple, straightforward tradition. We are, in fact, heirs of a broad, varied, and sometimes conflicted tradition. Sadly, when we discuss that tradition these days, we rarely acknowledge that breadth. There is within that variety enough to justify our individual positions, our individual goals; but only so long as we deny, discount, or ignore those parts of our tradition that don’t support them. We have survived broad swings and strong disagreements now, and might again. But we won’t survive them if we continue to commit “the sin of memory.”