In the spirit of more ancient texts that Churl will appreciate more than the average reader, I will simply say that I forbid you to read this post before you read Part 1.
In the previous post, I ended with a suggestion that Vicky Beeching’s gift to the church catholic by coming out brings enormous clarity to what is going on in the Anglican Communion, especially around the realignment that happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. For those who need a quick definition of what the realignment is, it’s a euphemism that refers to how Anglican and Episcopal parishes in the United States and Canada pulled out of their home dioceses because of North American Anglican moves to bless same-sex unions, ordain gay clergy, and elect gay bishops. Because they took cover in Anglican provinces mostly in Africa (though some in Asia, Australia, and the Southern Cone also took part), the narrative that took shape suggested that those who were historically the ones being evangelized were now re-evangelizing the evangelizers. This narrative usually flies under the header of Global South Anglicanism. For an academic version of this story, see Phil Jenkins’s The Next Christendom. For a popular version, Thad Barnum’s Never Silent is a fairly engaging account. For those who need all of the sordid details, please read my account of ‘Anne Hathaway Anglicanism.’
The reason I forbid readers to read this post before reading the previous post is because over in the other post, I’ve made all the necessary connections for why Beeching is an Anglican to whom we should pay attention — she’s an evangelical Anglican, her worship music has evangelical Anglican sources, she lived in Nashville and San Diego making contemporary Christian music so that her American evangelical connections are impeccable, and one of the privileged few to whom she had come out privately is the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Unwilling to rehearse of that here, I simply forbid you to read this post until you’ve done your due diligence with the previous post.
Vicky Beeching is an Anglican. This is very significant. That’s because of the person to whom Beeching would most likely be compared: Jennifer Knapp.
Like Vicky Beeching, Jennifer Knapp is also a popular contemporary Christian music personality who very publicly came out as a lesbian. Just as Vicky Beeching was confronted by outspoken anti-gay pastor-activist Scott Lively on live television when she came out, Knapp was also confronted by Pastor Bob Botsford on Larry King Live. Like Lively, Botsford told Knapp that his heart broke for her because she was living a lie that contradicted Scripture. Knapp’s response was that Botsford was not her pastor. If Botsford had been her pastor, Knapp reasoned, then it would have been fair to exercise pastoral jurisdiction over her as a church member. But she wasn’t. She was part of another congregation with other pastors who affirmed her, and her bottom line was that Botsford’s attempt to exercise pastoral authority over her was illegitimate because it violated the boundaries between his congregation and hers.
It would be tempting to compare Beeching to Knapp because almost the exact same thing happened to Beeching on live television. As I said, Beeching was called out almost exactly like Knapp because the more conservative evangelical man standing in for the Christian Right accused Beeching (like Knapp) of living a lie contrary to Scripture.
It’s what follows next that makes everything about Beeching different from Knapp. That’s because Beeching is an Anglican.
Beeching can’t make the congregational autonomy argument that Knapp makes. This is because, as I said, Beeching is an Anglican. Anglicans don’t believe in congregational autonomy; our polities are parishes in dioceses under the jurisdiction of bishops that are in communion with each other and who all trace their succession through Canterbury to the apostles. Beeching can’t say to Lively like Knapp says to Botsford, ‘You are not my pastor,’ because congregational autonomy is not going to cut it for Beeching. Lively is thus not in a different ecclesial category for Beeching (as Botsford is for Knapp); he is in the sameecclesial category. He is a pastor, so Beeching merely says to him that it’s people like him who have caused her psychological damage. Observe well, then, the effects of this disagreement. The contention rests on Lively’s repetition that Beeching’s lifestyle is not ‘biblical,’ for Beeching argues that that there are multiple ways of reading Scripture and that the passages that he cites to condemn her sexual orientation have contested meanings.
Yet Beeching does not disown Lively the way that Knapp disowns Botsford. She knows that they’re stuck together in communion, terrible as that may sound, because as much as she may wish that she were ecclesially autonomous from him, the truth of the Anglican charism means that they cannot be sundered at an ontological level. Indeed, this raises the emotional stakes for her contention against Lively: if people like Lively have inflicted psychological damage on her and those whose sexual orientations are non-heteronormative and if they are ontologically stuck together, then it is an imperative for Beeching to demand that Lively stop oppressing her and hear her out on the multiplicity of hermeneutics, a demand that is in fact not unreasonable considering St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, where Augustine allows in the preface for all sorts of biblical interpretations if they are governed by the rule of faith, which is charity.
In short, as an Anglican, Beeching understands what Knapp does not: there is no such thing as total ecclesial autonomy, and the more that one understands that, the more one works to make ecclesial co-existence at least bearable.
Dig deeper, though, and one finds that this ecclesial ontology has implications that drag that construct called ‘Global South Anglicanism’ into the fray. That’s because, as the BBC program itself mentions, Lively is close to the leaders of a nation-state called Uganda. Deny as he may that he had a hand in the draconinan Anti-Homosexuality Bill that threatened to execute queer persons in Uganda, Beeching herself recently shared a link that an American federal judge has ordered Lively to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
This is significant because Lively’s actions in the mid-2000s in Uganda disturbs the larger narrative of the Anglican realignment. Provinces such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, the Southern Cone, and yes, Uganda, took in some of these ‘realigned’ Anglican churches. As I related in my definition of the Anglican realignment (see above, scroll past the Gandalf GIF), this was the story of how the Global South Anglicans, especially from Africa, were re-evangelizing North America, especially from its capitulation to what might be chalked up to (in Southern Baptist terms) a ‘gay agenda.’ In other words, Anglicans in African nation-states were going to save Anglicans in the West.
The problem is that Lively’s actions suggest that this Global South Anglican narrative may not be as ‘Global South’ as meets the eye. If Lively was moving around Uganda around the same time that the Anglican realignment was going on, how many other Americans were invested in making the realignment happen?
Let’s dig further.
In the lead-up to the Scott Lively confrontation, Beeching recounts that one of the more harrowing experiences in her journey as a gay person was when she had an exorcism performed on her at a British evangelical camp. This also messes up the Global South Anglican narrative. After all, one of the more celebrated stories of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was of an African archbishop attempting an exorcism on a gay rights activist. Certainly, analyses at the time noted that African and Asian primates, bishops, priests, and deacons had mostly attended the same seminaries as their Global North counterparts. Yet according to the narrative of Global South Anglicanism, this phenomenon could also very well be explained via the African archbishop’s Global South conditions, where spirits are real and demons prowl and exorcisms happen regularly because priests have the same status as witchdoctors. Certainly, that’s how Phil Jenkins explains why Southeast Asian primate, Archbishop Moses Tay, attempted to exorcise the City of Vancouver because of the totem poles in its urban park, Stanley Park (The Next Christendom, p. 130).
The question is, how does that exoticized Global South Anglican narrative explain Beeching’s story of British evangelicals trying to exorcise her? Might the explanation that those Global South Anglicans attended the same schools in the Global North and were in collaboration with conservative Anglican, evangelical, and charismatic groups in the Global North hold more water, in light of Beeching’s experience?
Let’s keep digging.
The impression that one gets about the Anglican realignment is that the parishes that broke away were mostly evangelical Anglican. Though this group certainly included charismatic and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans, that the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was heavily dominated by Sydney Anglicans (who apparently have to debate over whether their archbishop is ‘Reformed’ enough to hold office), as well as African and Asian Anglicans who emphasized the Bebbington Quadrilateral of evangelical distinctives (biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism), who held an after-gathering at All Souls’ Church in London seems to confirm this image. Certainly also, some of the charismatics would technically fit into an ‘evangelical Anglican’ stream — ‘evangelical’ here defined in Anglican terms as those in the English church who understand authority as primarily derived from Scripture, not, say, apostolic succession (like the Anglo-Catholics) or scientific progress (like the latitudinarians).
Well, like it or not, Vicky Beeching is an evangelical Anglican. Despite the image of those who push what Beeching calls ‘LGBT theology‘ tends to be from the more liberal wings of Anglicanism — James Pike, Jack Spong, Gene Robinson, Mary Glasspool, Marc Andrus, Patrick Cheng — how much of a shock to the system is it that Beeching continues to identify as an evangelical Anglican who takes the Bible so seriously that her post defending her theological views is based on the Bible?
What’s the point?
The point, then, is that Vicky Beeching embodies what the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, calls ‘the body’s grace.’ For Williams, the fact of same-sex attraction and even unions are a gift to the church because they help Christians think about how love is expressed corporeally. Certainly, when his successor, Justin Cantuar, expresses that same-sex couples often put opposite-sex married couples to shame in their care for each other, Welby is also referencing Williams.
But Beeching takes that one step further. Beeching’s body’s grace is an open sign of contradiction to the Global South Anglican realignment narrative. She is an evangelical Anglican theologian: she cannot afford to endorse congregational autonomy. Her interlocutor is Scott Lively, a person whose physical presence in Uganda also flat out contradicts the Global South Anglican narrative because he casts suspicion on whether homophobic prejudices in fact originated in what might be derisively regarded as the ‘primitive’ cultures of the Global South. Beeching’s exorcism flat-out contradicts the understanding of the Global South as ‘primitive,’ for if exorcism is a sign of prmitiveness, then the Global North evangelicals who tried to exorcise her would also be primitive. Her evangelicalism — rooted in a theological orientation based on Scriptural authority — flat-out contradicts accusations of latitudinarian liberalism.
In short, Beeching reveals where the Anglican Communion fault lines actually lie. The truth, as Beeching reveals it, is that the Global North-Global South imagined geography is a smokescreen. If there is anything that Beeching’s body’s grace illustrates clearly, the realignment has never really ever been about Global South, postcolonial agency, and Anglicans of colour. Postcolonial Anglicans, as Kwok Pui-lan and Ian Douglas have called people like me, have never really been addressed here — we have merely been spoken for and over.
Beeching’s closeness to the Archbishop of Canterbury is thus the ultimate gift. After all, one of Justin Cantuar’s major tasks is to reconcile this fragmented Anglican Communion. With Beeching coming out, the mist has evaporated, and the real fault lines finally have become crystal clear. As an Anglican of colour observing Welby’s talent for deep listening, his knowledge of the actual on-the-ground political realities in Africa, and his almost overflowing glee at welcoming those who regularly disrupt his own evangelical Anglican narrative, I expect great things out of this Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglican Communion. After all, precisely because of Vicky Beeching’s body’s grace, we might see an Anglican Communion finally ready to tackle the deep-seated corporeal issues of race that have plagued us since the dawn of modernity.
There’s no fun like theological fun. Once upon a time, I thought that only the Hong Kong public had so much theological fun in their secular presses. With new debates everyday across the Hongkonger public sphere about the relationship among biblical exegesis, political theology, and grassroots democratic activism, it seemed like those of us in North America were missing out.
Now an evangelical Anglican church is responding. In a ten-part series, St. Peter’s Fireside is putting on its blog a ten-part series on ‘classical Christianity,’ an attempt to correct Todd from his putative misperception that liberal Christianity is the via media. Against ‘liberal Christianity,’ they wave the flag of ‘classical Christianity,’ which is apparently ‘the ancient faith practiced by the majority of Christians for the last 2000 years’ that is actually the ‘middle way between aggressive, anti-intellectual fundamentalism and flaccid, lukewarm belief.’ One can safely assume that the latter is Todd’s ‘liberal Christianity.’ In fact, they say that ‘there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points’ while emphasizing that ‘there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.’
The trouble is that these assertions to represent the position of ‘classical Christianity’ seem — perhaps unintentionally, but inadvertently — to be claims that these blog posts speak for the monolithic, uncontested (evangelical Protestant) alternative to liberal Christianity (read: Protestantism) for the rest of the church catholic. One wonders if this is an example of argumentative over-reach. Perhaps they mean to say that they have articulated an ‘evangelical’ theology — that would be good and fair. But aside from the slight problem that we do not know whether Todd is in fact an Anglican, were Todd to have articulated a ‘liberal’ broad church theology and St. Peter’s Fireside an ‘evangelical’ one, an Anglo-Catholic voice certainly still deserves to be heard. I am, of course, not a particularly good representative of Anglo-Catholicism, and at this point, I need to disavow representing anything. If anything, consider me an interlocutor with some Anglo-Catholic commitments, although I really feel uncomfortable calling myself an Anglo-Catholic because I am in fact a Chinglican.
The point is that however the authors of these forthcoming blog posts claim to speak for classical Christianity, that one wonders whether they have taken the totality and complexity of the church catholic into consideration suggests that they need an interlocutor. I’d be happy to give that — and only that, with no claims to representativeness — a go. And here’s my main point: I’m not sure it’s always productive to see ‘liberal’ and ‘classical’ Christianity as binary opposites.
This first post by Mike Chase is a great example of why these ‘classical Christians’ need an interlocutor — and hopefully, more than one. The fuss that Chase makes in this post is over Todd’s claim that a liberal Christianity espouses ‘co-creation with God.’ Here are Todd’s claims in their entirety:
While some Christians think of God as a supernatural “Almighty” being who can do whatever “He” wants, liberal Christians believe God has feminine and masculine qualities; operates as much like a force field as a person and needs creatures to help achieve divine aims. Since the 1960s, it’s been common for liberal Christians to talk about being “co-creators” with God.
Chase has a three-part rebuttal – very trinitarian, I must say, after Trinity Sunday. First, a classical Christian God is a sovereign person; second, God’s primary gender is masculine; and third, God is autonomous and does not need co-creators. I recognize that much of this delineation seems owed to the way that systematic theology is taught in seminaries. To call this view of God ‘classical’ suggests that there are multiple positions through which God is approached, some of which owe more to arguments from antiquity (which makes them ‘classical’) and others that take a more ‘progressive’ view (which makes them ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’). That is to say, there’s a sense in which one set of arguments are classified as ‘classical.’ This is opposed to another set of arguments that is ‘liberal.’
It’s these neat categorizations of the ‘classical’ versus the ‘liberal’/’modern’ that is perhaps getting Chase into trouble. After all, if it is true that the ‘co-creator’ view of humanity is a ‘liberal’ theological conception that must be opposed by an affirmation of God’s autonomy, then is Chase disavowing that John Paul II represented anything resembling classical Christianity? After all, the controversial point inLaborem exercensis precisely that humans are ‘co-creators’ with God. That this point was contested by Stanley Hauerwas in his provocatively titled ‘Work as Co-Creation: A Critique of a Remarkably Bad Idea’ doesn’t actually advance Chase’s point. John Paul II built on the tradition of Catholic social teaching in which popes since Leo XIII — themselves drawing from ‘classical’ theology — to say that human work in Genesis was an act of ‘co-creating’ with God. Hauerwas’s disagreement lay in his critique of Vatican centralization, i.e. John Paul II’s ‘co-creation’ theology was too vague and too much thought up in the armchairs of the Vatican to be of any use to people who actually live off wages for their work. If Chase is challenging the point about ‘co-creation,’ then the real question is whether John Paul II should be considered a ‘liberal’ or a ‘classical’ Christian. Never mind that the pope is Catholic — it is right and just that Anglicans should engage Catholic social teaching, not least because the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is one of its primary exponents. The question is, are they suggesting that Catholic social teaching is not representative of ‘classical Christianity’?
Then there’s also the point that Chase makes about ‘co-creation’ as a remarkably bad idea. For Chase, ‘God is always the initiator and sustainer of creative work,’ which makes humans more properly ‘sub-creators’ than ‘co-creators.’ This critique is ironic, for this gets at the heart of what the classical question about Arianism was all about. In a remarkable account of why the fourth-century heretic Arius thought and did what he thought and did, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argues that what was at stake in the Arian controversy wasn’t simply whether Jesus was actually ‘God’ or ‘sub-god.’ The reason that orthodox theologians like Alexander and Athanasius argued so strongly against Arius’s claims that Jesus was a ‘sub-god’ was that this had massive implications for how Christians thought of their participation in the divine life. If what it means to be ‘in Christ’ is to be simply be joined with a ‘sub-god,’ then God the Father is sufficiently distant and unknown to us — i.e. as Williams points out, Arius was arguing for a conservative position with a distant, unknowable God. The orthodox rebuttals were far more creative and — dare I say it, ‘liberal’ — than anything Arius could have asked or imagined — if Jesus was indeed fully God, then participation in the life of Jesus was nothing short of theosis, that is, as Athanasius once put it, God became man so that man could become God. That is the orthodox view of Jesus. To insist that humans are ‘sub-creators’ is to dangle dangerously close to Arius’s condemned conservative theology. In turn, the ‘co-creation’ view may be more classical than either Todd or Chase have imagined.
This finally leaves us with Chase’s nervousness that Todd is propagating a feminist theology. Granted, Chase’s original post deals with the feminine metaphors for God in Scripture, although Chase insists that a classical view of God is that God is masculine. One wonders what Chase might do, then, with Julian of Norwich. When Julian describes Jesus as maternal and calls Jesus ‘Moder Jhesu,’ is Julian being ‘liberal’? The point about Julian of Norwich also extends to Todd’s other claims. When Julian utters her ‘All shall be well’ because God holds the world — the ‘little thing’ of creation — is Julian describing a ‘force’ or a ‘person’? Is this sovereignty Chase’s voluntaristic assumption that God can do whatever he wants, or is it a maternal sovereignty of care where, in the words of another classical prayer, God sends forth his spirit, and they are created, renewing the face of the earth? Is a fourteenth-century English visionary better classified as a ‘liberal’ or ‘classical’ theologian?
In short, if indeed Chase is advancing a ‘classical’ theology, one wonders if it must always oppose, reject, and contest Todd’s liberalism. Might it not be better to point out that Todd’s ‘liberal Christianity’ is ironically classical? After all, the reactionary view to Todd’s liberalism leads Chase dangling close to theological paths that he might explicitly disavow. Can’t we be more classically catholic about the whole thing? This is precisely what I meant when I said that these bloggers seem to need an interlocutor – our catholicity is practiced by conversation and communion, reminding each other that common ground can be found in unexpected places.
It’s with that sort of catholic anticipation that we look forward to a second rebuttal to Todd on the authority of Scripture.
I am now deeply satisfied. After reading part 2, Churl is now wanting me to perform some sort of ‘theological magic’ to enact a ‘Houdini-like escape,’ as ‘digging one’s grave very deep makes rising from it that much more spectacular.’ Moreover, after the previous Wong Fu diversion, he is now commending my Anglican theological acumen:
“It’s kind of complicated. Let’s talk about something else for a while and maybe it will go away.” I gotta say, Chinglican certainly knows how to do Anglican theology – and I mean that of course in the most loving and Christian way possible.
He knows, after all, that I really can’t live up to the order of the Resurrection; after all, that declared a wandering rabbi the Son of God, produced what Karl Barth called a ‘krisis’ of the powers that styled themselves as godlike, and started a church whose complex history we have been exploring. Moreover, the question of whether Anglicanism can rise from the dead? is likely territory where even angels fear to tread. While the Lord Jesus promises us that we will do greater works than those he did (cf. John 16:12), I unfortunately do not wish to presume that I can give life to whomever I wish (cf. John 5:21).
So I won’t try.
My question is more modest: why do I stay Anglican? Picking up on Churl’s question about ‘theological magic,’ today’s answer comes to us first by way of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.
Because The Tempest was the obsession of my Catholic creative writing mentor in high school and the first thing I ever read in university, I’ve come up with a reading of The Tempest that will make all the people who think that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic very happy (apparently, this hangs on a reading of Hamlet, but that’s another post).
Here’s my read: Prospero is a Protestant Anglican. Of course, it might be tempting to read Prospero as a Catholic: he has control of the winds and the waves, the spirits on the island, the book of magic that perhaps the pope has.
But this reading doesn’t quite work if, at least as I was taught, The Tempest is at heart Shakespeare’s ultimate parable about modern science and political sovereignty, making apparent what has long lain hidden in his theatrical oeuvre. For cryin’ out loud, the guy’s on an island, controlling the spirits (like Ariel), kicking the monsters around (like Caliban; yes, I read Prospero as a racist colonizer and Caliban as a post-colonial cry for liberation; that’s another post too), and micromanaging his daughter (Miranda) worse than any stereotypical tiger parent (sorry, had to throw that in there; I am a Chinglican, after all). Prospero is no church controlling the world; he is the state subjectifying his citizens, including their spirituality.
Here’s the comedic twist, though. Spoiler alert: at the end of the play, Prince Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda, and the brothers who usurped Prospero’s throne back in Milan are reconciled with him. Once this happens, Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book of magic. He’s done with the magical subjectification of everything on the island under his sovereignty. He lets go of the establishment he invented. He is ready for reconciliation.
I’m sure that Shakespeare never intended The Tempest to be taken as a parable for Anglicanism. But it certainly can be received that way. After all, on a cursory reading of the play, one might think that Shakespeare is pro-Prospero: Prospero’s brothers stole his throne, Miranda is over-protected and rebels with Ferdinand, Ariel complains too much, and Caliban is a deformed asshole (can I say that on A Christian Thing?). But that Shakespeare makes Prospero give up the new establishment at the end of the play signals that he might be critical of Prospero, that is, critical of establishmentarian politics, as he is in many of his plays.
Shakespeare is thus providing a re-reading of Anglicanism. A non-establishmentarian reading.
Which brings me to the central proposition of this post: blessedare the English majors, for theirs is the Anglican portion of the kingdom of heaven.
I say this completely without guile, because I was never an English major. I am in fact a social scientist.(I need to put that in bold in case anyone wants to challenge my reading of English literature: yes, I am ignorant, untrained, uncouth, and make pronouncements on things beyond my discipline. Deal with it.)
But I wanted to be an English major in high school, so much so that while my Catholic high school required us to take at least one English course per semester, my junior and senior years were filled with at least two per term, partly because I liked literature so much and partly because I didn’t want to do home economics (imagine my regret when they cooked rotisserie chicken, though). That all changed when I got to university. I’m frequently told that I took the smarter, more lucrative way out of things: rejecting my recruitment into an English honours program because the history honours program had no exams and lectures, I did my undergraduate degree in history, after which I defected in graduate school to the social sciences. We’ll talk more about the social sciences in part 5 (so stay tuned!), but while I suppose the stuff that i do in the social sciences is more ‘relevant,’ ‘scientific,’ and ‘secular’ (though the social sciences are also chafing under budget cuts), English majors and graduate students seem to have it the worst these days. They’re often told that they were fools to choose literature as a major or graduate specialization because of the putative death of the humanities in the academy. Become an English major, and throw away your entire career. After all, look at Anne Hathaway’s character in the often-panned Valentine’s Day (though my wife and I love this chick flick, partly because we quite uncritically love all chick flicks, and are proud of this ethic). Spoiler alert: we discover that Anne Hathaway’s character moonlights on the side as a phone sex escort because, as she explains, ‘how else is a poetry major going to pay back all her college loans?’ As the English graduate students on this Thing have also described it, the job market in literature is one that doesn’t value what they do, leading Lelbc43 to describe it even as a ‘theodicy.’ If English majors are indeed in such a state of poverty, it would be ‘very meet, right, and our bounden duty always and everywhere’ to acknowledge that they are poor not only in spirit, but in material means, and that their mourning will be comforted and that because of their meekness, they will inherit the earth, including the academy.
But poor as English majors are, the English majors will also inherit the Anglican portion of the kingdom of God because the English canon with which they wrestle stands as a crypto-theological critique of the modern Anglican establishment. Which leads to our second beatitude: blessed are those who ponder the English canon while hungering and thirsting for justice, for they will be filled.
St. John’s College. I wanted to go here once upon a time, but nobody would let me. Wah.
Of course, the moment I bring up the word ‘canon,’ I realize that I’m in very hot water. So even though I am a social scientist, let me say that I’m aware that I will be slowly boiled alive. I understand that what purports to be the ‘English canon’ is in fact the invention of American universities’ ‘Great Books’ programs from the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and is now enshrined in the core curriculum at St. John’s College. I know full well that the canon has been used to construct a sort of ‘Western civilization’ approach to the world, one that is firmly pro-establishment and works against my post-colonial tendencies. I appreciate immensely the assaults on a fixed canon as a bastion of work written by dead white men (erm, Jane Austen? George Eliot? the Brontë sisters?) that is purportedly anti-feminist, pro-establishment, homophobic, exclusionary of subaltern voices, and discursively propping up an epistemic era in which (as Foucault would say) ‘man’ has become an object of intense scientific scrutiny. And so I fully take the point that in the English-American canon, it would seem that the ‘subaltern’ voices never seem to be heard, and everyone who’s worth reading are dead white men because those are the heroes of the establishment.
But allow me to protest by saying that this is a pro-Prospero reading of the canon. If we are trying to take apart modern Anglicanism from the inside-out, the canon is a remarkable gift. (I know that the One Ring of Power was too, but that’s different.) Because the function of the canon in elite universities has often been used to form a political class with critical civic faculties, you could say that the canon has often been used in the service of the state.
By canon, then, what I mean to refer to is that very loose collection of English-language books, many of which were written by British authors usually from Shakespeare onward to the nineteenth century (with some American inclusions for American state subjectification purposes and pre-modern works, usually of a Greco-Roman imperial nature, just to be well-rounded with the politics of pagan antiquity), that is often taught to us as ‘the classics.’ What I mean to say is this: if I start discussing a book that’s not in your canon, please don’t skewer me. Instead, it just proves my point that this is a ‘very loose collection of English-language books.’
I’d like to co-opt this (very loose) canon for our own purposes. Let’s move the canon back from its service to the state to the service of the church.
And thus, completely ignoring the canon debate because it really is a very state-centric conversation, let’s think about an alternate ecclesial way forward: let’s read the canon as Anglican theology.
In so doing, what we might find is that there is something in the canon that predates the modern Anglican establishment, something perhaps even akin to a Shakespearean critique of Prospero’s magical subjectification strategies. Indeed, let’s co-opt philosopher John Searle’s assertion that the reading of the canon inculcated a ‘critical attitude’ that ‘served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie’ and thus ‘once served an unmasking function.’ For us, the task of canon reading is not to be formed into an American political elite, although I’m sure that we’d all be better off as critics of American imperialism once we’ve read the canon. Instead, if we read English literature as Anglican theology, we might find that what has ended up in the canon isall the stuff with a tense relationship to the state establishment. In other words, the canon may well be the seeds that lead to the dismantling of Anglican church-state entanglement.
Here’s where some critical theory might actually be helpful. As a social scientist, I’ve found the notion of the ‘public sphere’ as a circulation of literary, artistic, and theatrical works particularly helpful. The go-to guy here is critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, who says that around the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there arose (particularly in England) a bourgeois public sphere, which was located between the authoritarian Enlightenment state (it behooves us always to remember that the first iteration of Enlightenment monarchy was the ‘divine sovereign,’ even in the British Isles…or did you forget to read Hobbes?) and the governed masses. The public sphere emerged as a conversation among a liberal, property-owning middle class about how the state represented itself. Starting out by portraying the state’s court, these comedies and dramas in art, theatre, and an increasing amount of literature became texts through which the bourgeois could critique the state. As people like Habermas as well as Michael Warner show, what we now call the ‘canon’ was instrumental in creating this buffer zone between the state and its citizens, between the establishment and the masses. And in time, of course, this public sphere became a vehicle for the state, what we now call modern democracy.
Hauerwas probably just laughed.
While theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh have often knocked democratic movements for being overly state-centric and otherwise nihilistic (and indeed, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the church functions as just another democratizing institution in the service of the democratic state), I’d like to join someone like Nicholas Wolterstorff in saying that the language of democracy, human rights, and justice predate modern democracy. Following that, I’d like to suggest that if the canon can be read as sowing the seeds for the relativization of state authoritarianism, all of this might imply a sort of Anglican impulse that predates the establishment of modern Anglicanism, one that finds itself constantly in tension with the state establishment, one that is ultimately concerned with the human person and his or her mystical communion with the living God as the critique of state subjectification. It’s that impulse that I am arguing is more properly called Anglican Christianity, one that functions constantly as an undercurrent of critique to the modern Anglican establishment that is so embedded with the powers of the state.
And thus, walking onto territory that is definitely more properly Churl’s and Lelbc43’s than mine, I’d like to suggest that what is needed is a reading of the English literature prior to the Anglican establishment that remains in continuity with what comes afterward. In other words, let’s read the canon as Anglican theology. Put another way, let’s read Shakespeare’s critique of Prospero as a continuous thread through the canon. (Just so you know, I’m going to be very selective here. As in, you may come away from this survey very dissatisfied that your favourite author didn’t get covered. I apologize for two reasons. First, I am running out of room. Second, I’m a social scientist and thus incompetent to discuss everybody competently. In fact, if you see any incompetence in what follows, please feel free to laugh.)
And let’s start precisely where I should not, that is, by colonizing Churl’s territory and saying that something like Sing Me Hwaethwugu is what I am calling a ‘crypto-Anglican blog.’ Let’s re-read Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. Of course, by including these in the Anglican canon (heh, see what I did there), I’m saying that the ‘Anglican canon’ doesn’t need to start with the old pagan Near Eastern and Greco-Roman imperial ‘classics’ (as most canons go), as if those were really necessary for full catholicity (Augustine basically says that they’re nice to critique in The City of God, that is, except for Plato; Augustine kinda likes Plato). Let’s start instead with the Anglo-Saxons.
Heh. Just something to tick Churl off.
If we read Beowulf and Bede with an Anglican eye, we might find that much of what has been construed as ‘Celtic Christianity’ in our popular Christian parlance is more properly described as ‘early Anglican Christianity.’ After all, this was the point of the Gregorian missions: to evangelize the Angles, a job that St. Augustine of Canterbury discovered was much harder than Gregory imagined because the British isles were the site of all kinds of tribal warfare as well as already-existing monasteries that had to be brought into full catholicity with Rome (hence the need for the Synod of Whitby). This evangelization brings out a central theological point that arguably runs throughout medieval Christendom: the state can really only do so much against the forces of evil. From Ambrose excommunicating Theodosius to Gregory VII excommunicating Henry, the point is that the church always relativizes the powers of the king. Beowulf recognizes this limit. As the hero of the Danish court, Beowulf goes out to fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother and wins a great victory for the Danes. But he’s outclassed by the dragon, whom he does slay, but he ends up getting killed himself. So too, the whole point of Bede’s book is that the Gregorian missionaries came to the British Isles, and, finding the tribes at war, they relativized the powers of the tribal leaders (sometimes even calling down curses upon them), and as peace came to the Isles, they relativized the independence of the Isles altogether by making the church there conform to an Easter date. In short, the church always says to the state and its proto-state ancestors, Your powers are limited. When they get too big, they cause all sorts of violence. Recognize your relative power. (This point is arguably also in the Arthurian legends, especially when we compare Galahad to Lancelot. But I’m running out of room!)
Forgive me the next anachronistic move (I’m going to combine a few centuries that I know that I shouldn’t; this blog post would never get past a peer review, which is why it’s a blog post!): this is why I think we should read Anselm and Chaucer together. After all, Anselm was an Archbishop of Canterbury in tension with the state: trying to bend William and Henry to submission to the pope (and arguably to Canterbury) even while those two kings were trying to consolidate their state power, Anselm got the the boot twice from England. In turn, Chaucer was writing about Canterbury pilgrims grappling with the murder of another Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, arguably by the state (and by another Henry) because he tried to resist Henry II’s consolidation of state power. After his assassination, Henry went and prayed at his tomb in penance, which is nice because that relativizes the state too.
Here we see that when the church tells the state that its powers are relative, the state sometimes wants to exclude the church, often to its own detriment. Read this way, and Anselm’s ‘debt’ atonement theology makes a lot of sense: after all, as he’s writing Cur Deus Homo in exile (well, he started it at Canterbury, and then got the boot), he’s probably thinking that William and Henry have a lot of debts to pay and a lot of divine wrath to satisfy for their actions. So too, as Chaucer concocts The Canterbury Tales, everyone–especially clergymen and monks out for their own power and pleasure–gets wickedly skewered in bawdy comedy, which suggests that in the tension between the church and the state, the struggle of the powers produces plenty of fodder for hilarity. Indeed, we learn something new from Chaucer: as the church vies for power with the state, as if the church should engage the state on its own terms of power, the church becomes no better than the state and should thus also be subjected to comedic critique. Struggle for power, Chaucer says, and the joke’s on you.
It’s that hilariously critical hermeneutic that becomes veiled from Shakespeare onward. By the time that one gets to early modern English literature, especially after the Elizabethan settlement, it becomes easy to read the canon as pro-establishment, trying to subjectify citizens with moral virtues that are conducive to their participation as agents of the state. After all, Henry VIII was somewhat successful: in Henry, you could say, the struggle of church against state in the British Isles culminated with the state eating the church.
Marianne: Is he done yet? Elinor: No, but my Edward always preaches short sermons.
And so, it’s now really easy to read British literature through a sort of Anglophilic, pro-establishment way. In fact, this is how I grew up. I was told that because I read Dickens, Austen, Trollope, etc. in late elementary, junior high, and high school, that I was a nice conservative child. To some extent, I believed it. I read ‘classical literature’ (Austen and Dickens as classical? Hm.), listened to ‘classical music’ (you mean to tell me that Bach and Elgar were classical?), and watched period movies and ‘classical’ plays (Shakespeare as classical?) because I was that kid. Not just the nerdy Chinese kid (as you may recall, the stereotype usually has more to do with math and science than with English), but the kid with character, the kid with virtue, the kid who was superior to all of his Chinese church and Christian school pleb friends because he was classical.
When I discovered that I was in Selina Kyle Anglicanism, I realized that it was precisely the canon–the same canon that I had read as a sort of pro-establishment conservative child–that in fact undermined the modern Anglican establishment. In other words, while the canon can be used for the purposes of state subjectification through the academy and the church, the works in the canon actually posit a tension between what the establishment is trying to do and what it means to be truly human as a critique of the establishment. (I suppose this is true of the biblical canon as well.)
In other words, read as Anglican theology, the English canon works to dislodge the church from state ideology. I don’t have time to now go back and re-read Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (a non-Anglican who wrote an awful lot about Anglicans), among others, with you. But I trust that with this hermeneutic, you’ll find out why despite the best-laid plans, the Austen characters working through their comedy of manners always wind up with the least-expected guy. You’ll re-think the whole plot of Jane Eyre as a not-so-subtle critique of Anglican colonizing missions and its impulse to subjectification, ironically finding in the ‘establishment’ of Mr. Rochester the seeds of the colonial state’s relativization. You’ll get your aha moment when reading Middlemarch and finding out that Eliot’s critique of the Anglican establishment is in fact a relativization of the powers of the church co-opted by the state for the sake of political gain. And you will laugh incessantly (as I do) every time a beadle shows up in Dickens’s novels.
As I read the canon as Anglican theology, then, I have great hope that the oppressive modern establishment that styles itself as the face of Anglican Christianity can be dismantled, and the true Anglicanism that predates modern Anglicanism can once again be known as Anglican Christianity. In fact, I know it must be dismantled because of the conclusions of yet another literary scholar, René Girard.
If we were to read the founding of modern Anglicanism through a Girardian lens, we would find that much of what modern Anglicanism purports to be was founded on a series of original murders, namely the long consolidation of Tudor England as a culmination to the War of the Roses. But what if we take those founding myths and posit them not as foundational, but as merely an episode in the ongoing tension between church and state in English Christianity? What if we take the long view and see that since the Gregorian missions, and arguably before that, the church has always been in tension with the state? What if we see in English Christianity that the church co-opting the state and the state co-opting the church, and both of them being subjected to literary ridicule, is business as usual? What if we say that Henry VIII founded nothing, that Elizabeth I settled nothing, and that Anglican Christianity does not actually hinge on the state’s actions because of the long ecclesial literary tradition that predates it? In other words, what if we stop thinking that the state won its battle against Canterbury in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that we still remain in an ever-unfolding story of Anglican church-state relations?
OK, that was the best tabloid I could find. For the record, Islamophobia sucks. But that’s another post.
This is precisely what’s so fascinating about the very people who should be the face of modern Anglican Protestantism over the last fifty or so years. Since Michael Ramsey, there has been an increasing recognition on the parts of Archbishops of Canterbury, especially Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, that the church should not be tied to the crown, or indeed, to a construction of what British identity(courtesy of the state) should mean. This, I submit to you, was the point of the whole poobah when Rowan Williams came out and said that shari’a law should be recognized in the United Kingdom. Williams was taking apart the whole notion of an established British identity, saying that the United Kingdom needs to understand that the Isles have always been a complex space with many different groups and that it’s pointless to impose one law on all people, especially if there are fellow Muslim citizens. The response to Williams was outrage: how can an Archbishop of Canterbury say such a thing about British identity? Here’s how: by not believing that the founding myths of British sovereignty are true and by disentangling the church from its modern role as the arm of the state, returning it to its original, pre-modern tension with the powers. (Ditto Welby’s comments on the banking system. Ditto the weird game that Welby and the English bishops are playing on the same-sex marriage bill.)
Sorry, Newman, this probably annoys the hell out of you.
I recognize that this argument for a pre-modern/post-modern Anglicanism sounds dangerously close to some of the arguments in the Oxford Movement, and particularly that of John Henry Newman. If there’s something that predates the schism and thus de-legitimizes it, then shouldn’t we all hop over to Rome? Maybe, and so, people like Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins did.
The only thing, though, is that Newman and Hopkins lived during the height of the British Empire. We live in the wake of its collapse, a crisis that affords us Anglicans who do not believe that Henry VIII’s state-eats-church move was legitimate an opportunity to do something unheard of: work for Anglican-Catholic home reunion from the Anglican side of things.
Michael Ramsey and Paul VI. Good times.
Indeed, you could say that the reason there have been so many good and interesting Archbishops of Canterbury since William Temple forward (yeah, actually, Ramsey can’t take all the credit) is that they were all too clear that with the dissolution of the Empire, it made the church’s entanglement with the state look increasingly like nonsense and madness. With the advent of Vatican II, this disentanglement has been coupled with serious dialogue with Rome and the Orthodox Church, particularly in the conversation that Michael Ramsey started with Paul VI that has led to the very interesting work done by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), who have released statements that basically say that despite different theological language being used for the sticky theological issues between the two communions, Anglican theologians basically concur with their Catholic counterparts on the primacy of Rome and the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is the sticky issue of women’s ordinations and consecrations, as well as the status of LGBTQ+ populations in the communions, but I look forward to what ARCIC will do on this in years to come.
In other words, when I say that I’m staying in the Anglican Communion and when Churl says that he’s leaving for the Roman Catholic Church, we are saying pretty much the same thing. Churl is following Newman: having realized that the entire modern Anglican enterprise is basically a secular one, he is ready to jump ship into a Church where (as Charles Taylor points out) a real, full-bodied sacramental ontology is to be found. This is good and fair. But having read Newman, I’m not convinced that every Anglican who becomes convinced of what Churl has been convinced of must jump ship to Rome. If that were the case, I might ask: then how would the Anglican Communion keep being able to produce figures like Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams, and Justin Welby? What we see is that in the English canon, Anglicanism has its own internal resources for undermining its own establishmentarianism. As this becomes undermined, the central question behind the Anglican-Roman Catholic schism will sound increasingly more ridiculous, and that is: can a state’s sovereign exert his rule over the church and her claim to channel one into mystical participation in the life of Christ? Of course not!
Francis: Hey, he’s giving away our secret. Justin: Don’t worry. The place I’ve reserved for him is secret too.
Then OK, if that’s so, then why continue the schism? Put another way: why can’t the Archbishop of Canterbury finally come home to Gregory? (Let me note that this is precisely what Justin Cantuar said to Pope Francis last week.) And put a final way: Churl and I are doing the same thing: we are working for the undermining of schism in different ways to which the Lord has called us. He will likely be going over to Rome; bless him. I will stay here in the Anglican Church. We both protest the notion that what is known as Anglicanism is founded on schism because, as the literary tradition suggests, this simply is not true. It is a state ideology. It should be disentangled from the work of the Body of Christ.
And thus, as we work for the truth on both sides of the Anglican-Roman Catholic conversation, who knows what will happen? I do not dare to predict the future. But know this: I’m an Anglican because I refuse to believe in schism. And since Anglicanism has its own resources for undermining schism, I’ll side with the long tradition of the Archbishops of Canterbury from Augustine to Justin who undermined the powers of the state (I forgot to say this earlier, but Cranmer also met a pretty ugly end when he finally ended up opposing the state). As a social scientist who loves his literature, I’ll also keep reading the canon that pokes fun at Anglican power wherever it rears its ugly head. I’ll stay right where I am and milk those traditions to the full, all in the hope against hope that one day, Anglicanism will cease to be a schismatic, self-referential modern identity and recognize its unique and vital contributions to the church catholic and the life of the world. Indeed, as I have suggested, this is already happening. It’s incumbent on me to join in.
So shouldn’t you go up for ordained Anglican ministry,then? Absolutely not. I’ll explain in Part 4. I might do some magic there too.
I’ve gotten exactly what I wanted. Over the night after I posted my first post, Churl read it. The suspense is now killing him, and he is now describing my talents as made for television miniseries, such as ‘The Real Anglicans of Canterbury, Jordan Shore, The Amazing (G)race, and Survivor: The Evangelical Church, to be followed by Survivor: the Neo-Reformed Church (in which we don’t bother to vote anyone off the island because the matter is predestined anyway).’ For my part, I’m still thinking of something that includes Gordon Ramsay or Guy Fieri. Regardless, though, my wife has been calling me a ‘naughty Chinglican,’ so to say the least, I am quite satisfied. (Ew, Mark Driscoll, get your head out of the gutter.)
Anne Boleyn? Or Irene Adler? And if the latter, then whither Moriarty?
This second post will not satisfy any of Churl’s frustration. It is in fact intentionally designed to make it worse. By returning to the question, if Anglicanism is as bad as I described it in my previous post, then how did people like me enter it in the first place?, it’s like I’m rubbing it in. How on earth did we get in? Why the hell did we do it? What in God’s name were we thinking?
Since all theology is done through analogy anyway, let me begin my case by analogy. In fact, I’m going to try to make my analogies as shallow as possible in order to maximize Churl’s frustration. I recognize that the answer to this question will be very complicated. That’s why the post is so long.
It seems to me that most evangelicals who wind up Anglican (like myself; unless you were raised Jewish, in which case your name is Lauren Winner) found the Anglican Church in some kind of whirlwind romance. As the stories often go, Anglicanism is like that person to whom said evangelical was very physically attracted (oh, oh, see what I did? I made that gender-neutral!). As a result, said evangelical’s evangelical friends who have read I Kissed Dating Goodbye cautioned him (or her; I like evangelical feminists) against basing his or her relationship on sheer physical attraction. Indeed, they often ask, Doesn’t Anglicanism have a lot of baggage?
But we are in love, or as Stanley Hauerwas would put it, in lust. For every insecure Mark Driscoll masculinity quote about priests who ‘wear a dress’ (one wonders who is more insecure about their masculinity: the dress-wearing priest or Mark Driscoll?), we reply that the attraction is too powerful, too magnetic, to resist. Oh, that was so spiritual, we evangelical liturgical hipsters say about the liturgy. I’ve never had something that structured before, except when I planned out that perfect worship set three weeks ago that I executed with ‘rehearsed spontaneity.’ Through the liturgy, I really feel closer to God than I’ve ever been. It was so poetic. (I read somewhere, by the way, that this is actually how Rowan Williams became an Anglican.)
Yeah, I know, shocking that that’s how Rowan Williams became Anglican…
In some ways, this is my story, except mine is more along the lines of the Princess Diaries. There, Anne Hathaway begins the movie as a rock-climbing geek with glasses and very frizzy and oily hair (hey, sounds about how I look!), and not only does she not return her crush’s affections, but the crush of her life does not return her affections. After discovering from Julie Andrews that she is in fact princess of Genovia, she gets an ultimate makeover, and by the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), she is kissing the guy who had a crush on her (as opposed to the guy on whom she had a crush) and lifts her leg as she squeals.
Of course, I am certainly nowhere nearly as attractive as the guy on whom Anne Hathaway had a crush or the guy who had a crush on Anne Hathaway, but I think it’s quite apropos to say that Anne Hathaway is my Anglicanism. In fact, the real Anne Hathaway (I’m still talking about Hollywood, not Shakespeare) did once upon a time consider becoming a nun (Dolores Hart, round 2?), but when she found out that her brother was gay, her whole family became Episcopalian. While she now considers herself ‘spiritual but not religious’ (paging Lillian Daniel!), I consider her as the Beatrice figure in my story of the Anglican Church, which is (admittedly) my own idiosyncratic version of the Communion. (Let me note here, however, that everyone’s version of the Anglican Communion is personal and idiosyncratic. That’s probably why there is a crisis.)
You see, when I first entered the Anglican Church, I hated it for the same reasons the teens with whom I worked hated it. The liturgy was stale, the traditions were geeky in a very uncool way, the vestments were reviling, and the songs they sang sounded like three variations of ‘All Creatures of Our Bugs and Pigs.’ The kids hated it, I hated it; we just couldn’t see any beauty in it.
In fact, the funny story of how I became an Anglican begins with my defection from non-denominational circles to the realm of a man I like to call the ‘topless bishop.’ He wasn’t a bishop at the time, but he wanted me to work for his parish. For my part, I was looking for an escape out of the evangelical churches of which I was a part, mostly for political reasons: I was a very outspoken child in a conservative Chinese evangelical congregation with a congregational polity, so while the church’s congregational polity meant that I could hypothetically say whatever I wanted, that I had spoken too many times and with too little tact at several annual general meetings meant that it was time for me to go.
The ‘topless bishop’ saved my life. He called me while I was at work at a summer job doing industry manual labour, and he said over the phone, ‘Meet me for breakfast at a restaurant called Topless.’
Thinking that the machines around were making his words unclear, I yelled, ‘Where?’
‘How do you spell that?’
That was my introduction into the Anglican Communion and its sexuality struggles. (The restaurant was called ‘Tops,’ by the way, which only makes one wonder about what the origins of the bishop’s derivative were.)
From there, I was coaxed into the Anglican Church with a combination of the encouragement of Anglican clergy who wanted new blood in the system and the overwhelming promise of my own ego. This, by the way, is why I first hated Anglicanism. If I were to be the saviour of the church, I needed to save these kids from boredom, to catch them before they all secularized and went the way of the ‘silent exodus’ (Asian American evangelical terminology…I’ll explain separately!). The liturgy, the organ music, the status jockeying, the unpoetic Cantonese elements: these were all unhelpful. The kids would tell me that they were bored; I used to pass notes to some of them in service, asking if the ones who bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and nodded through the sermon whether they were ‘praying hard or hardly praying.’ The kids needed excitement, a burst of their religious affections (remember, I was a Piper fan), a kindling of the Holy Spirit, and a new hip (or as one of my colleagues put it, ‘high octane’) presentation of the Gospel.
As I looked harder, though, I saw with the rest of the liturgical hipster defectors to the Anglican Church that I could give Anglicanism an ultimate makeover. Because the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer really aren’t that strict, for example, we could have our worship team insert Hillsong, Vineyard, Passion, and Soul Survivor music between the readings. The sermons didn’t have to be drawn from the lectionary, because the lectionary was just a suggestion; we could make up our own sermon series and attempt to exposit whole books of the Bible the proper (neo-Reformed) way. The Eucharist could be very intimate, especially if you strummed an acoustic guitar while everyone was communicating. After all, with the rest of the evangelical liturgical hipsters, I saw that the Book of Common Prayer articulated Reformed theology in brilliantly poetic terms. Confirming this understanding were evangelical and Reformed books by Robert Webber, Marva Dawn, and Jamie Smith that argued that liturgy is the way that we’re formed, that we are made for poetry (we are, after all, God’s poema), and that because Anglicanism has such a rich tradition, liturgy, history, and spirituality, this is the perfect place to become formed into the image of Christ. This Reformed thing was admittedly dampened a bit by the Alternative Service versions where you don’t get to talk about ‘oblation, satisfaction, and propitiation once offered,’ but it was like the Eucharist could replace the altar call, which for us evangelicals was a big deal. In short, Anglicanism could save evangelicalism.
And that’s where I discovered Anglicanism’s baggage.
The baggage that I discovered in Anglicanism’s family wasn’t that she was the princess of Genovia with Julie Andrews as the queen mother. It was that Anglicanism was Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.
There was quite a bit of baggage that I had ignored as an evangelical liturgical hipster and that I simply didn’t know about when I didn’t like Anglicanism and didn’t care to learn more. While I knew, for example, was that Anglicanism was founded by Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce from a political marriage (only to manage to get through five more women over the course of his life), I didn’t know about the political crisis in Tudor England and the consolidation of the state that those actions caused, as well as the political upheaval leading up to and past the reign of Elizabeth I. As a result, I also did not know to read Anglicanism as pretty much the state religion of the United Kingdom that was probably more interested in advancing the interests of nation and empire than I’d like to admit. This means that while I thought that someone like Bishop J.C. Ryle and his very Calvinist leanings were signs of ‘good Anglicanism,’ I thought I could ignore the crazy Anglo-Catholic and broad church cousins.
Actually being Anglican–and at one point, being on ordination track–meant that my pretty Anglicanism was devastatingly challenged.
As I worked in those Chinese Anglican parishes, I slowly started to notice that not all was as it seemed. There was definitely some wishy-washiness that went on, which, when challenged, would receive very wishy-washy theological justification. On top of that, I was privy to a few strange backroom political deals, some of which happened in the past and people told me a variety of versions about them, some of which happened behind my back to marginalize me in ministry, and some to which I was privy to marginalize others in ministry. (Come on, I can’t tell you more than that. They were backroom deals, for cryin’ out loud. I can only tell you that some were surprisingly ethical, with the only thing ethically questionable about them being that they were backroom deals.) After the backroom deals, of course, we’d all pretend that whatever church split was on our hands wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Generally, we did not use the corny evangelical line about ‘God calling people to different seasons in their ministry’ to explain away people leaving. But we did come up with a variety of stories and explanations for people that were often so unconvincing that people would start to imagine their own versions of stories, which, layered over time, made the truth that we knew to have actually happened in the backroom to sound increasingly implausible. Add to that the involvement of a few out-of-town bishops whose actions must remain completely off the record, and you’ve got a story juicier than anything Susan Howatch could concoct for her Church of England series. (More on Howatch in Part 3.)
And so, at the parish level, I was ushered into the world of Anglican politics, the world in which Anne Hathaway is not princess of Genovia, but Catwoman trying to eke her way through Gotham.
And thus, to magnify Churl’s utter frustration and consternation about just how ugly the state of Anglicanism is, let me dish out some of the general dirt, that is, bits of intentionally vague data that I’ve collected over my time working in Anglican parishes and interacting with bishops and senior clerics (some of whom were very senior, let me assure you), and then using all of those experiences as a hermeneutic while reading Anglican theology.
The first thing I discovered was that racism is pretty much built into the lifeblood of modern Anglicanism. With no Virgin of Guadalupe appearing to refocus our attention, the racism that Anglicans have imbibed since the dawn of modernity seems to focus around reinforcing the sovereign power of the British crown at the expense of colonized, coloured populations worldwide. If indeed John Bossy is right about the ‘migrations of the holy’ from the church to the state in modern times, Anglicanism is a model for how a church got completely subsumed under the state, which proceeded to attempt to subjectify all of its citizens/parishioners into theological uniformity during things like the Elizabethan Settlement.
This subjectification under the crown became a sort of interesting colonial model. Since I’m a Chinglican, let me take Hong Kong as my guiding example (you can fill in all the blanks with Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, the African colonies, the Middle Eastern colonies, and the American colonies). As the British won the Opium War in 1841, there was a sense in which Hong Kong became the British crown’s chance to experiment with the creation of an Anglo-Chinese site (see Christopher Munn’s fascinating book, Anglo-China, for all the lurid and scandalous details). Within this colonial subjectification framework, Anglicanism played a very interesting role. As Anthony King shows in his work on colonial urban development, the idea of a ‘colonial third culture’ emerged precisely out of the segregation of the British colonizers from the colonized natives. That is to say, in the colonies, there were separate sections of colonial cities for the British colonizers–often working-class and lower-middle-class people from Britain looking for class advancement so that when they got to places like Hong Kong, they were the elites–and the colonized populations that they were attempting to subjectify (in Hong Kong, convert to ‘Anglo-Chinese’ citizens). In Hong Kong, St. John’s Cathedral functioned as the church in the colonizer territories. While the Cathedral currently (and commendably) serves as a hub for social justice especially for foreign domestic workers, it was the site of a lot of class conflict in the nineteenth century. In fact, if you read the early records, there was a big fight over who sat in which pews and whether you could put pews between existing pews (thus screwing with the class-stratified order of the space) in the 1850s, leading to a massive split in the church and the reconstruction of the pews.
What I’m trying to say is that in many places in the British colonies, Anglicanism was the religion of the colonizing elites within the segregated part of the colonial cities reserved for the colonizing Europeans. In turn, it generally wasn’t the Anglicans who first ran the schools and did missions among the colonized populations: those were Baptists, Union Church, Lutherans, and Methodists. The Anglican entry among the colonized populations came quite late in the game, which meant that the colonized populations (say, the Chinese) who became Anglicans also became attached to a symbol of colonizing power, i.e. if you were an Anglican, you were more European than the other Protestant plebs. Of course, throughout the early twentieth century, this dynamic sort of changed in parts of, say, East Africa where there was a revival. But argue this point as you might, the recent transition of the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) from the Province of Rwanda has a telling story. The new Primate of Rwanda, Onesiphore Rwaje, had an exchange of letters (read them here yourself) with the province’s dean, Bishop Bilindabagabo Alexis, about the financial accountability of the AMiA and whether money that was promised to flow in from the Americas had actually arrived. As if the financial scandal that caused ‘the transition’ weren’t bad enough, Alexis point-blank takes notice in a letter dated 9 June 2011 when Rwaje fails to acknowledge his title, and thus his status: ‘Also, in your reply to my letter, you failed to recognize me as the Dean of the Province. Was this intentional or simply an oversight?’ Facepalm. Revivals replaced status? Hm.
This, by the way, is why I find the central geographical claim of the current Anglican realignment–that the Global South Anglicans whom we in the West evangelized during the missionary movements of the nineteenth century are now returning to evangelize us–completely ludicrous. Again, this is like Hong Kong. By all accounts, the early British attempts to colonize Hong Kong turned out to be a complete failure, and it was not until the development of a Chinese merchant elite that the semblance of order took shape in the 1870s. But by the time the British left in the 1990s (and with some colonial political maneuvering since the 1970s), the narrative that was left over was that the British had done a wonderful job with Hong Kong as a ‘borrowed place on borrowed time.’ The idea that we in the Westevangelized the Global South is already a problematic notion because one wonders how effective the missions that came alongside the crown actually were, especially if these were Anglican missions catering to European elites. Instead, as was often the case, there was a breakout of charismatic revival among the Anglican parishes quite late in the game, which made for quite a bit of indigenous revival, to be sure. And yet, these revival movements often didn’t often lead to the development of a new indigenous theology (Archbishop Paul Kwong in Hong Kong pretty much admits this in his fascinating book, Identity in Communion), but a recycling of the old colonial theologies in charismatic garb, partly because the church still needed to function under the auspices of first the colonial empire, and then the developing post-colonial nation-state. That these supposedly ‘post-colonial’ Anglicans whose identities are still heavily tied to their nation-state’s political regimes are now returning to evangelize us is a bit of a ridiculous claim in terms of Christian orthodoxy, then. It’s more like they’re rebuking ‘the West’ for shedding the old colonial theological frameworks that used to underpin their imperial regimes, for (to put it crudely) failing to be the good, strong white people that we used to be. There should be no celebration that race has been overcome in this new Anglican re-alignment; it should rather be the lament that race has been refashioned with post-colonial clothes.
What I’m saying here is that in the Anglican Communion, everything within its polity that has been touched by the British crown is subsumed under the rubric of class, including race. Anglican racism is about class hierarchy in a political regime. It’s about British colonizers being superior and segregated from the natives. It’s about the native converts being superior to the plebs. It’s about climbing the ladder of race for class advancement. It’s about class advancement for increasing political influence toward the established national regime. Class, and thus, race, are in many ways built into the fabric of the modern Anglican Communion. Modern Anglicanism, in short, is little more than a political theology for the colonizing state.
The second thing I learned was that most every other English-origin denomination is a church split from Anglicanism, which means that Anglicanism can be taken validly as a proxy for all that’s wrong with Anglophone Protestantism writ large. Think about it. Presbyterianism: split off from Anglicanism to form presbyteries with Calvinist theologies. Methodists: split off from Anglicanism based on missionary methodologies. Baptists: split off from Anglicanism over the credo-baptism thing. Even the separatist Puritans (sorry, J.I. Packer): split off from Anglicanism for a more pure form of religious practice.
This has two implications. First, if Anglicanism was the religion of the state, these church splits were no mere private backroom poobahs; they were political splits that challenged the authority of the crown. What we have in the various Protestant denominations is not simply the debate over fine points of theology; it’s also a debate over what it means to be English, what it means to be under the British sovereign, what it means to be part of a British colony, what it means to do theology for the state. If indeed Anglicanism is a political theology, then splitting from Anglicanism implicates all the other English-speaking denominations also as alternate political theologies to Anglicanism at the core.
Second, then, this means that Anglicanism has a very special and schismatic relationship to the other Protestant denominations. You can see this in the current Anglican crisis. Since the late 1990s and the early 2000s, it was like all the other denominations were waiting with bated breath over what would happen regarding LGBTQ+ clergy, LGBTQ+ bishops, and the recognition of gender-neutral unions and marriage within Anglicanism. Now if all the other denominations were really independent of Anglicanism, then you wouldn’t think they’d feel the need to do this. But they did. If I might steal from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s title as ‘first among equals’ among the primates, I’d speculate that this suggests that Anglicanism is first among equals in terms of the Protestant denominations, partly because all of them take their Protestant cues from the Anglican Communion. In fact, I know the English denominations do this. Go find a Presbyterian book of worship, a United Methodist hymnbook, or a Baptist manual of service, and tell me what you see. I see the wholesale importation of prayers, baptism services, wedding services, funeral services, Good Friday services, Easter services, Christmas services, and even some Eucharistic prayers straight from the Book of Common Prayer.
In short, I hate to be disappointing to the evangelical liturgical hipsters, but if you were looking to escape Protestantism by becoming Anglican, you have simply jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Modern Anglicanism is all about Protestant identity. All the Protestant identities. Too many of them.
Which brings me to my third point…
The third thing I realized was that this whole crisis about sexuality is not really about the authority of Scripture or the divinity of Christ, but about the conflicts among the various theological factions of Anglicanism finally coming to a head after the last five hundred years or so. What I mean to say is that the factions in Anglicanism are not simply theological disagreements about this or that articulation of God; they are deep fissures over what theology is, period.
Allow me to illustrate. A very senior Anglican cleric with whom I spoke (I should not reveal what his position was) told me that when he had worked in the Global South, he was in fact good friends with Rowan Williams when he was Bishop of Wales and had enjoyed a thriving Global North-Global South partnership with him during those years. However, as both of them were promoted into even more senior positions, they discovered that their different actions in the Anglican Communion caused their personal friendship to drift apart. My senior Anglican friend had supported a Global South excommunication of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, which had in turn led to the consecration of alternate bishops with alternate provincial jurisdictions. These were actions that neither George Carey nor Rowan Williams (both Archbishops of Canterbury) could support, for they felt that these cross-episcopal consecrations fractured the Communion.
I then asked my friend what he thought of Rowan Williams. He said this: ‘Rowan and I both have a line. I draw the line here; he draws the line there, and so if Rowan doesn’t like me anymore, I suppose it’s because we draw the line in different places. But I know Rowan has a line. When Jack Spong said that he denied the resurrection, Rowan went ping! like that to Jack Spong.’
What my senior Anglican friend was telling me was more profound than I realized then, for in that moment, all bets were off. My friend was within the evangelical stream, Rowan Williams in an Anglo-Catholic stream, and Jack Spong in a very extreme latitudinarian stream. That my friend emphasized ‘drawing lines’ demonstrated what he as an evangelical Anglican thought orthodox Christian theology was: it was about keeping within boundary lines that fenced in what the truth of God was. This was, after all, the logic of the Anglican Communion crisis: several bishops had crossed theological lines that should not be crossed, and thus, their provinces should be excommunicated and those who are faithful to historic Anglican orthodoxy, i.e. those who stayed within the fence, should find alternate orthodox episcopal jurisdiction.
Imagine my utter surprise and consternation when I actually went to read Rowan Williams’s book on Arius. As an Anglo-Catholic, Williams had come to a radically different understanding of orthodoxy. He argued that it was Arius who was drawing the lines for God while Alexander and Athanasius had to use their creativity in relation to the tradition to articulate orthodox formulations of God, articulations that eventually became known as the Triune Personhood of God. For Williams, orthodox theology had nothing to do with drawing lines; that was Arius, for crying out loud. Orthodox theologians had to use their creativity to find truly catholic solutions to sticky doctrinal problems. Orthodoxy wasn’t about drawing lines; it was about tapping into what Williams has long called ‘the mind of the Communion.’
I imagine that theology is even different still for Jack Spong. My evangelical friend told me that Williams had a line that Spong crossed. But in Williams’s actual open letter to Spong, Williams (as an Anglo-Catholic) asks, given Spong’s desire to change everything in orthodox Christian belief: why does Jack Spong even bother to stay? Williams wasn’t appealing to Spong’s boundaries; he was appealing to his sense of catholicity. This in turn probably puzzled Spong, whose latitudinarian tendencies had led him to conceptualize God as a progressive revelation that could be experienced through modernity. As a result, this liberal theology might cause him to see my friend’s boundary-drawing and Williams’s catholicity as too conservative and not open to the progressive revelation of God. As Spong might say, both put too much emphasis on tradition and the institution and in turn might be seen by him as heretical because they denied God’s ongoing work and revelation in the present.
You see what just happened there? My friend, Williams, and Spong don’t simply disagree about theological positions; they are deeply divided over what theology actually is. Get ‘sexuality’ as a catalyzer, and bam! you have an Anglican crisis with no one who actually even agrees on what theology is. Is it boundary-drawing? Is it creative catholicity? Is it progressive revelation through modernity? Who knows?
What we do know is this, of course: of these three theologies, only one of them is really accepted in the Catholic church, as the evangelical one sounds a bit Jansenist and the latitudinarian one was the subject of Pius IX’s fulminations in the Syllabus of Errors. And thus, back to the Protestant point: yes, Anglicanism is Protestant. It’s so Protestant that it has two streams of Protestant theologies called anathema by Rome and one stream for catholic theologies, none of which currently get along because none of them agrees on what theology actually is.
Now take all this insight from the level of global communion, and plug it back into parish life. That was my brief Anglican apprenticeship experience. Those backroom deals and private conversations that I was talking about was all about this stuff: class advancement and maintenance, racial hierarchies, Protestant identity, relations with other evangelicals (some of whom began working in the church and decided to introduce elements of congregational democracy, which caused a bit of a rebellion against the rector that was kinda fun while it lasted), potshots thrown at liberals without any knowledge of what liberal theology actually was (take that, Jack Spong, although we have no idea how you do theology!), reading other people’s theologies through your own theology, having parish members go to evangelical/charismatic/liberal/catholic events and coming back wanting to change the church into their image, etc. Of course, I’m sure you can say this about non-Anglican churches (I grew up free church most of my life; I definitely know that you can say this in non-Anglican settings), but within Anglicanism, you could read all of the political problems happening at the parish scale within ever larger diocesan, synod, provincial, and communion-wide scales.
The honeymoon was over, the beauty dissipated, the communion turned into infighting. Selina Kyle Anglicanism. Got baggage?
Stay tuned now for Part 3, on why I’m not about to call quits on Anglicanism, or, for that matter,Anne Hathaway.
There is a certain church popping up repeatedly on my news feed advertising a church service that will potentially reach the downtown of the city in which I live. It is an Anglican church, or more precisely put, it is a church that thinks it’s Anglican because it likes liturgy but doesn’t want to become Anglican-extreme, as evidenced by its pastor’s theological blogs on the ‘misconceptions of Anglicanism’ and the ‘dangers of Anglicanism.’ The bottom line of these posts is that Anglicanism has been misconstrued as a ‘man-made ritual,’ which means that in many quarters, it’s lost a sense of the Christian Gospel, which (apparently) is to actively seek to transform the nations with the message of Jesus, which (apparently) ‘is an invitation to turn away from laws and threats, and to believe that Jesus paid it all’ in contrast to a Caesarean existence based on ‘laws and threats.’ Not only is this church seeking to change my city’s culture, but it boldly states on its vision statement that the reason my city is dying because of racism, sexism, and drug abuse, and that the church is failing to address these issues because the Protestant church in my city is numerically shrinking:
The church should be a part of the solution, but it is rapidly dying. In the last survey conducted by Statistics Canada, only 17% of the population in Vancouver consider themselves Protestant and 42% have no religious affiliation.
The suggestion is thus that mainline churches (like Anglican ones) have become so institutionalized and routinized that they’re losing the young people, so not only is this new church going to resurrect my city, but they’re going to tell us Anglicans how we’ve majorly screwed up.
I don’t blame them, as my city is also one of the three fault lines of the Anglican Communion crisis, that is to say, one of the three dioceses in North America where direct actions from the bishop (mostly to do with sexuality) have caused churches to split from the province, seek cross-provincial episcopal jurisdiction, and cause major schism within the worldwide Anglican Communion. This new church seems to have the solution to our problems, of course. Instead of focusing on Anglicanism as the church structure and the man-made rituals, we should rediscover this cool articulation of faith called the liturgy. We should also lay claim to our theology in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which is (obviously) the Anglican statement of faith, just like (duh) every Protestant church has a statement of faith, because (of course) Protestantism is confessional. In fact, Anglicanism is a great missional strategy to reach ‘postmodern’ people because its liturgy is so poetic, and it gives certainty in its theological articulation to an uncertain world. In turn, reaching people strategically will turn the church into a ‘capital base’:
…new churches also become resource bases for all other ministries. Most other independent or para-church ministries need ongoing financial resources, year after year. Once a new church becomes self-supporting it becomes the capital base (manpower, ministry expertise and money) for all other ministries within the city. If it is healthy and continues to grow it becomes a viable and vital partner in building other necessary, specialized and cutting edge ministries within the city. So, if we plant a church we can impact the city and world on a larger scale.
Never mind, of course, sociologist Nancy Ammerman’s analysis in Pillars of Faith that it’s usually parachurch organizations that make the money for congregations. Never mind also that despite the depiction of Vancouver as unclaimed, de-Protestantized territory, there are churches in my city like Tenth Church, Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, and First Baptist Church that are already pulling their share of the weight. This still sounds very nice.
It’s also a profound teaching moment about Anglicanism that is difficult to pass up. And so I shan’t. Let me begin with a question:
Is Anglican liturgy actually strategic? In other words, can you build the church as a capital base with a liturgical strategy?
This is an honest question, partly because many evangelicals nowadays absolutely (and “passionately,” of course) think so. In fact, it’s an increasingly pressing question because the last ten-ish years have witnessed a great awakening among evangelicals regarding something to which evangelicals claim Anglicans have special privilege among Protestant Christians: liturgy. (Never mind that Lutherans, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other Free Church derivatives have all sorts of liturgical traditions too.) Having read the late Robert Webber as well as a few cool new books on “the grammar of faith” while discovering that the guys they love to quote were Anglican (e.g. C.S. Lewis, John Stott), Anglicanism’s “Catholic tendencies” are starting to become cool, poetic, hip. In fact, it may be the mark of the new Christian hipster, that is to say, the portrait of the young Christian as a hipster.
Now, of course, James K.A. Smith writes some pretty cool stuff about liturgy informing everything you do. But this new liturgical fetish weirds me out a little because it’s a bit selective. I mean, you don’t see any evangelicals who have read radically orthodox theologian Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing going off and using the Tridentine Latin Mass as an evangelistic strategy (or maybe Pickstock’s writing is too impenetrable for those working with that scandal called the ‘evangelical mind’). And, of course, within Anglicanism, there are all sorts of liturgies. There’s the established form from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but unless you’re at my church where people are actually convinced that the poetry of phrases like “it is meet and right so to do” will win people to Christ (while being simultaneously confused as to why there are so many white people at our church), unintelligible language isn’t exactly a marketing strategy (besides the small detail that in Article 24 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, it’s ‘plainly repugnant’ to have a liturgy ‘in a tongue not understanded of the people’). If you want a liturgy ‘understanded of the people,’ you could look to the Book of Alternative Services, but then, the 1662 people will get you for going liberal.
Which, in short, means that when you use Anglican stuff, there are Anglican politics to deal with.
That leads to my next question: is liturgy all there really is to Anglicanism?
Let me submit to you that Anglicanism isn’t really about the liturgy, but rather, all about this dirty word ‘politics.’ Don’t ever forget that the Protestant version of Anglicanism started in the sixteenth century when this sexist king called Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce from his wife, which in turn led to his next wife getting beheaded, the next one dead in childbirth, the next one divorced because she couldn’t speak English (true story), the next one beheaded too because she cheated on him, and the last one survived because, in 007’s words, she was the ‘last rat standing.’ Then the king died, which led to all sorts of problems because half the royal family wanted to become Catholic again (so they killed all the Protestants) and the other half wanted to become Protestant (so they killed all the Catholics), until Elizabeth I came around, decided she liked the Protestant version because it made her (as opposed to the pope) ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England, and achieved what’s called the ‘Elizabethan Settlement,’ which meant that we got a prayer book, a few anti-Catholic diatribes, and a state-sanctioned Protestant religion.
And that leads to my next question: do you really have to deal with all of that junk as a missional church?
Uh, yeah, you do, because when it comes down to it, what this means is that there’s really no such thing as ‘Anglican theology,’ or even ‘Anglican liturgy,’ for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we don’t have theologies and liturgies; I’m saying that there are too many of them. There are multiple Anglican theologies and liturgies in conversation (often heated ones) among Anglicans around the world. In technical terms, we call this mess the Anglican Communion. There are evangelicals who actually don’t like the liturgy that much (surprise, you evangelical liturgical entrepreneurs!), there are Anglo-Catholics who like the liturgy too much, there are latitudinarians who don’t really seem to care about liturgy and theology, and there’s every possible combination, permutation, contradiction, and exception to all of the above. We all made a show of getting along when the United Kingdom had this thing called an empire where folks who were technically Anglicans colonized the entire world (which is why the sun never went down on the British Empire), and when that empire fell apart due to budgetary reasons, we called it a communion of provinces, which sounded nice until some of the provinces wanted to bless same-sex unions and ordain gay clergy, which made some of the ex-colonial provinces excommunicate the more liberal provinces, which in turn made some conservative parishes drop out of the old provinces, which in turn has caused a ginormous mess about property rights, which in turn has led to a boiling animosity that has culminated in the voting down of an ‘Anglican Covenant’ that was the last ditch effort to keep the whole thing together.
Which leads to: what really makes you Anglican, then?
What really makes you Anglican is that you plug yourself into this complete mess of a conversation called the Anglican Communion and people in this mess recognize you as plugged in, talk to you as Anglican, and insult your version of Anglicanism.
Great, so do you get to say that you’re just in this conversation?
No. First off, if you’re already a baptized Christian, you find a bishop who likes you (politics, right?). Then you get confirmed with the guy/gal (depending on what you think of women bishops), which is good enough if you want to be a lay person in this conversation. If you want to serve the sacraments, you have to get ordained twice (deaconed, then priested). This process allows you to trace your Christian food chain back up to Augustine of Canterbury.
Not to be confused with his namesake from Hippo, Augustine of Canterbury was a Catholic missionary sent to the British Isles by Pope Gregory ‘the Great’ I, who made the evangelization of Britain one of his top priorities because he saw some slave boys earlier on in his priestly career who were described to him as ‘Angles.’ He thought they looked so beautiful that he called them ‘angels’ (true story), so when he became pope, reaching them with the Gospel was his top priority. Augustine got there, got into major conflict with the existing pagan tribal leaders, managed to convert a few anyway, and started a primatial church at Canterbury that ordained priests and consecrated bishops in the effort to evangelize the island. The trouble was, there were already Christians there before Augustine, and they had also started monasteries (which, incidentally, had much earlier produced a guy called Pelagius that the other Augustine didn’t really like), so there was a lot of conflict between those pre-existing British Christians and the new Roman guys over how the church should operate as a communion. You can read all about the sordid details in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. They managed to sort it all out (sorta) when the British Christians finally agreed to adjust their Easter date to Rome’s.
In other words, these guys were Anglican Christians because they were a church among this group of people that Gregory liked who were called the Angles, who were in turn collaborating with and at war with other tribes (Saxons, Picts, Scots, Welsh, Irish, etc.) over British Isle turf.
Right away, then, you can see that Anglicanism wasn’t pretty from the get-go. There were conflicts between Christians, and there were conflicts between Christians and pagans, which became conflicts between the Christian church and the state. Some Anglican Christians (like Alcuin of York) eventually worked for the state. Some (like Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Becket) pissed the state off. The state itself pissed itself off, which meant that there were all sorts of colourful wars fought around which dynastic line got to control the state (you know, the Normans, the War of the Roses, etc.). Eventually, these tensions boiled over when that Tudor king, Henry VIII, wanted to consolidate the state, so he straight up took over the church, which (as I said earlier) seemed to work and then didn’t, and then there were radical Puritan strands that tried to take over the Anglican Church and the state, which ended up turning into the not-very-pretty English Civil War and gave us the political theologies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. When the whole thing got settled, the one group everybody loved to hate were the Catholics, which became very inconvenient in the nineteenth-century when this thing called the Oxford Movement made Anglo-Catholicism a hit with their Tracts of the Times, and then pissed everyone off again when its major leaders (like John Henry Newman) jumped ship to Rome. Et cetera. Et cetera.
As you can see, there’s not much holding this beast called Anglicanism together, except for one thing: somehow, they can all trace their food chain back to Canterbury and the Gregorian mission, and even then, there were some churches and monasteries started before that mission which they had to whip into Catholic line. In other words, with the exception of having Canterbury as an ‘instrument of communion,’ nobody really agrees on much else. Even the Canterbury thing is fraying at the edges now, with the development of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a selectively ‘Global South’ Anglican configuration that styles itself as an alternative to the ‘broken instrument’ of Canterbury.
But because even the GAFCON people can technically somehow trace their food chain back to Canterbury, the technical term for the Canterbury thing is apostolicsuccession, that is, Anglicans are part of a church that through Canterbury and Gregory can trace their own food chain back to the apostles. Of course, when I say apostolic succession, I realize that I’m going to be drawn and quartered for completely missing the point of being a missional Anglican: ‘The post-Christian world doesn’t care about apostolic succession! You’re one of those religious scribes and Pharisees interested in the institutionalization of the church!’
Ignoring the fact that you got that criticism of institutionalization from Max Weber’s secular reading of the routinization of charisma and then conveniently imposed it onto your Scriptural exegesis (shhhhh…), let me suggest that apostolic succession is what makes Anglicanism ‘Anglicanism,’ and in turn, is what makes the whole thing Christian.
Why? you ask? Because Michael Ramsey says so.
Michael Ramsey. Archbishop Michael Ramsey?(Does this mean that you don’t actually read Anglican theology?) Yes, actually, as a matter of fact, you should read Michael Ramsey, especially a little book he wrote called The Gospel and the Catholic Church, in which he argues basically that if you dump apostolic succession, you’ve dumped the Gospel. That’s right: lose the Catholic, and you lose the evangelical too, because (in technical theological terms) there is no kerygma without church. As Ramsey argues, if Jesus commanded his apostles to found churches, if you have churches apart from the apostles, then you lose their message too. You have to be able to trace your food chain back to the apostles in order to validate the message. The Gospel is attached to catholicity, and catholicity is attached to the Gospel.
Which brings us back to using Anglicanism as a strategy: it’s not a strategy. By some accounts, it’s barely even a Protestant denomination.
It is a mode of communion, in which–unlike most Protestant denominations that would see politics as dirty (ewww…) and church politics as the worst of politics–we Anglicans see that dirty work as an integral part of our Christian lives.
Let me repeat myself: instead of running away from church politics, Anglicans treat church politics as Christian business as usual. Church politics doesn’t come from a ‘misconception’ of Anglicanism, it is not the ‘danger’ of Anglicanism, and it is not merely ‘man-made.’ It is Anglican Christianity.
This is why these issues have to be addressed. Unlike starting independent congregations where one could claim that what one does or says in the congregation should not be subject to the scrutiny of non-members (an argument that Jennifer Knapp famously pulled against evangelical detractors of her same-sex relationship), claiming Anglicanism puts us into very, very messy communion. It gets nasty. There’s name-calling, people get hurt, there’s backroom deal-making, there’s collusion with state and empire, there are radical movements contesting that collusion, there are charismatic people seeking direct access to God apart from the institution, etc. etc.
What it means to be Anglican is to have your Christian life formed in this mess. In fact, many of the most profound Anglican contributions to wider Christian theological reflection (that is, Christians who don’t trace their food chain back to Canterbury) has been formed by this political insanity. I once read in an introduction to Anselm’s work that despite all of his trouble with the state (exiled twice, poor guy), he never actually reflected on that experience in his theology, preferring rather to muse on metaphysical matters in classics like the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo. I slightly disagree with that preface writer’s assessment. Instead of driving a wedge between theology and politics, this metaphysical reflection might actually be the way of dealing with nasty Anglican politics. I could go down the laundry list of Anglican thinkers for whom this category might apply–Bede, Anselm, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, J.C. Ryle, John Henry Newman, Dean Inge, Charles Gore, William Temple, C.S. Lewis, Austin Farrer, Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams, etc.–all of whom did deep metaphysical work in tough political circumstances (and didn’t all agree with each other).
I have to reference The Cloud of Unknowing here because if you’re going to appeal to the Anglican liturgy, the one thing that does actually set the thing apart is the Collect for Purity that we read at every Eucharist service, which happens to be the epigraph to Cloud:
God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Cloud of Unknowing then unpacks that, arguing that God is like this amorphous cloud you can never make sense of with sheer intellect. You can only pierce that cloud of unknowing with pure love.
Let me just postulate in turn that you never fully understand this unless you’ve been in the thick of ecclesial political contestation where your intellect just drives you mad and your best ideas still result in bloody conflict.
In short, Anglicanism probably isn’t a great marketing tool, if you’re trying to reach people with an authentic, unvarnished Christian spirituality in order to build a capital base. Anglicanism is religion for the dirty people, the scum of the earth, the scumbags that ‘this generation seeking authenticity’ love to hate for their hypocrisy and pretentiousness. If you want recent examples, our last Archbishop of Canterbury (whom I think did a fabulous job) was often lampooned as an elitist academic. Our current Archbishop of Canterbury (whom I think is also doing a fabulous job) is often called an elitist ex-oil tycoon. Both, if you will, are the scummiest of us Anglican scum. Incidentally, I’m proud of that, because if you really want me to articulate what ‘Anglican theology’ is, it’s being attached to a strand of the Christian church catholic coming down through Augustine of Canterbury whose political scars force its members to consider that the dirt of politics is precisely the place where we are transformed into the image of Christ. After all, it is only there where we learn to treasure the insight that love, not only our intellect, is the only way to pierce the cloud of unknowing. Join us only if you dare.
The last thing I expected to find in Detroit was an Asian American mandate that would compel the scattered groups across the nation into a broad-based pan-Asian movement. I was in for a big surprise. (Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, 57)
A quick recap for those who don’t know: Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 in Detroit on the night of his bachelor party. The context for the whole thing was the mass layoffs that had happened at Chrysler due to the late 1970s oil crisis and the rise of Japanese imported cars into the United States. Framing the layoffs in the popular press and in everyday discourse was a Japanese “invasion” that was going to take over the American economy. (Tom Clancy would have been proud.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that while the Vietnamese Chinese American, Vincent Chin, was enjoying the favours of strippers being paid highly by his groomsmen at the Fancy Pants in Detroit, Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz–both of whom had been recently laid off by Chrysler–were annoyed, thought Vincent Chin was Japanese because (why, of course) all Asians looked the same to them, and muttered something to the effect that it was “because of motherf*ckers like you that we’re out of work.” A scuffle ensued, all parties were thrown out, and then the unthinkable happened: Ebens and Nitz hunted Chin down outside and clubbed him to death with a baseball bat while onlookers, including two off-duty cops, stood by, just letting it happen. Vincent Chin’s wedding guests arrived instead for his funeral.
psst…I think they got the date wrong…unless they’re referring to the date Vincent Chin actually died…
In a judicial twist as outrageous as the murder of Naboth the Jezreelite by Ahab and Jezebel in today’s mass readings, the trial drama that followed spiraled into a racist nightmare. Nine months after the murder, Ebens and Nitz merely got probation because, as the judge said, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” As one local restauranteur commented, “You go to jail for killing a dog.” Vincent Chin’s life, it seemed, was worth less than that of a dog.
The event galvanized the Asian American movement in the 1980s. It resonated on so many levels. There was the level of justice: Vincent Chin’s mother cried out for justice, and notable figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke out on her behalf. But deeper than a cry for justice for the unnecessary death was the plea for justice over the injustice that Asian Americans could never shake the image of the “perpetual foreigner,” for though Vincent Chin was Vietnamese Chinese American–and really, just a regular guy from Detroit–the fact that he could be mistaken for a “Jap” and openly clubbed to death certainly raised serious alarm among Asian Americans from Detroit to Oakland. The deeper question, as filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima later asked in a film that continues to haunt introductory Asian American studies courses across university campuses, was: Who Killed Vincent Chin?
Today we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, and we remember with horror the orientalized racism that fed into the white supremacy that exploded on the night of June 19, 1982 with all its ensuing fallout.
And yet I fear that Christians may be tempted to write Vincent Chin off as having nothing to do with Christian theology. I mean, didn’t this all happen in a strip club? That doesn’t sound like the most Christian of places. And so, if Vincent Chin wasn’t a Christian, what does he have to do with us? Don’t we have more to celebrate within Asian American Christian circles, such as athletes like Michael Chang and Jeremy Lin, missionaries like Michael Oh, motivational speakers like Christopher Yuan, and YouTube stars like Arden Cho, Clara Chung, and Jayesslee?
Let me suggest that Vincent Chin still matters, not least because the Jeremy Lins and the Arden Chos of the world still face widely talked-about orientalizing forms of racism, say, in news reporting and in Hollywood auditions.
But let me give two examples from within Christian circles, one fairly liberal Protestant, the other fairly conservative evangelical, to illustrate why I think this is particularly relevant to Christians, and not just Asian American ones. See what you make of these.
Last Sunday, at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, a sermon was preached concerning the Parable of the Sower that basically argued that Jesus was a seed-bombing Zen Buddhist master. The metanoia that Jesus proclaims, the preacher explains, refers to “the big mind,” hinting that it’s not really about “repentance” on the one hand while advancing a quasi-Buddhist Jesus who speaks of the immaterial interconnectedness of us all. I have no doubt, of course, that Buddhist-Christian dialogue is an imperative of our day, as witnessed in Archbishop Rowan Williams’s recent efforts as well as the ongoing Catholic work that followed Assisi 1986.
But to make Jesus an Eastern spiritual sage is a bit of a different story–it ends up sounding like, Oh, all Christians should wish they were Asian so that we can all be smart and spiritual and respect our elders (a conservative might add: …and get persecuted for their faith like in Communist China). Indeed, the sermon seems to play out blow-by-blow right into the five Buddha fingers (sorry, couldn’t resist a Journal to the West 西遊記 reference) of Jane Iwamura’s brilliant critique of the “oriental monk” in popular American perceptions of Asian religions in her must-read Virtual Orientalism. Jesus the Zen Buddhist environmental activist sounds so hip, but it’s actually kinda racist.
But lest you think that this is a liberal problem, I often wonder why there hasn’t been more outrage at Mark Driscoll calling Francis Chan an “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” when Chan resigned from his long-time pastorate at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley.
Driscoll is joined by Josh Harris, the same guy who once kissed dating good-bye, met a girl, called for a Puritan version of metanoia that actually meant “repentance” and accepting “not even a hint” of lust, and calls you now to fall in love with a home church while maintaining a “humble orthodoxy.” (If you read I Kissed Dating Good-bye, you will also remember that Harris’s parents were Jesus People and that his mother is Japanese American, which has all sorts of tantalizing implications for Asian American Christianity and its possible intersections with the legacy of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s. I think also, for example, of Oden Fong and his band, Mustard Seed Faith. But I digress.)
Together, they ask the peripatetic Francis Chan whether his efforts to live the Christian life among the poor around the world isn’t just an irresponsible act of abandonment toward his church. You know, if only he wouldn’t subscribe to his sage-like, oriental monkish qualities, he could actually be a stable, dudely pastor-dad with a pastor-job caring for his church-family; he could even [gasp!] become just like Mark Driscoll, not the crazy guy trying to plant 586 churches in the square mile of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district with San Francisco City Impact.
What gets me about the Driscoll-Harris-Chan interview is its repeated insinuations that Francis Chan is a wandering evangelical oriental monk-sage. I often wonder if it were more widely seen by Asian Americans whether the reaction would be the same as the one toward Alexandra Wallace calling “Asians in the library” loud or MacLean’s complaining that the University of British Columbia is “too Asian.”
Of course, one could argue: but no one got killed in these examples. Vincent Chin got killed. Francis Chan, on the other hand, seems far from dead, especially at the ignorant hands of Mark Driscoll.
But that isn’t the point of the Vincent Chin story.
The point of Vincent Chin is that much of what killed Vincent Chin was the popular notion that all Asians are the same mysterious breed.
On a good day, the religious ones are all nice Buddhist monks dispensing pearls of wisdom like David Suzuki, gems of thought like the Dalai Lama, and meditative riddles that sound awfully peaceful like Thich Naht Hanh.
On a bad day, they’re Fu Manchu and Doctor No with their sinister plots to take over the world.
On all days, they’re these mysterious oriental monks who are moving with ninja stealth into your hearts, minds, and lives.
The commemoration of Vincent Chin is a call to renew the Asian American Christian theological imperative to respond prophetically to such orientalization in our own midst. It isn’t a liberal versus conservative, mainline versus evangelical, spiritual-but-not-religious versus institutional, interfaith versus neo-Calvinist, heterodox versus orthodox issue. Orientalized racism seems to have woven itself into the fabric of Protestant Christianity, period, and if that’s the case, doesn’t denying this reality make us continually complicit in the murder of Vincent Chin? (One also wonders about the contrast of the Roman Catholic Church, which seems to be acknowledging the need for Asian American theologies, as the bishops seem to have done good for themselves in a report on Asian and Pacific Islander presence in the American Church, and even Francis Cardinal George acknowledges this. Of course, I’ve also written about Driscoll being quasi-Catholic, but I digress again.)
I leave it to you to think and pray about how to get the imperative done. I wonder, for example, if it could happen through…
writing more explicitly about this stuff and getting it published in outlets that people will actually read
getting people to read the stuff that’s already published, like Asian American Christianity: A Reader, as well as books and articles already written by folks as diverse and divergent as Sang Hyun Lee, Andrew Sung Park, Russell Jeung, Tim Tseng, James Chuck, Grace Hsiao, Russell Yee, Young Lee Hertig, Helen Lee, Ken Fong, Dave Gibbons, Ken Shigematsu, Roy Sano, Paul Nagano, Peter Phan, Fumitaka Matsuoka, Kwok Pui Lan, Patrick Cheng, Rita Nakashima Brock, Jonathan Tan, Rachel Bundang, Jonathan Tran, Samuel Ling, Peter Cha, Jeanette Yep, Paul Tokunaga, Soong-Chan Rah, Jerry Park, Amos Yong, Esther Chung-Kim, Grace Kao, Frank Yamada, Benny Liew, Rudy Busto, Sharon Suh, Jane Iwamura, Janelle Wong, David Kyuman Kim, Henry Yu, etc. (if you’re overwhelmed or if you know this stuff and think that these people all have very divergent views and shouldn’t all be in the same list, my point is simply that there’s a ton of stuff out there already)
putting out more stuff on blogs, social media, and YouTube/Vimeo
teaching directly about the intersections of race, ethnicity, and theology at the seminary level
inserting into the typical Christian education/Sunday school thing in churches an explicit curriculum on Asian American Christianity
pastors and lay leaders preaching and praying while taking this stuff seriously
But if I can be blunt, it really is important not to write all this off as just another Christian fad. It is actually an imperative. After all, calling Francis Chan an “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” is really not OK when you pair it with the question of who killed Vincent Chin?
Today is the Memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Accordingly, I decided to give his De Incarnatione VerbiDei a re-read.
I read it first seven years ago. That time, I was sitting in a parking lot for a public park in my Vancouver suburb. An auntie I knew from the Chinese evangelical church I was going to–all women my mom’s age are called “auntie”–drove over and asked what I was reading. I said that I was reading Athanasius. Just the name weirded her out. “You are always reading such complicated stuff,” she said.
I would have explained to her that because she was a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity–a book she recommended to everybody (though I doubt she’s actually read it all the way through herself)–she should read Athanasius. In fact, I was reading Athanasius because I had read C.S. Lewis’s foreword to On theIncarnation in one of the versions of Mere Christianity that I had flipped through. He talks about why it’s important to read old books: because each “age” has its particular ways of thinking and doing things, reading an old book helps you see all the blind spots of your own particular “age.” In this preface, Lewis talks particularly about the impact that Athanasius had on his own theological thinking:
When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.
Of course, this sounds all so much like what Molly Worthen has recently written about the Anglophilia of American evangelicals trying to find intellectual moorings for an otherwise anti-intellectual American evangelicalism, and I won’t deny that at the time, I was soaking up the neo-Reformed goodies put out by Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In fact, to come completely clean, I was reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a course on Christian Living at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and yes, this was the Calvary Chapel where Pastor Chuck Smith baptized over 10,000 hippies in the 1960s and became the flagship church of what has come to be known as the Jesus Movement. (I learned about Lonnie Frisbee much, much later.)
I’m just trying to say that C.S. Lewis sounded really smart because he was British.
So, OK, fine, I’ll admit that I was reading Athanasius to show off that I could read “complicated stuff” by authors with complicated names with a hint of Anglophilia thrown in. In fact, I have to say that I was being outright Anglophilic because I was reading a horrible nineteenth-century translation that made Athanasius sound like some highfalutin Oxford don. Like Lewis, Athanasius sounded so smart because he was–well, at least in my translation–so British.
Fast-forward six or seven years. I’m completely done with Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalism–I threw in the towel when we were dissecting Romans for verses related to the Rapture–and I’ve jumped ship to Regent College. A paper topic for the Christian Thought and Culture course on pre-Reformation Christianity asked us to take a position on one of the old heresies in the early church. I chose Arianism, partly because a few faculty members had duked it out during their joint lectures over whether Athanasius’s polemics toward Arianism actually made any theological or biblical exegetical sense.
That’s when I read Rowan Williams’s Arius. One of the funny things about Anglophilia is that it’s so selective: American evangelicals love their Lewis, Tolkien, Stott, and all the rest that they re-baptize into their evangelical fold, but they most certainly are not going to take in Rowan Williams. Most of what I’d read and heard about Williams at that point, especially from Anglicans who had broken away from their dioceses over the blessing of same-sex unions, was that he was a “spineless moron” who didn’t have the guts to enforce the moratoria on gay bishops and same-sex partnerships called for in the Windsor Report. I expected him to be equally spineless on fourth-century orthodoxy.
Williams pulled a fast one on me. His analysis of Arius was that Arius was an ultra-conservative pastor in Alexandria whose view of God the Father was too high. He wanted to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son, and that’s why he insisted that the Son had to be sub-divine. Moreover, he was a worship song writer, so he wrote songs like the Thalia so that, as Williams astutely points out, when Arius’s teaching was condemned at Nicaea, Arius still had plenty of fans to keep him company and bury him when he died.
For Williams, orthodoxy did not mean the same thing as conservatism. If anything, it was just the opposite. It was the polemicists like Athanasius who had to keep on their toes, the ones who had to stay creative:
Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius’ challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church. (235)
Little surprise that the conservatives in the Anglican Communion don’t exactly like Williams: after all, who would want to admit that “historic Anglican orthodoxy” with all of its “traditional” teaching on marriage and family is a modern creative formulation that needs more serious theological probing? I’m not even sure that Athanasius would have liked Williams’s assessment of his historical situation, as Williams does go out of his way to say that Athanasius’s polemics might have distorted and exaggerated Arius’s teaching quite a bit.
It’s with this new ambivalence toward Athanasius that I found myself reading De Incarnatione Verbi Dei this morning.
Lewis says that Athanasius’s writing throws the modern world in sharp contrast. On the one hand, Athanasius’s take on miracles is a robust reply to those who say that these things violate “the law of nature”: if the creative Word became flesh, after all, he can create whatever he wants, and that’s OK in a pre-modern enchanted context. On the other, Athanasius’s assumption that all Christians live virtuous lives cannot be said of Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century British experience. For Lewis, Athanasius’s world is fundamentally different from the modern world, and that’s why we have a lot to learn from him. (One could point out the superficial similarities between Lewis’s view and the heterotopias in Foucault’s Of Other Spaces.)
Forgive me, then, for sounding like a heretic to American evangelical Anglophilia and say that I found Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprisingly similar to what an old-school Chinese Christian pastor in the late twentieth century would be hammering from the pulpit. In fact, as a second-generation Chinese Christian who has less-than-proudly joined the “silent exodus” by attending a non-Chinese church regularly (see also Doreen Carjaval’s original article in the Los Angeles Times and Esther Yuen’s Vancouver adaptation), I might say that it even revived so old-time resentments toward some of my first-generation patriarchs.
On the face of it, De Incarnatione is a very sophisticated theological argument. Athanasius’s main thrust through the work is that the Word became flesh because while the Word had created the world out of nothing, the Fall was corrupting all of creation back into nothing. You can see this corruption, Athanasius begins, in violence from personal adulteries and murders to outright warfare between city-states. The Word thus takes on a body so that he can resurrect to conquer death. A new existence follows in which adulterers are made chaste, murderers are made peaceful, and wars stop.
So far, so good. In fact, I like the pacifist implications of all of this.
That’s when it gets violent. As Athanasius gets polemical about Jewish and Greek interlocutors about Christianity in the second half of the work, I was like, “Wow, an old-school Chinese church pastor could have said this.” And that ticked me off a little bit.
First off, Athanasius would be as helpful to interreligious dialogue as a Chinese Christian fundamentalist. Maybe it’s my stupid nineteenth-century translation that makes the Orientalism come out so pointedly, but here’s a quick snapshot:
And whereas formerly every place was full of the deceit of the oracles, and the oracles at Delphi and Dodona, and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Cabiri, and the Pythoness, were held in repute by men’s imagination, now, since Christ has begun to be preached everywhere, their madness also has ceased and there is none among them to divine any more. And whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the sign of the cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceit. And while formerly men held to be gods Zeus and Cronos and Apollo and the heroes mentioned in the poets, and went astray in honoring them, now that the Saviour has appeared among men, those others have been exposed as mortal men, and Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. And what is one to say of the magic esteemed among them? that before the Word sojourned among us this was strong and active among Egyptians, and Chaldeans, and Indians, and inspired awe in those who saw it; but that by the presence of the truth, and the appearing of the Word, it also has been thoroughly confuted, and brought wholly to nought. (De Incarnatione 47).
This brings back memories of old-school Chinese church pastors fuming at the pulpit about smashing Buddhas and burning them in tin trash cans in new converts’ backyards or imagining demons flying out of Buddhist temples to corrupt the suburb his people are living in. (Chinese women pastors are a recent phenomenon.) I certainly couldn’t imagine this turning into A Common Word or Nostra Aetate. In this view, there’s something inherently bad about religions other than Christianity. Other religions, it would be said, deal with demons and the devil. Christianity is the light that drives out the darkness, the good that drives out the bad.
Ditto Athanasius on Jewishness:
What is left unfulfilled, that the Jews should now disbelieve with impunity? For if, I say–which is just what we actually see–there is no longer king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, among them, but even the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and Gentiles, leaving their godlessness, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham, through the Word, even our Lord Jesus Christ, then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that he has illumined absolutely all with his light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. (De Incarnatione 40).
It’s not Dabru Emet, that’s for sure. I’ve certainly heard my share within Chinese churches about the ignorance of Jews refusing to believe in the Messiah and how we’re so much smarter because it’s so obvious that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for. As one Hong Kong Chinese pastor in Vancouver who did his Doctor of Ministry thesis on Jewish-Christian relations pointed out to me, that’s why there’s zero dialogue between Chinese Christians and their Jewish neighbours.
Athanasius then assumes that where Christianity is, it just triumphalistically pastes over an existing religious landscape with its own enlightened geography:
This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already started, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end; and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away; and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the cross. And, to sum the matter up, behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling. (De Incarnatione 55).
Rowan Williams casts a fair bit of doubt on this assessment with the view that there were lots of different kinds of Arians and lots of different factions within Nicene orthodox groups and that these guys duked it out for well over a century and a half. And yet, Athanasius’s polemic against all things non-Christian reminds me of the Chinese senior pastor in my childhood church who used to declare from the pulpit, “Where Christianity is, there is prosperity!” (How Weberian.) As geographer Judy Han writes about Korean Christians, there is often a lack of clarity about what’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of prosperity in all of this.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that–contrary to Lewis’s view of ages as so different from each other–I now find Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to be familiar childhood territory, not the “complicated stuff” with a hard-to-pronounce name laced with Anglophilic otherness. Perhaps, as Charles Taylor points out, the “disenchantment” of the enchanted pre-modern world was never fully completed. Instead, Taylor suggests that we live in a “cross-pressured,” if not “schizophrenic,” world where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural and are subsequently fascinated by anything remotely magical. (Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has a fascinating take on how this all gets reconciled psychologically.) Athanasius isn’t so different from the rest of us, especially me as a Chinese Christian.
And yet, if Athanasius isn’t so different, I’d like to follow Williams and hold him accountable for some of his statements. Woe be to me to take a canonized church father in both Catholic and Orthodox communions to task, but I’m totally on with Williams in thinking that Athanasius may really have exaggerated some of his polemics. This is admittedly a frightful task, as nerve-wracking as trying to have a theological dispute with a first-generation Chinese Christian senior pastor revered by an adoring immigrant congregation. After all, I run the risk of being called disrepectful to my elders, the zhangzhe (長者) revered in popular Confucian ideology.
A helpful–but still admittedly problematic–way to push St. Athanasius a bit might be to follow the comparisons between him and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. Athanasius’s take on religion itself sounds very Barthian (or Barth sounds very Athanasian, which is probably more the case):
But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. (De Incarnatione 11).
This sounds an awful lot like Barth railing about religion as the “frontier” of human possibilities, that the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is to show how far off the gods that we project from our own desires are from the beaten track.
The two of them came to similar ethical conclusions. For Athanasius, this sort of projected religion led to increased human conflict:
For formerly, while in idolatry, Greeks and Barbarians used to war against each other, and were actually cruel to their own kin. For it was impossible for anyone to cross sea or land at all without arming the hand with swords, because of their implacable fighting among themselves. For the whole course of their life was carried on by arms, and the sword with them took the place of a staff, and was their support in every emergency; and still, as I said before, they were serving idols, and offering sacrifices to demons, while for all their idolatrous superstition they could not be reclaimed from this spirit. (De Incarnatione 51).
For Barth, when the German nation-state made up versions of God for the church to subscribe to, it was well on the way to Nazi totalitarianism and the geopolitical madness of World War II.
If this is the case, this is a profound challenge to the old-school Chinese Christian pastors I think sound so similar to Athanasius. It would challenge them to say concretely what the links between idolatry and ethics are. Don’t just say that “other religions” or “folk religions” are inherently, essentially bad and evil systems associated with the devil. Are they actually violent in practice? How so? Be concrete. We believers in the incarnation are, after all, a concrete people.
And what about Henri de Lubac’s argument in Catholicism that the catholic impulse is all about re-focusing spiritualities on Jesus Christ? or Tolkien’s point that all true narratives find their fulfillment in the eucatastrophic redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus? (I realize that the latter example brings us back to Anglophilia, which just goes to show that, as James Cone says about his training in white neo-orthodoxy, it’s pretty hard to shake.)
Or what if, as Stanley Hauerwas has it in his own reflection on interreligious interaction and the work of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, the whole point is that faith is all about embodied, performative practice, not propositional systems? Maybe St. Athanasius is making a René Girard argument, that all of this violence is caused by the projection of mimetic desire into religious ritual.
Sure, OK, maybe we shouldn’t tell St. Athanasius to read our twentieth-century theologians, but what I’m saying is that it’s not that St. Athanasius is wrong about religion. It’s that he’s got thoughts to develop. And our job, far from uncritically revering him, is to push that development along.
The point is, if we really do believe in the communion of saints, let’s not put the artificial distances of modernity, Anglophilia, or canonized sainthood between us and the church doctor. After all, Athanasius’s central point in De Incarnatione is that the Word became flesh to free us from the state of corruption so that we can share in the divine resurrection life. If this is so, St. Athanasius is still alive, and he is our brother.
Catholic popular theology would have us say then, “St. Athanasius, pray for us.” What Rowan Williams has shown us that we can also say is, “St. Athanasius, I’m going to push you on this one.” Growing up Chinese Christian, I’d say the latter is absolutely necessary for a more solid understanding of how the church ought to relate to the world.
But it’s a hard thing to say. After all, we don’t want to be disrespectful to our elders.
The T-shirt is tongue-in-cheek. God is dead, it reads that Nietzsche says. And as if in response to a versicle, God says: Nietzsche is dead.
Nietzsche first put those words into the mouth of the madman in The Gay Science, later to be further fleshed out in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Pointing to the vacuous nominalism of architecturally-stunning churches and religious symbolism in Bismarck’s Germany, the madman shouts:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (Aphorism 125)
For Nietzsche, the advent of an age where everything could be engineered through science, including the heroic history of a new German nation-state, had led to the death of God, particularly the god of European Christendom that was still preaching a glorious afterlife with no reference to life lived to the fullest in the here and now.
Nietzsche thus searched for a new ethics. In his further work in Zarathustra and Ecce Homo, Nietzsche argued for a way of life embodied by the Ubermensch, the “overman,” operating with a “will-to-power”: you have to express yourself and live fully in the here and now without thinking about the airy-fairyness of an afterlife that might not happen. It was only idiots (like Christians) who believed in things like humility, hospitality, and sexual restraint; come on, Nietzsche was saying, wake up! your God is dead! look around! we have killed him! These ethics pointed back to his debut in The Birth of Tragedy, a neo-pagan apologetic that argued that European civilization had become overly rational, forgetting that in the Greek pantheon, there was also the orgiastic god Dionysius that drew the masses into non-rational self-expression, particularly when they watched Greek tragedy and were drawn together with the chorus into the unraveling of the masked actors’ rational worlds. Every day’s got to have a night, Nietzsche argued, so you had to have this liturgical disintegration to balance out the seeming integrity of everyday life. The problem with the modernity Nietzsche was protesting was that it was all rationally constructive–there wasn’t room for this sort of self-expression for the overman to get actualized–and in that constant constructiveness, the gods–never mind the Christian God–were written out of the picture.
Nietzsche literally became the madman in the final years of his life. Seeing the beating of a horse outside his home, he ran out, clutched the horse, and cried out, “You are beating Dionysius! You are beating Dionysius!” From there on out, he signed his letters “Dionysius the Crucified,” and true to his protestations about the engineered invention of “German culture” in the mid-nineteenth century, he called for the dissolution of the Bismarck regime.
It was, as if the post-mortem T-shirt were to have its way, God had gotten his sweet revenge. It does misunderstand Nietzsche’s central point, though. It wasn’t Nietzsche who killed God, Nietzsche had argued throughout his work. It was the rest of us.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and the rise and fall of “death of God” theology in America. Arguably more of a publicity stunt from a struggling 1960s editor at Time Magazine to boost subscriptions, this vein of Protestant theology made the cover of the magazine on April 8, 1966 (though an article the year prior had already addressed the issue before). Using Nietzsche’s slogan, a loose group of Protestant theologians in America like Thomas Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren, and William Hamilton (as well as a Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein, writing on the Holocaust) began to explore a combination of Paul Tillich’s cue to conceptualize the divine as “the ground of being” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for Christians in a “world come of age” to articulate a “religionless Christianity” that would express theological concepts in a world where transcendence was meaningless.
To be sure, the group was never a coherent one. The basic idea was that it was becoming impossible in the second half of the twentieth century to speak of a transcendent God. You had to embrace secularization, embrace the here and now, and as Harvey Cox (who was actually critical of the movement known as “death of God”) put it in The Secular City, the Christian church has to be an urban exorcist, casting out the demons of pie-in-the-sky transcendence from the city to make room for a secular theology.
But what did this actually mean for theology? The 1966 article expressed the central quandary for the group:
There is no unanimity about how to solve this problem, although theologians seem to have four main options: stop talking about God for awhile, stick to what the Bible says, formulate a new image and concept of God using contemporary thought categories, or simply point the way to areas of human experience that indicate the presence of something beyond man in life.
Just like Nietzsche’s insanity and the T-shirt’s cheeky pronouncement, the ideas quickly seemed to unravel. By 1969, Time had a new article out: “Is God Dead Dead?” On the one hand, people weren’t buying into it for fear that it would lead to a new atheism. On the other, as Catholic theologian John Dunne put it, maybe “the death of God” was just a stage where (ever so characteristic of Dunne) we’ve passed over and now are coming back. When the “death of God” died, Dunne suggested, the stage of “waiting for God” was ushered in, qualifying the secularity we once celebrated with the cautious eye toward the possibility that the world may still be more religious than we once thought.
But as if the “death of God” theological movement weren’t dead enough, one could always rely on evangelicals to protest, and as they did then, they still are speaking and are not silent. Billy Graham pointed to his “personal experience” of God meeting him in prayer. Carl Henry defended the rationalism of The God Who Speaks and Shows through the infallibility of the Bible, and Francis Schaeffer articulated a Christian worldview that was able to compete with the humanistic philosophies of the world in The God Who Is There. And it hasn’t stopped since the 1960s and 1970s: as recently as 2008, William Lane Craig published in Christianity Today an article entitled “God Is Not Dead Yet,” calling for a return to forms of natural theology, readings of science and nature where you can logically reverse-engineer what God is like from the world he made, as an evangelical apologetic. God’s not dead, so the children’s song goes, he is alive; I feel him all over me–and I can prove it too.
After all, the evangelicals were saying, where do you get your hope if God is dead? Come to church, the solution goes, and we’ll offer you proof after rational proof that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter.
Or maybe you don’t want to come to church. That’s OK. We’ll meet you on your turf, on the college campuses where we hand out Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter in hopes that you’ll read Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and we’ll host talks with Lee Strobel where you can learn all about why there is The Case for Christ as well as The Case for Faith and The Case for a Creator. Continuing to speak to what they suggest still remains a “death of God” generation, the idea is that you have to prove to them rationally and scientifically that God not only exists, but that God is not dead.
Of course, as many will point out, this is only part of the apologetic picture. New questions, after all, are always being developed. Sure, we have to prove that God exists and is alive, but now we have to do a lot more than that.
A cursory look at this year’s Holy Week articles in Christianity Today can be a case in point. Al Hsu wonders, for example, if God is good, if–taking the cue from both post-structural theologians and university students–the idea of Jesus’ death as penal substitution isn’t a case of cosmic child abuse. He contends that we’ve misheard the cry from the cross, that Jesus was actually quoting Psalm 22: he’s not saying that God has abandoned him, Hsu argues, but rather that he’s looking forward to his resurrection predicted at the end of the psalm. Mark Galli takes another approach: wondering if God is good, he argues that our speculative questions like, “What would happen if a Buddhist child dies?” are way too abstract for a theology as concrete as that articulated by the Nicene Creed: that Jesus Christ was a concrete person who lived in a concrete time, and that we must trust the historical Jesus concretely while leaving our speculations to rest. God is not only not dead, these writers argue–he is also good even when we don’t think so, and we simply have to trust him.
One of the troubles with evangelical apologetics of all of these sorts, however, is that it all ironically falls into precisely to what Karl Barth, arguably the leading theologian of the twentieth century, said a resounding NO in The Epistle to the Romans (p. 35): “Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel—that is, Christian Apologetics—is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.” It’s us telling God that he’s irrelevant if he doesn’t meet the questions on their own terms. It’s as if without some good evangelical apologetic help, the “death of God” onslaught beginning with Nietzsche and on through radical theology has to be answered, continue our beating though the horse that Nietzsche is clutching while screaming for Dionysius is already dead. Strangely enough, all of this sounds eerily like the same impulse of the secular theology people: God–or perhaps, Protestant theology–has got to meet the world on terms relevant to it. We’ve got to make something out of this. If God is dead, we’ve got to have a new theology. If we insist that God isn’t dead, we’ve got to answer the challenge, prove that he’s alive, demonstrate that he’s good, and give people in this dying world some hope, for God’s sake.
Hans Urs von Balthasar says: EVERYBODY, STOP. SHUT UP. LISTEN. WATCH. There is a cry coming from the cross: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? Can you hear it? Do you really?
“It’s just Psalm 22…”
“Oh, but this has to happen because Jesus is taking God the Father’s wrath in our place…praise God!”
“There’s hope, though! There’s still the resurrection!”
No, shut up. Listen. It is a scream of despair, not a professorial footnote to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then: “It is finished!” Jesus hangs his head and dies. Silence. God is dead.
There’s a whole day for this eeriness of the death of God to set in. It’s called Holy Saturday. It’s the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For that one day, God is dead, and you’ve got to swim in it. That’s where you’ve got to do your theology, von Balthasar writes, because in this hiatus, the entire “logic of theology” is turned upside down (p. 79).
And yet, unlike the “death of God” theologians, von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale: the Mystery of Easter is a call to contemplate the death of God from a completely different angle. He isn’t celebrating it, telling us to come up with a Christian theology without a transcendent divinity. He’s saying that the death of God calls us to adjust our understandings of who God is to who God reveals himself to be. We assumed he was powerful and omnipotent, but he chose to reveal himself through a total kenosis, emptying himself of all sovereign power and omnipotence so that, paraphrasing von Balthasar, his sovereignty is revealed precisely in his lack of power and his vulnerability.
It’s no wonder von Balthasar and Barth were good friends. They weren’t saying simply that the silence of God means that he’s dead. They were saying that the revelation of God in the humble figure of Jesus Christ enacts a krisis in our theological understanding that is so maddening that we have to kill him, and he lets us do it.
That’s the God in the tomb on Holy Saturday.
Strangely enough, the theology that has passed through Holy Saturday is strangely this-worldly, “secular” on a whole new level. Von Balthasar knew what he was talking about. In 1950, he left the Jesuit order with his mystical spiritual directee Adrienne von Speyr to found the Community of St. John, a “secular institute” that was an experiment to see if their mystical-theological vision could be fused with everyday life where people living in the community would retain their secular jobs. He was immediately ostracized by Jesuits. Pope Pius XII condemned his work. He wasn’t invited to the Second Vatican Council. And when he was reinstated and a cardinal hat was about to be dropped off by John Paul II, he died the day before it arrived.
Von Balthasar’s dramatization of Holy Saturday in his own life was “secular” in that Holy Saturday related directly back into his life in the saeculum, his this-worldly existence. His life was immersed in the dark night of abandonment by God and his marginality in the church. His life was re-oriented when he interpreted the everyday through his mystical encounter with the God whose very life was marked by the hiatus of Holy Saturday. He lived the death of God.
This year’s Holy Week–and thus, Holy Saturday–comes on the heels of the resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Incidentally, the one who wrote the chapter on Holy Saturday in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar was none other than Rowan Williams. For Williams, von Balthasar’s reading of Jesus’ descent into hell is the ultimate revelation of the fullness of God:
God’s ‘hiding’ of God in the dereliction of the Cross and the silence of Holy Saturday is in fact the definitive revelation. ‘It is precisely the unsurpassable radicality of this concealment which turns our gaze to it and makes the eyes of faith take notice’ (MP, 52). This does not mean, as one kind of modern theology would have it, that Holy Saturday establishes that the transcendent God is dead, emptied out into the pathos of the crucified; quite the opposite. Transcendence, in the sense of radical liberty from the systems of the created world, is given definition by God’s enduring, as God, the depths of godlessness. Equally. this is not some privileging of human vulnerability over impassibility, as if, pace the German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God can only become truly or fully God by incorporating human suffering into divine activity (MP, 65-6). The emptiness of Holy Saturday is precisely the fullness, the already actual fullness of God: God can only be in humanity’s hell, because of what God already and eternally is (MP, 137).
Williams has been widely criticized for his handling of the Anglican Communion. The secular press has read him as trying to please all sides, personally favouring homosexual civil unions, ordinations, and episcopal consecrations, but blocking them to placate his conservative colleagues. The conservatives who formed an alternative network known as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in 2008 hold that under Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury as an “instrument of communion” has been broken because of what they see as his indecisive leadership in upholding the Windsor Report’s moratorium on homosexual consecrations in the Communion. Williams has thus worked toward forming an Anglican Covenant where a Steering Committee can be formed to deal with complaints among provinces; again, the conservatives don’t want anything short of flat-out condemnation of what they see as heresy, and the progressives don’t want a global Anglican theological police force to patrol their working for the progress of social liberation. Williams’s move back into academia as Master of Magdalen College at Cambridge has been interpreted as a retreat from public life into an irrelevant place where the conversations he wanted to have globally can now take place in the confines of a seminar room.
But what if what’s known as the Anglican Communion crisis could be read through the lens of Holy Saturday? It’s been one hell of a split, conservatives accusing progressives of forcing revisionism down their throats, progressives labeling conservatives as homophobic bigots. But for all the talk about the instruments of communion being broken, the most vitriol seems to have been directed at Rowan Williams for not saying anything worth hearing. Doesn’t this sound like the God that Williams describes? Doesn’t this sound like the “emptiness of Holy Saturday”? Can’t Williams be interpreted as suffering as the very instrument of communion, calling the rest of us into his Holy Saturday where the problem of the Anglican Communion isn’t simply right and wrong, but the agony of the violence that both sides are placing on each other? Rowan Williams has lived out the transcendence of God that he gets out of von Balthasar, enduring in the depths of godless violence among Anglicans as a witness to the re-oriented “logic of theology” through the hiatus. Like von Balthasar, Williams has been in hell, where the God who died also has been.
In the face of Holy Saturday, this whole thing about dealing with the death of God, whether by assuming that that’s the way things are or by proving it otherwise, completely misses the point because it assumes that this is all very new and we’ve got to be relevant to all the new things coming out, to be secular on secular terms. The point of Holy Saturday is that the death of God, yes, does call us to a secular life, but secular on the terms of the God who reveals himself by descending into hell. The word that this speaks is that you’re not allowed to start thinking about hope until (as John Dunne would have it) you’ve passed over to and come back from hell with God.