In an article first published in The Sunday Telegraph, The Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali returns from America praying for the best but preparing for the worst
In many ways, the United States is a study in contrasts. It is full of clashing colours and jangling messages. Socially and politically, it is very divided. The ‘neocons’ have clear views on everything from Iraq to abortion and the ‘progressives’ have the opposite – but also equally clear – opinions on such matters. We would expect, then, to find these divisions reflected in broadly-based organizations such as the churches and we would not be wrong. All of the so-called mainline churches have this fault-line running through them.
Why then, should I have been shocked on entering the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio, where the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the USA) was being held? Should I not have expected tension, difference and debate? There was, first of all, culture shock.
It felt to me like a trendy exhibition put together by some ultra politically correct organisation, with all the favourite causes of the fashionable prominent. There was, however, a more profound reason for feeling uncomfortable: it became plain quite quickly that this was not a conflict merely of styles, attitudes or even opinions but of two quite different views of religion.
New age religiosity
The one that was informing the culture of the convention, in a major way, has to do with the diffuse religiosity of the post-modern west. Such religiosity, in my view, has much in common with New Age ideas, vague as these often are, such as nature mysticism, or a sense of oneness with the world around, and pantheism, the belief that everything is divine: God is identified with Mother Nature and also with our own souls. Jesus then becomes just a special example of a god-self.
Such a world-view is likely to be optimistic, inclusive and non-judgemental. It regards the world and the people in it more or less as God intended them to be. Such people should be accepted as they are and, if they wish to be, fully included in the life of the Church without further question.
My natural friends in the Episcopal Church, however, are those who want to hold on to the historic, biblical and Catholic faith as it has been passed down and received through the ages and in every part of the world. Such a view sees the value of God’s creation and regards human beings as made in God’s image but it also takes seriously what is wrong with the world and ourselves. We need to be saved from the consequences of our own thoughts and deeds as well as from the ‘wrongness’ of the world.
People need not just acceptance and inclusion, but conversion and transformation. The work of the Spirit is not formless, vague and without direction, as some of the progressives would have us believe. It is, rather, that of witnessing to Christ, making plain the words and works of Jesus to us and glorifying both Christ and the Father who sent him. The Spirit is continually forming us so that we attain to the fullness of life in Christ.
Such a view of the Christian faith and of the Church which holds it need not be obscurantist or backward-looking. It should be able to engage effectively with the moral and spiritual issues of the day. It can, for instance, uphold fundamental human dignity in the debate about beginning and end of life issues. Because we are in God’s image, from the earliest to the latest moments of human personhood, there is an inalienable dignity which cannot be taken away.
The abortion debate, for example, is showing us that change as a result of increasing knowledge need not always be in the permissive direction. A properly Christian view of marriage, which is not necessarily any traditional one, is desperately needed for the sake of family stability and the bringing up of children. Single parents can be heroic in what they do but it is generally recognized that a two-parent family is best for children. The resources of the prophetic books in the Bible and the ministry of Jesus himself enable Christians to give sacrificially to charity, to be involved in caring for the poor, needy and ill and to struggle for justice, compassion and peace.
The two ways
Because Anglicanism has been a broad Church, these two ways of understanding faith have somehow continued to co-exist under one umbrella or in the same tent. But now the issue is not just about opinion but practice. One school of thought is wanting to change Church teaching on marriage as being a life-long union of a man and a woman for the sake of mutual affection, support and the bringing up of children in the best circumstances possible.
There is a serious breakdown of marriage discipline and, while I was there, the ECUSA bishops passed a resolution which indicated that Church’s advocacy of same-sex marriage. This happened without any debate on the nature of marriage and how the Church contributed to a public understanding of such a vital social institution.
Some in the Church are willing to abandon Catholic order, which Anglicans have continued to maintain under pressure from other churches and also to revise requirements regarding life-style for those to be ordained deacon, priest or bishop. There are others who are compromising the Church’s belief in the uniqueness of Christ’s person and work in the cause of multi-faithism. The old word for this was syncretism. Such views are affecting the integrity of Christian worship and sacramental discipline.
In a broad Church, comprehensiveness must be principled, otherwise there is the risk of disintegration. It is this risk which is becoming actual as more and more people argue that the Anglican Communion is just a loose federation with few, if any, firm doctrinal and moral moorings.
Truth and unity
In the past, Anglican comprehensiveness has been grounded in acknowledging the supremacy of the Bible, the authority of what Christians have always and everywhere believed and of the Anglican formularies, such as the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of Religion and the Ordinal, which bear witness to this faith. Such foundations are more and more dispensable these days and it is this which has produced our present crisis.
What then is to be done? Unity for Christians is precious and not easily given up but we cannot have unity at the expense of truth. If the truth is seen so differently by the various groups, and there is little hope of convergence, let alone agreement, would it not be better to take different paths rather than pretending to be on the same one?
I sincerely pray that it does not come to this and that, even in the face of such differences, there will be the determination to walk in the same way. But if not, separation may actually lead to less bitterness, a greater willingness to converse and, perhaps, even some scope for cooperation in areas where this is possible.
As Christians, it is our duty to pray for the unity of all those who call themselves followers of Jesus but unity does not come at any price and it as well to be prepared for the worst.