“We’ve never been here before.” This is a sentiment I encounter frequently in other priests in the Anglican Church in North America. As churches throughout America shut their doors, culture perpetually changes, politics fray, tensions rise, and faith declines, I share the feeling.
This current moment in the religious landscape of the secular West is taking us to a new place, and many of us don’t want to go there—for good reason.
On one level, “we’ve never been here before” is not only an expression of personal sentiment, but of objective truth. Time is always moving; each moment occurs only once (the sacraments alter that fact, but that is for another blog post).
However, I believe that it is necessary to clarify and broaden the “we” in “we’ve never been here before.”
What if “we” refers not only to the collective experience of this current generation of Anglican leaders in America, but to the holy catholic church, the communion of saints across time and space?
Have we—the timeless, redeemed, catholic “we”—been here before?
Where We Are
Well, let’s answer first of all where we are.
We inhabit secular, post-Christian, post-modernity. Here are some features that mark the landscape:
- increasing nationalism with a resemblance to the imperial cults of old;
- religious, cultural and ethnic diversity, pluralism, and tension;
- sexualized disintegration, confusion, and abuse;
- gnostic patterns of religious escapism and body-mind dualism, manifesting themselves in—among other things—transgenderism and technocracy;
- the rise of neo-pagan beliefs and sexuality, products of a cosmology of chaos and skepticism rather than one of unity and peace.
Although diversity challenges us, we welcome this challenge, because it presents the opportunity to repent of our failures in this area—and to seek the Kingdom of God in its diverse fullness.
However, the other challenges run contrary to the Gospel and can be traced back to three religious trends: gnosticism, nationalism, and neo-paganism.
Gnosticism convinces spiritual seekers to transcend their embodiment and to escape from the world.
Christians confess belief in “the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” thereby acknowledging that the material realm was created by one God. With the Jews, we affirm that God looked at his creation and “saw that it was good.” God created this world in order to share in heavenly meaning, rather than to be discarded, altered, or manipulated.
Furthermore, Gnosticism is refuted in the miracle of the incarnation, whereby the eternal Son of God assumed our nature in order to restore us to communion with God. With Saint Athanasius, we insist that “Christ became human that man might become divine” and with Saint Irenaeus that “the glory of God is human being fully alive.”
We experience the recapitulated humanity of the last Adam within his body, the Church, and are made participants of his divinized humanity together through the Eucharist.
Nationalism proclaims that Caesar is Lord and that the empire is ultimate.
Christians proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” and invite men, women, and children of every tribe, nation, and tongue to belong to the Kingdom of God. Earthly politics can aspire to be a proximate good, but never an ultimate end, because worldly kingship can never be ultimate.
Neo-paganism presumes upon a cosmology of chaos, presents a pantheon of gods to be propitiated and manipulated, and provides an excuse for sexuality to embody a narrative of self-fulfillment and conquest.
Christians believe in God whose unity is Love, and thereby hold to a cosmology of order, design and diversity within unity. Christians sought to live out their sexuality as a holy parable, participating in the mystical union of Christ and his Church, a union made possible by Christ’s sacrificial self-offering, resulting in unity, honor, and safety for the weak.
The Church’s Alternative
The Church’s embodied, sacramental gathering to worship the Triune God, revealed in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth contains the embodied truths which provide an alternative to gnosticism, nationalism, neo-paganism, and their effects.
Sex doesn’t have to be a weapon. The biological facts of our masculinity and femininity are gifts, expressing the very heart of God, so they can be redeemed rather than denied or overcome. Our distinction as male and female can be affirmed and yield harmony and justice rather than competition and enmity.
God’s willingness to be human means that we can be divinized as human beings; therefore we should reconsider our technological drive to master and transcend every human limitation.
Our King is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so we can politely decline idolatrous reliance upon the emperor and his claims.
Have We Been Here Before?
I don’t want to glamorize the Church’s beginnings and pretend that the apostolic or patristic era was always without compromise, internal difficulty, or intense suffering.
Nonetheless, the Church has been here before. One of the beautiful gifts of Anglicanism is its inclination to learn from the past.
After all, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was a work of art that retrieved and resourced patristic prayer for his culture in his time. Richard Hooker avoided the Scylla and Charybdis of his day by rooting ecclesiastical polity in Scripture through the lens of the Church Fathers, rather than through ideological imposition, like his contemporaries.
In our current climate, it would be very Anglican to return to the feet of the early, divided Church, and ask how we could more fully participate in the life of the Triune God in Holy Communion and in sanctified community.
It would also do us well to remember that Christendom and the Church are related, but not the same thing. The death of Christendom does not spell the death of the Church. Pentecost took place in a pagan empire, around three hundred years prior to the conversion of Constantine.
If I’m not mistaken, we have been before.
And, by the faithfulness of Christ, here we are today, pressing into tomorrow with the hope of the Gospel for all people.