By Jeff Boldt
I have now been an Anglican for more than a decade, with the majority of those years spent at Wycliffe College pursuing a master’s degree and now a doctorate. During this time, I have observed a wide range of young Anglicans and Episcopalians who have often come from conservative evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds or who have always been Anglican but were converted by evangelical parachurch ministries.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there still seems to be an ever-widening stream of ex-evangelical converts to Anglicanism coming out of places like Wheaton and, in Canada, Briercrest, where I studied when nary an Anglican had set foot on its campus. I say “fortunately” for a couple of reasons. Even though I now feel less unique, it is nice to have company on the Canterbury Trail and to be disabused of one’s all too American (and Canadian) illusions of originality. As Robert Bellah has indicated, it is a North American rite of passage to reject the religion of one’s parents. Besides, there have always been Anglican converts from Protestant nonconformity. This contemporary movement, which was documented as a trickle in Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985), has sometimes been to the mutual benefit of those involved. The young(ish) converts receive a depth of tradition lacking in their denomination of origin, while Anglicanism gains an influx of vitality.
But I say “unfortunately” for a few more reasons. The move from the evangelical to the Anglican (and Catholic and Orthodox) orbit has been to the loss of evangelical denominations, and sometimes it has not benefitted the receiving churches because of the baggage that ex-evangelicals carry. I should say a word about the loss to evangelicalism. With the revivals of the boomer generation, the evangelical denominations swelled with members drawn from the mainline, where, due to the liberal fashions of the day, they were not receiving a life-transforming faith.
Boomers’ children probably inherited high standards of holiness from their parents along with a high view of Scripture, but along with the revivalists’ admirable desire to transmit this experience to their children came a corresponding neglect, in many cases, of formal catechesis. Without a vision of the coherence of Christianity, the uncatechized have tended to see holiness as legalism and faith as dogmatism. Mark Noll highlighted this effect of experientialism, along with the fear that intellectuals become liberal, in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). As a result, several of evangelicalism’s best and brightest have left for deeper theological waters while its leaders were distracted with religious marketing.
To be sure, the attractional model has now become passé among megachurch pioneers. Renovation of the Church (2011) by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken is a good example of evangelicals in search of deeper spiritual formation, and it gropes after an ideal of Christian unity. But, so far as I know, no one in the evangelical orbit has perceived the connection between the banality of marketplace religion and the logic of division in the way that Ephraim Radner has in his chapter on “Christian Unity in an Age of Church-Shopping” in Hope Among the Fragments (2004). To his mind, it would seem that the kind of restlessness characteristic of North America’s religious (and irreligious) wanderers is the effect of rejecting the Spirit’s gift of unity. New, I think, for this generation of Canterbury Trail evangelicals is precisely this discomfort with the divided Church — a discomfort not nearly as evident to the previous generation, as one can see by rereading Webber’s book. Although evangelicalism is maturing, I would say — not to sound too self-flattering — that it has lost some of its best and brightest to higher-church traditions. Furthermore, it is at the loss of those who are most interested in Church unity, one of the major culprits behind the banality of marketplace religion.
It needs to be added immediately, however, that one does not further Christian unity by leaving one’s church of origin, so ex-evangelical Anglicans are in an odd position. This leads me to invent a rather loose typology of the varieties of evangelical and ex-evangelical Anglicans in North America based on their relationship to the wider evangelical world in order to identify the kind of baggage they need to overcome. I do not include in my typology those miracles from God who are directly converted as evangelicals into Anglicanism.
I include, first, those brought up within Anglicanism as evangelicals; I might as well call them “local evangelicals.” Upon seeing the sharp decline of their traditional church, these Anglican evangelicals may be tempted to neglect the riches of their tradition, reinvent the wheel, and fall for marketing techniques that regular evangelicals are already moving beyond. A little time spent in the parachurch (student ministries and Bible camps) can keep them up-to-date. Indeed, it is highly likely that this is where they received the faith. But the temptation toward marketing remains. If that sounds cynical, it is because of the peculiar baggage that an ex-evangelical like me carries.
The second type, the self-conscious ex-evangelical (along with my third type, the ex-fundamentalist), often swings toward Anglo-Catholicism and needs to be reminded by the local Anglican evangelical that not all evangelism is marketing and that conversion experiences remain essential for producing a conviction that will stand the test of time. And, if they have not sold their tradition for a mess of faddish techniques, they can recall the venerable stream of Anglican evangelicalism going back to the Wesleys, the Clapham Sect, the Church Mission Society, and John Stott. True, the ex-evangelical and ex-fundamentalist might have more current experience with how to evangelize, but they also might be reacting against the extroverted ideal that evangelicalism pushes. These groups need each other to stay balanced.
The ex-fundamentalist is not to be distinguished from the ex-evangelical by previously held theological positions: both were probably once committed to inerrancy, premillennialism, creationism, and possibly male headship (though the fundamentalist holds to these more tenaciously). The difference lies in what they are reacting against. The popular meaning of fundamentalist seems to refer to someone with strange views that I dislike. And ex-fundamentalists do not like fundamentalists because they have often been hurt by spiritual pride and legalism.
In addition to personal hurt, the baggage accumulated here again might result in the baby of holiness getting thrown out with the bathwater of legalism. If the ex-fundamentalist does not become a New Atheist — the inverted modernist equivalent of the rationalizing fundamentalist — he might drift in the Anglican direction. Here he will decide whether to let John Spong usher him through the dusty halls of a bygone Protestant liberalism back toward Richard Dawkins or, via the Canterbury Trail, he will head toward the more romantic tradition of Anglo-Catholicism. The temptation then is to construct an Anglican identity that is more concerned with “not being fundamentalist” than with being Christian. Ex-fundamentalists are largely reacting against pride and legalism, while ex-evangelicals are reacting against the spiritual emptiness of fads. But, of course, there are degrees of mixture between the two.
Although this new generation of Canterbury Trail Anglicans has a lot to offer the churches we now inhabit — especially in our greater desire for unity than many a boomer who busies himself with ecclesial marketing, lawsuits, or even doctrinal and moral purity — we carry a lot of baggage. Not having stayed in those places where we originally received the faith, we struggle here in this Anglican place to practice what we have come to preach. We counsel the local cradle Anglican evangelical not to throw overboard the riches of the tradition in order to fill the pews. But we also need to be reminded that without mission, evangelism, and yes, conversion, the tradition simply becomes liturgical histrionics, much to the annoyance of the local evangelical.
Finally, the new Canterbury Trail Anglicans need to be more than “not fundamentalists” or “not Southern Baptists.” Not only would such an attitude contradict the ecumenical spirit and tempt us to toss the legitimate orthodoxies held by those we react against: Contrary to the spirit of humility, it also tempts us to “via media” pride, as if we have got it all together. Truth, humility, and unity are a package.
Jeff Boldt is a doctoral candidate at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. This piece first appeared on TLC’s weblog, Covenant.