I have now been an Anglican for over a decade, with the majority of those years spent at Wycliffe College pursuing a master’s and then a doctorate. During this time, I have had the chance to observe a wide range of young Anglicans and Episcopalians like myself, such as some of the contributors to the Covenant blog, who have often come from conservative evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds or who have always been Anglican but were converted by evangelical para-church organizations. Now, I say “young” since that is what I was when I arrived at Wycliffe, but I can no longer pretend to play the young-and-relevant card. I will be pushing 40 by the time I dissertate, which might only be regarded as young in Anglican circles.
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 went before nary an Anglican had set foot on its campus. I say “fortunately” for a couple of reasons. First, 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 “non-conformity.” Second, this contemporary movement, which began as a documented trickle in Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, 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 the Anglican church gets 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 the evangelical denominations, and sometimes it has not benefitted the receiving churches, due to the baggage that ex-evangelicals carry.
First, 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. The Boomers’ children probably received 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. This negative effect of experientialism, along with the fear that intellectuals become “liberal,” produced the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” highlighted by Mark Noll. 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 amongst the mega-church pioneers. Carleson and Lueken’s Renovation of the Church is a good example of evangelicals in search of deeper spiritual formation, and it even 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. To his mind, it would seem that the kind of restlessness characteristic of North America’s religious (and irreligious) wanderers is the effect of the rejection of the Spirit’s gift of unity. New, I think, for this generation of Canterbury Trail evangelicals is precisely this discomfort over the divided church — a discomfort not nearly as evident to the previous generation as one can see by rereading Webber’s book. So 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 we 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—the people who are directly converted as evangelicals into the Anglican church.
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, this kind of Anglican evangelical, if he hasn’t already up and left, is tempted to neglect the riches of his own tradition, re-invent the wheel, and fall for marketing techniques that regular evangelicals are already moving beyond. A little time spent in the para-church can keep them up-to-date — student ministries and Bible camps (indeed, it is highly likely that this is where they received the faith). But the temptation towards 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 towards 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 haven’t 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 CMS, and John Stott. True, the ex-evangelical and ex-fundamentalist might have more current experience about 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 heological positions: both were probably once committed to inerrancy, pre-millenialism, 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 don’t like. And ex-fundamentalists don’t like fundamentalists because they have often been hurt by their 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 towards Dawkins et. al. or, via the “Canterbury Trail,” he will head towards 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. So ex-fundamentalists are largely reacting against pride and legalism, while ex-evangelicals are reacting against the spiritual emptiness of faddish evangelicalism. But, of course, there are degrees of mixture between the two.
In closing, I want to say that although this new generation of Canterbury Trail Anglicans has a lot to offer the Anglican and Episcopal churches which 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 also carry a lot of baggage. Not having “stayed put” in those places where we originally received the faith, we struggle here too in this Anglican place to practice what we have come to preach. Here 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 Anglican 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, not only does this tempt us to throw out the legitimate orthodoxies held by those we react against, but, contrary to the spirit of humility, it also tempts us to “via media” pride, as if we somehow have got it all together. Truth, humility, and unity are a package.
The image above is “Astounding grip” by John Bell. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 Radner quotes Adam Smith: “The interested and active zeal of religious teachers can be dangerous and troublesome only where there is either but on sect tolerated in the society, or where the whole of a large society is divided into two or three great sects; the teachers of ach acting by concert, and under a regular discipline and subordination. But that zeal must be altogether innocent where the society is divided into two or three hundred, or perhaps into as many thousand small sects, of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb the public tranquility. The teachers of one sect, seeing themselves surrounded on all sides with more adversaries than friends, would be obliged to learn that candour and moderation which is so seldom to be found among the teachers of those great sects.” (The Wealth of Nations 5.1.3)