One of the enjoyable aspects of my dissertation research into Victorian Anglicans’ interpretations of Scripture has been assessing the various party labels at play in the 19th-century Church of England. F.C. Conybeare spread the concept of a tripartite division: evangelical, tractarian, and broad church. Often in that period, certain thinkers were dismissed or embraced because they belonged to a particular party. This is still true today, only now we’ve added other labels: liberal, conservative, revisionist, traditionalist.
I understand the usefulness of these classifications for creating a kind of map of the theological and ecclesial landscape. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that these labels and identifiers are used in ways that are damaging the unity of the Church. Evangelical can mischaracterize those who hold to the standard Christian teaching about marriage. Inclusive can be used as a rallying point for those with particular theological vision tied to a political agenda. In both examples, these words are used to demarcate those we perceive to be truthful and morally upright, and to cordon them off from those who don’t fit our vision of the truth.
It’s so easy to dismiss theologians’ work because they are too revisionist or traditionalist.
My fear is that these labels create distinct subcultures that are isolated from the wider diversity of the Church. Worse than this, they become barriers to loving our sisters and brothers because they are different. These labels can deepen fractures in the body of Christ instead of reaching across differences in the embrace of love. We no longer care what people say or believe (let alone why they believe it) because they belong to a group other than ours.
I do not mean to diminish what is at stake in doctrinal disputes. While some questions may be adiaphora, there are certainly questions that deal with important truths, and so there can be no good disagreement or walking together without repentance. I understand too, that fellow conservatives will cite the example of Jesus: he was not pleasant when denouncing the Pharisees, and there is a place for simply boldly denouncing what is clearly sinful. The problem is, we do not see as clearly as Jesus. If we are to follow his example more closely, we must be just as willing to stand against the dangers of personal wealth, as, say, sexual immorality. We need to be consistent.
Unfortunately, the ecclesial landscape mirrors the political landscape, and people generally huddle in their camp’s trench, breathing curses at those on the other side. The scars of past battles and attempts to reform the church (for more Catholic, or liberal, or conservative, or evangelical ends) leave many feeling exposed and wounded. I think anyone who has been aware of Anglicanism’s presence in North America in the past 40 years knows this intuitively.
Here’s what I think often goes unnoticed: as faithful Anglicans (lay and ordained) continue to work for the gospel as they understand it (and they may well understand it wrongly), people walk into our churches, and some (like me) stick around. They come from different backgrounds, and for those new to Anglicanism, they enter this battle with no bets on either side, no post-traumatic stress disorder from synods past, and no bad memories of personal attacks.
My hope is that they aren’t forced to choose sides but that some of those lines will be redrawn. It might mean conflicts must continue, but as Christians, can’t they at least be civil, even with those we believe to be heretics?
Though I am not now (to my knowledge) a heretic, I sure was for a long time, and you probably were too. I didn’t have everything right when I became a Christian. I had many strange and outlandish ideas about God, morality, and truth. But as I learned, staggering ahead in lurches and leaps, I began to grasp the grammar of the faith. I don’t know if I was ever a thorough theological liberal, but there was a time when that understanding of Christianity was viable to me.
It took many Christians being gracious to me for many years — the heretic hunters didn’t help — for me to move into what I now believe is truer understanding and practice of the faith. It was gentle, mature Christians that prodded me to pray more, to think more deeply, and to study Scripture more fully who helped me to see the truth of the Christian faith. I hope to look back in 10 years and say again that my understanding and practice has continued to deepen.
Too often we forget that our theologically off-base brothers and sisters are not static, stuck in whatever viewpoint is trending. Rather, like us, they are on a journey to know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is also at work: drawing, correcting, leading all along the way. The same people pushing for doctrinal revisions we believe to be grievously erroneous might, in a decade, realize that they too have been wrong, just as we have been in many ways. Instead of denouncing them, and pushing them further into a corner, let’s embrace them with gentleness, while holding fast to the truth, encouraging them where they have kept the faith and, with their best interests in mind, challenging them where they haven’t.
To borrow from St. Paul, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” and not against our brothers and sisters in Christ.