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After the fall

Who are the predominantly younger theologians and priests clustering around The Living Church’s Covenant blog? Or “A Tribe Called Anglican”? Or those who read more individual blogs like “Creedal Christian” or “The Conciliar Anglican”? Or those who have contributed to the recent book Pro Communione? Or who attend seminaries like Wycliffe College or Duke Divinity School? They are the future of Anglicanism in North America, that is who; and they are the reason why I am not so much worried about The Episcopal Church as eager simply to see the inevitable fruit of faithfulness whose seed is well-sown. The “times they are a-changin’”. “The first one now, will later be last.”

Many of us, of course, are wondering about what our future is or should be in The Episcopal Church. For my part, I believe I have one, and plan to pursue it. It is just here that I wish to teach and write, pray and witness, God willing. And I believe that others have a future here too, a good future and a fruitful and faithful one. But I would be dishonest if I did not admit to a deep sense of sorrow, mixed with some anger, at how the church I have served as a priest for over 30 years could go so wrong. So certain has been the leadership of our church that its redefinition of the human person and its social form is of God, despite its complete incongruence with Christian Scriptural reading and tradition, that they have seemed to sleepwalk over a precipice of ecclesial self-destruction without regard for their membership and their Christian family. I will be the first to agree that what has happened at this General Convention (and several preceding it) deserves God’s judgment and condemnation, and will indeed receive it.

Yet having admitted this, I must also insist: the judgment is not new; and because long-standing, its force is now as much transformative as depleting. We have been living under its power for some time, swept along by its current in ways that have touched us all and rightly so. No Rubicon has been crossed at the General Convention of 2012. Rather, one awakes and discovers that time, God’s shaping hand of justice and mercy, has changed us all in ways we had not realized, and that this strange work of providence has been going on far longer than the sharp incision of our disappointments might suggest. What exactly has been happening? In short, another culture, alien and hostile, has now clearly overtaken the church, deep, sweeping, and overwhelming. We are not who we thought we were, Christians leading the way nor even a faithful remnant resisting from behind. The distinctions are no more.

Indeed, one of the insights of this General Convention is that The Episcopal Church has been behind the cultural curve for some time. Bless gay unions? Call it marriage? Transgender affirmation? Only after the civil state had led the way; only by playing catch-up. I believed, in 1992, that the church would get here far sooner than it did, and perhaps I was lulled by its dragging feet into thinking this was a matter of prudence and conscience. It proved instead only intellectual and moral weakness that slowed us down. There has been no grand discovery, no conquest of ignorance and illuminative breakthrough that has brought us to General Convention 2012. The best theological arguments our leaders can come up with as they tag along have to do with a god of fleshly delight and topsy-turvy fun. These are strange and petty rationales for life before the bitter and wrenching truths of mortality, something the Gospel at least takes seriously. The church has been trifling, while the civil culture has been trampling through the fields.

In fact, in a few short years, the legal and political order simply reinvented itself, like a genie, flew out and left the self-styled prophets tongue-tied. Now we see that the church was but a dog following behind its master, behind a culture washing through the institution and dissolving its commitments in every corner of its corridors. To be sure, we have long been subject to the harangues of those warning against a “church that bows to culture” and does not transform it. But the extent of its subservience in this case still astonishes.

And the extent is itself a theological challenge, as well as opportunity. The church has been swallowed up. The challenge, furthermore, is not The Episcopal Church’s alone. It represents a kind of march of moral hollowing and distraction that has lulled the whole world (or at least its formal leaders). We should make no mistake about this: every church, and along with them our families and our friends, are being carried along. That is the message of the churches’ own secondary and even tertiary role in this movement, for it is the rush of the civil current that has first inundated the space of all our lives.

So what does this amount to? Our refusal to see the Church as Israel is what has robbed us of the tools to see the meaning of this clearly. Christian ecclesiology is a study of Israel first, given in the only Scriptures the first Church read. Ecclesiology cannot be something founded on the bits and pieces of New Testament practical advice that have so often stunted our ecclesial categories. And the point is this: Israel falls completely. Christians take notice! She does so bit by bit, over many years, and formally in the shape of separated bodies — just like the Church. First Samaria, then Judah, then Jerusalem — and only somewhere, near the end of this long descent, does it appear as if “all Israel” is the proper qualifier. Before that, one could always point to a better portion of the family — there is still Judah; there is still Jerusalem; there are still the prophets; there is still me — “I alone”, the great temptation to avoid God’s judgment. In the end, though, “all Israel” is truly judged. And a “remnant” only arises out of or even within this accumulated fall. The remnant emerges in exile; the remnant emerges in the ravaged land back “home”. But only there. And only there does resurrection disclose itself (Rom. 11:26).

So, we are pointed to the place of our witness, and the place where we are in fact discovering the riches of our youngest members: just here, only within; never outside. I know that this is disputed, over and over. Let the argument run its course. But in the end, “it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside Jerusalem” (Lk. 13:33). It cannot be. And it cannot be that the church should find her resurrection outside the place of her judgment. This fact hardly provides us with a historical time-line. It simply indicates the ecclesial figure of transformation that the Holy Spirit promises to bring: God works from within. Yes, often through external means, but his work is always aimed at the “inner man” (Eph. 3:16). And Israel herself is reordered from within — Jesus is, after all, the “son of David”, not someone who has come from across the river. It is this inner working that is so historically critical, for it embodies the reality that God keeps his promises, and works through them. Only thus are his words, “In those days…” (Jer. 3:18), “In that day…” (Is. 11:11) bound to his “I shall” and his act bound to Israel’s own renewal: “the Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Is. 59:20; Rom. 11:26). He “comes from” within, in order to accomplish “just there”.

Judgment, on the other hand, is real enough. There is no passive reception of its truth, after all: even from the stones can God raise up new children for Abraham (Mat. 3:9). He does not need us. But the Gospel is not only this judgment that we must hear. It is more fundamentally the news about the Judge judged in our place, such that Jesus ends up outside the camp, with the very Wicked Tenants themselves, following them to the place they have been banished, so that wherever they are, there it is indeed possible to redeem. Always from within. To penetrate this mystery, or at least to follow its lead, is to enter into the news that is Good News, and to discover Jesus as the most marvelous truth of God’s own being and life. If not here, then where at all?

So, the breadth of God’s judgment upon our church is also a shadow of the grasp of God’s self-giving to us. That is why we can discover new gifts within it. The fact that the boundaries of our church have now become one with the vast erring of the Nations — Assyria and Babylon both, as it were — is a disclosure that there is no place to hide from the calling of our witness. With the walls breached and the frontiers made porous, it is no longer possible to say “I shall offer my Christian witness to this culture of denial”; rather we can only say, “we shall witness from within this culture”. It is, indeed, something to which we have long been consigned, although we have long refused to accept it. Our moral habits — let us leave aside the matter of sexual practice — have so long been shaped, unevangelically, by this world into which we have been taken away, that we can barely see the differences among us.

There is something freeing in recognizing this. For it means, at last, that our gifts can be given to God, solely for his purposes, and not for our manipulation. We cannot reframe the world; we cannot reset the boundaries of our churches for our own desires. We are the “crowd” (Mat. 4:24; 5:1, etc.) now, who must once again only receive, and yet receive with joy and speak of it in the midst of the great city (Mt. 21:8ff.). This is a vision that is slightly different, I think, from Alisdair MacIntyre’s famous call, at the end of After Virtue, to find “another Benedict” who might lead in the formation of new oases of moral life in the midst of an encroaching “Dark Age” of “barbarism”. It is different, not in terms of the players and of what is at stake, but rather in terms of the history of its accomplishment: having become one with the Nations, it is our own conversion among them, not our prior distinction from them, that will mark Israel’s return.

So we have this challenge: not to run away, as if Egypt were safer than Babylon. The Nations are all the same, and we are now scattered among them and they among us. Rather, we are asked to figure out more clearly and more straightforwardly what is our diasporal calling and to embrace it virtues and demands. Where we are is the place where our children are being born; and therefore the place where their faithfulness will be tested and made pure. And I am hardly pessimistic in the face of such a task.

One of the best-kept secrets of The Episcopal Church is that, within its current membership, are found the Anglican Communion’s most vibrant, creative, and serious younger theological minds; among its clergy are some of the Communion’s most humble and grace-filled pastors; among its people the most fervent prayers. It is a secret, because they have not sought to kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5), but rather to let Jesus lead the way; they have not sought to advertise their embrace of cultural approval — whoever’s culture! — but have instead immersed themselves in the witness of the saints and their forbears in faith; they have let weakness provide a forum for divine strength. Imagine: The Episcopal Church as the earthen receptacle of apostolic riches! But this, after all, is what we should expect, not denigrate (2 Cor. 4:7). And, in fact, I do expect God’s rich blessing to arise from these and others among us — again, as the Lord has promised to the leaven and the seed of the Kingdom (Lk. 13:18-21). And from this blessing shall be given a place for the Nations to find their own transformed peace, a culture turned from water into wine. The future lies, not with General Convention, but with the promises of God. And these promises are given to our children and our children’s children (Acts 2:39).

To be sure, there are obstacles to be overcome and burdens to be assumed in such a vision: money, jobs, energy and endurance. But when Jesus tells his disciples, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32), he does not do so in the face of comfortable times, but of hard ones — of funds dispersed, of antagonistic opposition, of lonely testimony. Yet this is just when he tells them of this certainty. And it is just for such a time that promises are given by God and made sure. “He has torn… and he will bind us up… Come, let us press on to know the Lord; his going forth is as sure as the dawn” (Hos. 6:1-3).


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