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Homesick at home

G.K. Chesterton supposes that “we are confronted with a desperate thing,” the London neighborhood of Pimlico. Pimlico is a metaphor for the world, and the Christian’s duty is to love it, so that it may be transformed into the glorious thing that God would have it be. Escapism will not do. He writes:

It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence (Orthodoxy, p. 66).

Chesterton’s Pimlico is an apt metaphor for the way I love the Episcopal Church.

Episcopalians with traditional doctrinal commitments have faced a dilemma for decades now. Many have left — and usually for reasons more complex than just sex. A lot of people have fled Pimlico for Chelsea (or at least what looks like Chelsea from the outside). Some have gone to Rome or the East. Some have started or joined one of the many “Anglican” groups. Some have given up on church altogether, choosing the spiritual equivalent of Chesterton’s other option.

Although I profoundly disagree with many of the Episcopal Church’s innovations, I have gone nowhere. I came to the Episcopal Church from the evangelical world, and I continue to encounter theologically and morally traditional Christians who have found a happy home in the Episcopal Church. This is the case, I believe, because despite everything, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion present an almost hidden ideal of Christianity that is worthy beyond measure: a fully biblical, evangelical content poured into historically rooted catholic structures. With such an ideal largely unrealized before us, the sometimes unlovable Episcopal Church presents an invitation from God to make it more faithful, and therefore more loveable, than ever before. It is not enough for me simply to disapprove. I love the Episcopal Church, and therefore do no not want it to remain what it is.

What, then, is the strategy for staying put? To borrow again from Chesterton, it means at times being “homesick at home,” (Orthodoxy,p. 80) and our own Anglican heritage offers the church plenty of inspiration for doing so. In fact, for better or for worse, this faithful resistance is in the DNA of our most memorable figures and movements. We are often reminded that the Wesley brothers died Anglicans. F.D. Maurice was a unique visionary. And there is no more prominent group in Anglican history that (mostly) stayed at home in order to transform it with zealous love than the Tractarians. John Henry Newman looked in the mirror and saw a Monophysite, but most of his comrades did not; he examined his conscience and decided that he must leave. But Pusey, Keble, and countless others right down to the present generation have decided that we must stay.

To be a homesick Episcopalian in the twenty-first century is to say to our brothers and sisters throughout our patch of the body of Christ that no decisions are final. Some of them — even what have seemed like great victories of the culture wars — may simply pass quietly into the oblivion of forgotten artifacts from a particular historical moment. There is nothing glamorous about this defiant posturing, but, as Chesterton reminds us in one of the most famous passages from Orthodoxy, there is certainly something captivating about it:

This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, hum-drum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy… The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable (pp. 102-103).

And there may be something unrespectable even about using Chesterton to make our point, since he, like Newman, converted to the Roman Catholic Church. To be homesick at home, however, often means looking to prophets outside our Episcopalian and Anglican compound, even to those who left us behind, and bringing them along to aid in the reconstruction within.

Whatever transforming work we do is not our own but participation in whatever God wills for his Church. And those in holy orders must be especially vigilant not to let wider ecclesiastical matters compromise the preaching, teaching, and pastoral care to those in our charge. Our homesickness can never overtake the joy of being at home. We must pursue our path with light hearts, looking forward to laughing at ourselves at how wrong we were about whatever is ultimately judged thus. But we cannot hide our heads in the sand either nor trade the truth for a lie. The Episcopal Church is ready and waiting to become fairer than Florence, and I, for one, intend by God’s grace to aid in making it so.

The image above is “G.K. Chesterton” (2010) by Bill Rogers and is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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