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No safe place except hope: Global struggles and the Anglican vocation

Editor’s note: for a discussion of the unique challenges of our era, “the Anthropocene,” see Ephraim Radner’s first post in this series. For Scriptural sketches of a Christian response, see the second post. What follows is the conclusion.

From the challenges I have outlined and the truths to which I have pointed, it should be clear that we cannot found our Christian witness on a few contested social practices, like same-sex marriage, nor measure our hope on the basis of our success in such struggles, struggle though we must. The divisions we have created between “conservative’ and “liberal” are not without warrant, but in the end they do not get at the greater challenge and the greater truths. This inadequacy points instead to the practical side of ordering our life in the midst of our epochal revolution.

Obviously, Christians must recommit ourselves to witnessing holistically to the great truths noted in my previous post, which are all so challenging to the withering humanity of our era. We must recover our sense of our creatureliness, a true anthropocentrism, and a focus on nature and natural law, as well as an understanding of Jesus Christ’s assumption of human nature, life, and history and the way that Scripture witnesses to him.

We must do so, however, in a way that is aimed at breadth of reception. Our struggle in the Anthropocene is no longer simply local, but global. It is global, more profoundly, in the sense that the gospel truths we are asked to share are given for the whole of humanity, out of deep compassion for the inadequate suffering of endings that our era has laid upon us. Here, we are talking about a spirit of witness that we need to maintain, especially in the face of our often failed efforts in specific struggles. Humankind yearns after something wide, a universal divine grace that can touch an earth now dreadfully impoverished. Losing sight of this thrusts us back into narrow corridors of simple dispute.

Evangelism

This wideness suggests, first of all, an unrelenting though utterly compassionate evangelistic outreach, oriented to all people, including those of other religions like Islam. In a way, this goal has proven the gracious underbelly of the Anthropocene revolution. It wended its way, initially as an overt, but in the last century and especially in the last few decades as a secret and questioning, partner to the socio-cultural changes that have embraced the earth. The goal of universal evangelization was itself compromised over and over by ecclesial cooption into the dynamics of the new epoch.

Today, this goal needs to be recaptured and followed through, not just by culturally disdained Baptist or Pentecostal missionaries, but by all Christians, now driven by the merciful gaze of the Father, given in the visage of the Son, and empowered by the fruit of the Spirit. Christians who do not evangelize are not only going to be gobbled up; they will have withheld from those who are most needy the salve that God has given for these times. For Christians, the Anthropocene epoch is rightly and morally a missionary epoch.

Ecumenism

The wideness of God’s compassionate call to the human race also suggests the time for a new ecumenism. The old enclaves are simply not up to the demands of the era. Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal: these are fading ecclesial relics, not without their eternal giftedness and bequests that demand safeguarding and hence continued institutional forms. But their exclusive finalities have been clearly subverted, and their demands made upon other Christians for conformity in return for acceptance are now vain. The very attempt to respond to the global revolution of human life through institutions themselves honed by the revolution’s pressures — an attempt that is the manifest face of all churches today — is bound to a dismal end.

It no longer matters what church we belong to. We can leave individual destinies to the secret purposes of God, but there is little reason to think that such destinies are tied to a person’s denomination. More broadly, there is but one people of God, whose membership is founded on baptism and whose integrity is given in faithful following of Christ. That one people, the Israel of God, is the subject of divine election, and hence the gifts of all its members are those to be lifted up for all, while their wretched foibles and vices are to be suffered by all in a spirit of correction. The embrace of divine mercy upon a flailing humankind implies far-flung and pointed connections among Christians of every ilk, rather than reliance upon (the now well-rehearsed failures of) individual churches. There are no safe places to run to, but there is a divine calling to be shared, showered with a common set of gifts.

On the other hand, such a new ecumenism will never succeed if it merely mimics the structural and communicative dynamics of today’s global ordering, that aims at optimized control over preferred activities, i.e., technocratic centralizations. Such mimicking is simply the sign of cooption and complicity. In our era, the Church’s life, as a single people witnessing to the truths of Christ, will take the form of localities and leaven, of “Benedict options” that multiply, filiate, and propagate, encouraged and supported by all Christians who are willing, no longer simply according to institutional identity.

An Anglican vocation: to support the witness of the Christian Church wherever it is

Anglicans have had a tradition of understanding their ecclesial identity as “provisional” within the purposes of God. That should be a virtue in the current era. We have no official illusions that we are “the true Church” compared to other Christians, only that we have had particular gifts from God to be used for the strengthening of the larger Church over time.

Most Anglicans have little interest in such a vocation of provisionality and service. Like most Christians, we have been lured into thinking we are smarter than others, have more beautiful music, are more reasonable, are more attuned to the world, and thus that we are in fact what all other Christians should be. In this, we have become captive to the entire Anthropocene current.

We are, thank God, today being freed from this perverted look by the simple exposure of our illusions at the hands of our epoch’s bulldozing transformations. If it was not safe, in the eyes of Anglicans of the past, to be a Catholic or a Pentecostal or a fundamentalist, it is clearly no longer safe to be an Anglican either! The venality, deceit, power-mongering, greed, apathy, abuse, ignorance, and rank heresy of our leaders and members are now well-documented, unveiled before inquiring Internet sleuths at least — just like every other church.

Anglicans, of course, do have a patrimony to steward: liturgically, theologically, politically, and especially missiologically. Again, mutatis mutandis, like other churches.

Our responsibilities to this stewardship are real, and Anglicans should confidently affirm the gifts of their heritage. These gifts are rightly cherished and shared, however, only in a way that is ordered to the priorities of our larger witness as called forth by our epoch. Hence, because there is no safe place, there is no purpose in fleeing our churches. But just because our own place is not safe — like all places of the world — we are called to a renewal of witness that will perhaps underline our ecclesial provisionality in ways we had never imagined.

As we do this, I can point to a few practical orientations “just for us”:

  1. Anglicans are called to a friendship with the human race, as neighbors in desperate need of a new acknowledgment of God in Christ and of healing.
    Given the disappointments of the present moment, it needs to be said that this includes, obviously, those neighbors who are same-sex attracted. Those who are same-sex attracted are our friends, and we need to get over our antipathies.
  2. We need to continue in our witness, however, that same-sex marriage is wrong, does not “fit” with the natural ordering of our created life before God — which includes only the marriage of male and female and celibacy. One thing that needs to be stressed is that (1) and (2) are not so hard to hold together. We must do so.
  3. Anglicans are called to friendship with the lost, including lost Christians. The old ways of dealing with the true and the false, orthodox and heretic, have not worked. The Anthropocene epoch has meaning as a term insofar as it designates a common sifting of the human race, and for shared causes. We stand with our friends, even our enemy-friends, seeing ourselves in their eyes.
  4. We need to renew a clear witness to the Christian truths I stated in yesterday’s post, from our divine creation and finitude, to its assumption in Jesus Christ, to the revelatory powers of the Books of Nature and of Scripture, to the one calling of the Israel of God. This witness needs to be directed to our friends — all of them, even those who have betrayed the trust given them. Again, (3) and (4) can in fact be held together without compromise or dissonance. It is one of the political lies of our era that this is impossible. What is required is a little courage and patience, not to mention love, virtues that are in short supply.
  5. What of our bishops, of the ecclesial order we have put so much stock in even as we have subverted its integrity? See above: be their friends; state the truth and live it; ignore the rest. If you get into trouble, deal with it.

Within the challenges of the present epoch, which have ensnared all churches and all Christians in some way, Anglicans (and other Christians) should not waste their time looking for safe havens. Ecclesially, our goal is to provide lateral support across churches and groups, denominations and traditions, through a renewed, reoriented, and steady witness to the promises of God in Christ, and to the form of their gracious receipt. We have gifts, as Anglicans, that we have been given to guard and to pass on, but only within the context of this reorientation of concern and self-giving. Our parishes, our dioceses, our Communion structures are of much potential value (and of some actual value) — as microcosms of the new ecumenism — but only insofar as they are part of this reoriented witness.

One thing that faithful Christians who are Anglicans must let go of is the insistence on measuring their discipleship according to the concrete signs of the present age (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 2:2), whose “prince” seems to have bewitched all ages, whatever we wish to call them geologically.

If for this life only we have hoped, then we have hoped in vain (1 Cor. 15:19). We hope in God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Pet. 1:21). So must we act. However disappointing has been the outcome of many ecclesial disputes for traditional Anglicans like myself, Christian hope ought to order these disappointments to the cause of a wider evangelism, aimed at the God who stands beyond these momentary frustrations.

The Christian for today

Humble, grateful, receptive of creaturely limits, ready to die, steady, confessing, scripturally ordered, trusting in Christ Jesus, eager for a new creation, patient, forgiving. Those who yearn for this need apply; those who are ready for this need to lead.

Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Ps. 130:7-8 KJV)

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. His other posts are here.

The featured image comes via Arland Boschnjaku.

6 COMMENTS

  1. It is dangerous to wish that a writer had written about an additional area, for as Tom Wright says, you can’t cover everything.

    But is this case, I wish you had included more explicitly a pneumatology.

    John 16 might provide a jumping off point, when Jesus says of the coming of the Holy Spirit:

    “… he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” (John 16:8-11)

    It seems that this work of the Spirit is exactly what you have been talking about.

    I realize that this route runs all the risks of an over realized eschatology, but in facing this epoch we still know that the ruler of this world has been condemned.

    Going forward, we must be careful to not try to do that which is already accomplished. Act we must, but it is action that is predicated on a victory already ours, and empowered by the one who won thatvoctory for us.

    • Charlie, you’re right of course, an on both counts — that is, that a discussion of the Spirit in all this is important, and that John 16:8 should be a key place of illumination here. Pneumatology rarely engages this text; but it should, in a more than occasional way, but rather in a way that can be used as a defining element of our larger understanding of the Spirit more broadly. There is no contradiction between the actuality of what I am calling (theologically, not geologically) “the Anthropocene epoch” and the absolute sovereignty to God and his complete victory of the “prince of this world” in Christ Jesus. The gift of the Spirit is given this “lack of contradiction”. If the Cross is also our central place of seeing this, then the Spirit works sub contraria in just this place and way. Not a message that resonates with my pneumatically-oriented Christians in our day. But your question opens up this discussion in a pointed way. Thanks!

  2. Re: pneumatically-oriented Christians

    I grew up in the Lutheran church, sub contrario was in the air and in the water. And I deeply value that. Western pneumatically-oriented Christians, of which I sort of am one, are always in danger of going where comforts lay. And no one likes the call, once they understand it means death, of “take up your cross and follow me.”

    But while the Cross was God working sub contraria, the Resurrection seems to be of a different nature. No mere miracle, but rather the in-breaking of a New World.

    We have the challenge of living in a time when the two worlds overlap. God is still working sub contrario but is up to something else too. Romans 8, that great passage of New Creation holds the two in tension. We must too. It is no accident (!) that the Holy Spirit is at the heart of Romans 8, and here those two things lie together:

    “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (v17).

    Some have mined the riches of what it means to share in his suffering and other have mined that we are heirs. But what does it mean to be “suffering heirs?” I think here is the secret of living in this Anthropocene epoch. It means not falling back on our own resources (we are heir, after all), but it also means that “God’s ways are not our ways” and we will need to be led by the Spirit “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (v 14).

  3. “The goal of universal evangelization was itself compromised over and over by ecclesial cooption into the dynamics of the new epoch.

    Today, this goal needs to be recaptured and followed through, not just by culturally disdained Baptist or Pentecostal missionaries, but by all Christians, now driven by the merciful gaze of the Father, given in the visage of the Son, and empowered by the fruit of the Spirit. Christians who do not evangelize are not only going to be gobbled up; they will have withheld from those who are most needy the salve that God has given for these times. For Christians, the Anthropocene epoch is rightly and morally a missionary epoch.”

    Days ago (I was walking home from attending mass) I ran into a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses. They stopped me, and nicely got me into a chat with them.
    Since no-one else does stop people to get them into chats about anything spiritual or non-profit-aiming, I curiously asked them who they were, what they were actually doing, and why.

    I admit that as I got their answers, I faced the puzzle as to why we Catholics (I write from Italy) never either do this, or are told that we could form little groups and do this. I felt more than a little sorry, because I knew as I heard it that it would make me very very happy to do it, and also, I couldn’t, as I still can’t, see why Catholics don’t do this.

    What can be more beautiful than stopping suitable-looking strangers and try to get them into talks about God, and the sense (in the double meaning of: purpose, and direction of “travel”) of our existence on earth?

    Everyone’s is fast to go, by the hundreds, to church gatherings which amount to social meetings and ways to pass time, while no-one dreams of doing some evangelization.

    • Meanwhile, comments to Vatican News’ YouTube channel are disabled.
      I received the grace to become Christian 3 months ago. I know very little, and have still read very little of the Bible and other theological texts.
      But it powerfully struck my interest the part of the Gospel read at mass where Christ, crossed, was spat at.
      Why disable comments? Because, due to the current materialistic and anti-theist faith that is all the rage in the world, a considerable count of comments would be verbal spitting?
      Well, if day in and day out we hear in the mass sermon that it is exactly that the mark of being active and true Christians, where would the problem be?

      The only effective evangelization — if we think of bringing sheep under the guidance of the Shepherd, and not of boosting the nominal count of “Christians” — is to exemplify by action what “we” preach and claim we believe.
      Paradoxically, I can write none of this to the Vatican, because there’s no website, of theirs where you can write to them (no email either of course).

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