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 The Neoliberal Age Part II: The Decomposition of Anglicanism

This is an essay in two parts. Part one may be found here.

By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)

“Anglican ministers and bishops are proud and rich, live in wealthy parishes and dioceses and wax fat with an entirely untroubled conscience. They are great pedants, are highly educated and pompously and seriously believe in their own solidly moral virtues and their right to preach a staid and complacent morality, to grow fat and to live here for the sake of the rich. It is a religion to the rich, and undisguised at that.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky

According to the most recently published statistics from Pew Research Center, Anglicanism in the USA is 89% white, and 82% of its membership are at least third generation immigrants. The only other denomination whiter than the Anglicans are the Lutherans, our main ecumenical partners. Our homogeneity is punctuated further by the fact that American Anglicans are significantly wealthier and more educated than the average American. While detailed statistics for the Anglican Church of Canada are not as readily available, my anecdotal experiences suggest that the situation on the ground here is comparable. We are not simply a white church but the white elite church of North America. For all the painstakingly self-constructed narratives about Anglicanism being an enlightened, “inclusive” and “inviting” body, we are left with the embarrassing fact that for all the saccharine lip service to diversity, equality, and “social justice” that is so dutifully poured out in our churches, the reality is that we are among the most profoundly insular, elitist institutions in the continent. Maintaining such pristine echo chambers in countries as diverse as ours is quite an impressive feat — “all are welcome” indeed!

Now, simply “diversifying” our churches will not solve our fundamental problems, especially when the image of “diversity” that is peddled by our hierarchy and committees is little more than a racialized petite bourgeoisie, identical to white liberal professionals in thought, word, and deed. Any attempt to engage in a fashionable race-reductionist analysis of our white monochromaticism would be myopic, given the profound ethnic insularity of the historically Black churches and the various immigrant churches to this day.

We should note that the English patrimony of the Anglican tradition is not inherently alienating to those who are not of English descent. The Book of Common Prayer, in its classical forms before the novelties of the Liturgical Movement, was translated into more diverse tongues than any Christian liturgical rite before the Roman Catholic Church’s post-conciliar novus ordo. Our siblings of the Global South are zealously loyal to the classical Anglican tradition, and even I, who has no familial or historical relation at all to the English Church, am deeply committed to this classical Anglican tradition in all its distinctive Englishness. If the classical Anglican tradition is capable of having such a universal appeal, our question must be more specific: why are our churches in the USA and Canada, the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, so overwhelmingly upper-middle class white?

Surely, even the most glancing look at the demographic make-up of our parishes would make clear why the social issues Anglophone Anglicans concern themselves with most passionately are indistinguishable from the popular causes of the urban white elite of the day. So it is that when we hear some official pronouncement from a diocesan office or synod, we hear little that is discernably Anglican by any doctrinal or historical measure, nor even Christian. Instead, what we are greeted with is something that is conspicuously identical to the ideological talking points peddled by the political machines. While this problem might be obviously skewed towards parroting the liberal talking points of the day given the state of our hierarchy, our conservative loyalists often do no better in resisting the thought-terminating influence of propaganda. TEC’s turn from being the Republican Party at Prayer to the Democratic Party at Prayer was, after all, little more than a sleight of hand in the parlor room of the ruling class.

So why is our Anglican witness so mealy-mouthed, complacent, and derivative? Why are we, despite all our practiced journalese, so out of touch with both our Christian siblings around the world and the unchurched neighbors? Perhaps on an institutional level it is because Anglophone Anglicans have never experienced a true crisis of wealth and power until recent decades. Unlike our Christian siblings across the world who have and continue to suffer true persecution and are sustained by the blood of the martyrs, our current troubles are almost entirely self-inflicted. We have always been the church of the elite for the elite — and not just in England. For how small Anglicanism has been in America, a disproportionately large number of American presidents have been Episcopalians. Our stately pretentions run so high that the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington D. C. is instead known as the “National Cathedral.” What purchase, after all, do the dusty names of the chiefs of the Apostles have next to the glorious hegemony of the United States? Cuius regio, eius religio is our true ecclesiastical motto — that is, render unto Caesar the things which are God’s.

There is nothing new about the ruling class diverting the gaze of the oppressed with the sickly-sweet satisfaction of moralistic resentment, especially when their empire is in a visible and embarrassing decline for the whole world to see. It is something we have seen in every civilization in the past, and our descendants will see the same in their own time. So it is that while unemployment rates rise beyond the worst of the 2008 financial crisis and costs of living continue to skyrocket simultaneously, our political and corporate machines are hell-bent on redirecting our desperate anxieties towards boogeymen constructed on crass racial and sexual essentialisms instead of the basic material conditions making a dignified life utterly impossible for everyone except for the elite. But surely, as we are browbeaten to believe, we are enacting world-historical justice installing ethnic minorities (first of their tribe in the position!) as the newest kleptocrats in our political machines, and the Somalis will be honored to be bombed by the most diverse™ American government in history.

The way our Anglican churches reproduce these decadent socio-political affectations is simple enough to see. The lack of concern for the poor by our Anglican hierarchy amid this once-in-a-century pandemic, reflected by the grim lacunae in diocesan policy, parish ministries, episcopal letters, and synodal pronouncements, is perfectly sensible if we remember our demographic make-up. There are, of course, parishes that have ministered to the poor, and they stand out precisely because they have been the exception, not the norm. The steadfast ministries of our slum churches will, as they always have, put our wealthy and fashionable parishes to shame. And while it is better than nothing, a wealthier parish doing a bi-annual food drive is, frankly, a most minimal exertion that does more to satisfy a sense of upper-middle class white guilt than meaningfully serve the poor.

But again, when we review Anglicanism in this continent with a sociological eye, it is no surprise that churches made up of the white upper-middle class, largely insulated from the most devastating effects of the pandemic, will busy themselves with histrionic moralistic crusades to feel satisfied while doing little to alleviate the sufferings of the poor ground down in this economic crisis. I sometimes wonder how any of us, especially our clergy, can possibly imagine that God and our neighbors will be fooled by our genteel pretensions. No amount of self-righteous posturing will cover up the gaping emptiness of our charity.

When an institution becomes intellectually and morally banal, the spiritual vacuum is always filled by alien influences that, like parasites, occupy the empty space and devour the living corpse inside-out until the outer façade finally collapses. While the theological decomposition of Anglicanism in North America might not be unique, given the similar degeneration that has taken hold in other Christian bodies, historically we Anglicans have readily accommodated the prevailing ideas and customary norms of “polite” genteel society.

Some of our conservative partisans like to weave narratives that depict our church’s sycophancy as a recent development, whether the turn is located at the uncanonical ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven or the consecration of Gene Robinson, but our problems were already glaringly apparent by the mid-19th century. Only a few years after Dostoevsky lambasted our Anglican clerics for their pompous and complacent morality, Marx acerbically noted in the preface to the first German edition of Capital (1867) that “The English Established Church will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income. Now-a-days atheism is culpa levis, as compared with criticism of existing property relations.” One could be excused if they mistook Marx here as a living contemporary, as in the aftermath of ruinous multi-million-dollar property lawsuits his words are even more excoriating today than they were 154 years ago.

Neoliberal Christianity takes various forms, and it manifests in a uniquely tailored way in our Anglican churches. Engaging with Anglicanism in North America today, whether in the lived parish life or high-level pronouncements from our dioceses and national synods, is an extended encounter with the uncanny. For all our practiced platitudes about being a “big tent” Communion that is supposedly “Catholic and Reformed,” we seldom find the classical signs of Reformed or Catholic beliefs and practices. When we compare what are the supposedly “high church” convictions in an Anglican parish today with past luminaries, from the old Laudians to the Cowley Fathers, one is left with a strange dissonance in theological clarity and piety. On the other hand, I once had the dubious privilege of listening to a self-identified “Evangelical Anglican” belittle the doctrine of the classical Book of Common Prayer from the pulpit in front of me, and to this day I can only wonder what on earth it even means to be an Evangelical, let alone an Anglican Evangelical, when one rejects the confidently Reformed cast of our historic formularies.

For all our claims about being witnesses and preservers of ancient Christian traditions, a claim we often use to haughtily differentiate ourselves from those other Protestants, we seldom find robust continuity with the past. Our latest prayers concocted out of our liturgical laboratories have little continuity with objective traditions, whether of the historic Books of Common Prayer or the Pre-Reformation rites, and our churches are all too happy to peddle around strange novelties in doctrine, morality, and piety. Desperate attempts at shoring up genetic claims to ancient English Christianity are rife with exaggerated legends about “Celtic Christianity” or a mythologized Sarum Rite that have little concrete historical basis, a frantic and insecure fumbling that is little distinguishable from the strange contortions of the white identitarians.

The truth is, for all the overtures to tradition and history that we love to make, contemporary Anglophone Anglicanism is the product of a wholesale pseudomorphosis where nearly every facet of itself has been exchanged for a counterfeit construction. Just like how the claims of openness in “non-denominational” Evangelicalism is merely a liberal democratic artifice that subsumes all difference into amorphous mush, the rhetoric of the “big tent” in contemporary Anglicanism is also a mirage that covers the dissolution of principled differences. Instead of genuine diversity, the prevailing operative philosophy of contemporary Anglicanism is an opportunistic latitudinarianism that puppets the visage of every faction with its own hands. The signature gesture of Anglican latitudinarianism is to appropriate and permit everything under the pretense of cultured largesse, allowing anything (as long as it falls within the purview of genteel social respectability) because it believes nothing.

We can now, then, recognize the distinctive neoliberal touches that define our North American churches today. Our churches teach and perpetuate a radically individualistic ecclesiology that aspires to complete independence from the Communion we claim to belong to, beholden to no common tradition, history, or confession. Once the formal structures have been hollowed out, our churches sapped of the beliefs and practices that built and upheld their moral, intellectual, and doxological integrity, the transformation into a wholly consumerist “spiritual” community is made complete, its worship and beliefs now defined entirely by what is peddled around by the political and cultural juggernauts of North America. The outcome are churches that are indifferent to the moral plight of the soul and the good of their neighbors while also being simultaneously fanatical in pursuing the sectarian aims of their ideological party. In response to this spiritual and communal crisis, we then offer the emotional salve of a Christianity reduced to pathetic self-help mantras, feel-good hedonistic decadence, and moral expiation by culture warfare.

So what are we left with? For all our constant lip service to tradition, “via media,” and social justice, we are a church largely bereft of theological coherence, liturgical integrity, canonical consistency, and authentic charity. We care more about the rightness of what we consume and say than what we practice in both personal morality and social ethics. There is little, if any, real reflection upon our own beliefs and practices, given concrete form and content by our past witnesses, traditions, and Scripture. Our clergy, even bishops, openly disregard the doctrines and canons that they are supposed to uphold, and they make a virtue out of disobedience. With regards to contentious questions, we are told to believe that something can be both true and false at the same time. Apparently, we Anglicans have discovered a way to falsify the principle of noncontradiction — whatever gets in the way of our personal desires and our “progress” is to be bulldozed over, even fundamental axioms of thought. After all, private freedom is the only sacrosanct thing left in this neoliberal world, and our church is always happy to be the vaguely spiritual veneer of the prevailing secular trends. Cuius regio, eius religio.

We have become a dangerously formalistic Church that obsessively clings to outward tokens while actively sapping these tokens of their meaning and sanctity; a latitudinarian mush with no discernible relationship to our heritage or internal coherency. And from our empty halls we issue moral banalities that are indistinguishable from the popular cultured sentiments of the day, curated by the media and the latest political fashions.

Most disturbingly, in an incredible corruption of the sacramentality of the faith we have transformed our Church into a mass-production sacramental factory. We sell our wares on the spiritual marketplace, offering take-out ashes-on-the-go and communing anyone and everyone without regard for what the sacrament truly is or for what it calls us to. We have fallen so low, profaning the body and blood of Christ by turning it into another commodity on the spiritual market, feeding ourselves and the world unto damnation. And so we have become liturgical capitalists, another sacrilegious scourge to the world in these troubled times.

On a properly theological note, one of our central problems is that we simply do not believe that the faith lays claim over our entire lives and is to truly govern every aspect of our lives. The denial of this primacy in American and Canadian churches, as an institutional whole, is simply a reflection of the fact that we no longer believe, by thought, word, and deed, that Christ is the Lord. Why is evangelism essentially nonexistent, our confessions of faith so mealy-mouthed, and our acts of charity so maladroit? The religious answer is as simple as it is difficult: we no longer know God nor ourselves. If we were truly struck with awe by the majesty of God we would, by necessity, be led to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And if we truly saw ourselves with clarity, we would know that we are all held captive to the mysterious gravity of sin.

As long as we fail to apprehend these basic truths, we will always delude ourselves into believing that there can be aspects of our lives that are untouched by sin and are beyond judgment, and that we can fix this broken world with our own hands. But the Christian faith does not allow such a fiction, for even when are praying, fasting, and giving alms, we stand next to the crucified thieves as “miserable offenders.” It is when this sober acknowledgement of our human condition is rejected that we are led into truly dark paths — we will not be made good by capitalistic consumption, enlightened cosmopolitanism, or even pious ritual practices. It is only when we truly understand that none of us are worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under our Lord’s table that we can begin the arduous labor of repentance and be purified in the fire of divine grace, and it is this sanctification and no other that gives true witness to our troubled world of the love of God and the life of the world to come.

Paul (H. Matthew Lee) is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.


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