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Young traditionalists in a progressive church: Searching and remaining for salvation

To this day I am not convinced that I am a real Anglican, ordination notwithstanding. My bloodlines are pure Dutch-German Mennonite (if it can be called that), and God encountered me during my teenage years through the programs and ministries of a classic evangelical megachurch. At the age of 16, like many of my friends, I wept at the altar and gave my life to the Lord. Mennonite by birth, evangelical by rebirth, I have always been reluctant to describe my Anglicanism as providential, lest it cheapen all the Spirit had done within me during those early years.

What does it mean to change denominations? Can we simply change who we are? These are troubling and difficult questions.

As countless young evangelicals turn to liturgical traditions, it is hard to miss the irony that many of us have abandoned our traditions in search of another. The frenzied and often anxious search for tradition among our generation can sometimes be hard to distinguish from our desperate thirst for novelty, distinction, and individuation.

I am an Anglican today because I wanted to be something other than what I was, at least for a time. Strangely, as Western Anglicanism continues to drift I find myself searching for what I once was. In the words of R.S. Thomas, the church of my youth was a place where people “sang their amens / fiercely, narrow but saved / in a way men are not now” (“The Chapel”).

The questions of why I would remain an Anglican, in light of recent events in the Church of Canada, is complicated by the fact that I just became an Anglican. Unlike some of my mentors in the Canadian church, I have few battle scars or wounds. The Anglican church is not the church of my parents and grandparents, and I cannot pretend to love it as such. In fact my becoming an Anglican was an act of discontinuity. Not everyone around me understood or embraced my decision. Like the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, I know what it is like when “brothers and sisters are in Christ not near” (“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”).

As a young seminarian I entered into a strange mix of ideas. On the one hand I was drawn to that ill-defined and misused notion of theological comprehensiveness or inclusiveness. Anglicanism’s tradition of theological modesty, some say agnosticism, has made it possible for peoples of diverse times, places, and convictions to gather together around the gospel proclaimed in the Scriptures and the Creeds. We all know now that theological modesty and comprehensiveness is a razor’s edge: the very thing that has attracted young people like me can easily divide and alienate.

Still, while this vision of theological comprehensiveness continues to disturb and unsettle our national church, many remain drawn to its brighter aspect, and understandably so. Like many others, I struggled to find a fit within a monochromatic theological and cultural denomination; it was in the Anglican church where my gifts were recognized, where I discovered my vocation. There is simply no General Synod vote that could ever spoil the blessing of the friendships I have formed, the liturgy I have come to love, and the parishes and people I have been able to serve.

On the other hand, I encountered the logic of staying put, of remaining and witnessing within a faltering church, right at the time I was departing with half a mind from the denomination I grew up in. I did not understand then and I do not quite understand now how these convictions can coincide. But perhaps it should not be surprising that the course of our lives sometimes slips outside the grasp of theories and narratives: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

At first I was merely content to blend into my adopted family, a formidable task in its own right. But after the commotions of General Synod, some of us started to wonder if we ever really belonged. The question of sexuality has totally engulfed our church, such that we cannot even articulate our views, one way or another, without offending and insulting each other.

The distance that has opened between us feels almost unbridgeable. This reality is only amplified in Canadian society. The Church of Canada has recently opened a dialogue with the Mennonite Church of Canada, the church of my parents and grandparents, and while I am grateful for this development, our church continues to be riven by an internal ecumenical crisis.

I admit for the first time I did consider what it might be like to depart for more familiar territory. What gives me pause is the knowledge that such territory is itself a place of continual departing, and whatever nostalgia I may have for the familiar places of my youth is troubled by this reality.

So in the recent words of Ephraim Radner, it strikes me that there is “no safe place but hope.” Our unease and dissatisfaction with the state of the church cannot be escaped by moving to traditions that have not yet been caught up in the storm. Their time is coming too and probably already has in a number of other ways.

It is true that I chose this church but there is a way in which this particular vocation chose me and it is not mine to discard. I am a traditionalist in a progressive church (for lack of better words), and that is the simple reality in which the Spirit has placed me.

I wonder if progressives understand this about traditionalists in their midst: we too do not see our views as options, and these convictions are very much embedded at the core of who we are. Upbringing and education cannot fully explain how we arrived at our convictions. Mysteries are at work here, and it is a small wonder that this conflict about sexuality often appears larger and more powerful than our mere ability to negotiate and translate differences.

In this way, our struggle is not with flesh and blood, and traditionalists and progressives alike have a common enemy who “prowls around like a lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). I wish it were not so, but it seems we are being devoured and at least on this score we are united.

The reciprocal anger, recrimination, and incomprehension exchanged between us cannot be restrained by politeness and calls for tolerance. We saw these strategies fail, when attempted, at General Synod: the legislative process reveals the truth about our real intentions, and it shatters the façade of “agreeing to disagree.” There is no polite way to insist canonically that we are right and others are wrong and vice versa.

Like everyone else, I have no clue if there is a better solution or process to resolve this conflict. However, I am motivated by the struggle even if it seems we are powerless to persuade or even love each other as theological adversaries in the Lord. That we “keep listening, but do not comprehend” is evidence enough that our minds have been dulled and our eyes shut (Isa. 6:9-10). But even if the Anglican Church of Canada should be reduced to a “stump” — I pray not, but the statistics do not look good — we must remember that “the Lord reproves the one he loves” (Prov. 3:12).

I hope the marriage canon does not change, and I hope our church does not divide, but on both of these accounts I may be disappointed. One could “despise the Lord’s discipline (Prov. 3:11),” but somewhere in this mess we might actually be saved: narrowly or comprehensively, I no longer care. In the end, it is for the salvation of my soul and the souls of others that I remain, and it is hard to imagine any other reason.


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