by Donald Schell
Henry Fielding’s star shines bright in 18th Century Anglicanism. He’s a nuanced moral theologian whose comedy merciless satirizes simplistic moralizing and rigid theologizing wherever he found it including in his and our Anglican. It’s Fielding’s deep embrace of Anglican breadth and sanity that drives his satirical characterization of Rev. Thwackum, Tom Jones’s Church of England tutor. Thwackum reaches a point of exasperation in his argument with Square, the rationalist philosopher who is Tom and his half-brother’s other tutor. Thwackum wants to make clear that there is One Way and that he knows it – “…honor is not manifold because there are many absurd opinions about it, nor is Religion manifold because there are various sects and heresies in the world. When I mention Religion, I mean the Christian Religion, and not only the Christian Religion, but the Protestant Religion, and not only the Protestant Religion, but the Church of England. And when I mention honor, I mean that mode of divine grace which is not only consistent with but dependent upon this religion, and is consistent with, and dependent upon no other.”
Fielding’s own broad, universalist Anglicanism, like the faith of most of my Episcopal friends, happily breaks free of Thwackum’s narrow, self-congratulatory certainties. Episcopalians do believe that honor and religion are manifold and diverse. We know that the Holy Spirit that breathes in our church blows where she will. Most Episcopalians believe there are more ways to God than we’ve dreamt of, and most of us would be quick to explain to Thwackum, if we had the opportunity, that we don’t believe that the Christian Religion is defined by English Anglicanism or even American Episcopalianism. But I’m writing because I worry that another note in the way we talk about ourselves and our way is uncomfortably like Thwackum’s “no other.”
Shortly after I’d become an Episcopalian, a clergy friend explained to me that all our Episcopal church repeated use of the word “Church” in names like “Church Publishing,” “Church Pension,” the “Church Club,” or the “Church Mission Society” which with Society for the Propagation of the Gospel planted Anglican communities all across the globe. Calling our work or gathering simply “church” reflected the underlying Anglican/Episcopal principle of deliberately claiming NO distinctiveness. We meant to resist uniqueness and exceptionalism. Beneath those names, my friend explained, the longstanding Episcopal and Anglican tradition was to aim for nothing more or less than the catholicism of the four or five first centuries when the church in its variety of practice across the Mediterranean world and into Europe and Britain was undivided.
Whatever we found in the broad tradition of Christian practice was ours, and whatever was ours was there for the whole church (hence no copyright on our Prayer Book). This was the spirit of the English Reformers whose catholic and reforming spirit freely borrowed and adapted ancient non-Roman practices they found among the Eastern Orthodox – leavened bread, married clergy, Bible in the vernacular. This was our Anglican principle of keeping ancient practice that wasn’t forbidden in scripture rather than including only what was mandated in the Bible. This was the vision of our great poets, writers, and scholars. I recognized that vision in seminary when one of our professors said, “there should be no distinctive Anglican theology.”
From our English reformation onward, we never aimed to be distinctly Anglican or Episcopal – we aimed to be church. I fear that’s changing. I’m guessing the pressure to change has come from the marketplace and a market inspired need to establish a clear brand – our “product” needs to offer something others don’t. Perhaps it’s also heightened in the wake of congregations built on generic conservative evangelism leaving the Episcopal Church. And I’ll admit that my clergy friend spoke his vision in the heady days of ecumenical rapprochement and conversations about church union. Still, in the past few years, I’ve become uncomfortable at a list of random moments when I’ve heard “Episcopal Identity” evoked
–in criticism of an Evensong/Lamplighting service that a Native American seminarian led that begin with prayers to the four compass directions and smudging the space
–by African seminarians in England explaining that their African Anglican bishop had forbidden dance in church so they would sneak away after liturgy to go sing and dance with the pentecostalists, when someone
–in the name of revival of the diaconate insists we had to have an Episcopal deacon read the Gospel at an ecumenical liturgy, or explained that thankfully, it wouldn’t be an issue since it wasn’t a Eucharistic liturgy we were doing, in a university or ecumenical seminary setting, Episcopalians determined to make a parallel Prayer Book prayer tradition apart from the very good liturgical ecumenical worship in the seminary or divinity school chapel
— in fuss and anxious joking if anyone says an “Alleluia” in Lent
— when clergy colleagues and laity insist Episcopal clergy really ought to be addressed as “Father” or “Mother”
— in regretful judgments that others’ eucharists weren’t “really” eucharist or that others’ bishops weren’t genuinely apostolic like our own
— in dismissive assessment of Lutheran bishops and the compromises that “allowed” us to join with them in a concordat
— in insisting well-prepared candidates for ordination who have attended and completed a full three year M.Div. at an ecumenical seminary need an “Anglican year” in seminary to learn our ways and our ethos.
It is an odd list, but I think it reflects how belief in Episcopal exceptionalism creeps in at many levels of our church life and seeps into our conversation. In a time of increasing secularization, a time when church life seems more and more marginalized, are we hearing anxious clinging to our in group’s esoteric practices and secret knowledge? Does this sound like Gnosticism?
More often than not the people pushing for these markers of distinctive Anglican/Episcopal identity hold progressive social and political opinions. They wouldn’t dream of insisting with the Rev. Thwackum that we’re the one true church, but we do seem to hold out in our progressive way for things that still assure us that our kind of Christianity is truer or righter than our friends. Our assertions are exceptionalist rather than exclusivist, but to my ear these moments and gestures feel as arrogant or anxious as Thwackum.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.