These four terms – Christian, Anglican, Episcopalian, and post-theist – are how I describe my religious identity. I choose which term(s) to use on a particular occasion depending upon context and what I want to communicate about myself.
- Christian. I am a follower of Jesus who intentionally seeks to tread the Jesus path. Ironically, being identified as a Christian sometimes stereotyped me in ways that were wrong and uncomfortable. This occurred most often in Navy settings, where fundamentalists and evangelicals dominate the chaplaincy and sailors’ perceptions of chaplains.
Too often, Christian in our culture connotes an exclusivity that I believe is inimical to Jesus’ message of God’s all-inclusive love. Exclusionary passages in the New Testament (e.g., averring that Jesus is the only way to God) are best understood as expressions of love rather than as propositional truths. Declaring that Jesus is the only way is analogous to asserting that one’s spouse is the ideal mate. Both claims reveal the speaker’s feelings rather than stating objective, provable facts.
Similarly, many people regard all Christians as biblical literalists who probably also have conservative theological, social, and political views and values. The Romans executed Jesus as an insurrectionist and criminal. Jesus was a radical known for advocating peace and justice. He opposed military spending and favored feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and liberating the oppressed. Biblical literalism was foreign to Jesus’ Jewish hermeneutic and his teachings conflict with much of the political and social agendas conservatives advocate.
Christian now often exists in metaphorical Egyptian servitude, i.e., a label that signifies those who fear life in an unknown wilderness more than cultural bondage. Perhaps the Church needs bold prophets to declare that exclusivists and biblical literalists have actually strayed from the Jesus path. Maybe these prophets should emulate Jesus’ use of hyperbole, and enjoin the narrow minded to stop self-identifying as Christians. We do not need a reprise of hurtful debates over who is a Christian and who is a heretic, but definitional clarity is beneficial. For example, writing this essay has required useful self-examination and lured me deeper into the mystery at the center of the cosmos in unanticipated ways.
- Anglican. The Anglican tradition provides the context for my spiritual journey, informing and shaping that journey with a set of distinctive historic emphases. Inclusivity, sacramental worship, pastoral concern, and human dignity are among the more important of these emphases. I am thankful for the efforts of Bishop Curry and those who strive to maintain the formal ties between The Episcopal Church and the other Anglican Communion provinces. I hope and pray that their efforts succeed.
However, neither my Anglican identity nor that of The Episcopal Church (TEC) depends upon those links enduring. If the Anglican Communion were to break completely with TEC, Anglicanism’s indelible shaping of my religious identity, and that of TEC, would continue, just like the indelible and continuing influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Anglicanism has continued in spite of severing formal connections over 500 years ago.
Institutional unity is valuable. Integrity is more valuable. Other Anglican provinces trying to impose “consequences” on TEC for boldly and prophetically embracing the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church represents a post hoc shift in the Communion’s rules of engagement focused on issues of secondary or even tertiary importance, e.g., marriage. This distorted focus has occurred in no small measure because disputes over sexuality generate more heat, draw sharper dividing lines, and attract more outside money than do underlying basic questions about how contemporary Christians can hear God speak in or through the Bible. Furthermore, in spite of personally appreciating definitional clarity and experiencing the flattening of the world, I very much doubt that most Anglicans in any Communion province really care what Anglicans in another province think or do. I do not want to harm my brothers and sisters. Conversely, I refuse to accept responsibility for harm that a third party’s self-interested meddling causes.
- Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church constitutes the institutional setting for my spiritual journey and in which I minister. During four plus decades of ministry, I have repeatedly observed well-intentioned attempts by Christians to be church while avoiding institutionalization’s inevitable and inherent limitations. In time, each of those naïve groups discovered that the bane of institutionalization also offered necessary blessings: mutually agreed processes and structures for making decisions; owning equipment and supplies enhanced worship and other programs, as did renting or buying facilities; and incorporating as a tax exempt non-profit eased financial transactions and complied with government rules.
No institution, including the finest and best ecclesial institution, is perfect. And I, for one, would not claim that TEC is the finest or best ecclesial institution. But it is the ecclesial institution to which I belong, the one that has formed me, and the one in which I choose to live and serve. Laments about our declining numbers have become tiresome and non-productive.
Instead, I view TEC as potentially well-positioned to serve a new generation of people who are spiritual but not religious. Engaging in mission requires that we learn to ask different questions and adopt a different focus.
- We claim to be inclusive. Do we welcome persons who are spiritual but not religious? Do we welcome diverse and conflicting theological views and liturgical styles?
- We claim to be pastoral. Do we value persons more than we value our buildings? Do we strive to align our resources with current demographics and human needs or does a diminishing remnant grow weary in striving to perpetuate our buildings and institutions as a testament of who TEC used to be?
- We claim to be sacramental. Do we revere all creation as an outward and visible symbol of God’s presence and love? How do the basic human acts of washing (i.e., Holy Baptism) and feeding (i.e., Eucharist) people shape our sharing Jesus with a broken, hurting world?
- We claim to respect the dignity of all. Is our attention and effort focused on those within the Christian circle or equally focused on all people? What is TEC, which in so many places appears concentrated on survival, saying to those who are over-stressed, underemployed, hungry, abused, sidelined, and so forth? Do we actually acknowledge strangers in our midst much less welcome them?
- Post-theist. This term identifies my theological orientation. I prefer post-theist to progressive, although the latter is not objectionable, the former adds content and is less politicized. Post-theist is also more meaningful than the terms such as broad church and Anglo-Catholic, which prior generations used to describe their theological or liturgical orientation.
Pope Francis has reenergized and popularized the papacy with his emphases on openness and mercy. But, like all humans, Francis is a complex figure. He combines fidelity to Jesus with pietistic encrustations more suitable to the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first century, e.g., his recent participation in the public extravaganza that welcomed the silicone-enhanced corpses of Padre Pio and Padre Leopoldo to the Vatican as exemplars of mercy. Regardless of the merits of these two saints, pietistic fascination with their relics resembles magic, seems weirdly out of place in contemporary Europe, and illustrates theism’s inability to incorporate scientific knowledge or move beyond antiquated Greek philosophy.
Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued that scientific knowledge advances through paradigm shifts, e.g., from Newtonian to quantum physics. Kuhn’s view of scientific progress sharply contrasts with the widespread, often unstated, and patently unreasonable presumption that knowledge of God is static. The New Atheists are wrong. Religion is not a dying anachronism. Instead, we are in the midst of a theological paradigm shift. Theism is dying. What will replace it? Do we most helpfully refer to the ultimate as consciousness, light, energy, or with another metaphor? Which symbols most powerfully convey an experience of ultimate mystery or depth to those persons whose worldview and epistemological presuppositions cohere with the scientific method? How can we speak meaningfully of spirit, illuminating the poverty of material reductionism? What insights about life and the ultimate can those who walk the Jesus path glean from the spiritual journeys of the spiritual but not religious and of those born into western Christianity who subsequently find spiritual fulfillment in an eastern religious tradition?
George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest living in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and blogs at Ethical Musings.