Thursday, March 22, 2007

The ex-Anglican Obsession

It seems almost inevitable that Anglican priests who depart for Rome or Constantinople start to harp on ecclesiology. This time it is Fr. Stephen Freeman, whose post The Problem of Church was brought to my attention in All Too Common, where the following passage is quoted:
Of course, all of that latter sentiment is delusion. It is only my imaginary relationship with Christ (if the Church is invisible it is little more than imaginary). It is the visible character of the Church, and the possibility of boundary (everything visible has some boundary) that creates the “problem.”

For if there is a boundary, then someone is not within the Church. If there is a boundary then you can be inside it or you can be outside of it. And there is the problem. Who says where the boundaries are to be set?

As far as any man is concerned, the important thing is to be inside it. And for any man who does not doubt his current affiliation, the answer seems inevitably to be, "Where I am, there is the church." But the not-at-all subtle subtext of the ex-Anglicans seems to be to definitively put the Episcopal Church in particular outside the church; the principle of the moment would appear to be, "where I came from, there is not the church."

Now, I am certainly among the unhappy to whom these appeals are directed. Anyone with even vaguely orthodox views has to feel some discomfort with the theological winds that blow through Anglicanism these days. But the claims of definite boundaries are self-evidently problematic. It is the catholic faith that the church is, in some senses, invisible, so that it isn't utterly without reason that its visible component might not be utterly identifiably; and the reality is that it is not immediately identifiable, or else there wouldn't be so much controversy surrounding its identification. In another sense, the church is manifestly visible, even if only in the steeples and towers I pass as I drive by. And while I know that India exists, as testified to by maps and some of my officemates, I don't think its existence is made imaginary by the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir.

The fact of ecclesiological dispute is not as easily brushed off as this. A thousand years of East/West schism and five hundred years of Protestantism are ample evidence that the question cannot be reasonably resolved. It is obvious both that reason is necessary, and that reason is insufficient. And it's also just as obvious that personal judgement is all over this issue, contrary to frequent assertion. The driving force for all of this is personal dissonance with the teachings of (in this case) authorities within the Episcopal Church. There are several reasons why I don't come up with the same answer, but one of them is that I have plenty of theological dissonance with the Roman Catholic Church. There seems to be no recourse to getting past that other than more argument (especially since I have for the most part found the RC church to be sacramentally repugnant), so somewhere along the line, the arguments have to work as arguments. And since they aren't working, I would have to conclude that Catholicism's insistence on an absence of theological defect is in fact itself a defect-- which leaves me an Anglican.

The problem with Orthodoxy is more subtle, but runs far deeper. Let me return to where I started: that we are particularly hearing from ex-Anglican priests about this. I cannot but understand this as Orthodox and Catholic bishops taking advantage of priests which Anglicanism has formed, however much either church denies the legitimacy of Anglican orders. It's particularly contradictory in the Roman case, seeing how may of these priests could not have become so had they not already been Anglican "phony" priests. But at any rate, the appeal here is from one churchman to another. And that's a problem, because it is in essence saying that what I'm missing isn't anything as objective as obedience to Christian moral teaching. No, what I'm missing is the magic pixie dust of sacramental validity. And that's a huge problem, because the only way to maintain that position is to deny the relevance of personal experience. Fr. Freeman starts to slide into this, when he comments,
One’s personal history is important, but in the larger scheme it’s very little for us to go on, except for the fact that you cannot live someone else’s history.

But crucially this statement is untrue, because we are all, in essence, trying to live out the personal history of the original apostles as literal witnesses to the ressurection. Accepting it all uncritically is one thing, but to suggest that it can all be rejected equally uncritically is to invite rejection of the Christian witness. All of these appeals to ecclesiology, as they are directed to me, rely on my status as a faithful Anglican. And if my Anglicanism is so invalid, then such appeals strike me as illegitimate. It's the flip side of Al Kimel's "parasite" remark: Orthodoxy and Catholicism become parasites on Anglicanism's apparent power to produce half- or three-quarters-formed Christians.

I can contemplate the day when I may have to abandon the Episcopal Church, and it will be a day of loss indeed for me if or when it comes. But should it come, honesty will prevent me denying the reality of my former Anglican faith. I will never in good conscience be able to say, "I was never a Christian before".

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