Father Mathew Kelty, from the Abbey of Gethsemani, reads a paper that he had written about his friend Thomas Merton just a year after his death. Interesting to listen to what was an intimate memoir of not the famous (some may say, infamous) Thomas Merton. But of a man seen through the eyes of a friend.
Anglicanism, a tradition within Christianity that has around 80 million adherents world wide, is the third largest denomination after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church’s, and prides itself on its “Big Tent” approach. One that allows for a wide range of differing theological views and interpretations. Which can vary significantly not only from country to country, but diocese to diocese, even parish to parish within any given diocese.
Being both catholic and protestant, some Anglicans lean more to the catholic end of the spectrum. Others to the more protestant end. Some are very conservative, others extremely liberal. All still, Anglican. This big tent approach has been called both a strength and a weakness for the Communion. Its a strength for its inclusivity and diversity. But its weakness’s are really starting to show.
Anyone following the latest goings on in the Anglican Church (latest, meaning the last several decades really) will be aware that there is a serious division taking place. One that threatens to split the whole Anglican Communion and take down the tent. Some of the differences have gotten so big, that many can no longer even simply agree to disagree. One big example is homosexuality. While here in the West, within both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church (Anglican church in the United States) many, although not all, Anglican churches have become not just tolerant of homosexuality and gay marriage, but many have openly welcomed them with open arms, as both parishioners and as priests. But in other parts of the Communion its anything but. In parts of Africa for example, most notably Uganda, the leaders of the Anglican church there have not only fully endorsed imprisonment for anyone found to be openly gay, but even support the death penalty. The Uganda Anglican Church has been deeply and intentionally influenced by American Evangelicals for many years. Over the years even the story of how Christianity got started in Uganda has been altered to ensure that a strong homophobic bias is part of the Ugandan Christian identity. So debating or encouraging that they(Ugandans), at the least, take a more tolerant approach to homosexuality isn’t just a theological or doctrinal issue for them, its an attack on there very identity as Ugandans. Good luck with that… And its not just homosexuality, and not just between Uganda and the rest of the Communion in Africa and abroad ( South African Anglicans as an example, are on the whole accepting and welcoming of Homosexuality). But the differences between the conservative and liberal branches around the whole Communion have gotten so big that they “can’t even agree on metaphors anymore.” Things are beginning to look more like this:
So when the question gets asked “should the Anglican Communion split?” Part of me thinks “Yes. Of course…who wants to stay together within an organization that has branches that promotes bigotry, intolerance, even death? An organization that cant seem to agree on anything.” Where some see poetry and metaphor and allegory within their scripture, others take a more literalist view. And worse of all….they increasingly aren’t even speaking to one another anymore. Whats the point then?
Well, there are those, that while vehemently disagreeing with others within the Communion, still hold fast to the Anglican principle of inclusivity. That there is strength in that, and there is at least the potential for fruitful dialogue. That there is still much that can be learned from one another and we can be positively influenced by each other. The Ugandans for example have developed a very rich sense of, and expression of, spirituality that has been influenced by their various African traditions and the Evangelical tradition, and all has been infused into what many consider an otherwise drab and boring Church of England, Anglicanism. Many may point out that not only are their services and worship richer, but their sense of spirituality is woven into the very fabric of their life. Something that is largely absent within the Western branch of the Church, in which people think of religion more as a once a week thing, like hockey practice, or poker with the buddies, or some other hobby… We can still learn and be positively influenced by those we may profoundly disagree with on some topics. Hopefully. Maybe they will be positively influenced by us in turn. The whole “polity” that Anglicanism prides itself on, and can only truly function properly, when its inclusive and open to differing views. Otherwise the doors slam shut and we all get our little exclusive country club. One in which we are right, or at least more right, and those that disagree (that are wrong) can take a hike and do their own thing. Christian spirituality, when done right, is going to be messy. Theologian Kortright Davis made a great observation when it comes to whys of widely differing views within a body as large as the Anglican Church:
“Western Theologians are now attempting to educate themselves about the new theological surges emanating from the Third World. They have finally realized that there is no universal theology; that theological norms arise out of the context in which one is called to live out one’s faith; that theology is therefore not culture free; that the foundations on which theological structures are built are actually not transferable from one context to another. Thus, although the Gospel remains the same from place to place, the means by which the Gospel is understood and articulated will differ considerably through circumstances no less valid and no less authentic”
Theology is culture bound, and is tied up with a host of influences that effect that culture. Some we will agree with and some not, vehemently so. But is breaking up the body the answer? Is breaking contact and the opportunity for mutually beneficial engagement the solution? I don’t really know which is best. But I do think that spirituality and religion work best when its messy, when there is the tension of apposing views and at least a little bit of dissent. Of course this only works when all involved agree to do at least that much to start. Which is what Anglicanism has always attempted to do. But it was easier when there was more Church of England style uniformity across the Communion. That’s now challenged by the modern world and the absence of control, like there is by Rome in the Roman church. I think a split of some kind looks unavoidable. But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. That may just leave us with our own safe, self-reassuring, stagnant and exclusionary spiritual country clubs. Like you already have with all the evangelical protestant churches. Just like Jesus always intended?