I was struck yesterday by a photograph of the group of ecclesiastics, clad in un-Lenten hues, winding their way to a grave. Another photograph showed the monument above the grave, on which was inscribed the name James Lloyd Breck. What on earth were these people doing, while the rest of the world, differently clad, differently occupied, got on with modern living? Well, they were remembering their first Dean at Nashotah House. In the process they were anchoring who they are now to their story. In an age of reinvention, they were immersing themselves in their story.
At almost the same time a group of friends who meet daily online were discussing the Holy Week rituals. Someone asked, “What on earth did you do before the 1979 Rites became available? My friends have been talking about the enormous influence a small group of reformers had on the way we worship. These men, and they were all men, worked in the ’60s and ’70s and drafted our present Prayer Book.
I’m reading the latest biography of poet-priest George Herbert. In tracing his life as a schoolboy we meet Lancelot Andrewes, that towering intellect, linguist, and preacher who did much to reconnect Anglicans to their story after the upheavals of the Reformation. In considering Andrewes’s remarkable Good Friday sermon, with reference to a poem on the same theme Herbert wrote, the author remarks just how foreign and alien the sermon and the poem seem to us, with their emphasis on sacrifice, the just for the unjust. That remark brought to mind the furor over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks about the tragedy of the massacre of Christians in the Sudan and Nigeria and the need for the Church in the West to consider its actions and how they may be used as an excuse by those hostile to Christianity to commit frightful atrocities. Justin Welby’s remarks were met with offended incredulity by those whose references to the theology and ethics of our ancestors are filled with rejection and scorn.
Our spiritual ancestors have taken on the personae of embarrassing relatives, best ignored and forgotten. Our story is peopled by fallen men and women, who seem to have got their theology, their ethics, and their liturgy wrong. And so we must reinvent ourselves, and because our imaginations are strangely debilitated we end up building shrines to foreign “gods” on our hill altars, while feeling free to construct our local invented story around these totems, a story suitably embellished by reference to antiquity, as long as it is safely long gone.
It’s safe enough to riffle through the extant documents we attribute to Early Church times, even if some are gnostic in their origin, or of uncertain provenance, as long as we don’t fill in the story from then to now. Archbishop Ramsey rightly termed that approach “archeological religion.” Wiseman chided the Anglican Newman for using a similar method. There’s an irony about a people enamored with the theory of doctrinal development who eschew the story of how it developed, but rather feel safer in leaping over the centuries in order to create something unconnected to their past.
If Episcopalians have gone in for reinvention with a heady enthusiasm, those who have left her in protest face a dramatic dilemma. They too must distance themselves from their immediate past. Some are busy reinventing the theology of those whose time was short and desperate: the Divines who labored to reform the Church in the reign of Edward VI. Because they don’t continue the story they forget that in the next few decades their position was taken up not by Anglicans but by Puritans. Others in the Anglican diaspora in America dream of all things Medieval as recaptured in Victorian England. But neither have more recent graves to visit to honor their story.
Those who reinvent themselves want to stress their virtues and the pristine virtue of their package. They can’t deal with their rejected story because it is a story of flawed individuals, of failures, of myopia, of indefensible lapses in moral judgment, as well as a story of heroism and saintliness, of goodness and kindness and love. Herbert and Andrewes seemed to wallow in the gory reality of Sacrifice and judgment, of the seemingly immoral sacrifice of a just man for the unjust, of God’s offense deflected by the sacrifice of innocence, until we suddenly discover the extraordinary fact that the Cross in its frightful reality is about love. Love can only exist in authenticity.
“Greater love has no man than this.” We do need to go to dark Calvary before we approach Resurrection. Resurrection isn’t reinvention. It can only be understood in the light of all that went before, immediately before and in the story of Israel’s relationship with her God. Part of being members of a historical Faith is discovering the gravesites of our James Lloyd Brecks, without being put off by their liturgy, or theology, or ethics, learning from their good examples but also relearning that as they could be wrong, so we can be wrong, as spectacularly wrong as they could be from time to time. In that we also relearn that what looks like frightfulness, what looks like the Cross, may well be the place where love is exposed fully and wonderfully.
As Anglicans we need to embrace our own story, and test the hill altars we have erected in our spasm of reinvention in the light of that story. I say this not to invite some form of antiquarian revival. It is interesting to note that in the two great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries Evangelicals and Tractarians both embraced the contemporary wholeheartedly, with a passion to right the wrongs in those societies, as they freed the slaves, worked to house the poor and abolish child labor. Yet they embraced the story of where they came from with vigor while adorning their love of Christ with that which seemed to be new, but which was really firmly anchored in the Anglican story, its saints, its sinners, its liturgy, its parishes, cathedrals, and dioceses. In the end if we forget who we are, we have nothing authentic to offer the rest of the Church, and nothing reliable to offer those who come to us seeking Jesus.