The 2015 Mere Anglicanism Conference, “Salt and Light: the Christian Response to Secularism,” was held in Charleston, SC, January 22–24. I have been privileged to be the Chaplain of the conference for many years and gave the homilies at Morning Prayer again this year. This conference comes out of a previous organization: S.E.A.D or Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine. The name and the key organizers have changed over the years but the mission has remained consistent, which is to be a pan-Anglican gathering of those committed to the theological renewal of Anglicanism. The vision is to bring together outstanding scholars with an international reputation to make presentations that are accessible to parish clergy and the laity.
The conferences have always been very good but sometimes not well attended. The last two conferences, however, have seen capacity crowds. This year attendance was capped at 850, with a lengthy waiting list.
For many years gray heads were in the clear majority. That has clearly changed over the last two years. I was struck by the number of people in their 20s and 30s attending this year. If the Christian movement in general and the Anglican tradition in particular are on the ropes in North America, you would not guess it from this gathering.
Talking with a number of the young clergy and college students at the event, I came away with the feeling that classic Anglicanism is very attractive to young intellectual Christians, and that the familiar “evangelicals on the Canterbury trail” story is alive and well, and that there is a migration of serious, committed, and missionary-minded young people into both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America. I heard stories of meaningful and fruitful ministry by orthodox young clergy in both these churches. It is also clear that the Diocese of South Carolina is thriving. The vibrancy of the diocese and the parishes in the city of Charleston pervade the event. Many of the speakers fan out on the Sunday morning to preach to full congregations in the famous churches of the city.
The current director of Mere Anglicanism is the Rev. Jeffrey Miller, the rector of St. Helena’s in Beaufort, SC. Under his leadership a good conference has become great. The lay people of St. Helena’s were present in force to provide absolutely top-drawer hospitality and organization. There was a youthful and energetic feel to the conference, a real buzz about the whole event.
It was an all-star lineup of speakers, headlined by Bishop N.T. Wright. Wright is hugely popular in the evangelical world, and he attracted a significant number of non-Anglicans to this event. I have been leading Morning Prayer for many years, and the attendance is usually a small subset of the conference. All of the worship services of the conference were well attended. There was an actual crowd at the Daily Office. The Cathedral Church was standing room only for the opening Evensong on the first day and for the Eucharist on the second. It was clear to me that the non-Anglicans attracted to the conference were participating (heartily and in numbers) in these powerful but completely traditional services.
There are a number of more complete summaries of the talks at kendallharmon.net. It will be possible to order video and audio recordings of the conference from the conference website, but here are few brief and personal reflections.
N.T. Wright gave a breathless and breathtaking presentation the first night. Wright has been advocating over a long and fruitful career for the renewal of the Bible’s big story. His complaint is that Western Christianity has traded the Bible’s story of creation, fall, and new creation — in which God in Christ is remaking the human race as the first step in making the whole creation new — for a story of how I personally get to a heaven. Wright affirms that Christians do hope for heaven but that the Christian hope does not stop there and that our hope is for a new heaven and a new earth. The biblical heaven and earth overlap and intersect. The life of the world to come in which God shall make all things new breaks into this world, and we are to live as citizens of the Kingdom which is coming in the kingdoms of this world. Bishop Wright urged us not to accommodate ourselves to a too individualistic and over spiritualized form of the faith which has more to do with Epicurean philosophy than it does with the God of the Bible and Father of Jesus Christ.
I had the privilege of sitting next to Bishop Wright at dinner, and I asked him if his vision did not have much in common with Eastern Orthodoxy especially as found in the work of Alexander Schmemann. Schmemann made very similar critiques of the church’s accommodation to secularism. The bishop vaguely remembered reading Schmemann years ago but didn’t think him an influence. He did think that Orthodoxy and Reformed thought have an affinity in their emphasis on the doctrine of creation and, therefore, a more sure grip on the eschatology of the new creation. T.F. Torrance was held up as a prime example.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the episcopal patron of the conference, spoke next on the origins of secularism. Formerly the Bishop of Rochester, he now has his own institute, Oxtrad, the Oxford Center for Training, Research, Advocacy, and Dialogue. Nazir-Ali gave a succinct history of the rise of secularism from the Enlightenment to the present without notes, combining two stories: one, regarding the slow withdrawal of faith in the face of scientism and materialism; another, regarding faith’s sudden death in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Bishop Michael has a unique perspective as a former member of the House of Lords, and he argues with great erudition that the Judeo-Christian legacy is what guarantees the tradition of civil law and civil rights in the Western democracies. As this legacy is banished from the public square by an increasingly militant secularism, Western society will find itself more and more vulnerable to statist attacks on personal freedom and less able to deal with the threat and the appeal of radical Islam. Bishop Michael instanced a recent directive from the ministry of education in England advising science teachers that no mention of any purpose in nature is appropriate in the schools. Teaching should be about the processes of nature only. Thus, Bishop Michael says, hopelessness becomes the official doctrine taught in the schools.
Ross Douthat, a Roman Catholic convert from Pentecostalism, who is also a Harvard graduate and op-ed writer for the New York Times, spoke next. Douthat is also the author of the book Bad Religion (see this useful interview). As a reporter on popular culture, he maintained that secularism is not as strong as it appears and that the mix of privatized, cafeteria spiritualities is more of a challenge for creedal Christianity. He encouraged the audience to keep the faith and resist the pressures for accommodation. He maintained that the inherent attractiveness of the life lived by sincere Christians and authentic congregations has more power than we might think and will be increasingly attractive as the banality of secularism becomes more apparent. American culture is essentially religious. The challenge is to drive out bad religion with good.
The other Roman Catholic on the program was Mary Eberstadt, a former assistant to the ambassador to the United Nations and a speechwriter for former Secretary of State George Schultz. She is currently a scholar at the ethics and public policy center. Her talk focused on the hostility of contemporary secularism to the church and the need for Christians to push back against attacks on their liberty. Eberstadt has a unique perspective on secularism theory. She believes that the dissolution of the family, which she sees as a result of the sexual revolution, is the actual mechanism for the rise of secularism. She produced one of the great take away quotes of the conference: “the family is the human symphony through which the voice of God is heard.”
Dr. Os Guinness is a sociologist of religion and is the heir of the famous brewing family. (He got a round of spontaneous applause when the connection was pointed out.) Guinness gave a learned talk on the origins of contemporary secularism and secularist visions of the future. Kant had a vision of perpetual peace as religion gave way to the reign of reason. Nietzsche envisioned a war of spirits and that has proven the more accurate prophecy. Guinness made the connections between the rise of secularism, the rise of nihilism, and the rise of the totalitarian movements of National Socialism and Stalinist Communism. He wondered aloud if we were in a “Weimar moment.” The Weimar Republic was a brief interlude of democracy in Germany between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler. Guinness was using this government as a metaphor for a society which is democratic in form but which is so pervaded by nihilism that it produces a culture ripe for the rise of totalitarianism. Yet the very emptiness of secularism creates new opportunities for the hearing of the Gospel confidently proclaimed.
Professor Alister McGrath was the final speaker and gave perhaps the most accessible and most practical talk of the conference. McGrath holds three doctorates from Oxford, one in biochemistry and two in theology. McGrath’s talk was on how C.S. Lewis can help us capture the cultural imagination. A quote McGrath shared from the Anglican priest and philosopher Austin Farrer summed up McGrath’s presentation. I didn’t get the exact quote in my notes but Farrer said that C.S. Lewis appeared to be giving you an argument but what he in fact gave you was a vision and once you were captivated by the vision he would appeal to your reason. Thus McGrath urged us to, “tell a better story.” He wondered where the new T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, or Flannery O’Connor can be found. Christians have a better, more comprehensive, more compelling, more interesting, and more beautiful story to tell than the dull and boring secular story, and we should get on with the business of capturing the cultural imagination.
At this point I had to leave the conference, but there was a closing panel discussion involving all the authors at the end of the conference.
I came away from the conference with a new confidence in the power of the Anglican tradition’s approach to God in beauty and holiness and buoyed by the intellectual rigor and ebullience of the presentations. As good as the speakers were, what really encouraged me was the robust and organic Christian fellowship that emerged among the 850 or so people at the conference and which was powerfully expressed in worship services which united Anglicans of many jurisdictions with Christians of other ecclesial traditions. In the face of a pervasive and sometimes hostile secularism the Body of Christ appears in this gathering as resilient and full of joy.
The featured image originally appeared on The Living Church’s “A Better Story than Atheism.” The story and the photo are from Sue Careless.