My life as a Christian has always been marked by schism, from the time I left the church in which I was raised, and since I joined the Anglican Church of Canada. Schism once again threatens this church in which I have found so many blessings, due to the potential departure of conservative parishes and parishioners in response to the decisions of the 2016 General Synod.
From a life of experience with schism, I want to appeal to my brothers and sisters: don’t depart. There are things we can learn from staying.
Leaving out of anger
Before I describe the blessings I have found in the ACoC, I should say that I have not always been here. Like many Christians, I left the denomination of my youth, the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
I did not leave my once-thriving congregation because it had been torn by division, though it cut straight through my family. I was too young to feel the full force of this betrayal.
Rather, as I grew and matured in faith and ministry, I sensed that the church’s leadership was beginning to compensate for a lack of confidence in Christian truth by using gimmicks: primarily marketing techniques.
Then I felt that my evangelical congregation and many others could not live up to their name: Despite our best intentions, people were not becoming Christians in droves, especially not youth. Furthermore, it seemed that evangelicals had separated theology from the church and from spirituality, and that this division was actually a consequence of Christian division. For a while I looked longingly to the Eastern Church where an unbroken ecclesial continuity meant that the language of Christian dogma was the very same language as the spirituality. No head vs. heart there.
So I left. Here the question of the “True Church” arose as I began a search for a church that had not failed so miserably. Ironically, I found the Anglican Church.
It would be untrue if I were to portray my departure as an intellectual journey. I left with real disappointment, personal hurt, and a feeling of being unappreciated. For a long time I was very angry, so much so that it caused permanent health problems.
Did I have a good reason to leave? That depends.
Given the toll that anger took on my body, I should say that it was not worth it. Save for a blunt comment from a mentor about sinful anger, it would have consumed me and perhaps driven me from Christ altogether. It was not that my assessment of the faults of my church was wrong. But I know now that I was culpable for my despair.
If I were asked whether I could “stay put” within the CMA today, I would wholeheartedly be able to say Yes. But at the time it was simply unimaginable. I needed my hope to be completely renewed.
There are better and worse reasons for contemplating departure. What I must emphatically state is that despair and anger are bad reasons. Maybe these sins are unavoidable at present or preventable only through habits acquired over time For that reason, those like me who have found themselves stripped of hope for a time can only interpret such hopelessness in the light of Scripture: it is divine judgment and a sifting (Luke 22:31). The gospel news is that having hit rock-bottom, we can with God’s help get back up again to feed Jesus’ sheep (John 21:15-17).
As a minister in the ACoC, I realize that the slander, bullying, and even legal retaliation that I observed in my previous denomination could carry on in this place as well. Anger and despair will be hard to avoid. Yet I pray to God that he has and will continue to infuse my heart with hope, that my skin will thicken, and that I can be of use in this unique denomination where the signs of his work are far from absent.
Such signs of hope were abundantly clear to me as I attended General Synod this summer, and this despite the political wrangling and disorder. Along with other evangelicals I was completely taken aback by the number of conservative delegates remaining after the 2005 split with the Anglican Network in Canada. We were not expecting much from this Synod. We expected a close race over the marriage-canon change only in the order of bishops — 13 of 39, not enough to win the vote, but an exact third. We had not expected that it would come down to less than a handful of votes in the order of clergy. Indeed, even the order of laity was not far off from a third (27%). Something has been happening at the grassroots.
This article could swerve toward an Oh, you’re telling me there’s a chance! argument for staying in the ACoC, at least for the sake of seeing what will happen at General Synod 2019. We lost by a single vote, hardly the sign of a new liberal consensus. And although the momentum of our culture is against us, I could make the case that conservative energy and talent for culture-building within the ACoC is already filling a vacuum. If we remain, we will only grow; the last three years have proven this.
For that matter, I could point out that the momentum of Anglican Communion energy has decisively turned in favor of orthodoxy. After the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, met with each all primates on their home turf, after he successfully brought them to the Primates’ Meeting that took concrete steps toward restoring order, and the Anglican Consultative Council in Lusaka received the primates’ recommendations, it would be strange if Archbishop Welby failed now to follow through with this consistent trajectory.
But these kinds of worldly, strategic hopes could evaporate tomorrow. The real sign of hope is that God continues to raise up faithful people, that they continue to build solid friendships within the ACoC, and that the unique bonds of affection we have with each other, our Communion, and with the Indigenous North are being strengthened despite the centrifugal forces of division.
The ACoC is a church with a unique history in Canada. Our denomination is organically connected to a global communion of Africans, Asians, and South Americans. Other denominations have a global breadth, but the Anglican Communion continues to be unique in the way that it holds each province accountable while respecting local expression. I recall what a blessing it was that my wife and I could travel halfway around the world and be received with such hospitality in the Anglican Church of Mauritius for a summer. Hospitality of this kind goes beyond relationships of convenience or common interest. These are the expression of true family bonds. No wonder Africa cares about what happens in North America!
The ACoC includes the lion’s share of Indigenous members, more than any denomination in Canada. This body of members, mistreated though they have been, have a noble history of Christian faith, one I would have known nothing about had I never become an Anglican and ministered among them. My work in the Diocese of Saskatchewan put me in touch with a people who had no secular hang-ups about the spiritual life. The result was a kind of honesty and vulnerability in conversation that was totally refreshing.
Indigenous folks make up the growing edge of our church, and they were troubled by the developments at this summer’s General Synod. I might twist this fact to conservative apologetic advantage, but I am more concerned to persuade conservatives to stay in the ACoC out of obligation to and communion with this unique body of brothers and sisters. This appeal applies equally to liberal Anglicans. Christian schisms have always run along class and racial lines. After most Indigenous delegates walked out of General Synod 2016, the concluding Eucharist looked pretty white. It would be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions if we institutionalized this situation.
Further schism would be a tragedy for me personally as well; the ACoC has become my place of refuge. It is a “liberal” church where I have heard more Scripture read on Sunday morning than in my previous denomination. It is a place where the liturgy has been solemn and free of coercion. It is a place where I have been forced to reckon with my theological “opponents,” who have held me accountable for views that I previously would not have had to think too hard about. I am certain that I need my liberal brothers and sisters.
Despite the gravity of our theological differences, we are less complacent and lazy when we have each other around. The latest generation of liberals — at least to come out of my own seminary — are perhaps a tribe that I can talk to. I do not mean to be naïve: we might become embittered ideologues as we continue to inflict pain on one another. But — please God — perhaps here too we can grow in truth together with patience and love, a growth that is impossible by our own efforts but possible by God’s grace.
One thing is certain: we cannot hold together on our own, despairing of God’s help. Let us all put behind us desperate works and put our hope in Jesus, the only one who brings life out of death. For it is only belief in the resurrection that can sustain our hope in a divided Church.
God’s providence is even now gathering us all up into the crucified form of Jesus. I appeal, then, to those thinking about leaving the ACoC to choose that Cross: Remain. You will be stretched — like the nail-scarred hands of Christ — to your limits. Yet Jesus’ Cross is light, and you will not be disappointed when carrying it.