By Jonathan Turtle
The French Revolution was a time of great political, social, and religious upheaval. A number of policies were introduced to de-Christianize France by subordinating the Church to the government. Some clergy became employees of the state while others were exiled or executed. Five years after the revolution began, few of France’s 40,000 churches remained open.
After the revolution, Pius VII re-established the Church in France. All bishops were replaced and those clergy who had joined the Revolutionary church and those who had refused to join it were reinstated together. In the words of historical theologian Ephraim Radner, “It was a drastic solution: destroy the dynamic of institutionalized hostility, clear the air” (“Anglicanism on Its Knees: Warning against Dangerous Political Coalitions for Christians,” First Things [May 2014]).
Across the Anglican Communion today the dust from a decades-long battle about human sexuality and marriage is beginning to settle. Votes are being cast and lines are being drawn. Younger Anglicans have inherited the theological and liturgical battles of our predecessors, and we are often grateful for their witness. Yet while we continue to have real and substantial disagreements regarding the doctrine of marriage, we find ourselves drawn together by a shared commitment to orthodox theology, serious and reverent liturgy, evangelism, and meaningful Christian formation in the Anglican tradition.
To be very clear, this does not mean that the doctrine of marriage is settled or that there is nothing more to be said. As someone who holds to the historic teaching of the Church, I believe that now more than ever it behooves us to continue to bear costly witness to this reality. Neither does this mean that there will be no need for some sort of separation, a walking apart that makes visible our inner conflict and disagreement.
But the question is: can we hold on to our competing doctrines of marriage while also attempting to move beyond the hostility of the past for the sake of common witness? I believe we have reason to be hopeful and that younger Anglicans can lead by example (1 Tim. 4:12) — only if we recommit ourselves to the disruptive and strange gospel of Jesus Christ. In the article quoted above Radner ends with a plea for “more biblicism, crucicentrism, and conversionism.” Here are three necessary pillars upon which younger Anglicans can rebuild.
First, as Anglicans we have inherited a tremendously high view of the Bible, believing it to contain everything necessary for salvation. But what does that mean? Simply put, it means that the Bible brings us into a living relationship with Jesus Christ, the Savior.
That might sound fairly agreeable, but in my limited experience this isn’t how most Anglicans read the Bible. We tend to read the Bible, if we do so at all, as an interesting and perhaps relevant historical document or as a moral text that provides guidance on how to live a good life. The Book of Common Prayer puts a much finer point on it: “both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ” (Article VII). The risen and living Jesus Christ discloses himself to us in and through the Bible to the end that all who believe in him might be saved.
Therefore, when we approach the Scriptures, or rather when we are approached by the Scriptures, we should take on the posture of those coming before the risen and reigning Lord. Namely, we should come humbly with a willingness to be judged by God, submitting ourselves entirely to the Word and not presuming that it aligns nicely with what we already believe theologically, socially, politically, or otherwise.
Let us then recapture a love of the Scriptures. Let us “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” that we might encounter the living Christ therein and know his life-giving Word. When we gather, in person or online, let the Bible stand at the center and let us submit to its authority that the uncreated, divine light therein may order all of our thinking, speaking, and doing.
Second, we must build on the foundation of the cross. The cross stands at the center of the Bible and the proclamation of the early Church. Moreover, the Jesus we meet in Scripture is the crucified and risen one. It is he that we proclaim. Like the Bible, the cross is strange. The world does not grasp the message of the Cross (Does the Church?) because by it we are confronted with an unnerving reality: God is in Jesus Christ loving sinners.
That bold proclamation will offend the sensibilities of good people. The temptation, thus, is to minimize the Cross. We do so at our peril. I am a sinner, you are a sinner, and we need Jesus Christ to rescue us from the power of sin. To quote Fleming Rutledge:
Why was Jesus crucified? God was not simply showing the world something. God was doing something. God interceded, and the result, in place of condemnation, is justification.
In and through the Cross, sin is defeated and we are reconciled to God and made new.
Let us not be ashamed of the strangeness of the Cross but rather own it and be owned by it. Let us not fear knowing ourselves as sinners, loved by God this much. Let us pray for penitent and contrite hearts that know at once the sorrow of our sin and the joy of God’s mercy.
Third, we need a renewed emphasis on conversion. Simply put, conversion is a turning to Christ for salvation. For those of us already in the fold, this is a daily practice. Think of conversion as more of a process than a onetime event. Each day our hearts are inclined to sin, but by grace the Holy Spirit draws us to the risen and living Jesus. We must begin with ourselves and our openness to being converted every day.
The world needs Jesus Christ, and not just the world generically but specifically your neighbor, your colleague, your cousin. The gospel isn’t just one option among many, and the Christian faith isn’t just a subjective matter of personal opinion. The gospel is the announcement of the objective reality of Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and it is only through him that we can come to know God as our Father and know the peace and joy that come from him (John 14:6).
Everyone knows that a loving relationship flows both ways. What God has done for us in Jesus Christ he wants to do in us by the Holy Spirit. This requires an openness, a yes. Conversion is this yes, the yielding of the human heart to the love of God in Jesus Christ. If we are going to be part of a renewal movement in the Anglican churches of the West, we need to recapture a sense of ourselves as a missionary people.
As the dust begins to settle from the battle about human sexuality and marriage, an opportunity is opening for younger Anglicans to reclaim what it means to be the Church in this place at this time. What I am offering is an invitation for younger Anglicans to double down on the strange gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, to hear his call to repent, to stand before him as our judge, and to let his Word cut us to the heart that we might live anew with him. If we are faithful in this, we may even find that the Holy Spirit will lead us into a greater clarity regarding our disagreement about marriage and human sexuality.