Part of a series leading up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod. The introduction is found here.
By Jeff Boldt
In the event of an apocalypse, are parents or bishops more essential for the survival of the church? My vote is with the former. Far more people are converted by their parents than by bishops.
Ordained ministry has its place in the economy of salvation, but who can doubt the influence and authority of families over the life of the Church? Lay people can’t be fired, only endured by apostolic authorities. And what bishop –– practically speaking –– has power to interfere in the formative power of the family? No doubt every kid has free choice, but it is incontestable that when parents do their job, they are effective evangelists.
And yet the reigning opinion about the nature of marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada sits uneasily with the facts of family persistence. Just over two thirds of our last General Synod voted to change our marriage canon from its current traditional form: one man, one woman. As we all know, the traditional understanding is that the procreative potential of marriage has been ordered by God for the sake of forming children to be wise Christian adults. At second reading this July we will see whether the slim two-thirds majority holds, and the canon is officially changed.
What follows from an explicit denial that marriage is defined by the way God has used it to transmit the faith from parent to child from Old Testament through New Testament times? At the very least it follows that one’s doctrine and practice fail to align. For, who can eliminate the inconvenient and persistent fact of biological families from the life of our parishes? If Anglican churches grow, it’s only because families are doing their jobs. Progressive theology has yet to discover a more fundamental and efficient unit of faith-formation. The irony is that intergenerational pedagogy is the only way that progressive theology will survive!
That situation ought to be honestly faced, and the importance of the upcoming vote somewhat downplayed. We live in a church of plural, conflicting accounts of the gospel. The conflict, as I’ve described it, is a gospel issue because it is about the created means by which the gospel is transmitted in time. Deny the procreative-and-pedagogical purpose of marriage, and one has separated off the historical form of the gospel from its content. So, the current controversy is a gospel issue, the issue comes down to conflicting pedagogies regarding the nature of the divine pedagogy. Traditionalists think the Bible does in fact reveal that God has a purpose for genealogy, which informs the sex-ed they pass on to their children.
That this is a controversy over pedagogy ought to be obvious. Try to contradict a child’s parents –– be they liberal or conservative –– and the local priest and bishop will find out what kind of authority parents still hold! Parents vote with their feet. Why not go to that other denomination down the street whose doctrine aligns entirely with each family’s own pedagogy?
Let’s begin with “how.” This series of articles is meant to offer some suggestions to conservative minorities in the hearing of their liberal brothers and sisters. After all, conservatives are naturally pessimistic and in need of encouragement from one another.
My first word of encouragement is to have confidence in the order of creation. Who on earth can abolish biological procreation? And while there are many pedagogies competing for the souls of your children, it is still a fact that children whose faith persists into adulthood usually have had solid Christian parents. The power of your prayers and witness have a disproportionate weight.
Second, our churches still use a lectionary from which the Word of God is heard every Sunday. Have confidence that the Word will continue to open hearts and minds. As long as Christians are having kids, they will want to know whether Scripture teaches that their struggles are meaningful. It does.
Third, traditional-minded parents and parishes need to unashamedly adopt a broader Christian culture. Some of us will have to come to terms with the camp-and-kitsch of popular piety. Coming from the evangelicalism of the 80’s and 90’s, I have first-hand experience of “satanic panics,” CD burning, and unhinged eschatology. The dominant forms of conservative Christian culture have their problems, but we have to start somewhere. The way our families appropriate popular piety can be wise; we can neither afford to do it half-heartedly or ironically. Conservative Anglicans need to embrace wider Christian culture.
Fourth, unashamedly embracing Christian culture naturally leads us into practical ecumenism. Attend moms’ groups with Presbyterians, send your kids to Coptic schools, to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classes with the Catholics, and so on. Intertwine your life with as many other kinds of Christians as possible for support and friendship. Do whatever you can to “diversify” so that you aren’t stuck in an Anglican silo.
This goes to the heart of how a conservative family could stay in a diocese that contradicts a parent’s authoritative transmission of the gospel. The Church of the future is neither Anglican, Presbyterian, Coptic, nor Catholic. To be sure, we all received our faith in one or another Christian tribe. But where these tribes have been unable to lay down their lives and livings, or unwilling to make decisions one with the other, or to be holy, they haven’t been able to swim in the secular solvent of our culture without dissolving. Being “conservative” just isn’t enough. There is only one form of common life, a catholic and ecumenical life taken by those who have embodied the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2).
The burden now is on families to embody radically new educational arrangements given that denominations are obsolete. I don’t mean to endorse the non-alternative of non-denominationalism, which is just a less accountable mini-denomination. And I’m certainly not endorsing consumerism –– picking and choosing from the list of options in our religious marketplace. Our tendency to slump into these non-alternatives is a sign of how difficult it is for North Americans to imagine an alternative.
Whatever this alternative is, it must be both genuinely local and ecumenical. How do we live generously at both levels? Is there a way to intentionally live long enough in a single place so that our friendships in and outside of the church cost us something? When do we begin to sacrifice mobility and professional advancement for the sake of this community? Biblical education is the purpose of life itself. How do we revitalize our learning? I don’t pretend to live in the future, so I have no easy answers. The mind of Christ, however, has an eternal presence, and the more our bodies take on this mind, the closer we’ll be to the target.
Fifth, regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do or not, families will leave after the marriage canon vote and we know it. But why should any delegate to General Synod think this is inevitable? Vote down canon change, or table the motion! Perhaps there is some hope in an alternative that officially enshrines the two conflicting views as equally welcome. Yet even this is haphazard, since it does nothing to practically disentangle the competing pedagogies at the diocesan level. If in fact we are going to officially trial-run plural theologies, there ought to be structures in place to ensure that we stop undermining each others’ efforts –– the efforts of parents and priests.
In my diocese of Toronto we pre-emptively anticipated canon change and set up an exclusive track for certain parishes to perform same-sex marriages. These are effectively “no-go zones” for conservative clergy, and “safe spaces” for liberal parents to raise their kids without interference from pesky conservatives. They have favored status because they align with our Bishop’s own commitments. This is no “big tent.”
Symmetry would suggest that the same degree of non-interference should be offered to conservative clergy and parishes, and that a favorable episcopal arrangement should be set up. These checks and balances should be included in any amendment to the marriage canon that enshrines “two views.”
Everyone knows that alternative episcopal oversight isn’t ideal, but it has worked in the Church of England precisely because this safeguard enshrines goodwill. Without this level of intentional political pre-planning, conservatives ought to vote down a “two views” amendment. If we’re in an unfavorable position prior to canon change, liberal bishops will have even less reason to properly accommodate us after a muddled “two views” canon is passed.
More practically, bishops should ask themselves why it is that families leave. It has less to do with whether their bishop lines up with their preferred theology, and more to do with whether their leaders actively or passively undermine their educational efforts. The same holds for priests. People leave when they are undermined and worn out.
But here we come back to why conservatives need to “diversify” their portfolio –– they need to lean on non-Anglican friends so they don’t place all their hopes in an institution that probably isn’t motivated to go the extra mile to make us feel comfortable. Regardless of whether comfortable structures develop, conservative Anglicans need to go the extra mile to embody the ecumenical future, a future in which all divisive actions are coming to an end whether we like it or not.
Jeff Boldt has a ThD from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest at Trinity Church Streetsville in Mississauga, Ontario.