By Jeff Boldt
Last week, several of my fellow contributors engaged in a public-facing roundtable discussion about the reasons they write for Covenant. Reading their engaging accounts got me to thinking about my own reasons for contributing to this blog. For me, this comes down to what the Living Church’s style of Anglicanism has to offer. It’s a way to live into the Anglican ethos of daily common prayer and Scripture reading, to imitate our saints, evangelists, and missionaries, and to persevere in our goal of full organic unity among all Christians.
This last goal must be pursued in a secular space now emptied of mainline Christian influence. This is old news: we forgot how to evangelize our children and our neighbors. As a consequence, the Roman Catholic Church (75 million Americans) and the evangelical movement (90 million Americans) have the largest networks. Anglicans are globally spread out and don’t have the local numbers viably to build this kind of culture in North America without piggy-backing on Catholic or evangelical popular culture. And while my personal opinion is that the Catholic Church will outlive American-style evangelicalism, the latter is most effective at transmitting the faith right now.
We therefore should engage evangelicals in North America more than the mainline. North American Christians will always predominantly be evangelical and repeat evangelical questions. Americans will always fall into fits, trances, and visions; will always be concerned with charting out religious experience; will always divorce doctrine and experience; will always be into apologetics; will always value biblical literacy. What’s our Anglican response? Why not tack toward this mainstream to draw life, cooperate, and scatter seeds of catholicity: the lectionary and offices, the Eucharist, and, yes, an ideal of full, organic, and visible unity? How can we transmit this ecumenical passion to an evangelical movement that has hasn’t always shared the goal of unity in faith and order? The fields are ripe for the harvest. Evangelicals are tired of celebrity culture. Preachers like Francis Chan have discovered the Eucharist and the ideal of unity. Young charismatics engage with the Church Fathers. The ACNA is of course more plugged in to the evangelical mainstream than TEC and the ACC, but why can’t we do the same?
When I write, my question has been whether my earnest, worn-out-with-megachurch, 20-year-old self, would read me. I know many of us at Covenant were raised evangelical which is all the more reason deliberately and strategically to meet the needs of those who could use the resources Anglicantradition offers. Anglicanism can rep our own kind of Reformation resourcing, beside the Davenants and Gospel Coalitions. We can put forward the Tyndales and Cranmers and Hookers. Better yet, our Reformation ressourcement isn’t opposed to patristic ressourcement. You can be Anglican and love the Church Fathers, love Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, and love the spirit of liberal inquiry our tradition has upheld.
More importantly, we need to figure out how to reach out to non-Christians and not just other Christians. Covenant connects with clergy. But why are there 2.6 billion Christians on earth? Some of them used to be non-Christians, after all. What sold them? Solid teaching about Scripture and sacrament.
Here are five attractive things about Christianity that we need to continue emphasizing:
First, the resurrection of the dead trumps any lesser project to ameliorate human suffering. Will we pray and see healings? Yes, but this is penultimate to the conquest of death itself. Will we fight for justice everywhere there is injustice? Yes, but our results will pale in comparison to Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). The claim of resurrection is the defining feature of Christian action, because all of God’s promises of life and a just created order were crucified before the eyes of the Old Testament prophets, were crucified on the cross of Christ, and will be crucified in each of our lives. St. John of the Cross called our experience of the apparent contradiction and loss of every spiritual good a “dark contemplation,” a darkness that is inevitable when God reveals himself to humanity. The cross makes sense of this experience –– yes, even helps us persevere through this! For, we are a people whose faith in resurrection persists in the face of the crucifixion of all our good goals.
Second, the figure of Christ crucified and raised gives intelligibility to the words and actions of the Old Testament prophets and to our own lives today. In the second century, the bishop and martyr, St. Irenaeus, distinguished the Christian faith from Gnostic alternatives by the way the life of Christ fulfilled the Old Testament. Indeed, Jesus chose not to reveal his identity except through Israel’s prophets. Israel’s mixed response to this revelation became the archetype of the Church’s later struggle with the same revelation. When we look to the Old Testament and see God’s grace at work in a sinful Israel, then we will see that God’s grace likewise saves us even when our sin and wickedness is exposed. I’ve led lots of people through figural studies of this kind, and time and again it is intuitive and life-giving for academically untrained believers. The whole Bible — each puzzling or embarrassing detail — in some way speaks the name of Jesus and shines a light on our own life. Anything less than this full-blooded orthodox approach to Scripture is unsatisfying for the faithful.
Third, forgiveness defines Christianity. In the natural realm forgiveness allows our relationships to endure. The same is true in the supernatural realm when God in Christ forgave us so that we could have communion with him. Let us call for justice and consequences, but let us remember our own abject need for forgiveness and judge others accordingly. Let us not doubt that normal people feel the need for this message when they run up against their own powerlessness to change. More often than not, it is a miraculous experience — forgiveness, healing, exorcism — that turns non-Christians into Christians. The cross stands for this kind of freedom.
Fourth, a controversial point about God’s freedom: let us never try to justify God’s goodness at the expense of his power. The Gnostic heresies did just this by concluding at first that, if God could not be the author of evil, then a lesser deity was. Where did the lesser deity come from, some asked? It couldn’t be that God created him, for then God would be responsible for evil. One Gnostic solution was to claim that God inadvertently emanated this evil deity. Evil could be explained, then, as a by-product of an entirely impersonal process that was out of God’s control. In many ways our scientific worldview functions as a theodicy: by describing nature’s laws as operating independently of God’s power, we make excuses for God so we can conceptually preserve his goodness. The result is he gets squeezed into a very narrow sphere of influence: he made mountains and butterflies, but not earthquakes, diseases, and disorders. True enough. Yet God is either in control of creation or he isn’t. We must have the intellectual humility to admit that we don’t always know how God exercises control. It is enough to know that he does. Let God defend his goodness without us. The practical upshot is that we can be convinced that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). There is no personal agent or impersonal law in the past, present, or future that the Creator doesn’t have power over. We can therefore ask for anything in prayer because God’s power is limitless.
Fifth, the gospel breaks the power of racial enmity to form a Christian “united nations“ that has all things in common. When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on the apostles, Acts relates that all the nations in Jerusalem could understand one message. This was a reversal of Babel, when the Gentiles dispersed, each group with its own language, territorial spirit, and idol (Gen. 10, 11). Israel alone was given the Scriptures and a covenant by which they live to this day. Having disarmed the powers that enslaved the nations, Jesus brings Gentiles into that covenant when, as with Israel’s prophets, he reveals his Name to them through his death and resurrection. The first Church council in Acts 15 neither required Jews to follow the customs of Gentiles nor vice versa, except that Gentiles had to forsake the worship of idols. By participating in the idolatrous “table of demons,” Gentiles failed to acknowledge that the fruit of the earth and the fruit of the womb were gifts of the Creator rather than a lesser deity. The apostles required Gentiles to be chaste so that the gospel could reliably be handed down through the generations, and they prohibited them eating food sacrificed to idols. How much better to eat the eucharistic sacrifice (Lev. 17; Hos. 2; 1 Cor. 10:6-22)? The apostles’ call to the nations, then, is to have everything in common: Israel’s covenant, orthodox faith and worship, money and decisions (Acts 2:44; 1 Cor. 11:33). This is what the Anglican tradition represents at its best.
Anglicanism — catholic, evangelical, ecumenical — has lots to offer the larger Church and world today. By reforming the catholic tradition around a lectionary and prayer book, we have tried to peacefully hold together people at different levels of wisdom. We pioneered missions, ecumenism, and patristic ressourcement. We have profound thinkers, poets, and humanitarians. But we will only escape the present undertow of a shipwrecked liberal theology by turning outward toward the global Church and the movements that retain evangelistic viability. Perhaps in God’s time the riches of our tradition will be resurrected in a church culture that avoids fundamentalist and liberal, Protestant and Catholic extremes. This is what — Lord willing — I would like Covenant and The Living Church to represent. God is free to do what’s best.