By George Sumner
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Reclaiming Faith, a work that Ephraim Radner and I edited to bring the lens of the theological tradition to bear on the travail of the Episcopal Church. In the ensuing years, there was an alphabet soup of groups aimed at organizing and advocating: Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine, Anglican Communion Institute, and Communion Partners, among others. These were not groups about going, but about staying and witnessing. Meanwhile, as a kind of bass note through all that period was another question: how can a subgroup, what was once called a party and now called a movement, survive, and even gain traction? This is in significant measure a sociological question about the conditions for such a group.
To be sure, our situation has changed, even as the larger situation of the church becomes more demographically challenged. I am at the same time greatly encouraged by the handing over, the traditio, of leadership to a new generation, as evinced by a recent Communion Partners gathering in Orlando. Still, that same underlying question persists, and I suspect the elements of an answer remain the same. So I offer my answer to this question about the necessary social conditions in hope that this will stir a conversation within our ranks.
- Access to the 1979 BCP. The easiest definition of our tradition is the best — the prayer book. It is our ballast, as well as our most attractive feature. I do not know how the latest liturgical debate will turn out, but the sine qua non of our viability is the availability of the 1979 book, which is in recognizable continuity with the tradition, to parishes wishing to use it. (It is humorous for us old dogs to hear 1979 referred to as the venerable book.) Others, such as the Anglo-Catholics of Canada’s Maritime Prayer Book, have developed an ethos in this way.
- Residential Seminaries. As principal of Wycliffe College, I like to cited Alfred the Great’s appeal for “schools and cathedrals” as the means to rebuild a culture. As to the former, we need seminaries that maintain residence, since online learning alone cannot possibly offer the social density required for a movement. Nashotah, Wycliffe, the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke: we need to support them in any way that we can. Even the best and savviest schools are under pressure.
- Great Churches. The other half of Alfred’s advice should be expanded to great churches: the St. Martin’s; St. John the Divine, Houstons; Incarnations; All Souls; St. George’s and St. Paul’s, Bloor Streets, etc. They do what he long ago hoped: to give younger and newer Christians a fuller vision of what the life of the Church can be. They must, and in fact do, have this sense of a wider mission, of being a wing under which a younger brood finds shelter.
- A Think Tank. Since this is appearing under the auspices of The Living Church, a bit of applause for the tenure of Christopher Wells is in order. In addition to the venerable magazine, Covenant is a remarkable means of conversation and fellowship for (mostly) younger scholar-priests (again mostly). Its offshoots are shorter works in the Grove-series mode, as well as book-length contributions. Theological energy and excitement are the lifeblood of the movement. Young clergy want content, debate, retrieval, and this desire will only increase as the work of parishes in a time of economic and demographic pressure becomes yet harder.
- Global friends. A crucial part of the traditional witness of the past decade and a half was friendship with great Global South leaders. We in North America found our leaders and mentors in figures like Mouneer Anis, Drexel Gomez, Donald Mtetemela, and Rennis Ponniah. This will be yet more true in the years to come. Maintaining this witness in isolation would not only be theologically ill-advised, it would be impossible. The Global South Fellowship, as well as a network of friendships and partnership, will lie at the heart of the effort. I would only add that, thanks to a scholar like Philip Jenkins, we have learned to see that this global “mutual responsibility and interdependence” is at our doorstep, in a south Sudanese congregation in Dallas, an Urdu service in Richardson, and a Salvadoran congregation in Irving (to use the Diocese of Dallas merely as an example).
- A web of communications. As a member of the tech-challenged generation, I lapse into silence. The youngsters are more than able to be in touch with one another so as to foster friendship.
- Renewal. This last element may surprise, since this has not been a significant influence in recent years. One casualty of the travail of North American Anglicanism has been the decline of Cursillo and the charismatic movement. But history tells us that such elements accompany lasting renewal in Anglicanism. They had their flaws, to be sure. Thomas Smail, a theologian of the Holy Spirit, once said at a conference, “The charismatic movement was half God and half nonsense. Half God is a lot!” I concur: we need to pray without ceasing for renewal in all its forms, in order that these dry bones, in ways we can foresee and ways we can’t, might live. There will probably need to be new forms for a new day. At our Communion Partners meeting, Bishop Michael Smith wondered insightfully if it might have a connection to our global connection. Whatever the form, we need to pray without ceasing for renewal in all its forms, in order that these dry bones, in ways we can foresee and ways we can’t, might live.