By Dane Neufeld
Deconstruction is a phrase and idea that has gained momentum recently in evangelical circles. Though I am not deeply acquainted with the literature, I am familiar with the themes that have arisen in many conversations with friends and parishioners. Having spent my high school and young adult years in energetic and successful evangelical communities, where I came to faith, the current unrest and turmoil in evangelical faith in general is something that has slowly caught my attention. What follows are mostly personal and pastoral reflections on the crisis of faith that has gripped young evangelicals in particular, as this relates to the vocation of Anglicanism.
Many of the ideas that present challenges to evangelicals today center on a few longstanding themes within the Church. Concerns about the historicity of the Scriptures, moral misgivings about the character of God they present, and confusion about what it means to relate and pray to a personal God (personal holiness, sexual purity), all seem to be vexing questions for evangelicals who are struggling with their faith. How can one accept the moral complexities of God in the Bible, especially under the pressure of modern moral conceptions that appear incongruous with the God of the Scripture? Does it make any sense that God would answer our prayers for a parking spot at the mall when people are starving in Africa?
These concerns are centuries old and have already worked their way through many mainline traditions. My doctoral studies centered on a figure named Henry Mansel, who, among others in the 1850s, addressed these issues, and held a deep concern that new philosophical paradigms were making the scriptural God incomprehensible on both moral and relational terms. While there are theological replies for these questions, other themes of evangelical deconstruction are more difficult to resolve. In listening to a podcast like The New Evangelicals or The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, one gets a sense of the wreckage caused by mega church ambitions, and the veiled pursuit of power and fame in the name of the gospel. This too has a long history in the church, but its negative effects seem particularly potent today, when combined with the severe and all-embracing criticism of progressive ideology that has proven an effective conduit for carrying evangelical disillusion toward certain outcomes, loss of faith in particular.
Anglicanism in North America has benefited immensely from this unrest in evangelical churches. Many of the Millennial or Gen-X clergy I know have come from evangelical backgrounds. Most evangelicals who enter the Anglican Church seem to be on two distinct but overlapping trajectories. In both cases, people are generally drawn to the tradition and liturgy, almost as a shelter from the volatility and intensity of evangelical piety. Anglicanism has provided opportunities to new converts to pursue these instincts in more liberal and more conservative trajectories. Some converts seem eager for a more liberal kind of Christian morality and teaching that is less black and white, in contrast to the perceived “narrowness” of evangelical teaching. In this, Anglicanism has provided an ecclesial vision that is less confrontational with the emerging secular worldview and that does not regard itself as fundamentally different in some theological sense. Others have sought a more rooted form of conservatism that is connected to the traditions of the church, and the theological heritage of Christian thought.
My movement into Anglicanism was influenced by aspects of both these trajectories, though certainly more toward the conservative end. Though I did not initially intend to become an Anglican, it happened over time that it became a place where I was increasingly comfortable, and there was an excitement in exploring the riches of a tradition that was very different than mine. It eased some of the difficulties of faith that I had experienced, such as the lack of any larger ecclesial basis for my relationship with God, and it provided deeper theological reflections for some of the doubts and misgivings I had about the Scriptures and the understanding of God that had been imparted to me in those early years.
However, I found over time, as I went further down this path, that I felt increasingly estranged from my evangelical faith and the world it had created. As Hopkins once wrote, I imagine in relation to his Roman Catholic conversion, “Father and Mother dear/Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near” (“To Seem the Stranger”). Sometimes in conversation with family or friends, as they described what God had been doing in their lives (one of the central practices of evangelical faith), I found myself without much to say and with a distinct desire to withdraw and hide from such conversations. These things happen slowly, and it was years before I realized all that I had lost. An inability to articulate and experience a living and active relationship with God became a very real risk of my Anglican conversion and departure from the evangelical Church.
While for some Anglicanism has been a passageway toward the steeper and more established traditions of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in recent years I have found myself pulled in the other direction. Within the commitments of my Anglican vocation, I have felt drawn to recover, in some ways, the riches of evangelical Christianity, where my faith was first born and fanned into a flame. It has been largely through the beautiful faithfulness of family, friends, and parishioners, through whose lives of prayer, commitment, and joy in the Lord, I have been deeply encouraged and consoled in my faith, but also humbled in the course of my spiritual pride. Many Anglicans consider themselves more illuminated or thoughtful than their evangelical brothers and sisters, but this very thought often comes at a price. As the late Jaroslav Pelikan put it, evangelicalism is a “religion of the heart,” and yet is often this very aspect that gets left behind in pursuit of “higher” forms of piety and spiritual expression.
North American Anglicanism, without this central focus on the transformation of the human heart, will continue to wither, no matter how many deconstructed evangelicals crowd our doors. I have been a priest long enough to know that a congregation of disaffected evangelicals is not particularly effective at sharing the faith with the next generation, or the unbelieving world around us. As a priest, I find nothing is easier than exploiting the disillusion that many evangelicals have experienced with their background for personal or corporate gain. It is easy to be sarcastic about the peculiarities of evangelical practice and culture, or its failures, and to create the impression that our tradition somehow exists on a higher plane of spirituality. But the far more rewarding challenge is to help nurture and build continuity between past and present, and between two traditions of faith that really do need each other, and are mutually impoverished without each other.
If there is a future for North American Anglicanism, it will not be in merely soaking up the losses from megachurches, but in allowing the best of the evangelical spirit to enrich and enliven our liturgies and traditions. High regard for Scripture, a zeal to share Christ with others, and a desire for the Holy Spirit to indwell and transform our hearts are all realities that are not at all foreign to the Anglican tradition, but which are sorely lacking in many quarters of the Church today.
Likewise, if there is a future for North American Anglicanism, it will involve our ability to connect with Anglicans from the Global South who are moving to our cities by the thousands. Many of these people are looking for churches that do not just resemble their native communities in liturgy and organization, but in spiritual substance and vitality as well. Many of these newcomers are looking for churches where God appears to be living, active, and on the move in the lives of his people.
Our parishes should be much more than exotic stops on the deconstruction highway. We should be careful in characterizing ourselves as fundamentally different as well. This is not only ecumenically impolite, but substantially dangerous to the unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is also damaging to our sense of spiritual unity, within ourselves, and the worlds we grew up in. To the degree that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the resemblance of common faith across traditions, we can ask God to help us see the coherence of his purposes in the lives of his people. Brand distinction and propagation may generate short term benefits for our churches, but faithfulness to the Lord as revealed to us in Scripture will yield far more solid long term fruit. I believe our vocation lies in seeking the unity of faith, the coherence of the Spirit’s providential activity throughout history, and the worship of the one Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.