Last Tuesday and Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the first ever Annual Anglican Theology Conference at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. It included an impressive roster of speakers: Archbishop Eliud Wabukala (Kenya), Archbishop Mouneer Anis (Egypt), Archbishop Foley Beach (ACNA), Ephraim Radner, Gerald Bray, Barabara Gauthier, John Yates III, Andrew Pearson, Gerald McDermott, Timothy George, and R.R. Reno. It also featured panels moderated by Stephen Noll, Bishop Chandler Jones (APA), and Bishop Ray Sutton (REC). Each speaker was tasked with answering the questions “What is Anglicanism?” and “What is the future of Anglicanism?”
The first day’s morning session featured talks by Archbishops Wabukala and Mouneer along with Ephraim Radner followed by a discussion panel led by Stephen Noll. The focus of this discussion was fascinating because it largely centered on the global picture of Anglicanism. Hearing about the plight of Anglicans in Africa and the Middle East was important as the majority of Anglicans dwell in those areas and are quickly gaining more influence in shaping the Anglican Communion. Dr. Radner’s talk was pessimistic, perhaps rightfully so. Anglicanism, Dr. Radner contends, is dying and except for an act of providence will go extinct. While Anglicanism had a purpose in God’s orchestration of history in that it was an outworking of divine reconciliation in a post-Babel world, it seems that Anglicanism as it currently exists has reached the limits of its effectiveness. His underlying reasoning is that Anglicanism has reached the perimeter of its latitudinarian impulses that have existed since the 17th century. A latitudinarian approach may have been effective in a pre-industrial revolution world during “simpler times,” but rapidly increasing social complexity has pushed Anglicanism to the brink making it virtually impossible for us, as a church, to make decisions which can appease the proliferation of identities we are seeking to accommodate. Rather than being a community called out and set apart, the Anglican Communion has sadly begun to mirror the dominant culture.
The afternoon session featured Dr. Gerald Bray, Barbara Gauthier, and Rev. John Yates III with a panel discussion led by Bishop Chandler Jones. The focus of this slate of speakers was more about the fundamental tension in Anglicanism between catholic and Reformed identities. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Bray’s talk was a polemic against Anglo-Catholicism, calling it “counter-cultural antiquarianism that fled modernity.” Instead, he argued that Anglicans focus on “mere Christianity,” setting aside secondary issues which is a necessary approach for its survival moving forward. Barbara Gauthier occupied a more moderate position which emphasized Anglicanism’s responsibility in maintaining a reformed catholic approach that emphasizes the Apostolic deposit of truth. One of our strengths is that we have a dynamic tension of catholic and Protestant, a methodology that can serve as a template for Christian unity moving forward. She reminded us that we are not “JV Roman Catholics” or “Calvinists with candles” but rather that Rome and Geneva have both been moving towards us over the last 100 years. From where I was sitting, her talk got the largest applause from the audience. Rev. John Yates III followed. He made the argument that we should emphasize the essentials of Anglicanism by living under God’s Word, proclaiming the Gospel, and serving the nation. This, he argues, is more important than emphasizing the distinctives which cause unessential issues to go from being secondary issues to primary issues. In a dramatic change of pace, the moderator of the session, Bishop Jones, gave some reflections on what Anglo-Catholicism is, insisting that it is not the “antiquarian retreat” Dr. Bray makes it out to be. Rather, it is a robust Incarnational theology that is the only way to effectively engage the world because it is ontological and transformational.
The final day featured four speakers: Rev. Andrew Pearson, Dr. Timothy George, R.R. Reno, and Dr. Gerald McDermott. Rev. Andrew Pearson, Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent (TEC) in Birmingham, AL spoke about the importance of preaching in any future Anglican renewal. Dr. Timothy George, the conference’s Baptist observer, was wonderfully ecumenical, urging Anglicans and Baptists not to ignore their differences but rather to dig deep until we all arrive at the essence of Christian faith where we will find true unity. The Catholic observer, R.R. Reno, spent his time extolling what he perceives the strengths of Anglicanism to be, namely that it maintains both a Protestant principle and a catholic principle. The Protestant principle of Anglicanism can be found in Article XXI of the XXXIX Articles which states that the Church can err and needs to be reformed. The Catholic principle of Anglicanism is that it has a “prejudice towards what came before.” So he believes orthodox Anglicans can play an important role in the shadow of our culture’s rampant de-Christianization which will inevitably blur the lines between Catholic and Protestant. The final speaker was Dr. Gerald McDermott, the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson. His thesis was that there is beauty and power in the Anglican liturgy and sacraments that reflect a peculiarly English spirituality. In the face of the evolving landscape of the Anglican Communion plus the assaults on Christendom from the secular culture, we should cling to our liturgies and sacraments.
As a bi-vocational, Anglo-Catholic leaning priest who has only been Anglican for about four years, I learned a lot at the Annual Anglican Theology Conference. Every speaker contributed in a way that I deeply appreciated. Further, even when it felt like things may have hit an impasse, we maintained a common worship with Eucharist and Morning Prayer. Deep discussion between a number of different “camps” about the nature of Anglican identity followed by common worship, made me feel as though however we define Anglicanism, something about it works.
At the same time, the majority of speakers had a difficult time coming up with a clear and concrete definition of Anglicanism. Two opposing poles in the Anglican world were represented in this regard. Gerald Bray defined Anglicanism as a construct used to organize the English Church but not a distinctive theology. Bishop Chandler Jones defined it as the via media between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and a true expression of the Church Catholic. The other speakers fell somewhere in between those poles. Given the lack of consensus, I am personally inclined to share Dr. Radner’s pessimistic outlook. As external pressure is increasingly exerted on the Church by an anti-Christian culture, one has to wonder if the mosaic of identities that have carved out space under the broader banner of Anglicanism will be brought together or driven further apart.
Yet it is not all negative. Perhaps it is confirmation bias but the two highest points of the whole conference for me were Bishop Jones and Dr. McDermott. If Dr. Radner is right and cultural complexity is exploding at exponential rates to make it almost impossible for status quo Anglicanism to survive, a well-defined Anglo-Catholicism might have to be our ark. In this regard, Anglo-Catholicism, with its emphasis on Incarnational living, a high view of the sacraments, a strong definition of episcopal authority, and liturgical steadfastness seems like the most effective Anglican iteration of The Benedict Option. Rod Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have failed to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; NRSV). As a result, Christians should move from participating in the structures of our larger culture to creating a parallel polis to effectively catechize our communities. This is the pattern of the monastic movement which withdrew from the decadences of the larger culture during the Medieval period only to become bastions of orthodox Christianity and the epicenters of a re-evangelism of Europe. Effective catechesis is the cause of good cultural engagement (and not vice-versa). Anglo-Catholicism embraces and lives out this rhythm. In fact, the Anglican Province of America, the province to which Bishop Jones belongs, embodies it very well. Coming away from the conference and moving forward as faithful Anglicans, we would be wise to heed the talks of all the speakers but particularly those of Bishop Jones and Dr. McDermott. We need an orthodox Anglicanism centered around the Incarnation with a deeply sacramental ontology.