For my entire life, I have watched the institutions of Christendom’s power be turned against her in cruel and inhuman ways. We have all watched the horror which inevitably arises when the mechanisms of morality (churches, governments, academia, media, etc.) are violently disconnected from their Christian foundations only to be weaponized against us and our fellow men: campaigns made no less horrible when done with a pious look or a salesman’s smile. To be a 21st century Western Christian is to watch one’s rightful institutional inheritance used to pillage, confuse, and destroy the weak, the needy, and the damned. There are a number of ways to manage the stress and fear of being a defeated Roman in an Ostrogoth’s world—two come readily to mind.
First, one can always just become an Ostrogoth. In a world of appropriation and destruction, it’s far easier to pretend the marauding barbarian chieftain is just the new Roman emperor (after all, he’s sitting in the right chair). In much the same way, it’s easier for Western Christians to pretend as if the institutions of the past are functioning in the same way as they always have, even if controlled by revisionist invaders whose beliefs and goals are anathema to the ranks of faithful men and women who built them. As George Orwell teaches us, it’s just easier to pretend the lie is true. The particular evil genius of this little hell is that the conservative Christian can spend his day thinking he’s a reformer while longing for an imperfect past (which itself needed to be reformed), while the progressive Christian simply cuts off more and more pieces of his traditional faith madly hoping the voracious appetites of the damned will be satiated with this year’s crimson tribute.
A second path is to kill oneself rather than be ravaged by the invading barbarian hordes. In an age of unparalleled material wealth, tens of thousands of Westerners are murdering themselves every year through suicide and substance abuse rather than face the pain promised by further contact with our desperately fallen age. These poor lost souls feel the crushing weight of hopelessness and nihilism we daily breath in and out while surrounded by a world where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. Truth and goodness and beauty have been replaced with power, and these people know they will never have any power—except, of course, the power to destroy themselves. Less obviously, these lost ones have placed themselves on the same trajectory of destruction as all the people with respectable addictions to money or sex or power—the only difference is the self-slaughterer’s faithfulness and commitment to the death the respectable addict pretends he doesn’t love.
No institution (Government, Academia, Media, etc.) is coming to save us. In fact, they will use our hope in them against us, gladly taking our time and treasure to sell us back a mess of pottage for our birthright. In a post-human world, men and women are merely objects to be manipulated for maximal pleasure until we all march into the darkness. As traditional Anglicans, the rest of our lives should be spent opposing these two ways to die by sacrificing ourselves for a Christ centered community. A renewed parish model is key to this quest and Christian love is at its heart. To be sure, it would be manifestly easier to give in or run away, but as St. Peter makes so clear in his first general epistle, we are called to live and serve among the lost. How then do we fulfill this calling in the land of Baal, Mammon, and Moloch?
To quote pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
To put the Cross before our eyes, we must radically reorient our priorities to make the parish church the new center of our lives. Positively, this includes steps like embracing public Morning and Evening Prayer as a communal means of visible and accountable devotion. Doing so will cost us dearly. We will lose sleep, leisure time, and money; we might miss going to the gym or have to get more organized or get in fights with our kids. We make these kinds of sacrifices for our jobs and our hobbies (and for education which leads to jobs and hobbies): why would we not even attempt such sacrifices to make the worship of the Living God the very center of our lives? Our Book of Common Prayer has given us a beautiful template for a prayer life in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Why would we not use it? The hard answer, in most cases, is that we simply don’t think we need to yearly read through the Bible, formally confess our sins and receive absolution, pray for strength and protection, or thank God for His infinite mercy. Imagine an intergenerational group of men, women, and children committed to daily growing in holiness together at their parish church. We could have that, and yet we choose to prioritize other activities. How will we explain this choice to our Lord when we inevitably meet Him?
Frequent (or betters still) daily Holy Communion, Bible Study, and communal meals are other aspects of this “in the world, but not of it” way of living, but there are deeper structural changes which must be made as well. Parishioners need to live as close to their church as possible, even if it means living in a worse house or a less desirable neighborhood (as Ecclesiastes makes painfully clear, in a few years someone else is going to be living in your house anyway). Churches must step up and become the intergenerational hub of their parishioners’ lives with clergy and lay workers exhibiting a daily death for Christ to those in their care. Children should be nurtured in a Classical Christian School whose first goal is to create a rule of life and learning drenched in Christ’s life-giving faith. Young families should be supported by elder members ready to share their labor and knowledge and love as if they were caring for their own children (because they are). In turn, elder members should be encouraged to live on the church property through the construction of modest cottages from which a reciprocal matrix of sacrificial service can be established between school students and older residents. In a fallen world of broken families, alienation, loneliness and autonomy, we can build a redemptive society serving as a beacon of hope to this uncivilized age. We can do what the church did when she faced the fall of Rome. We can build modern Anglican monasteries for all who desperately need their humanity to be daily refreshed and restored.
Much more could be added to the above list (food, clothes, and love for single mothers; real community for all those drawn to disordered sexuality, shelter for battered women; counsel and resources for crises pregnancies, etc.), but the hardest part will be recognizing the freedom Christ has died to give us: freedom to abandon the lie of extravagant materialism, self-centered retirement, and all the thousands of choices we make to conform ourselves to this brief moment of our dying world. We have been freed from it all so that we can take up our cross and follow our Lord. This is a vision of a cruciform community ready for resurrection—unmistakable to our neighbor, enemy, and ourselves.
If all this sounds like an impossible dream or the ravings of a religious zealot, please consider how strange the priorities of your current life are when compared to the goal of holiness and new life in the world to come. Is it possible that the terrible anxiety and fear in your life might have something to do with internal dissonance of what you profess on Sunday and what then happens on Monday? Sit down and make a list of all the ways in which you daily sacrifice for your job or hobby or family and then imagine what it would look like if this same energy was poured into a life of thanksgiving for the eternal mercy of God lived out in concrete ways through a thriving church home. A faithful community following this outline, rooted in Christ’s love and the proven power of His Word and Sacraments, will survive long after every other institution we are told we must die for fades away.
Anglicans have been blessed with all the tools we need to thrive in this dark present. The great question which lies before us is, “Will we take them and use them or will we let our church, our very communion with real humanness, fade into oblivion before our very eyes?” This is not a question of God being defeated, He will send His minsters to our shores and communities, this is a question of whether we will be defeated. I pray we choose wisely in the years to come.
As we read on All Saints’ Day:
“…And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them” (Revelation 7:14-15).
May our lives on earth be as they will be in heaven