By George Clifford
The last weekend of this October found me in Sydney, Australia, as a tourist. A Saturday visit to St. Andrew’s Cathedral left me feeling incredulous. It was my first visit to an Anglican church anywhere or of any size that did not have at least one altar. Where the Cathedral’s high altar had once been located, a row of unused clergy chairs now lined the center of the east wall beneath a rose window. A glass-topped stand prominently displayed an historic Bible in front of those handsomely carved but obviously unused wooden chairs. The Cathedral’s rood screen had been removed and the choir stalls angled together to face the nave’s central section. A lectern, used as a pulpit, stood in front of the choir pews. The Cathedral no longer had any side chapels, a Lady Chapel, or even a chapel in the undercroft. As an amateur student of church architecture, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a contemporary evangelical congregation from the free-church tradition worshipping in what had once been an Anglican cathedral.
My curiosity piqued, I asked the kindly looking lady on duty what had become of the altar. She gently corrected my terminology, emphatically stating that Anglicans have and have always had holy tables rather than altars. Then she said that the current Dean had directed the Cathedral’s interior rearrangement to eliminate all suggestions of idolatry. All of the holy tables had been removed, the choir stalls angled, all statuary taken away, etc. In response to my question about reserved Sacrament, she said that the Cathedral did not reserve the Sacrament because that was a form of idolatry. When the Cathedral held its once monthly Sunday Holy Communion service, a free standing, portable holy table was rolled into place.
When I informed her that I was a priest on holiday, she freely admitted that she did not like the changes. A life long member of the Cathedral community, she felt that the changes greatly diminished the Cathedral’s interior beauty, a beauty that had invited reverence, worship, and a sense of the holy. She also found other changes troubling, such as the clergy no longer wearing clerical collars or vestments and the elimination of all processions and recessions from all worship services. Servers with trays of bread and small cups of wine now distribute Holy Communion to people sitting in the pews. She missed going to the altar, kneeling to receive the host from a vested cleric, and sharing in a common cup. She had had the unnerving and troubling experience of serving Communion to the current Archbishop of Sydney on his first Sunday while he sat in a pew wearing an open neck shirt and sports jacket. She felt that the Archbishop, spiritual leader of the Diocese, should have celebrated the Eucharist at the Cathedral’s holy table on Easter, Christianity’s central feast. As vacancies occur in diocesan parishes, the Archbishop appoints like-minded clergy who make similar changes. However, no matter how much she disagreed with the changes she was fiercely loyal to the Dean because he and the other Cathedral staff taught the Bible so well.
Her comments and loyalty prompted three thoughts about the disputes currently tearing apart the Anglican Communion. First, many Anglicans want substantive Christian education that the Church has too often failed to provide. The adjective many may connote a minority, but that minority is numerically, financially, and in terms of involvement a significant minority for the Church’s future. Emphases on pastoral care and social justice, both of which I hope characterize my own ministry, have in recent years too often eclipsed substantive Christian education. Clergy uncertainty and discomfort with discerning God in daily life, hearing God speak through scripture, and interpreting the faith in ways compatible with twentieth and twenty-first century worldviews have all contributed to the neglect of Christian education. Sound teaching by prior deans at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney might have educated laity about altars, sacraments, worship, beauty, etc., in an a way that was explicitly biblical and faithful to the Anglican tradition. I suspect there are some strong parallels between what happened at St. Andrew’s in Sydney and what is happening in the Episcopal Church today.
Second, she reminded me that incarnational theology is a vital Anglican distinctive. An incarnational understanding of Christianity necessitates a dynamic rather than static theology because all creation is dynamic not static. For those desiring a static expression of Christianity (e.g., the one expressed in the 39 Articles of Religion or that of the Dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney), the appellation Anglican denotes something very different than for those who hold to Anglicanism’s historic theological dynamism. The proliferation of groups and Churches whose name includes Anglican reflects a sad splintering of the Anglican tradition as demands for theological unanimity erode the historic Anglican theological emphasis on individual interpretation. Once sufficiently broad to embrace altars, holy tables, and the disparate theological understandings those terms signify, this tradition now, at least at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, mandates mobile holy tables and excludes altars. Discarding the common chalice graphically symbolizes this sad departure from the historically inclusive although admittedly messy diversity of Anglican unity. The body of Christ has many members; I am thankful that we Anglicans make no claim to exclusivity or even to superiority. I hope that those unable to live inclusively with the dynamism of Anglican incarnational theology will find another branch of the Church more compatible with their understanding of Christianity rather than attempt to rigidify Anglicanism. Any who do leave should do so with our blessing, even though their departure diminishes the Anglican Communion and us.
Third, the scant notice the wider Anglican Communion has given to the radical departures from important Anglican distinctives in Sydney confirmed my longstanding suspicion: the current Anglican controversies about homosexuality have little to do with sex and much to do with other, more basic issues. Neither the word sex in any form nor homosexuality appears in the Book of Common Prayer. But, both sex and homosexuality evoke much more interest, depth of feeling, and media attention than do questions about biblical authority, discerning God’s presence, and Anglican identity. Other issues may upset people, yet not trigger the fight or flight response that hot button issues like sex and homosexuality do. I have been happily married for over three decades. The prospect of homosexual marriage, far from threatening my marriage or marriage in general, seems more likely to reinforce respect for the institution and sanctity of marriage. Careful Bible and historical study highlights a developing rather than static understanding of marriage, one that moves from viewing women as possessions (the more the better; no consent required) to one that values an equal and faithful partnership between two consenting adults. Rereading this paragraph, I uncomfortably note the unconscious ease with which I slipped into discussing sexual issues; I have left my thoughts unchanged to underscore why sex today occupies such a dominant place on Anglican Communion agendas.
My helpful informant at St. Andrew’s Cathedral suggested that I would probably prefer to worship on Sunday at St. James, a nearby Sydney parish. Thinking that likely to be good advice, I took it. Sunday morning, upon arriving on at St. James, I learned with pleasure that their guest preacher was Canon Kenneth Kearon, Executive Secretary of the Anglican Consultative Council. During the service, the celebrant announced an afternoon forum led by Canon Kearon and that the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, on sabbatical from New Hampshire and present in the congregation, would attend. Part II of this essay offers some reflections about that rather interesting day.
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.