What will be lost

By Marshall Scott

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

It’s a common enough question in our experience, isn’t it? It comes up in a lot of situations. In a movie, it usually comes up in the last half hour or so, setting up the improbably difficult and brave resolution. In real life, I suppose it comes up as frequently as not around weddings. Sooner or later someone will ask bride and/or groom, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

And of course we don’t, or at least not entirely. I say that as one who has married, divorced, and married again. I grant you that I was less confused when I married again – now almost twenty one years ago, thank you! – but I can’t say that even then I knew what I was doing. I simply knew better how to choose, and how to live well the promises that I made.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

I have that question these days about the changes in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Now, anyone who’s read my work here and elsewhere will know I support the direction the Episcopal Church has chosen. That doesn’t mean I have no qualms.

And my greatest qualm is that we have already lost forever the Anglican Communion that I knew, and that the Episcopal Church will soon follow. I don’t mean that the Church has departed from the Christian faith or the Anglican tradition. I don’t believe either of those assertions. It is, rather, that the shape and manner of the Communion has changed, and of the Episcopal Church will change.

For most of my career in the Episcopal Church we have been conscious of – even proud of – our vagueness. That’s not to say that it hasn’t driven every one of us crazy at some point; but we cherished it nonetheless. It allowed us to always pray together, usually worship together, and sometimes work together despite our strongly-held differences. The old epigram associated “Broad-” churchmanship and “haziness;” but the truth was that we all took part in some haziness as a central strategy of living together in the Episcopal Church.

We’ve even managed to justify it as good theology. We would note that the problem with transubstantiation was not that God couldn’t do it that way, but that the Church couldn’t say that it was the only way God could have changed bread and wine into body and blood. Instead, we clung to the very lack of definition that is consubstantiation: “in, with, and under,” but only God knew how.

With a nod to our Orthodox Christian siblings, we spoke of appreciating mystery, of believing in what God was doing without wanting to constrain our understanding of how God might do it – whatever it might be. As a result, we preferred not to define anything too specifically. In many ways, that worked for us marvelously well. How else could we have held Hooker and Laud, Jewell and Wesley, Cranmer and Keble and Maurice all somehow within the Anglican tradition?

Sadly, now we are being driven to specificity. We are being driven to it by those who don’t want to associate with us, and who are at great pains to explain just why they don’t want to associate. We are being driven, too, by those who want to associate, but want to be crystal clear about the terms of association. Look where we are now.

* We have seen the third draft of an Anglican Covenant. Members of the Drafting Committee have spoken of an intent to be inclusive, and the mechanisms of exclusion so prominent in earlier drafts have been muted. What hasn’t changed, however, is the idea that there must be some clear and delimited description of common content to hold us together.

* Having largely despaired of an Anglican Covenant that would exclude what they see as the excesses of the Episcopal Church, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans has essentially written their own; for what is the Jerusalem Declaration if not a confession in the ecclesiological sense, a core around which they might covenant?

* We wait on the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, to see how that gathering will react to the Covenant draft and the Windsor Continuation report, as well as to dissension within and without.

* The General Convention of the Episcopal Church will meet this summer, and it remains to be seen what we will say there, and how our statements will be received among Anglicans outside the Episcopal Church. There are many Deputies (I cannot say whether it is “most”) who are ready for the Episcopal Church to state clearly what it will do regarding the hot-button issues, and no longer wait to see who else in the Communion is prepared to listen and to talk.

And all of these raise in me a certain sense of – well, not dread so much as sorrow. Some have found us in the Episcopal Church (some both within and without) not sufficiently clear, and they have made themselves clear. In reaction we will make ourselves clear – it is human nature and, for many, virtual institutional necessity – but, as is always the case, in specifying some things in we will be specifying some things out. If we don’t do it in the explication itself, it will come over the ensuing years of interpretation. It will change the manner, and perhaps the nature, of the Episcopal Church.

That’s not to say that we’re doing the wrong thing, or that the Holy Spirit isn’t in it. That may well be one of those strange ways in which God works. We have our New Testament in reaction to Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament in service to a Gnostic dualism in Christian vestments. Our own Anglican tradition is grounded in important efforts to explain who we are not and why: Hooker’s discourse on why we’re not Puritans, and Jewel’s on why we’re not Roman. The Council of Trent happened in reaction to all that Reformation fervor; and if we’re not convinced just how much the Holy Spirit was in that Council, our Roman siblings certainly are.

Nor is it wrong to do something when you can’t know exactly what you’re doing. I entered marriage – both times – in good faith, with determination to do what I could to make it work. The fact that in my first marriage things didn’t work as I had hoped isn’t to say there is something wrong with marriage itself, or that God couldn’t have been working in it. I continue to be convinced that God was then, even as I am convinced that God is working in my marriage now.

As we understand things, only God knows the future. We are always stepping forward in faith. Tomorrow may bring the proverbial bus, or the apocalyptic meteor, or the Kingdom of God. All I can do today is my best to follow where God calls me.

But until the Kingdom comes, those results will always be mixed, with losses as well as gains. In our times now we in the Episcopal Church are indeed seeking to follow where God calls us. Unfortunately, in our times now voices around us and within us push us out of our hazy breadth toward specificity; and coming from hazy breadth to specificity will change us. However righteous most of us may find the result, there will be those who embrace it and those who want no part of it; those who claim victory and those who feel lost.

That’s why I feel that, in a way, we might lose ourselves, even as we win the battle. In resisting becoming the Church that some want us to be, we will not simply stay the Church we are. We may well become more the Church that we want, but we will not stay the Church we are. We will have more clarity on a host of details, from how we understand how property is held in trust for the whole Church to what we mean by the phrase “abandonment of communion;” but we will discover ourselves a different church in the process.

And that’s not wrong, either; for it has to as true for the Church as it is for her members that salvation comes in losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel. That doesn’t mean we won’t have some sorrow at that loss. I expect that soon we will determine that we can no longer, as the Episcopal Church, remain “broad and hazy.” It may well be a step toward the Kingdom. It will come, I pray, in our response to the leading of the Spirit. Still, to tell you the truth, I will miss it.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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