Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Practical, Comprehensive, and Different

A recent editorial in the Telegraph says that the Archbishop of Canterbury should just chuck this whole Communion business, stop doing anything international, and focus his attention on keeping the Church of England whole.

The editorialists say that the CofE is based on a kind of British pragmatism that “finds space for Catholic and Protestantism” which they say cannot exported. The editorial makes it seem as if anyone outside of Britain is constitutionally incapable of living with the pragmatic space they speak of.

We Episcopalians like to think that we share this attitude of pragmatic comprehensiveness with the Mother Church. I am beginning to have second thoughts. I think that our experiences and our solutions to the challenges of diversity and change are so different that I am not sure we share that much at all.

Besides, I don't believe "pragmatic comprehensiveness" it can be exported as much as it must be grown. What has been exported to the former colonies, in some cases, a striking inability to "create space" for another in any meaningful way.

Certainly the Puritans who came to the Americas in 1620 were fleeing the Elizabethan settlement. Later, the SPG and CMS missionaries went around the world carrying with them their own, particular styles of Anglicanism. Just looking at their web-sites today and one easily sees the difference in approach of the two groups.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it seems to me that in our current communion-wide divisions, the more strident “Global South” provinces are showing their CMS, evangelical roots, and the more comprehensive provinces in the rest of the “Global South” exhibit their SPG DNA.

The pragmatic comprehension of the Episcopal Church is different than the C of E variety. The Church of England barely hides a party-mindedness that would show up as denominationalism anywhere else. Sure, there are plenty of “non-conformist churches” in England, but the only thing that holds these disparate parties together in the institution of the Church of England itself, which at once is an arm of the state as well as a unique reflection of British culture.

My first direct experience of this came thirty years ago when as a college student I did a junior abroad at Wycliffe Hall. I loved studying there and it was the place where I first heard most clearly God calling me to priestly ministry. I also understood for the first time how different the charism of the Episcopal Church is from the Church of England.

The lesson was driven home in the form of occasional “ecumenical dialogue.” These were not between Lutherans or Methodists and Anglicans…but between the Anglo-Catholics from down the road at St. Stephen’s House and the Evangelicals at Wycliffe Hall! It seemed like an impossible task. These were times of much shouting and awkward worship. I remember how the Evangelical students snickered at the vestments of the Anglo-Catholics, and how the latter disdained out loud the liturgy of the former. I won’t even mention the other divisions that grew out of politics, class and the transitions of culture then taking place—which only made life even more interesting!

But mostly I remember the reactions of people in both places when I would go from Morning Prayer at one place and occasionally walk down the road to Mass at the other.

I realized that there was something about being Episcopalian—that's American to you, Bishop Wright!—that made a trek between two such disparate parties possible. That ease of moving from one world to another, I later came to realize, was a result of the real practical comprehensiveness that grew out of our more fluid, democratic experience. Our experience is also profoundly shaped by the fact that Episcopalians have always lived outside of the mainstream of American religious experience, whereas the Church of England has lived at the heart of British culture.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of comprehensiveness and pragmatism. There is the kind that is imposed from the outside. Then there is the kind that comes from choosing to live together. This is the style of practical comprehensiveness that the North American Churches have brought to the Anglican Experience.

The Telegraph editorialists are correct: you cannot export this kind of pragmatic comprehensiveness. It must be chosen. It is that refusal to choose to live together that is precisely at the heart of the problem.

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