Testing the tent poles of Anglicanism

Published April 1, 2006

He was a thoughtful man with a lot of questions. Like many of us, he was anxious about the health of the church! “How long do we have?” he said. We had run into each other at a party and his question, although challenging, gave new life to the party. He went on, “we Anglicans have always been proud of our ‘big tent’ communion – open to anyone who could say the Creed. Why is it now that some of our folks are hacking at the ‘tent poles’ – attacking the very beliefs that hold the communion together?”I am not exactly sure whom or what my friend was reading. Perhaps it was Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code), Tom Harpur or an Anglican Journal article that sounded discouraging of our church’s growth prospects, but he caught my attention. As he said, Anglicans have always prided themselves in their theological diversity. Since the 16th century we have been a church where the Calvinist, the Catholic, and the enlightened Deist could find a home. Held together by a mutual respect for Scripture, creeds and the early Fathers, we have been that place in the centre where Anglo-Catholic, evangelical, charismatic and traditionalist could meet and be one in worship. However, in recent times, a new brand of diversity has surfaced in the “big tent” of Anglicanism. Its source is not biblical but secular. No one would argue that Canada now embraces a pluralist culture. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is certainly the guardian of such pluralism. But pluralism is far more than a protection for cultural and ethnic diversity. Spiritually interpreted, it is an ideology that makes the claim that all religious expression and experience, whatever its source, has an equal claim for truth alongside Judaism and Christianity. It is an ideology that preaches “the many” rather than “the one.” Advertising itself as the only source for religious and spiritual tolerance, its nemesis is those people and communities who dare make exclusive claims for any faith.As I read the Gospel texts, I am more and more struck with Jesus’ employment of a “radical inclusiveness.” That is, He targets for redemption those in the margins of society who were excluded from things religious. What strikes me even more is the rationale for that holy embrace. For instance, the Syrio-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24) was celebrated neither because of her gender nor her ethnic origin but because of her “great faith.” Zaccheus, the publican (Luke 19:1) was likewise not celebrated because he was a publican but because he was a repentant human being. As well, the Samaritan, in the “good” parable by the same name (Luke 10:30) was not celebrated because he was a Samaritan but because he “had compassion on him who had fallen among thieves.”In contrast to this “radical inclusiveness” of Jesus, pluralist or secular inclusiveness seems content with celebrating gender, racial and moral diversity alone, seeing “great faith” as faith in anything, repentance as an option for the pious few and compassion a virtue for those with enough time and money.Dr. Philip Turner, dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, writes, “Every denomination has its theological articles and books of theology, its liturgies and confessional statements. Nonetheless, the contents of these documents do not necessarily control what we might call ‘the working theology’ of a church. To find the ‘working theology’ of a church, one must review the resolutions passed at official gatherings and listen to what our clergy say Sunday by Sunday from the pulpit as well as editorials in official publications.” It is these on-the-ground statements that form the “working theology” for a church.Could it be that, unwittingly, we have allowed our “working theology” to be influenced by a pluralist inclusiveness that not too subtly, in the name of tolerance, shows its contempt for faith in one God, repentance for sins and a costly compassion for those in need?When such views inspire their church’s “working theology,” no wonder our tent poles are in trouble. If, on the other hand, our “working theology” is inspired by an inclusiveness that takes us past our racial, gender and moral histories to the possibility of a new humanity, built on grace not difference, we can have as big and diverse a tent as we want. Next time you are in church, check out its working theology, those beliefs that keep its tent poles strong. You will hear it in the sermon, in the prayers of the people, you will read about it in the bulletin. Does its inclusiveness get beyond people’s different backgrounds or moral histories and include an “alternative scripting” for their lives: a scripting that celebrates a commitment to one Lord Jesus Christ; a scripting that challenges our narcissism with repentance and grace; a scripting that calls us to a costly compassion for others? According to statistics, our Anglican tent is a lot smaller than it used to be. The temptation of some is to welcome the pluralism of the age and to make it easier to enter. However, those same statistics show that churches that abandon their core beliefs in favour of pluralism and who make fewer demands on their people for faith, repentance and service to others have empty parking lots on Sunday morning! A tent without tent poles is a very flat tent indeed, with little room to include anyone, even us.William Hockin is the retired bishop of Fredericton.


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