Seeing the disputes, arguments, and disagreements among Episcopalians and other Anglicans in North America from the political and social divides of our society, between liberal and conservative, or in church language, progressive and orthodox fails to help us understand the different ways Anglicans view ourselves today. I believe a better model is to remember Richard Niebuhr’s classic work on Christ and Culture and view our current situation in how we differ in the way we see our relationship to our culture.
First, let me explore a little background to this issue. 1965 marks a significant year for Anglicanism in North America. Historians often use this date as “the end of the Protestant Era.” It marks the point in society were the assumption of a broad mainline Protestant consensus gave way to an emerging secular one. Interestingly, almost all former mainline denominations can measure their numerical decline as starting in that year. This is true of the Episcopal Church. In 1965, the denomination reached its largest membership of 3.6 million. From that year onward, it has been in steady decline with just under a million members today. The first decade and a half of this century has seen an accelerating decline of TEC and the formation of the Anglicans in North America (ACNA) made up of many former members of TEC and a coalition of varying Anglican spinoff groups.
Before 1965 there were different styles and expressions of Anglicanism, high, low, and broad Church, but these still fit within the cultural context of the era and were mostly congruent with culture and an extension of historic Christendom. While we Anglicans have never been the State Church in the U.S., we have understood ourselves to be the State Church of the highly educated including artists and political leaders. Of course, another less kind way of saying this is that we have seen ourselves as the church of the cultural elite. We were the Church of Presidents and the Country Club, and we remain the most highly educated denomination.
Because of our close ties to higher education, Episcopalians are greatly influenced by the trends there, and especially those Universities that are the current cutting edge of secularism. Hence the emergence of secularism deeply affected our sense of identity. One only need remember the enthusiastic string of books in the mid 60’s that heralded this new trend, books like Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. Of course, in light of the harsh realities for mainline churches in late 20th century, these books strike us today as simplistic and naïve.
What then are the ways that Anglicans have differentiated amidst these immense changes? I see that three dominant ones have emerged.
Chaplains to the Culture
The dominant view at the present time in TEC is an attempt to extend the old role. The Progressives of TEC are today’s traditionalists when it comes to culture. They see our role as the Chaplains to the cultural elite. Of course, it is now obvious that the cultural elite do not believe religion and especially the Church is important even if they embrace an interest in a kind of undifferentiated spirituality. Perhaps Bishop John Spong best illustrates this understanding of the church. He has proposed for years a non-theistic and secular theology to replace our historic faith. What he and others are doing is repositioning the Church to be the Church of Secularism. This means that, like the University, our key concerns have become sex, gender, race, global warming, economic justice, and multiculturalism.
Notice in all the controversy within TEC related to sexuality and gender, none of the leaders ever seriously thinks of doing away with Bishops, General Conventions and the present Church structures. They believe that when women, gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals can be Bishops, the church is carrying out its mission. It is giving a theological argument, or at least rational justification for the place of religion in such a society and the role of the Church. After all, even a secular society needs at times Chaplains and Spiritual Guides. This is the party in TEC that now controls almost all the political institutions of our church Having gained ascendancy, they are pushing ahead with their view. These folks are cultural adapters.
Preservers of High Culture
There are Episcopalians and Anglicans who see the mission of the church as preserving high English Culture as expressed in the past Prayer Books and classical Church Music. Many Anglo-Catholics fall into this category and so does the Prayer Book Society, some English Evangelicals, and many Morning Prayer traditionalists in our laity. The best example of this group may be Prince Charles who is the patron of the Prayer Book Society in England. The way he expresses it is that the language and aesthetics of the Church’s historic worship ennobles and raises society. It holds up something grand and beyond the mundane of every day. Several of the continuing Anglican Churches are clearly in this camp. In the days ahead, I predict that many of its advocates will find the Anglican Rite of the Roman Church attractive.
However, there are many significant Episcopal congregations that remain vibrant and strong while following this model. They clearly prefer historic forms of liturgy, often using only Rite I. They offer outstanding classical church music. Many support the work of liberal education through outstanding private schools. The largest Episcopal Church in the U.S., St. Martin’s in Houston, follows this form of Anglican life. I would also point out All Souls’ in Oklahoma City as another excellent strong congregation that offers much richness in this corporate style that attracts many new members. Throughout TEC there are such examples and although their style often stands in stark contrast to the dominant view in TEC, their vibrant life gives testimony to the rich past they express. I call this group the Cultural Preservers.
This last group has been emerging for the past thirty years. They represent some of the fastest growing Episcopal/Anglican congregations. These are Anglicans who draw on the ancient roots of the church in doctrine, practices, and principles, but are willing to use contemporary aspects of culture. For example, they are willing to experiment with liturgy, music, and technology to reach un-churched people. This has been a largely innovative and intuitive group. Interestingly, the best spokespersons for this are often American Evangelicals who are on the Canterbury trail. Robert Webber was a primary example of this, but there are many others.
This group could best be described as Cultural Transformers in that they are willing to take aspects of contemporary culture and use it for their ends. In service of the Gospel, they would say. This always brings a certain tension in that some adaptations may bring more of the current culture than the Gospel, but that has always been a tension between the Church and Culture in every age. Another issue is whether some expressions of current culture are simply not redeemable. For example, do certain forms of hard rock music or Rap express sub-currents of violence and negativity to a point that they cannot be used in service of Jesus Christ? Many would say they do. Or another issue is whether contemporary music tends toward performance and whether performance is really an Anglican value in worship. Cultural Transformers have decided to live with these questions.
Because of this willingness to use culture, they share much in common with the Global South’s versions of Anglicanism. Anglican Churches formed in countries that were not part of or only temporarily part of the English Empire have to constantly adapt themselves to the cultural context in which they live. The vibrancy of these Churches and their rapid growth give testimony to the importance of such a mission directed existence. There are people in this group in almost every camp of Anglicans in North America today, many in the ACNA and The Mission. This group uses modern elements of culture in service of Cultural Transformation.
Into the Future
While I do not pretend to be able to see far into the future, I do think we can see some immediate developments for these groups. There are now many groups in North America that claim Anglicanism as their heritage and express their identity through one of these three ways of being. The ACNA makes an attempt to shepherd these groups into a common community, but within it, these different views exist amidst some tension especially over the role of cultural preservation and cultural adaptation. Only the future will show if this coalition can stay together under some consensus of what it means to be Anglican. Right now mutual anger and denigration of TEC gives them a kind of magnetic force field.
And of course, I should point out that any individual Episcopalian or Anglican may, in reading these distinctions, find oneself identified with more than one. In one sense, all of us have some hold of the Cultural Preservers in our DNA.
Hence, I think the Cultural Preservers have the clearest task before them and they will find allies in a number of places. This would include burned-out evangelicals, alienated Roman Catholics, and disillusioned conservative Christians. To worship God “in beauty and holiness” is a very biblical concept and a very Anglican mindset. The Church of the King James Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book has had tremendous effect and influence for those who speak the English language. Of course, Cultural Preservation can become precious and arcane, but when one listens to present American public discourse, especially in politics and in entertainment, we can see the contribution such people can add to making us a more gracious, kind, and reflective community where thoughtful intellectual discourse takes the place of what we now like to call “reality.”
TEC seems committed to becoming more strongly identified with the Cultural Adapters, Chaplains to the Culture, even though its institutional life is in serious decline. It remains to be seen if a godless culture will have need for a church. Many in TEC have placed their future in this direction finding common cause in anti-racism, environment advocacy, and multicultural (and multi-religion) inclusiveness and advocacy. They see this as prophetic and cutting edge. Forgive me when I observe that it is hardly prophetic and cutting edge among Progressive Democrats, and it plays out as extremely alien to many in the wider Anglican Communion.
We will have to see if the children of these Cultural Adapters will wish to retain a Church among their causes and concerns. There is plenty of evidence that the children of many of the leaders of this movement have not. It is apparent that at the present time the current leaders of TEC have not found the tools and skills necessary to preserve its membership and offset the decline of congregations. Many are hoping the new Presiding Bishop will bring energy to this task while holding to the passions of Progressives for a just expression of God’s Kingdom upon earth.
The Cultural Transformers have work to do on their identity. Yet within both TEC and the ACNA are a number of vigorous and growing congregations making new converts and disciples, and leading a major new church planting effort. Personally, I see among some of the 30 and 40 year old leaders of these churches real hope and future for our Communion on these shores. There are also new expressions of local community life with names such as Abby, Fellowship, and Community instead of merely “Church.” These express a realization that Anglicans need a new way of living in relationship with one another on the local level and with other Christians. In Canada, there is the work of Fresh Expressions bringing a renewed concentration on disciple making congregations as opposed to the historic concern with having members.
What I hope that I have shown here is the polarization between liberal and conservative, or progressive and evangelical is a false dichotomy that does little to help these groups communicate with each other and among themselves. I hope that I have offered a better way of understanding our current situation and have pointed a way forward in discussing the work and mission of the Anglican Church in North American in the 21st Century. I am eager to hear what others have to say about these distinctions.