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Renowned Anglican Theologian & Historian Weighs the future of Orthodox Anglicanism

Renowned Anglican Theologian & Historian Weighs the future of Orthodox Anglicanism
Progressives who embrace gay marriage worship another Jesus, a different gospel, and proclaim another Spirit. These are not two ways of being Christian; they are two religions worshipping different gods

David W. Virtue interviewed the Rev. Dr. Gerald McDermott on the occasion of his new book on THE FUTURE OF ORTHODOX ANGLICANISM.

By David W. Virtue, DD
May 1, 2020

VOL: You are a trained Anglican theologian and historian recently teaching at Beeson Divinity School where you have been for the past five years. You are an expert on Anglicanism, one of a handful in the world. How did you come to be an Anglican? Were you something before you became an Anglican? What persuaded you to become an Anglican?

MCDERMOTT: David, I grew up as a Roman Catholic and was trained by the Jesuits in a high school in New York City. I had a conversion experience through the Catholic charismatic movement in 1970, which led me to join an evangelical Christian commune after college at the University of Chicago. There I became a convinced Protestant under the influence of IVCF and InterVarsity Press.

After a number of years in communes and working as a principal of several schools, I studied for a PhD in American and historical theology. During those years at the University of Iowa, I was a Baptist preacher in the Iowa cornfields. Reading historical theology showed me that there were vast riches in the history of Christian thought and life, especially in the first millennium.

Although my Baptist years were happy ones and I learned many basics about justification and the human response to the gospel, I came to hunger for sacraments and liturgy, and for a connection to early Christian worship. The Book of Common Prayer, which a professor friend introduced me to, was an oasis in the desert. That was thirty years ago. Over the years I have come to appreciate more and more Anglican spirituality and theology, which seem the perfect via media between Roman innovations and low-church minimalism.

VOL: As you retire from your current post, you dropped a book on the Anglican communion titled THE FUTURE OF ORTHODOX ANGLICANISM that could be described as a nuclear historical bomb. It is shaking up the Anglican world and causing heartburn in some liberal quarters of the Anglican Communion. What possessed you to write this book?

MCDERMOTT: Well, I am the editor, not sole writer. The book came out of an Anglican theology conference at Beeson in 2018, to which we invited Anglican leaders and theologians from around the world, tasking them to answer two questions. First, what is the deep character of Anglicanism? Second, what is its future?

We were careful to invite only leaders and thinkers who have resisted the great creation heresy of our age on marriage and sexuality. We also decided to meet after the two telling events of the summer of 2018, TEC's General Convention and GAFCON's meeting in Jerusalem.

The talks became essays, to which we invited responses from two bishops and an ACNA theologian.

I wrote the Introduction and Conclusion, and one of the essays.

VOL: The book is a series of essays of which you have written the Introduction. Several are very hard hitting and I will get to that later. Meantime you seem to want to chart the future of Anglicanism as seen through the eyes of two Global South Primates -- An African and an Egyptian -- as well as several western theologians and bishops. What was your selection process?

MCDERMOTT: We wanted to be sure to have two leader/thinkers from Africa--one from North Africa and another from East Africa--for Africa is where Anglicanism is growing fastest.

We also invited a female theologian from North America, the Archbishop of ACNA, a theologian from Canada, a distinguished Anglican historian, the dean of an orthodox TEC cathedral, a young NT scholar who is also the rector of a growing ACNA church, and a seminary theologian in ACNA (yours truly). For added perspective, we solicited responses from two leading theologians outside of our communion, one Baptist and one Catholic.

VOL: The book exposes a number of serious heresies and dysfunctional behaviors by a number of leaders in the Western branch of the Anglican Communion which led to the formation of the ACNA and ultimately GAFCON. Throughout the centuries the Church has confronted heresies with varying results, why could not the present Anglican Communion live with this dualism and let the Lord of the Church sort out the wheat from the tares "in that day"?

MCDERMOTT: Because the heresies have been too serious. The principal one, of course, is that against the creation doctrine of marriage. This is central to the Christian faith because marriage is the principal metaphor in the Bible for God's relationship to his people. Yahweh is married to Israel, and Christ is married to the Church. Getting marriage wrong means getting God wrong. The difference on this is not one of the adiaphora or things indifferent. Progressives who embrace gay marriage worship another Jesus, a different gospel, and proclaim another Spirit (2 Cor 11.4). These are not two ways of being Christian; they are two religions worshipping different gods.

VOL: The Anglican communion is the third largest religious group in the world after Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Why is it important that Anglicanism have a continued place at the Church table with the rising tide of multiple Protestant (read evangelical) and Pentecostal sects who seem to be on the march in Africa and South America?

MCDERMOTT: It is important for two reasons. First, many evangelicals and Pentecostals are being drawn to the riches of Anglicanism. We need to be there to show them the further riches of the Christian Church. Evangelicals sense a need for mystery and history, while many Pentecostals recognize there must be more than emotion in worship.

Second, we stand as a witness to all Christians of the sacramental and liturgical beauty of the first millennium of the undivided Church. Of course we add Reformation truth as well, the sixteenth-century emphasis on justification by God's works in Jesus and its enrichment of the preached Word.

But I don't think we need to believe that we are the only true church. We have much to learn from Baptists and Pentecostals, for example. Yet we have a unique spirituality, liturgy, theological method, and sacramental theology.

VOL: Anglicanism is global and the greatest growth is in Africa. It is said that if you look at the make-up Anglicanism, it is black, female and under 30. If you look at Western Anglicanism, it is male, over 60 and white. By any reckoning, the future of Anglicanism is not in North America and Europe but Africa, Asia and South America. Why is it important for the Global South to hang on to England as the Mother church, when clearly a province like Nigeria is bigger than all the Western churches combined?

MCDERMOTT: I am not sure that the Global South needs to hang on to England. As Bishop Mouneer Anis points out in his essay in the book he and others are proposing that the new leaders of the Communion be appointed not by the English church but by the primates of all the Provinces. When the vast majority of Anglicans live outside England and the center of spiritual gravity is in the South, this seems appropriate.

VOL: As I read your book, one chapter that stood out was by Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church in North America. He described much of Western Anglicanism as "neo-pagan". That's a strong charge to make. He said an "ecclesiastical war" is going on and said much of the church had departed from the "faith once for all delivered to the saints", that it had rejected Scripture as authoritative, had rejected true Trinitarianism and departed from scriptural teaching on morality and marriage. Do you agree with him?

MCDERMOTT: I do. This is true for all the progressives within the Communion, no matter where they are. For them, the gospel is not salvation from sin, death and the devil by the life, death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, but liberation from earthly structures of oppression such as (their definition of) racism, sexism, so-called homophobia, and climate change. The means of liberation, for progressive Anglicans, is not the dynamic and supernatural work of the Trinity, but political and social forces. This is indeed a new form of pagan religion.

VOL: Is this a recipe for formal schism, or do you think the advent of GAFCON solves this immediate issue and the two branches of Anglican communion can live side by side till the West simply dies or the Lord returns?

MCDERMOTT: I think the orthodox will simply outgrow and outlive the progressives. They won't need to secede.

VOL: The words via media are passed around by a lot of people and is made to mean different things. Would you give us your definition of via media and how it fits into the scheme of things?

MCDERMOTT: There is debate about this. Some think it is the middle way between Wittenberg and Geneva. But Richard Hooker was the great theologian of the Elizabethan Settlement, and arguably the best and most influential theologian of the English Reformation. It is very clear that he was arguing against Roman Catholicism on his right, and the Puritans on his left. He saw the Church of England as the middle way between these two. This is the view, by the way, of the general editor of the 4-volume Oxford History of Anglicanism.

VOL: A lot of what I see happening in North America, at least, is that among independent evangelicals and non-denominational types there is a hunger for something more, a connection with history and the ancient church. Some years ago, there was a movement at Wheaton College (in the Midwest) called the Canterbury Trail, in which evangelicals began migrating to Anglicanism. Is that still going on?

MCDERMOTT: Absolutely. I see it all over the country, even in the Global South. This is why so many Anglican churches are filled with former Baptists and Pentecostals and non-denoms.

It is a huge mistake to reduce our great tradition to a kind of Presbyterianism dominated by intellectual sermons, with the addition of a little liturgy. There are great beauty and depth in our liturgical and sacramental traditions that reach the whole person with all five senses. This is why they reach children and Grandma with Alzheimer's even when the sermon is beyond them.

VOL: You have written that there are two great heresies; one is the doctrine of redemption which has led many to universalism and the other is the doctrine of creation with regard to the rejection of marriage between a man and a woman resulting in manifold sexualities now being accepted by the Church. This has led to permissiveness rather than holiness. Do you see either of these issues being resolved in Western Anglicanism or even in the broader Protestant American Church? We recently saw a total split in the United Methodist Church. Is this the new norm?

MCDERMOTT: These are the new norms on one of the two sides of a great fault line in the churches between the progressives and the orthodox. This line runs through every denomination, including the Roman Catholic Church.

Thankfully, the Anglican Communion is 80% orthodox, and the progressive wing is gradually dying. So we are seeing increasing strength for orthodoxy in Anglicanism globally, if not in Western Anglicanism. Here in the States, the orthodox in ACNA are growing steadily, while TEC diminishes by the day. In England, The Church of England is dominated by progressives and is gradually imploding. But the orthodox within it are realigning.

VOL: In this time of Coronavirus and church shutdowns, some see the Hand of God winnowing His Church, weeding out the wheat from the chaff. It could see a wholesale collapse of Western liberal Christianity, and the rise of a vibrant evangelical church, perhaps even renewal and revival that could benefit evangelical Anglicanism. Is that your understanding or just wishful thinking?

MCDERMOTT: God is definitely winnowing. I think we will see the departure of many nominal Christians and the new arrival of many who are lost and wandering, but who are drawn to beauty and truth in the Anglican way of living in the Triune God. It might be a smaller orthodoxy in terms of numbers, but that might be a good thing.

VOL: Thank you, Dr. McDermott.

Readers can purchase THE FUTURE OF ORTHODOX ANGLICANISM here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B085D9D33G/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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