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Unyielding Topography and Our Future

Unyielding Topography and Our Future

By Chuck Collins
March 23, 2012

The catastrophic loss in membership of the Episcopal Church since 2003 is notorious, and the average-Sunday-attendance is an even bigger train wreck. So, when it was announced that the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) lost membership from 2018 to 2019 according to the latest reporting, it was startling. Some rushed to explain this as the result of two Nigerian-based dioceses leaving the ACNA, but even with that, and before Covid-19, the ACNA seems to have slowed down or stalled in its growth. This happened in-spite of the no-holds-barred push from our bishops to plant churches and reach more people for Christ. Perhaps this is a one-year occurrence and the numbers will be back up again, or perhaps something more important is going on.

Reporting after the most recent House of Bishop's meeting, Archbishop Foley Beach said that "we are beginning to suffer from a serious lack of theological and historical understanding in the Church." He went on to explain this as a failure to stay united: "the mentality which writes people off and breaks fellowship with those who disagree is creeping its way into the church." I certainly agree with the archbishop that there is a serious lack of theological and historical understanding, but the answer to our present indisposition isn't to "fight to maintain the unity of the Spirit in our church," but rather, to address the lack of theological and historical understanding. Unity doesn't come as a result of a call to unify, or unity around a dream of growing in numbers of members and churches, but rather around the core identity of historic Anglicanism. The plan for unity in John 17 begins with this important prayer: "sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (v. 17) - then Jesus goes on to pray for the resulting unity.

It can be disheartening to recommend an Anglican Church in another city only to find out later that it was indistinguishable in theology and practice from a Roman Catholic or Presbyterian church. Those are great traditions but they are not "Anglican." The Constitution and Canons of the ACNA first grounds us in fellowship and beliefs with Gafcon and specifically the Jerusalem Declaration (2008), then it identifies "seven elements as characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership." These include the Bible as God's inspired Word and our final authority, the two sacraments of the gospel, the creeds and the councils of the church as they are agreeable to the teaching of Holy Scripture, and to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion in their literal and grammatical sense "as expressing fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief." It couldn't be clearer that the founders of the ACNA in 2009 were focused on the historic Anglican formularies as the fundamental basis for Anglican identity in America. The Edwardian and Elizabethan "formularies" continue to define what Anglicans in America believe, and they govern how we express that belief in worship and practice. Given this, can Anglicans today really justify the adoration of the sacrament on an altar on Maundy Thursday? Or the practice of anointing hands at ordinations and the sacerdotal way we dress up and describe the ministry of priests and bishops? Can we excuse a preacher fussing at his congregation to "do more" and "try harder" without pointing them to the Cross of Christ? Or is there any room for the three-streams descriptions of worship and practice that were not even imagined until a few years ago?

The problem is consumerism and having twenty different toothpaste brands to choose from. Instead of ceding to a greater authority than our personal aesthetic tastes and preferences, we tend to stroll through our five hundred year history (really two-thousand years!) picking and choosing from the buffet of different movements, trends, and theological aberrations to fit our personal tastes. That road always leads to disaster. The church that stands for nothing will fall for anything, and this explains the dramatic decline of the Episcopal Church and the theological confusion of the Anglican Church in North America that have moved away from the unyielding topography of historic Anglicanism. This question is always before Anglicans and Episcopalians: if our tradition is not defined and tied securely to the traditional Anglican formularies as confirmed over our history, then where does innovation stop?

"The church that stands for nothing will fall for anything, and this explains the dramatic decline of the Episcopal Church and the theological confusion of the Anglican Church in North America that have moved away from the unyielding topography of historic Anglicanism. "

So what would happen if there was unity and clarity around our theological core? If our highest concern was the same as Thomas Cranmer and the English reformers, and Anglicans throughout our history, who invented and defined this expression of Christian worship and practice? There would be plenty of room for differences in liturgical styles (a generosity), but such a church would discover anew the uniquely inspired authority and power of Holy Scripture read and preached, and the central teaching of the Bible - God's unstoppable love for sinners, the free gift of grace that is received by faith. This church would be clear and excited about universal priesthood (all believers have equal access to God through the one mediator, Jesus Christ). And this church would weigh all liturgical practices, church programing, and evangelism on how well these things support and proclaim the gospel of God's gracious love for sinners (and dispense with everything that doesn't support the preaching of the gospel!). The problem today isn't our disunity for even our impatience with traditions other than our own, but rather our failure to unify around the authority of Holy Scripture as expressed in the historic formularies. Unity doesn't come with a determination to "get along," but with mutual submission to a theology different from Medieval Catholicism and 17th century Puritanism, a theology of unyielding topography that we call our Anglican heritage.

Chuck Collins is the Director for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism

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