Choose this day which mainstream you will serve!

Feb 24, 2017 by

A view from the USA. By David Handy, for Anglican Mainstream.

The recent joint statement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York is truly alarming. Justin Welby is no [former TEC Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold, much less as blatant as Katherine Jefferts Schori, but those of us who spent years in TEC can recognize a similar fundamental strategy at work here, reflecting a similar profound confusion over what really matters in Christianity and in Anglicanism.   The fact that both ++Welby and ++Sentamu come from evangelical backgrounds and retain a personal evangelical flavor shouldn’t deceive us, or lull us into complacency or a naïve trust that everything will work out all right.

I believe the fundamental root problem is that the leaders of the C of E are simply loathe to admit the obvious, which is that it is doomed as a state church.

We are faced with a momentous crossroads decision in Global North Anglicanism that usually goes unspoken and unacknowledged.  But we need to face that fateful fork in the road with clear heads and a very firm resolve. This the far-reaching choice between affiliating ourselves, as individuals, as congregations, as dioceses, and as national church bodies with one of two mutually exclusive mainstreams.

Will it be the cultural mainstream of contemporary Western society, or will it be the authentic theological mainstream of historic, biblical Christianity?  Because the two rivers now radically at odds, and are daily diverging farther and farther apart.  And the postmodern, aggressively secularized, pluralistic, antinomian, sexually permissive mainstream of Western culture is headed straight for a very dangerous waterfall (like the Niagara or Victoria Waterfalls in size and peril).

As Moses challenged the People of God to a momentous Either/Or choice in the plains of Moab before entering the Promised Land in Deut. 30, or as Joshua likewise challenged Israel to make a similar Either/Or decision before his death in Joshua 24, so the true faithful servant of God and leader of God’s covenant people must be willing to summon the people to a polarizing choice.

“See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses.  Choose life that you and your descendants may live!”  So said Moses, according to Deut. 30.  (But some will say, “that’s so divisive!”)

“Choose you this day whom you will serve!”, said his successor Joshua.  Will you serve Yahweh or will you serve the pagan gods of the people in whose midst you dwell?  “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!”   (“But, how exclusive can you get?”)

But the most apt biblical parallel is actually the dramatic confrontation on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and the hundreds of (false) prophets of Baal and Asherah (1 Kings 18:16ff).  Elijah didn’t take a poll to determine what the majority of the people wanted.  He took his orders from the Lord. Elijah took the proverbial bull by the horns (Baal was often pictured as a bull, or at least as riding one, since Baal was a fertility god and the bull was seen as a sign of virility and fertility). He issued a clarion call to make an Either/Or choice, with momentous social consequences.

“How long will you go on waffling between two opinions?  If the LORD be God, then follow him.  But if Baal be God, then follow him!”

In effect, Elijah said, stop straddling the fence and make up your mind.  Because you can’t have it both ways.  Yahweh and Baal are antithetical to each other. But my guess is that Archbishops Welby and Sentamu feel trapped, and unable to issue such a ringing call for a decisive choice between two mutually exclusive mainstreams or worldviews or religious systems.  Probably for at least two reasons.

Firstly, they are well aware that the authentic Christian view on matters of morality in general, and sexual morality in particular, is now very definitely a minority opinion in England.  The people of England have voted with their feet and abandoned the C of E in droves.  Today, less than 2% of the inhabitants of England will worship in an Anglican church.  That reflects a stunning repudiation of the C of E, which is no longer THE Church of England, but only A Church of a Tiny Minority of England.

But more importantly, because the Archbishops know full well, as members of the House of Lords, that the Christian voice in Parliament is also very definitely a minority voice.  And the bottom line is that the C of E is still, at this point, an established church.  Alas, that is it’s Achilles Heel. State churches exist to bless and certify the rightness of the political and social order.  The C of E is no different.  It exists in order to sanctify the powers that be in England, to assure everyone that the status quo has God’s approval and blessing.

That’s what state churches have always done, since at least the time of Emperor Theodosius in the late 4h century (who completed the revolution begun by Constantine.  If Constantine made Christianity legal and implicitly treated it with imperial favor by his lavish gifts to build beautiful churches and so on, then Theodosius brought the process full circle by starting to persecute everyone who wasn’t at least a nominal Christian, AD 396).

So another way of sharply stating the dilemma that the leaders of the C of E face is this way.  Choose you this day which side you are on!  Will you be faithful to the classic, historic Christian tradition, rooted in the authority of the apostolic tradition enshrined in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition? Or will you instead cling to the obsolete, old rigid institutional wine skins of “The Church of England,” rooted in the authority of the secular powers that be?

Because you can’t have it both ways anymore.  That is the awful dilemma that the English archbishops face.  It’s a No Win situation for them. And this terrible letter is a dead giveaway as to which road they are going to take.  They are doing the easy thing, going with perpetuating the illusion that the C of E can be the authentic expression  of Christianity in England, and at the same time being respected and applauded by the ruling establishment.

Historically, the record is all too clear.  State church arrangements are always bad for the Church in the long run.  They always end up favoring the interests of the state at the expense of the Church.  It doesn’t matter if that state church is Lutheran, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, or Anglican. All the state churches of Europe, without a single exception, have suffered badly in the last century or so, as European civilization has moved farther and farther away from its Christian roots. The only thing worse than a state church is an ex-state church that still pretends to be a state church!  (In effect, having all the liabilities of a state church with none of the benefits).

Alas, ++Welby and ++Sentamu are living in a fantasy land, where they vainly imagine that two mutually exclusive worldviews, value systems, and social mainstreams can peacefully co-exist, even while those cultural mainstreams (the Christian mainstream and the secular one) continue to diverge ever farther and farther apart.  Moses, Joshua, and Elijah knew better.

But is it even conceivable that Anglicans in England could make the revolutionary shift from being a part of the established church to suffering not only dis-establishment, but being forced, against their will, into the hard place of beginning to be anti-establishment Christians in England?  I firmly believe that the day is coming, and will soon be here, when the faithful Anglicans in England will be forced to take an openly adversarial stand against Parliament, against the social, economic, and academic establishment in England.

It’s no wonder that ++Welby and ++Sentamu shrink back from that scary prospect.  But in so doing, they are acting the part of Neville Chamberlain instead of Winston Churchill.  They are pursuing a hopeless strategy of mere appeasement, which never works.

The key question then is: what will the orthodox Anglicans in the C of E do? Will the C of E break up, as large numbers insist on being faithful to the Lord rather than trying to “waver between two opinions”? Will  Anglicanism in England experience an even worse division than TEC did?  Will there be a bitter and very ugly divorce, or perhaps a very English polite and well-mannered one? Do the conservatives in England have the necessary courage to take a different direction from the one the Archbishops are leading??

Whether things carry on as they are, or whether there is a split, blow taps for the C of E.  It’s doom is sealed.

Revd Dr David Handy is a priest and writer from Richmond, Virginia in the ACNA Diocese of Mid-Atlantic

Editor’s note: Thanks to Barbara Gautier for drawing this piece to our attention.

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