07 February 2010

The soul of Protestantism, part 4 + why I rejoined the Anglican Communion

Blessed King Charles I 'the Martyr' of England

In my previous posts in this series, the soul of Protestantism (10, 12, 20 July 2009), I explored some of the historical and cultural roots of the Germanic ‘image’ of Jesus Christ, and how that has shaped the Protestant project across the centuries. As I recall, I finished by taking a few hints from Ched Myers’ reading of the Gospel of Mark as a corrective to the liberal Protestant narrative, in an attempt to escape its proclivities toward religious apathy and toward Romantic triumphalism while at the same time affirming the egalitarian social-justice, resistance and barbarian personal-honour aspects of the liberal Protestant tradition.

Perhaps I ought to fill in a bit with my own religious wanderings. For awhile, I was attended the Providence Friends’ Meeting. It was, as I said before, a quieting safe haven for my troubled soul, and I thank them sincerely for providing that. The philosophy (they don’t really call it theology) of the Quakers was very attractive to me; they do have this very strong emphasis on social justice, equality and resistance. The people in the Meeting were very welcoming and my peers at the Young Adult Friends group also; my thanks to all of them for their kindness, their hospitality and their support as I continue my search.

At the same time, I have felt a very deep and abiding connexion (even if only on an intellectual and cultural level, rather than on a personal one) with the English tradition and with English history (if it were not already apparent from my history on this blog); to a significant degree, it is what brought me to the Friends in the first place. And from a religious perspective, I want to belong to and be accountable to a community which takes Jesus Christ as its historical, philosophical and moral centre. The Religious Society of Friends does, to its immense credit, take the nonviolent example of Christ as their moral centre, but I feel that there is a philosophical disconnect, in that the conscience in communal meditation takes the place of meditation on his revelation in history through holy Scripture and through the historical traditions in which that nonviolent example is grounded. The Quakers do - also to their immense credit - have a strong sense of history, but it is somewhat an interrupted history: a history of their own tradition, not situated within the rest of Christianity.

The Quakers, to me, represent the best and most admirable in a liberal Protestant tradition which has taken individualism to an unchecked extreme. They represent a single corrective - that of greater emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit in community and greater involvement in the wider society - to a problem in modern American Christianity which goes far deeper, and is manifested in what the writers at The Christian Century are now calling ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ - a faith summarised by H Richard Niebuhr (though well before the term was minted) as ‘a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross’.

The alternative so often presented in modern American Protestantism is infinitely worse, however. By this I mean fundamentalism: a God who is all wrath who keeps men of inherent sin out of a kingdom without mercy using an ineffectual Christ without grace. In my view, both are characterised by a heretical, Emersonean over-emphasis on the salvific self-sufficiency of the individual. The focus is on personal piety, on upbuilding personal conduct in line with the pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfillment in the former example, and the personal assent to an inflexible set of absolutist constative dictates in the other. The centre of the moral universe is not the community of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven but the spiritual state of the atomised individual, divorced from any awareness of history (or irony or paradox, to use the Niebuhrian language – Reinhold, not necessarily Richard).

Healthier to my view (at least in this respect) are the traditions, Protestant and otherwise, which have committed themselves to a discipline of maintaining an authentic, organic connexion with a history centred in Jesus of Nazareth. I think that there are a number of things that Protestantism has gotten right, but the cost of cultural amnesia and the political apathy (or perversity) it creates is in many cases prohibitively high. I cannot help but laugh at myself for my choice to swing from one end of the liturgical spectrum all the way to the other – from the Lowest of Low churches to the Highest of High – but from my (admittedly limited) experience at St Stephen’s, I feel that the Episcopal Church tends to be less deafened to their responsibilities and their historical place within the wider body of Christ than the Quakers, and certainly less so than the Calvinists-in-denial of the Congregationalist tradition!

The personal irony here, far from being lost on me, is that a Midwestern boy who spent his formative years in a peace church in the countercultural tradition which pretty much founded Christian Anarchism has – because of the very pacifist and communitarian values taught him by the Mennonites – taken up an eclectic mixture of High Tory and socialist views and has begun attending Mass at an Anglo-Catholic parish in communion with an establishment Church of the Magisterial Reformation that recognises King Charles I Stuart as a martyr and saint. But I feel called, uplifted, challenged there – reminded that Church isn’t just about feeling good about yourself, but also about being of service in our present and being existentially grounded in a real and remembered past.

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