Alex Wilgus makes the case for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) as "the best church for American Christianity in exile."
Earlier today, Christian blogger Rod Dreher asked a question: What is the best church for American Christianity in exile? In light of Christianity being consistently sidelined and devalued here in America over issues of opposition to gay marriage among other controversies, he specifically asked for readers to contribute an argument for why they believe their own chosen church is the best “ark” in which to ride out the storm. And so, under these parameters, here is my argument for the ACNA as Christianity’s best hope in the new century, which (I fully agree with Rod) certainly appears to be a long, secular winter. This argument is long but I want it to be thorough enough to be convincing. I welcome dissent or correction in the comments as usual, but here it is:
The Anglican Church of North America is American Christianity’s best hope in a state of modern exile. This is because it best understands that the challenges of modern exile do not proscribe the Church’s missionary vocation, instead it encourages it. The ACNA has three things going for it that I’ll explain at length: its missional nature inherited from the Global South, its intellectual seriousness, and a strong, battle-tested respect for biblical and ecclesiastical authority in the face of doctrinal controversy.
1. Missional: The ACNA embraces grassroots expansion within the bounds of authority. The strength of American Christianity down the ages has been its “do-it-yourself” quality. From the very beginning, American religion relied on ordinary laymen and laywomen as the primary footsoldiers of advancing the Kingdom. This is why American Protestantism can trace her foundational heritage heritage to a series of revivals rather than conquests or political coups. For some scholarly work on this thesis, see Mark Noll’s The New Shape of Global Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. This is a great strength, and it’s the reason why doomsaying about Christianity’s complete cultural marginalization, though not wrong, may be overstated in terms of actual converts. However long our exile may be, the ACNA has the materials to, not just hold out but expand in the face of it.
For instance, within the ACNA, the Greenhouse Regional Church Movement (in which I am a minister) has successfully multiplied churches in the Chicagoland area among Latinos, white urban professionals, residents of nursing homes, and apartment blocks of immigrants, while still maintaining strong ecclesiastical connections between congregations. They are currently in the process of expanding this mission to Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and even Mexico. Greenhouse takes its marching orders from the writings of Roland Allen, an Anglican missionary to China and later Africa in the early 20th Century. Allen’s book “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” challenged the modern notion of imperialist-informed mission work and instead advocated grassroots, local, and native-driven missionary work. His ideas, if not directly influential, proved prescient in the case of Africa which has seen the most dramatic spread of Christianity probably ever, mostly as a result of local congregations multiplying, and clergy empowering lay-ministers to go out and minister. Confounding modern Western sociological predictions that Africa would become largely Muslim as European colonies pulled out of the continent, the reverse has come to pass and Africa can almost be rightly named the first “Christian Continent.” The ACNA has not only taken notice of this massive Christian revival but has taken courage from it, sought out real relationships with the remarkable men and women of the faith involved in it, and it is gone out in their same spirit, taking African evangelists, not only as inspiring stories, but as real spiritual mentors. It is now very common for African Anglican evangelists to travel to America for the purpose of encouraging our churches here and share their wisdom. Their approach emphasizes priests raising up gifted lay-people as “catechists” (or lay-pastors) to go out and found new congregations, preach, pastor and evangelize. They encourage catechists and even some priests to be bi-vocational and versatile, founding congregations anywhere there are a harvest of converts. Through Greenhouse, we have established healthy churches in apartment blocks, nursing homes, storefronts and even, believe it or not, actual church buildings. As America secularizes, Africa is starting to evangelize it through the ACNA. Ultimately, though the ACNA is clear-eyed about the negativity toward orthodox Christianity, we do not believe that cultural marginalization will cripple our ability to evangelize and successfully convert. In fact, the shoe may be on quite the other foot. The reasons for this are addressed in the next section.
2. Intellectually solid. While the Anglican Church intentionally does not have a catechism or a magisterium, nor has it rejected hierarchy for totally decentralized autonomous congregations, instead it believes itself to be constantly contending for the true faith and building unity around it. Anglicans believe that the Church is always fighting heresy, that it is a constant conflict, and so every generation is called on to contend for the true faith. This means that Anglicans do not shy away from learning in the way that fundamentalists in certain Anabaptist traditions did. It certainly breeds a lot of discussion and debate, but it is debate of the healthy sort. In these perilous times, it is easy for the faithful to consider discussion and disagreement as fault lines and cracks of inevitable liberalization and compromise with the culture. But I believe that it is a healthy exercise of practical reason informed by faith in Christ. Oliver O’Donovan is a good guide in these matters, and he is worth reading. To my mind he occupies an intellectual place for thoughtful Anglicans quite similar to Alasdair MacIntyre does for traditional Catholics, but he sets an opposite program: full engagement with the world. Instead of retreat into “virtuous communities” and a Benedictine Option, he advocates for a frontal assault on intellectual matters instead of either closing down debates over doctrine with unerring statements ex cathedra or giving up on reasoned engagement with the broader culture in favor of separatism. Ultimately, Anglicans still believe in the ability of faith-informed reason to persuade, and you know what? I believe him. Here’s why:
Catholics and Orthodox continually point to the Episcopal Church as the reason why the Anglican Church has failed, but I actually see them as the strongest evidence of our success. Don’t mistake me, in the case of the Episcopal Church and even, lately, the Church of England, it is clear that the heretics have seized the reins of power, (i.e. money, property, and formal communion.) But the critics overlook us, the schismatics, and the brave bishops of the Global South who have sponsored us (incidentally, this is why the ACNA can rightfully say we enjoy communion with Canterbury, even if tangentially.) We have had our our tussles with modernizing heretics, and there were casualties: we lost buildings and money, but one look at the other guy will show that the Episcopalians came out the worse in terms of the one thing that makes a church a church–actual membership, which has lately plummeted to unsustainable levels. The Church of England is currently experiencing the same internal hemorrhage as it liberalizes. Though the heretics appear triumphant from the point of view of mammon and their formal connections to Canterbury, they have lost their doctrinal coherence and so have lost their parishioners, and it will be their undoing. I do not know why this fact continues to go unreported and why nobody ascribes any meaning to it. The numbers prove that, even if the culture is not on the side of the faithful church, reason is–since if one accepts what the Episcopal Church teaches, one also tacitly accepts that one has no need to go to church, except to feel the somatic tinge of nostalgia, and there are other ways to get that than communion on Sunday. I relate this recent history because I actually believe it shows the not insignificant fact that even if Christianity is losing the culture, the culture is losing the Church. And this is no small loss, because with it means that the faithful will once again be in control of the church, because it will be the only church left.
Part of the legacy of our break in communion with the Episcopal Church is that the break has refined matters of doctrine in the fires of controversy. Establishing a set doctrine or a catechism is tempting, but we can see from a cursory examination of American Catholicism (for instance) that doing so does nothing to actually confront heresy, draw it out into the open, deal with it, and move on. Though there will continue to be doctrinal controversies and debates, in the ACNA, they will not be the same as the ones in the past over gay marriage and theological liberalism. We will get to turn our practical reason to new matters, and so the fires of schism have further refined our doctrinal stances. We are as disturbed as anyone by the apparent victory of liberal sexual and theological attitudes in the culture at large, but instead of cowering away in virtuous communities, weathering the storm, we are actually sighting out Mars Hills on which to dialogue, debate, and evangelize the secular culture around us. My diocese: The Diocese of the Upper Midwest only just formed last year. We are strong, healthy and expanding. It certainly isn’t a wave as intense as that of the East African Revival, but we are not counting that out for the future. We labor in a spirit of hope, confident in our reason, and unfailing in our faith.
3. Authoritative and hierarchical: The ACNA boasts a healthy hierarchy and authority alongside its openness to reasoned debate. Just this month, we have elected our new (second) Archbishop with a very surprising and unprecedented show of unity. Stories abound from every diocese of unity and coalescence rather than splintering or fracturing. Indeed, this is how the ACNA formed (and it continues to congeal) in the first place, by gathering up the splintered pieces of the many schismatic groups from the Episcopal Church and forming them into a strong and unified Province of the Anglican Church. This has not gone uncontested, but the structures of authority and respect for the canons of the Anglican Church have won the day. The province faced its first real institutional challenge in 2011 when Anglican Mission in the Americas, another group of Anglican schismatics officially recognized by ACNA though not a part of it, broke with its Episcopal overseers in Rwanda over matters of finance. Though they were well-known friends of ACNA clergy and members, the ACNA refused to recognize them unless they proved themselves willing to submit to the authority of their Rwandan bishops. This episode could have irreparably fractured American Anglicans, but it did not. Instead, the ACNA showed itself to be committed to episcopal oversight and authority. AMiA exists today as a schismatic group officially unrecognized by ACNA or its parent bishops in Africa.
To bring this overlong argument to a close, I think that discussions over which church is the best “ark” on which to weather the storm tend to turn on which church has the strongest, most ancient, most “countercultural” sorts of rituals that will preserve the faith from the assaults of heresy. We are reflexively looking for how to build walls around our respective camps and preserve our traditions until the fields are more fruitful and our society more accepting. But this is not how the early church responded to heresy. They came out and met it. They evangelized in the face of it. When the Arians tried to seize their buildings, they locked themselves in and sang through the night. In short, they did battle. If orthodox Christianity’s cultural capital is being significantly reduced (and I believe that it is) then I think the lives of the Church Fathers would bid us become an insurgency rather than a cloister. In fact, considering the precipitous decline in membership of the liberal churches whose ideology has been blessed by the ascendant cultural forces, I think the Benedictine Option is rather the only hope for the Protestant Mainline, not the faithful. The ACNA is a church that has taken hold of its faith and its reason and gone out on a confident and hopeful mission. Part of its strength comes from its patronage by African bishops who know a thing or two about grassroots mission, and the spiritual strength of the poor (and who I can personally report are so full of the Spirit as to knock the socks off of any healthy skeptic.) It is using its priests to empower parishioners to go out and start new churches and win converts–instead of waiting for full-time priests to get the itch and take the potentially career endangering plunge into church planting. In short, it is liturgical, historically aware, intellectually serious Christianity on mission, and this has always been the hope of the faithful. May Christ the King come to reign in men’s hearts in this new century, and Satan tremble!
A few observations from a priest formerly affiliated with an ACNA sub-jurisdiction (PEARUSA) and now canonically resident in the Diocese of South Carolina, a body currently navigating through its own season of "exile" and looking at the ACNA as a possible future provincial home:
The missional ethos of ACNA is, undoubtedly, its greatest strength and its hierarchical structure under the leadership of godly men is a refreshing change from the corruption rampant in so many mainline Protestant denominations. I would contend, however, that ACNA's theological and intellectual underpinnings are still a work in progress. It will take perhaps as long as a generation for its clergy and lay members to be weaned off the vacuous theology of the old mainline tradition out of which most of them came.
That caveat aside, I am optimistic that, under newly elected Archbishop Foley Beach, the ACNA will begin to look more like a province than a mere polyglot of various Anglican traditions. Former Archbishop Robert Duncan did a noteworthy job of holding the various factions together during the formative years. It falls to his successor to lead those factions to the next level of ecclesiastical unity and, perhaps, to draw in other parties from the far flung Anglican Diaspora so as to make the ACNA a truly transformative presence in the midst of a culture so tragically saturated by godless secularization.