Ordained Into the Abstract: What does “Anglican” Mean?

by Becky Garrison

In Christopher Armstrong’s brief history of U.S. fundamentalism, he cites that in the 1970s, “the movement began a tectonic shift from protecting theological truths in infra-denominational fights to guarding ‘Christian morality’ in a nation specially chosen by God.” As part of this shifting, terms like “evangelical” (Good News) and “Christian” (follower of Jesus Christ) were co-opted by these “gatekeepers,” and as such, these words lost their original meaning. The current blog buzz around author Anne Rice’s decision to leave Christianity raises the question as to whether or not even Jesus Christ would call himself a 21st century U.S. Christian.

In recent years, the term “Anglican” has also become distorted by those conservative evangelicals and traditionalists who have left the Anglican communion stating their opposition to the ordination of gays and women and the blessing of same-sex marriages. As I reported at Religion Dispatches the media’s interpretation, through contemporary evangelical eyes, presents a distorted picture of what constitutes Anglicanism.

The Rev. Dr. Maggi Dawn, Chaplain and Fellow of Robinson College at the University of Cambridge and author of The Writing on the Wall: High Art, Popular Culture and the Bibleprovides some clarity in her definition of what it means to be an Anglican priest: “ … you must have been ordained in a recognized corner of the Anglican communion. Despite the current unrest, that does mean still being connected (even if unhappily so) to Lambeth.” She offers these insights into how this media coverage highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of Anglicanism:

It is broadly inclusive of quite a range of theological variation, and, despite the tendency to cultural imperialism in the past, also allows a lot of latitude in localizing itself culturally. So in practice, I suppose you could say that Anglicanism works a bit like a franchise with a lot of latitude in the license, the downside of which is that it isn’t always easy to spot the fakes.

Also, Anglicanism may appear to be Catholic in some of its ritualistic practices but its Protestant colors shine through in its governance, with the Archbishop of Canterbury functioning more as an advisor than a centralized authority figure. As Dawn notes, One of the glories of Anglicanism is that—unlike many older and younger versions of Christianity—you are allowed to disagree with your leaders and say so out loud. They even welcome it.

This diversity is reflected in the  localized expressions of global Anglicanism that can differ widely not just by country but even within localized expressions of the faith. For example, here in New York City one can find a range of Episcopal Churches, from high church Anglo-Catholic to low church evangelical services that are more Protestant in nature. Despite some significant differences in theology and ecclesiology, all these churches remain affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and as such they are part of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. (ECUSA), which is a branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

By following the diocesan paper trail, one can easily make the connections to ascertain if a priest is part of the global Anglican Communion or if they are ordained by one of the more newly-formed splinter groups.

A genuine Anglican priest will originally have been ordained by a Bishop into a parish or other approved ministerial post (you can’t be ordained in the abstract, only into an active ministry) and will continue to be in a formal relationship with her or his Diocesan Bishop, and will usually have some form of license or certificate to prove it. Where priests work for institutions other than a Diocese (for instance hospital, educational or workplace chaplains or some mission organizations) this relationship becomes less immediate, and in some cases the link is less tangible. But appointment to such positions usually requires the endorsement of the Church, so there will probably be a file in a Bishop’s office somewhere to say so, and certainly somebody who can vouch for their validity as a priest.

Such splits between mainline institutions and their conservative brethren, who possess a more reformed theology, can be found in other mainline institutions. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), for instance, split from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) at a constitutional assembly in December 1973. Hence, a national figure such as bestselling author Rev. Tim Keller should be designated “pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA).” When a media outlet like Newsweek labels Redeemer without the PCA designation, they give the false impression that Keller is part of the mainline Presbyterian church instead of an evangelical offshoot. Likewise, similar designations need to be applied to those Anglican clergy who belong to organizations and individuals who might call themselves Anglican but chose to cut themselves off from the Anglican Communion. Depicting those evangelical and traditionalists as Anglicans whitewashes centuries of church history by replacing the work of Anglican giants such as Richard Hooker with evangelical heavyweights like John Stott.

While one might consider these to be fights of no consequence to those outside the seemingly insular world of Anglicanism, this battle over the blessing of same sex unions and ordination of gay clergy needs to be placed in the larger context of the culture wars being waged by fundamentalist Christians against the rising forces of “secular humanism.” In the eyes of these righteous warriors, their chief enemies are feminists, gay activists and others who advance what they perceive to be the “secular humanist” agenda.

Becky Garrison’s books include Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ (Zondervan, August 2010) and Starting from Zero with $0: Building Mission-Shaped Ministries on a Shoestring (Seabury Books, September 2010).

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