Why should I be, after all? Of all the many branches—or scattered splinters—of Christianity, why should I address this particular and peculiar English Episcopalian one?
Some already assume that I am Anglican, simply because I am engaged in the project of C.S. Lewis’ spiritual perspective. A great number of readers of this C.S. Lewis & Friends blog are Anglican. There are perhaps advantages to those that can share Lewis’ pew-perspective, but I did not come to Lewis because we shared the same altar. Far from it. Lewis has that peculiar ability to say out loud some of the things that I have been thinking inside. But we don’t share the same approach to faith.
Anglicanism does factor into my family tree. My grandmother was Anglican. It is a kind of family secret, actually. Not a secret that she was born Anglican: in Prince Edward Island, one’s religious roots are a matter of public record. If you visit here, someone older might ask your last name, and you can see they are doing some mental ancestral arithmetic. Born Anglican, my grandmother married someone from the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement—the churches of Christ/Christian churches—a tradition that I have inherited. We are adult-baptism folk, and they are fiercely committed to that point. We put Baptists to shame, really, despite the name. My grandmother used to criticize the changes that we made to church life. “It’s only proper,” she would say, “that a person comes forward one Sunday, gets baptized the second, and gets their Bible the third.” A free Bible was part of the master plan of evangelism, it seems.
As my grandfather was dying, a thought struck me. I had been through all the church records, and wrote a sort of amateur history of the local church when I was in college. I had never seen my grandmother’s baptism recorded anywhere. As my grandfather was a church Elder for many decades, it would be highly irregular for him to have a non-baptized partner. So, when he was in the hospital dying in his quiet and firm way he always had, I asked him:
“Did Grammie every get baptized?”
“By immersion?” he asked.
“Dunked,” I answered.
“Not that I recall,” he said. “But you never know.”
My grandmother, then, staunch traditionalist of the dunk-tank way, had never converted to the tradition.
My cousin, Dawn of the “Flags of Dawn” blog, is an Anglican priest. We met at a Larry Norman concert, and then at a national theological conference. This was quite a surprise, because it is always unlikely fact that there will be two Dickiesons in a room who so misunderstood social norms that they think a life of ministry worth pursuing. Some years later my family was able to worship at her church in my mother’s hometown. We still have a picture of my son, dressed as a biblical shepherd in the garb of a Saudi oil baron, participating in the most impromptu nativity play I have ever seen. Confederates in the challenges of ministry and the struggle of living Christian faith in this strange world, we still talk on until hours disappear. Dawn makes me want to be an Anglican, though she has never once tried to draw me in—at least as far as I can tell.
There is also my years working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where Anglicans/Episcopalians are stable features in a dynamic group that tries to hold a diverse and rapidly changing community together. IVCF was a vibrant period for me, a community that excelled at Mere Christianity in action. At Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology the Anglican ministry candidates impressed me. My PhD program is at a Church of England school, a 19th century seminary in a cathedral city that is now a university of the future bursting at the seams. I have recently spent a month in the U.K., visiting churches and attending cathedral services. And there are my friends, scattered across the world, who after years or decades of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism are finding their way into Anglican, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. The liturgy calls many to Anglicanism; the strength of history others; the elastic orthodoxy to still more.
All these features—and especially the latter—draw me in. Still, I am not Anglican.
And still I keep wondering why.
Not long ago I read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. The very first thing I read about this book, released last year, was that it was Held Evans’ story of how she left evangelicalism. Although I did not know her personally, and had never read any of her books or followed her blog, I could immediately guess why she might leave. I was certain that she was frustrated with particular aspects of American evangelicalism, particularly its stance on women in family and ministry, its anti-science posture, its investment in commercialism, and the blood it has shed in the culture wars. Rachel Held Evans is the snapshot of a frustrated older Millennial/younger Gen-Xer. Her story is in very many ways my story.
As I found the courage to begin the book (at the urging of digital friend Jennifer Neyhart), I was pleased that Held Evans’ was more than just my story. Far from it.
Truly, I have never been a woman growing up in a fundamentalist family in the deep American South who lacked the theological conversation partners to work through her faith questions. I doubt I ever will be. In fact, I had almost no spiritual upbringing. My church experience growing up was severe nuns in shades of grey, moralistic teachers, and hundreds of farm-folk crammed into an over-heated church for mumbled Christmas recitations and misfiring hymns. Church was that thing that happened to other people that I had to do from time to time. Christianity smelled to me of manure on rubber boots and wood-stain, not the great incense-filled cathedrals of so many. Even my childhood polemic against the church, really just the distaste of my parents, was half-hearted. I was a very poor atheist, longing for a God I knew didn’t exist and fearing a god I was told by others would punish my sins.
My faith came in young adulthood. I landed in a conservative evangelical church, like Rachel Held Evans describes. There was a critical difference, though: my first church was one that encouraged my questions. Occasionally shocked and more than a little dismayed, they nurtured my faith and gave space to my doubt. As a newly drenched believer, still mostly heathen, habitually atheistic, dangerously drawn to the arts, and perhaps one part pagan, I was probably the recipient of more prayers and the beneficiary of more mentoring moments than any other Canadian youth in the mid 1990s. Yes, they bemoaned evolution and were invested in male leadership patterns; these church walls cheated to the right. The music was poor and the preaching was loud and there may even have been a plastic bobble-head Jesus on a dashboard or two in the parking lot. In all likelihood I owned, at one time or another, a DC Talk t-shirt. But it was a place of growth and challenge and, occasionally, a place of beauty.
Rachel Held Evans’ journey of struggle and doubt does lead her out of her childhood Christian movement and ultimately into an Episcopal Church. For Held Evans, the discovery of the majesty of liturgy and its rejection of Mall-of-America-Christianity, combined with a space for women in leadership and a reasonable approach to sexual, political, and scientific questions, meant that Anglicanism would be a good landing space. At least for the moment. Her story, as is true of most of our stories, is still being written.
Searching for Sunday is a beautifully written book. It is moving in parts, and often uncomfortable. It lacks an architectural structure that could bear much more weight, and yet the deftness with which she treats her story makes it essential for so many who need to hear it. While she could easily reject so much, throwing out baby, bathwater, and tub, Held Evans holds on, even tenuously, to the evangelical community. I was drawn into her great doubts and struggles. Yet I was not left with the kind of cynicism that Gen Xers tried to pass on to me. Rachel Held Evans critiques the baseline of cynicism, drawing her criticism back toward her own limitations and ideas. In the end, I am left with stronger faith, and new energy to engage with my spiritual community.
A spiritual community that is not Anglican, but still has within its diverse and elastic right-leaning walls all the things that frustrate Held Evans. And me.
I am especially frustrated with my (non)denomination’s approach to gender. I am an ordained minister and have been a church elder, but I will not return to leadership in a male-leaders-only church. I am also concerned that my denomination has sold out not to the image of Christ on the cross, but to the “pattern of this world”: marketing campaigns, political movements, self-help books, and charismatic male leaders on a bright stage leveraging a radically disengaged flock in a quickly shifting spiritual landscape. Most of all I’m concerned with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirituality that has overtaken much of evangelicalism. Can’t get your life together? Just try harder.
It pains me—and not me alone, I think, not least because my heart wants to give it to it.
So why not leave? Why not join a movement that combines the rootedness of Scripture with the trunks of history and the lifeblood of reason? Why not become part of a denomination that gives space for what I believe is biblical Christianity? Rachel Held Evans is just one of a great number of people my age that have made this very move. Why not go to the Anglican church down the road.
It isn’t just because I’m scent-sensitive and the incense does weird things to my head. Liturgical churches do make my eyes water and my nose itch—in ways that are less spiritual than you would like. I like the bells better than the smells. But I would make the sacrifice if I thought I should.
Even then, though, I don’t prefer the bells either. I’m sure that the great majesty of the Christian liturgy draws people into the magnanimity of God’s presence. My bad eyes don’t help. I can’t read the liturgy most of the time. But it is more than that. I love the great big worship world of evangelicalism globally. I like the acoustic guitars and full bands and drums and repetitive choruses. This strange mix of adult contemporary and Coldplay-era Brit rock, typically played with much gusto and not quite enough skill, is actually a musical space that allows me to move to that interior castle. It isn’t entertainment for me: it is an invitation for my body and voice and heart to move together. I take my glasses off in worship, setting aside my questions to live in the presence.
I have gotten liturgical chills before, at Christ Cathedral in Oxford, or as the boys sang in the C.S. Lewis’ Magdalen chapel. Even then, I preferred the charismatic worship across the street at St. Aldates, where they sang Jesus-is-my-girlfriend worship songs and a young woman prophesied for half an hour. It isn’t just because I almost knocked down the modesty rail at the Cathedral, which would have certainly cracked the funereal stones that have lain intact for centuries beneath the feet of worshippers. In that St. Aldates evangelical-charismatic community on that muggy Sunday evening, in a room with dozens of denominations and nations gathered together—there is where I find the space to make worship not about me. I would make the sacrifice to move into liturgy, but I would still sneak across the street from time to time.
And I wonder about my son. Where do I want Nicolas to grow up? Right now he is in a community that loves him, that challenges him, that gives space for him to serve and ask impossible questions. Why would I change that?
So I have quite a complex answer to why I am not an Anglican—an answer that no one has required except myself. My theological perspective and reading of Scripture sit within the overlap space of the Venn diagram between the Anglican communion and my own. There is a lot of space in that intersection of two sets, even if the communities look so radically different. I am a little hesitant that the Anglican communion does not consider my ordination valid, but I can set that aside and choose another path. In a crass cost-benefit chart I would gain more than I lose in my work as a Christian theologian with the Church of England as my home base.
More than my comfort or my preferences or my fear of doing something stupid in the liturgy, more than my desire to have my son grow up in a community that I think is more consistent in reading Scripture in the world today, more than a yearning for a deeper biblical theological conversation—more than any of these is my sense of calling. I feel called to engage with a community that has taught me so much. Perhaps I am wrong about our areas of disagreement, and they can draw me into greater authenticity and truth. Or maybe I can help our community navigate the choppy waters of culture today.
Either way, I am called to engage.
You will still likely see me sneaking over to the Anglican church across the street from time to time. And I am studying Anglicanism, continually, always. But I will remain a part of this frustrating, problematic, flawed, and beautiful global communion that gave birth to my faith and gave me space to question everything—even when it made them afraid. This Sunday I will raise a shot glass of Welch’s grape juice to my Anglican sisters and brothers out in that big, wide world. Perhaps I will also dig out that old DC Talk t-shirt and see if it fits, even if I’m not doing a denominational Nu Thang.