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Seeking a Charitable Orthodoxy (Definition)

This is part one of a four part project. The final project is here.

My journey through Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS) has been a difficult one. Deep within the inner workings of progressive Christian theology and politics, I quickly learned that traditional liberal values of tolerance, free speech, free thought, and civil debate were more easily affirmed — if even affirmed — than lived. In the words and deeds of many of those around me, it was made clear that there was little space for certain theological questions or viewpoints. In the early semesters of VDS there were many times I almost left. My sense of call and deep financial investment, however, kept me pressing forward.

In the midst of my struggles acclimating to the culture of VDS, I was also struggling with my understanding of what it meant to be the church and the meaning of ordained ministry and sacraments. I was raised Mormon and came to the Christian faith through deep theological study and engagement with a living, relational God. Though my faith journey led to me to reject the authority claims of the Mormon religion, my journey to faith in Christ was deeply rooted in the traditions, theology, and practice of Western catholic/magisterial Christianity. Liturgy, bishops, saints, robes, stained glass, music, and literature played a major a part in my Christian journey

I came to faith in a United Methodist Church (UMC). In the UMC I matured as a Christian and explored God’s call to ministry. It was a deep shock to me to find myself out of communion with my Methodist peers at VDS. As I excitedly took sacramental theology classes from Drs. Morrill and de Hart I was also shocked to find my sense of ecclesiology and theologies of sacraments out of synch with my beloved UMC. For me, deeper theological study at VDS has meant a slow progression out of the UMC and modern/post-modern Christian theologies. Though the trials of my first two years at VDS had been difficult and isolating, they were the path God took me on towards finding the English Church.

In the Anglican tradition I have found the deep theological roots I’ve needed to navigate VDS and feed my soul. The Churches of the Anglican tradition affirm and participate in the unbroken apostolic authority of bishops. Catholic in faith, Anglicans defer to Church tradition in praxis and theology so far as it does not contradict Scripture or common reason. In the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, Christ is truly present and human sinners are regenerated through the Holy Spirit. Priests stand in service to Christ and his Holy Church presiding over Jesus' table and offering Jesus' absolution of sins to all those who seek him. In all, the Reformed Catholic faith of the English Church is the theological lens through which I view the world and the very foundation of my Christian faith formed in the crucible of life.

Knowing and owning one’s theological lens is a good thing in pastoral ministry. Theological lenses, however, become problematic in chaplaincy and other ecumenical contexts. In my time as a chaplain at a nursing home and now in a jail, I have personally struggled with how to minister to those with differing views from mine while maintaining and affirming my own Anglican commitments. How can I “conform to the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of Christ as this Church has received them” as the ordinal directs while also ministering within a non-Anglican context? How can I maintain the received theologies of the catholic faith on ecclesiology, sacraments, and ordained ministry — which I wholeheartedly believe to be true and right —while also affirming the work of the Holy Spirit all around me? In short, what am I to make of the Disciples of Christ communion service I participate in each week at the jail?

Luckily for me, in the grey area of the via media, Anglicans have been engaging with my questions for a few generations. Starting with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 / 1888, Anglican theologians have been working through ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Protestants were engaged. All of the ecumenical work thus far, however, has been from a very academic and issue-specific (Eucharist, baptism, salvation, episcopacy, real presence, etc.) perspective.

My goal for this project is to sift through the last two-hundred years of major ecumenical documents between Anglicans and other Christians to synthesize a clear understanding of how we understand other Christian bodies and their ministry. The full communion agreements between the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Church of England and the Methodist will be of particular interest as both agreements required the non-Anglican body to receive the historic apostolic episcopate but not the reordination of presbyters/ministers. At the end of this project I intend to have enough information to write a short guide for Anglican clergy “on the ground” to assist them in navigating the difficult ecumenical situations ministry often brings.

My journey from Mormonism to Christianity and through the difficult times at VDS have led me to cherish the peace and calm clear, authoritative theological truth brings to my life. At the same time, VDS as taught me to see God at work in unexpected people and places. Between the poles of rejecting all Christians outside of the “catholic” faith and universalist, post-modern acceptance of multiple truths, the Anglican tradition has carved a middle way of living into a charitable orthodoxy. For the sake of my own ministry and the ministry of others, I want to free this path from its dusty academic tomes, so we can loose ecumenical tensions and move on with the work God has given us to do.

Addendum A: Pronouns for God; An Explanation

I am presently working through the ordination process of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). As a to-be priest I am already expected by my bishop and the greater church to uphold the covenants I will make with God and to his Church in my ordination vows. One of my vows will be to “reverently obey [my] Bishop […] according to the Canons of the Church."1 The canons of the ACNA include the Articles of Religion,2 the Prayer Book of 1662, the proposed texts of the ACNA Prayer Book of 2019,3 the catholic creeds,4 and the ACNA catechism,5 among others. By vow, by personal choice, by adherence to my Anglican tradition, and out of a faithful desire to serve my community, I hold to these standards in all my theological work.

In the liturgy of my tradition and by teaching in the catechism, the first person of the Trinity is named God the Father. Further, the second person of the Trinity, named God the Son, through the Incarnation took on human form as the male human being, Jesus Christ. Further still, the catechism teaches that because Jesus Christ called God “Abba, Father”, used masculine language for God, and taught his disciples to do the same (Matt 6:9, Rom 8:15-17, Gal 4:4-7) Anglicans, to remain faithful to apostolic teaching and the catholic tradition of the Church, are to do the same.6

By using masculine language for God I do not desire to imply a superiority of the biological sexes. Scripture clearly teaches the equality of all people in the Body of Christ (Gal 3:28). I do not intend to set a general rule for the universal Church to follow or reject fellowship with those who do not follow my practice or the Anglican tradition. For me, the use of masculine language for God is a sign of faithfulness to my community and a matter of integrity so that I can with clear conscience make the vows I will be required to make at my ordination.

  1. Anglican Church in North America, Texts for Common Prayer: Containing Forms for Daily Morning Prayer, Daily Evening Prayer and the Holy Communion, as Approved by the College of Bishops for Use within the Province; Together with the Ordinal of the Anglican Church in North America A.D. 2013 (Newport Beach, Calif.: Anglican House Publishers, 2013), 128. ↩︎

  2. Articles of Religion of the Church of England (London, England: 1571). ↩︎

  3. Texts for Common Prayer↩︎

  4. Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles' ↩︎

  5. Anglican Church in North America and Catechesis Task Force, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism (Ambridge, PA Anglican House Pub Inc, 2014). ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 39. ↩︎