There’s not much ethos in trying to become Anglican at this particular moment in the Church’s history, is there? I have to wince every time at work when we hear NPR report on the latest round of homosexual idiocy in the Anglican Communion, having recently announced to my coworkers my commitment to the Anglican tradition. It sure makes people wonder what I could possibly find so attractive in the Anglican Church as it is now that I’d be willing to ditch the admittedly attractive glories of the CREC.
Now, with a robust enough view of apostolic succession and the importance of the historical institutions of the Church, you could dismiss most of this concern: “So what if they’ve got problems—at least they have the divine commission, and we don’t.” But I don’t really see the need to go quite there, especially since that still doesn’t fully dodge the problem—apostolic succession is worthless if it’s accompanied by complete apostasy. Otherwise, why shouldn’t the Arian bishops have continued to wield authority?
Nor can such an objection be dismissed as mere rhetorical posturing. There is a serious Protestant argument lodged here—namely, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The argument insists that the true Church is not to be identified by any simple external claim to authority via apostolic succession, but by the fruits of the Spirit. The historic churches have largely fallen into nominalism or apostasy, while we in the Protestant tradition have maintained the true faith and propagated it widely; our churches are so much more vibrant and wholesome, so the presence of the Spirit is visible among us. Why then abandon a place where the Spirit is quite obviously concretely working for a mere theoretical presence of the Spirit through apostolic succession?
Unless you insist that the proper external authority is the only thing that matters, whatever else may be lacking, then this objection is a potentially serious one. For a Protestant can even willingly accept that apostolic succession is tremendously important for the Church, and even that a church that lacks it is lacking a certain fullness of life and blessing as a Church. They can grant that, but then turn around and say, “But, the gospel, a holy Christian life, knowledge of the Word, etc., are tremendously important for the Church, and a church that lack any of these is lacking a certain fullness of life and blessing as a Church. On what basis then should you ditch a church that is deficient in one area for a church that is even more deficient, perhaps, in other areas?”
I think this is a legitimate objection and that we do have to recognize that each church has strengths and weaknesses, and that a strength in one area, however important, cannot necessarily compensate for any number of weaknesses in other areas. So we have to weigh these things, and we must do as Christ says in judging them by their fruits. So let’s try and make that judgment in the case of Anglicanism vs. Protestantism in general, and more specifically, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. I have three responses in favor of Anglicanism and its fruits (and much of the same defense could apply to the Catholic Church as well). Then I will offer a final response specifically against the CREC and its fruits.
First, what kind of fruit are you looking for?
I think this is a much-ignored presupposition when you get into this discussion. For us in the Reformed tradition, the first fruit we take a look at is doctrinal purity. “Look,” we cry “at least we’ve held on to the faith! We still maintain the Gospel over against liberalism and feminism, and all that!” It’s self-evident to us that we have more fruits, because we’re only looking for one variety of fruit. It’s as if we look at our orchard, where we’ve planted only apple trees, and, after counting up all the apples, brag that we have far more fruit than our neighbor’s orchard, where a lesser number of apple trees are mixed in with a plentiful supply of peach and pear trees as well. But an Anglican, or a Catholic, looks out at the same scene, and says, “Look, at least we’ve stayed united! Y’all have scattered to the four winds, or rather the four thousand winds, but at least we’ve still been able to basically stay together.” From their perspective, we’re obviously the ones lacking fruit. Now, I think both are necessary, of course, and godless unity is no fruit of the Spirit. But I think Protestants need to be careful that they are not screening out any factors that may make the other side look better. While we in the Reformed tradition have undoubtedly maintained a deep and strong knowledge of the Word, and a commitment to sound doctrine (at least in many areas), and this is a fruit worth regarding and worth preserving, we are deplorably lacking in other fruits that the Church should produce—a robust understanding of sacramental grace, with all its benefits in the life of believers; a people that are shaped by liturgy, even subconsciously, and all the benefits of such a way of life and worship; a strong sense of Christian unity…nay, any sense of Christian unity; a proper respect for authority; a vigorous missional orientation, with emphasis on relief of people’s physical needs. All these and more are terribly lacking in our tradition, so how can we say that we have more fruits than they simply because we have more of a certain kind of fruit?
Second, where have you hidden all the rotten fruit?
This ties in rather directly with the previous point, but here, the point is more specifically that even in those areas where the Reformed and Protestant traditions claim to possess all the good fruit, they are hiding much of the picture and are perhaps not nearly so well off. My contention is that, in our tradition, we have simply refused to count everyone who bears bad fruit; we’re like the family that looks perfect because we refuse to associate with all the bad family members, and we cast dirty looks at the family next door that still invites all the awkward and annoying and even downright rotten family members to the family reunions.
“We Presbyterians don’t have homosexuals in the pulpit.” Oh yeah? What about the PCUSA, the largest Presbyterian body in the country? We cut ourselves off from them and stopped counting them long ago, and so we can pretend we’re pure; but the Church that has stuck together, through thick and thin, looks worse just because they’re still dealing with their ugly members. If you actually look at our tradition as a whole, and pretend for a moment that we haven’t split a gazillion times, the majority of it is liberal, apostate, universalist, feminist, supportive of homosexuals, etc, with a generous helping of Unitarians, deists, Pelagians, Arians, and the rest mixed in. Look how the Congregationalists, who basically share our tradition, went into almost wholesale apostasy. By comparison, the Anglican Communion doesn’t look so bad, especially when you look beyond our national borders and see the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide, who hold fervently to the full gospel.
Third, what are your taste buds?
This again relates closely to the first point—by what standard are you judging what is and isn’t good fruit? This is a more minor issue than the other two, but I think it is still potentially huge. If you ask your typical Reformed person what all the bad fruit is that they’re not happy with over in the Anglican tradition, they might make a few remarks about homosexuals and women and that sort of thing, but when you really dig down, you find that things like “dead liturgy” and “idolatry in worship” and “lack of good teaching” and “sacerdotalism” are all mixed in there too. Of course, if Reformed judgments about how word, sacrament, and liturgy should work are indeed correct, these are all fair objections. But this seems to be mere question-begging. We’ve trained our taste buds to identify certain practices as bad, and so we spit them right out, without ever chewing on them enough to discern if they really are bad. We’re like the kid who just knows that he doesn’t like his vegetables and only when he’s 18 or so does he discover that actually broccoli and brussel sprouts taste quite good once he gives them an honest chance. I believe that once you do get down to it and really taste the fruit offered in Anglicanism’s liturgy and sacraments, you realize that that tasty stuff you thought you’d had was no more than high fructose corn syrup with artificial flavors and Yellow 3.
The Parable of the Sower
To this argument I’d like to add a brief, more specific defense of Anglicanism vis-a-vis the CREC. A lot of people are going to ask, “Why would you leave such a thriving, prospering denomination as the CREC, where so much great theology and church-building and ministry and liturgical reform is going on? Judge by their fruits, man! Obviously God is working a lot more here right now than there.” This is potentially persuasive, and even now, I think there’s a lot of truth in it, but I think there’s a pretty simple Scriptural answer:
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed…seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since hey had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away….Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty….As for what was sown on the rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away….As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty.”
I hate to be cynical, but just because the CREC’s growing fast does not mean it will yield good fruit in the long run. Weeds grow fast. The fact is, there is no root there, no foundation, and so I fear I must be pessimistic about their ability to yield long-term fruit.
Pro Ecclesia Christi,