Ironically, it was precisely in the context of a place like the Diocese of Saskatchewan – a place where I was free (and encouraged) to be the Anglican I wanted to be – that I began to realize my time as an Anglican would necessarily come to an end.
Parish Life & Paul Zahl
I was blessed to have been in a parish where the people were patient with, and sometimes even receptive to, my theological (and so my liturgical) ideas. In so many ways, that parish enabled me to grow in my personal faith, and to learn what it meant to be a minister of Christ. At the same time, however, I was always conscious of how different their experience would be of the Church with me as their priest, in comparison to my various predecessors as well as whoever my successor might be. This bothered me, because I was ministering according to what I believed, and did not like the fact that what I was doing most likely diverged quite radically from the ministry of my colleagues. I was confident, at least, that in Saskatchewan there was little chance of anyone taking a line contradictory to the Church’s teaching on such things as the Trinity and Christ’s full humanity and divinity, but this did little to address the fact that in all likelihood I was going to remain very much alone in how I perceived the Church’s ministry, the Communion of Saints, and such Christological questions as the nature of icons.
Then a parishioner gave me Paul Zahl’s book, The Protestant face of Anglicanism. The book might be described as ‘entry level’, but its intended audience in no way undermines its essential content. As naive as it might sound, and as much as I had encountered the Protestant face of Anglicanism in many of my Saskatchewan brethren, it was still my assumption that Anglicans on the Protestant end of the spectrum had simply misinterpreted the formularies. To this day, I am not entirely convinced by all of Zahl’s arguments, either in that book or elsewhere, but that does not mean that one can dispose of his ultimate position. It finally struck me that either a) Zahl was entirely wrong in asserting the fundamentally Protestant nature of Anglicanism (highly unlikely), or b) Zahl was entirely right and the very basis of Anglo-Catholicism was a misconstrual of history (possible), or c) what Zahl asserted could be balanced with Anglo-Catholic claims, and so the ecclesial reality of Anglicanism was that two churches existed under one roof (most likely). Whatever the case, for someone who had never thought of himself as anything other than ‘merely Catholic’, I was now faced with a hard choice.
What I ended up doing was to get on with my parish work. My mind, however, would not be the same again. On one level, this was a positive thing. My new realization certainly caused me to proceed with greater caution when it came to implementing my ideas in the parish. Many of my earlier pastoral mistakes, born as they were of Catholic zeal, became apparent to me, and I was able to recognize the integrity of many in the parish whose pious instincts were very different to mine. At the same time, I became aware of how mitigated my Anglican Catholicism was. Every Catholic claim I made had to be hyphenated or conditioned. I realized that as an individual believer, I could lay claim to the Apostolic and Patristic tradition as interpreted by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but that as an Anglican, I did so as a tiny minority: a minority that could in no way claim to have the only accurate interpretation of the post-Reformation English religious tradition. This made my position a subjective one, and subjective has no real place in serious Catholic theology.
There were practical implications to this. For one thing, while I continued to oppose the possibility of women being ordained to the priesthood, I realized that, in an ecclesial community more Protestant than Catholic, it only made sense that my theological reasons for opposing diverged significantly from the majority view. So while I maintained my own integrity, I gave up fighting for it. And while I certainly found that many Protestant-minded clergy and people thought hard about the questions surrounding human sexuality and anthropology, I knew that when I wrote about these issues in the local paper, any support for what I said was going to be voluntary instead of intrinsic. More often than not, there was no support at all (except from Catholics), and I was left explaining myself on the basis of personal conviction as opposed to magisterial teaching. Which is fine, but when a leader is trying to draw a group of people in a particular direction, it helps when those people can have the confidence that what the leader says is not his opinion alone. Teaching over a long period of time may address the problem, but as anyone knows, even a lifetime spent in a single Anglican parish can be undone with a new incumbent.
In addition to these considerations, certain observations also began to influence my outlook.
Mine was a parish made up predominantly of one ethnic group drawn from a single social class. This is not to take away from Ukrainian members who had become Anglican, often by marriage; nor is it to dismiss the significant Native Canadian (mostly Cree) population that played a role in the community. Likewise, it would not be fair if I neglected to give account of the unreserved welcome the people extended to everyone who passed through its doors. But the make-up of the parish, in terms of representing the people of our town, paled when compared to the Catholic Church. I am told that the average Sunday attendance at the Catholic Church was in the hundreds, including people of every ethnic background, and every economic group in the area. Even people who I thought would be Anglican by [historic] default went to the Catholic Church. Such diversity is what I had always imagined as truly Catholic, and I realized that there was no way an Anglican parish could ever reflect it.
The problem, as I saw it, went to the very heart of Anglicanism. As a religious system, Anglicanism claimed to be a branch of the Catholic tree. If that claim were true, then it seemed to me that, inherent in its very name was the implication of a sort of ethnic English chaplaincy. In England, it might have been more; but abroad, a chaplaincy not dissimilar to the Ukrainian Catholic Church (or some other ethnic Catholic enclave). That had never been the history of Anglicanism, however, as attested to by the nature of its expansion. Anglicanism did not merely serve the English and the peoples with whom the English had contact. It many places, it set itself up as a rival to the already-present Catholics. Which would be fine if the distinctive (read, Protestant) mission of Anglicanism was everywhere acknowledged, but in its polity and in its liturgical forms, it presented a Catholic face.
This is the contradition: An Anglican parish could never hope to reflect all of humanity in its composition of members because it is not a Catholic Church for all people. If it is a Catholic Church at all, it must be so for a distinct people (the English). On the other hand, in its self-promotion as a world-wide communion, it purports to be for all people. This is sometimes used to enhance its claim to catholicity. So we are faced with the question: Is Anglicanism Catholic for being a type of ethnic chaplaincy? Or is it Catholic for being a far-reaching communion? Perhaps it is Catholic for none of these reasons, but simply for its theology. Yet none of these suggestions could be possible. Anglicanism is too far-reaching to be considered an ethnic Catholic enclave. It is simultaneously not far-reaching enough to be considered a communion of all nations. And as for the last – that it could be Catholic by virtue of its theology – even if the events of the last fifty years were not enough to convince one of its inherent problems, Paul Zahl makes a convincing enough argument to give even the most ardent Anglo-Catholic cause to reconsider.
to be continued…