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by Alan Jacobs

The Conscience of an Anglican

A man under authority.

For some time now, people have been asking me why I haven't written anything on the current—or, depending on your point of view, everlasting—crisis in the Anglican world. After all, I have been an Anglican for nearly twenty–five years, virtually all of my adult life; indeed, my experiences in other denominations, before I discovered Anglicanism, were so brief and tentative that I don't even know how to be a Christian except as an Anglican. Nor do I wish to be a Christian in any other way. Surely I have some opinions on the mess the Anglican Communion is now in, on how it got this way, and how it might get out again?

Well, yes, I do have such opinions. But they are worthless. All such opinions amount to little more than the assignation of blame for past events and predictions of the future—the latter usually involving punishments to come for those blamed for the past—and neither of those activities interests me. There was a time when they did, but I have long since learned how futile such pursuits are, and (more important) how powerfully they distract from the core practices of the Christian life. This is the primary reason why, after too long a season scanning the Anglican blogs daily, I now check just one of them, and once a week, at most. This abstinence has calmed my spirit and removed, I think permanently, my taste for such things.

Moreover, I remind myself that the churches of the Anglican world are governed by bishops, and I am not a bishop. One of the chief reasons I have held firm to Anglicanism over the years is that I believe that the threefold order of ministry—bishop, priest, and deacon—is the model taught by the apostles, the governance particularly approved by God. In this model I, as a layman—even though I am also a member of the priesthood of all believers—have a highly circumscribed role. If my pastor asks me to teach, I teach; otherwise I shut up. In the unlikely (and unwelcome) event of a bishop of the Church asking for my thoughts I would share them; otherwise I keep them to myself, at least in public. The decisions that will shape the future of the Anglican Communion will be made by bishops, not by laypeople, nor even by priests; if I care about that Communion—and I do—I had best be praying for those bishops, and not repeating the error of Job in darkening counsel by words without knowledge.

Like the Roman centurion, then, I am a man under authority, and also like him, I have some responsibilities of my own. Chief among them is to raise my son Wesley in the faith of the Gospel. Around four years ago now I left the Episcopal Church because—thanks to various changes in our parish's life that followed the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire—I knew that if we stayed my son would be taught doctrines which I do not hold, and, just as important, would not be taught doctrines which I hold and believe it important for all Christians to hold. People who encouraged me to stay reminded me that, as (relatively) theologically knowledgeable persons, my wife and I could correct any sins of omission or commission when we got home. But the idea that the family holds the full responsibility for forming children in the faith, with the church being nothing more than a place of worship, is one of the ideas that I don't want to teach my son. Another one is this: that bishops can ignore or repudiate significant portions of the doctrine and discipline of the Church—something the Bishop of Chicago did on a regular basis—and still be thought of as legitimate pastoral overseers for their people.

In leaving the Episcopal Church, then, I believe that I acted according to what Cardinal Newman long ago called "the supreme authority of Conscience … the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." For Newman, conscience is anything but "private judgment": it is, rather, the testing of one's own private judgments, and sometimes those of others, against Scripture and against the long testimony of the whole church of Christ. And if we test those judgments so, and invoke our consciences, we enter perilous territory: as Newman reminds us, the fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirmed that Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam—Whatever is done in opposition to conscience is conducive to damnation.

But there is no coercing the consciences of others, especially in what Rusty Reno has called "the ruins of the church." One acts according to conscience, but it takes a certain rashness to commend one's own precise course to others. My dear friend Charles Marsh published a book this year called Wayward Christian Soldiers, and while I disagree with much that he argues in it, one chapter of the book has has often come back to my mind in an especially powerful way. Its title is "Learning to be Quiet in a Noisy Nation (and in a Nation of Noisy Believers)." The historical moment Charles invokes, and encourages all Christians to consider, is that of the German church in the Nazi era. I am not, let me hasten to say, casting anyone in the role of Nazi or Nazi sympathizer; the point of comparison between Lutheranism in 1930s Germany and Anglicanism in North America today is simply that both churches are broken, ruined; both present their adherents (clergy and laypeople) with potent challenges to faithfulness. And in the midst of such challenges—so said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, consistently, from the time of the Nazi accession in 1933 to his execution in the spring of 1945—almost the first requirement of the Christian is, simply, silence. "The time of words is over," he said; sometimes words have to be forgone in order to save time and energy and focus for what is more essential than words: "prayer and righteous action."

Not because I am taking a general vow of silence, but for other reasons, I am now concluding this online column. Its title, as you can see, is "Rumors of Glory," from a Bruce Cockburn song I particularly admire. Those of us living in the ruins of Anglicanism might be especially inclined to say that we have nothing more to go on than rumors, a handful of slightly hopeful whispers fading into imperceptibility. This could be deeply worrisome for those, like me, who see in Anglicanism a beautiful and compelling vision, a church that draws together the Catholic and the Reformed strands of the Christian life and thereby brings both of them to their fullest realization. I do not enjoy the thought that the Anglican experiment may be over, since, as I have said, I don't know how to be a Christian any other way; but I do not believe that that experiment is over; in fact, I have hope—I hear certain rumors—that it may be only beginning.

But even if that experiment is drawing to a close, I am not worried—a little sad, maybe, but not worried. I could learn to be a Christian some other way, if I had to, because, after all, there is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all. Plus, I'm thinking about Christmas, which, among other things, teaches us that all those rumors are true: the Lord of All came once, in meekness and humility, in the form of a servant. And he will come again—but next time in glory.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois; his history of Original Sin will be published in Spring 2008 by HarperOne. His Tumblelog is here.

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