What’s So Good About Being Anglican? (Part 2)

What’s So Good About Being Anglican? (Part 2) June 13, 2013

Anne Hathaway - by Horus Tr4n (7746497574_dd9e8b19e5_o.jpg) (CC BY 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]), via Flickr
Anne Hathaway – by Horus Tr4n (7746497574_dd9e8b19e5_o.jpg) (CC BY 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]), via Flickr
I’ve gotten exactly what I wanted. Over the night after I posted my first post, Churl read it. The suspense is now killing him, and he is now describing my talents as made for television miniseries, such as ‘The Real Anglicans of Canterbury, Jordan Shore, The Amazing (G)race, and Survivor: The Evangelical Church, to be followed by Survivor: the Neo-Reformed Church (in which we don’t bother to vote anyone off the island because the matter is predestined anyway).’  For my part, I’m still thinking of something that includes Gordon Ramsay or Guy Fieri. Regardless, though, my wife has been calling me a ‘naughty Chinglican,’ so to say the least, I am quite satisfied. (Ew, Mark Driscoll, get your head out of the gutter.)

This second post will not satisfy any of Churl’s frustration. It is in fact intentionally designed to make it worse. By returning to the question, if Anglicanism is as bad as I described it in my previous post, then how did people like me enter it in the first place?, it’s like I’m rubbing it in. How on earth did we get in? Why the hell did we do it? What in God’s name were we thinking?

Since all theology is done through analogy anyway, let me begin my case by analogy. In fact, I’m going to try to make my analogies as shallow as possible in order to maximize Churl’s frustration. I recognize that the answer to this question will be very complicated. That’s why the post is so long.

It seems to me that most evangelicals who wind up Anglican (like myself; unless you were raised Jewish, in which case your name is Lauren Winner) found the Anglican Church in some kind of whirlwind romance. As the stories often go, Anglicanism is like that person to whom said evangelical was very physically attracted (oh, oh, see what I did? I made that gender-neutral!). As a result, said evangelical’s evangelical friends who have read I Kissed Dating Goodbye cautioned him (or her; I like evangelical feminists) against basing his or her relationship on sheer physical attraction. Indeed, they often ask, Doesn’t Anglicanism have a lot of baggage?

But we are in love, or as Stanley Hauerwas would put it, in lust. For every insecure Mark Driscoll masculinity quote about priests who ‘wear a dress’ (one wonders who is more insecure about their masculinity: the dress-wearing priest or Mark Driscoll?), we reply that the attraction is too powerful, too magnetic, to resist. Oh, that was so spiritual, we evangelical liturgical hipsters say about the liturgy. I’ve never had something that structured before, except when I planned out that perfect worship set three weeks ago that I executed with ‘rehearsed spontaneity.’ Through the liturgy, I really feel closer to God than I’ve ever been. It was so poetic. (I read somewhere, by the way, that this is actually how Rowan Williams became an Anglican.)

In some ways, this is my story, except mine is more along the lines of the Princess Diaries. There, Anne Hathaway begins the movie as a rock-climbing geek with glasses and very frizzy and oily hair (hey, sounds about how I look!), and not only does she not return her crush’s affections, but the crush of her life does not return her affections. After discovering from Julie Andrews that she is in fact princess of Genovia, she gets an ultimate makeover, and by the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), she is kissing the guy who had a crush on her (as opposed to the guy on whom she had a crush) and lifts her leg as she squeals.

Of course, I am certainly nowhere nearly as attractive as the guy on whom Anne Hathaway had a crush or the guy who had a crush on Anne Hathaway, but I think it’s quite apropos to say that Anne Hathaway is my Anglicanism. In fact, the real Anne Hathaway (I’m still talking about Hollywood, not Shakespeare) did once upon a time consider becoming a nun (Dolores Hart, round 2?), but when she found out that her brother was gay, her whole family became Episcopalian. While she now considers herself ‘spiritual but not religious’ (paging Lillian Daniel!), I consider her as the Beatrice figure in my story of the Anglican Church, which is (admittedly) my own idiosyncratic version of the Communion. (Let me note here, however, that everyone’s version of the Anglican Communion is personal and idiosyncratic. That’s probably why there is a crisis.)

You see, when I first entered the Anglican Church, I hated it for the same reasons the teens with whom I worked hated it. The liturgy was stale, the traditions were geeky in a very uncool way, the vestments were reviling, and the songs they sang sounded like three variations of ‘All Creatures of Our Bugs and Pigs.’ The kids hated it, I hated it; we just couldn’t see any beauty in it.

In fact, the funny story of how I became an Anglican begins with my defection from non-denominational circles to the realm of a man I like to call the ‘topless bishop.’ He wasn’t a bishop at the time, but he wanted me to work for his parish. For my part, I was looking for an escape out of the evangelical churches of which I was a part, mostly for political reasons: I was a very outspoken child in a conservative Chinese evangelical congregation with a congregational polity, so while the church’s congregational polity meant that I could hypothetically say whatever I wanted, that I had spoken too many times and with too little tact at several annual general meetings meant that it was time for me to go.

The ‘topless bishop’ saved my life. He called me while I was at work at a summer job doing industry manual labour, and he said over the phone, ‘Meet me for breakfast at a restaurant called Topless.’

Thinking that the machines around were making his words unclear, I yelled, ‘Where?’


‘How do you spell that?’


That was my introduction into the Anglican Communion and its sexuality struggles. (The restaurant was called ‘Tops,’ by the way, which only makes one wonder about what the origins of the bishop’s derivative were.)

From there, I was coaxed into the Anglican Church with a combination of the encouragement of Anglican clergy who wanted new blood in the system and the overwhelming promise of my own ego. This, by the way, is why I first hated Anglicanism. If I were to be the saviour of the church, I needed to save these kids from boredom, to catch them before they all secularized and went the way of the ‘silent exodus’ (Asian American evangelical terminology…I’ll explain separately!). The liturgy, the organ music, the status jockeying, the unpoetic Cantonese elements: these were all unhelpful. The kids would tell me that they were bored; I used to pass notes to some of them in service, asking if the ones who bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and nodded through the sermon whether they were ‘praying hard or hardly praying.’ The kids needed excitement, a burst of their religious affections (remember, I was a Piper fan), a kindling of the Holy Spirit, and a new hip (or as one of my colleagues put it, ‘high octane’) presentation of the Gospel.

As I looked harder, though, I saw with the rest of the liturgical hipster defectors to the Anglican Church that I could give Anglicanism an ultimate makeover. Because the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer really aren’t that strict, for example, we could have our worship team insert Hillsong, Vineyard, Passion, and Soul Survivor music between the readings. The sermons didn’t have to be drawn from the lectionary, because the lectionary was just a suggestion; we could make up our own sermon series and attempt to exposit whole books of the Bible the proper (neo-Reformed) way. The Eucharist could be very intimate, especially if you strummed an acoustic guitar while everyone was communicating. After all, with the rest of the evangelical liturgical hipsters, I saw that the Book of Common Prayer articulated Reformed theology in brilliantly poetic terms. Confirming this understanding were evangelical and Reformed books by Robert Webber, Marva Dawn, and Jamie Smith that argued that liturgy is the way that we’re formed, that we are made for poetry (we are, after all, God’s poema), and that because Anglicanism has such a rich tradition, liturgy, history, and spirituality, this is the perfect place to become formed into the image of Christ. This Reformed thing was admittedly dampened a bit by the Alternative Service versions where you don’t get to talk about ‘oblation, satisfaction, and propitiation once offered,’ but it was like the Eucharist could replace the altar call, which for us evangelicals was a big deal. In short, Anglicanism could save evangelicalism.

And that’s where I discovered Anglicanism’s baggage.

The baggage that I discovered in Anglicanism’s family wasn’t that she was the princess of Genovia with Julie Andrews as the queen mother. It was that Anglicanism was Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

There was quite a bit of baggage that I had ignored as an evangelical liturgical hipster and that I simply didn’t know about when I didn’t like Anglicanism and didn’t care to learn more. While I knew, for example, was that Anglicanism was founded by Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce from a political marriage (only to manage to get through five more women over the course of his life), I didn’t know about the political crisis in Tudor England and the consolidation of the state that those actions caused, as well as the political upheaval leading up to and past the reign of Elizabeth I. As a result, I also did not know to read Anglicanism as pretty much the state religion of the United Kingdom that was probably more interested in advancing the interests of nation and empire than I’d like to admit. This means that while I thought that someone like Bishop J.C. Ryle and his very Calvinist leanings were signs of ‘good Anglicanism,’ I thought I could ignore the crazy Anglo-Catholic and broad church cousins.

Actually being Anglican–and at one point, being on ordination track–meant that my pretty Anglicanism was devastatingly challenged.

As I worked in those Chinese Anglican parishes, I slowly started to notice that not all was as it seemed. There was definitely some wishy-washiness that went on, which, when challenged, would receive very wishy-washy theological justification. On top of that, I was privy to a few strange backroom political deals, some of which happened in the past and people told me a variety of versions about them, some of which happened behind my back to marginalize me in ministry, and some to which I was privy to marginalize others in ministry. (Come on, I can’t tell you more than that. They were backroom deals, for cryin’ out loud. I can only tell you that some were surprisingly ethical, with the only thing ethically questionable about them being that they were backroom deals.)  After the backroom deals, of course, we’d all pretend that whatever church split was on our hands wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Generally, we did not use the corny evangelical line about ‘God calling people to different seasons in their ministry’ to explain away people leaving. But we did come up with a variety of stories and explanations for people that were often so unconvincing that people would start to imagine their own versions of stories, which, layered over time, made the truth that we knew to have actually happened in the backroom to sound increasingly implausible. Add to that the involvement of a few out-of-town bishops whose actions must remain completely off the record, and you’ve got a story juicier than anything Susan Howatch could concoct for her Church of England series. (More on Howatch in Part 3.)

And so, at the parish level, I was ushered into the world of Anglican politics, the world in which Anne Hathaway is not princess of Genovia, but Catwoman trying to eke her way through Gotham.

And thus, to magnify Churl’s utter frustration and consternation about just how ugly the state of Anglicanism is, let me dish out some of the general dirt, that is, bits of intentionally vague data that I’ve collected over my time working in Anglican parishes and interacting with bishops and senior clerics (some of whom were very senior, let me assure you), and then using all of those experiences as a hermeneutic while reading Anglican theology.

The first thing I discovered was that racism is pretty much built into the lifeblood of modern Anglicanism. With no Virgin of Guadalupe appearing to refocus our attention, the racism that Anglicans have imbibed since the dawn of modernity seems to focus around reinforcing the sovereign power of the British crown at the expense of colonized, coloured populations worldwide. If indeed John Bossy is right about the ‘migrations of the holy’ from the church to the state in modern times, Anglicanism is a model for how a church got completely subsumed under the state, which proceeded to attempt to subjectify all of its citizens/parishioners into theological uniformity during things like the Elizabethan Settlement.

This subjectification under the crown became a sort of interesting colonial model. Since I’m a Chinglican, let me take Hong Kong as my guiding example (you can fill in all the blanks with Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, the African colonies, the Middle Eastern colonies, and the American colonies). As the British won the Opium War in 1841, there was a sense in which Hong Kong became the British crown’s chance to experiment with the creation of an Anglo-Chinese site (see Christopher Munn’s fascinating book, Anglo-China, for all the lurid and scandalous details). Within this colonial subjectification framework, Anglicanism played a very interesting role. As Anthony King shows in his work on colonial urban development, the idea of a ‘colonial third culture’ emerged precisely out of the segregation of the British colonizers from the colonized natives. That is to say, in the colonies, there were separate sections of colonial cities for the British colonizers–often working-class and lower-middle-class people from Britain looking for class advancement so that when they got to places like Hong Kong, they were the elites–and the colonized populations that they were attempting to subjectify (in Hong Kong, convert to ‘Anglo-Chinese’ citizens). In Hong Kong, St. John’s Cathedral functioned as the church in the colonizer territories. While the Cathedral currently (and commendably) serves as a hub for social justice especially for foreign domestic workers, it was the site of a lot of class conflict in the nineteenth century. In fact, if you read the early records, there was a big fight over who sat in which pews and whether you could put pews between existing pews (thus screwing with the class-stratified order of the space) in the 1850s, leading to a massive split in the church and the reconstruction of the pews.

What I’m trying to say is that in many places in the British colonies, Anglicanism was the religion of the colonizing elites within the segregated part of the colonial cities reserved for the colonizing Europeans. In turn, it generally wasn’t the Anglicans who first ran the schools and did missions among the colonized populations: those were Baptists, Union Church, Lutherans, and Methodists. The Anglican entry among the colonized populations came quite late in the game, which meant that the colonized populations (say, the Chinese) who became Anglicans also became attached to a symbol of colonizing power, i.e. if you were an Anglican, you were more European than the other Protestant plebs. Of course, throughout the early twentieth century, this dynamic sort of changed in parts of, say, East Africa where there was a revival. But argue this point as you might, the recent transition of the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) from the Province of Rwanda has a telling story. The new Primate of Rwanda, Onesiphore Rwaje, had an exchange of letters (read them here yourself) with the province’s dean, Bishop Bilindabagabo Alexis, about the financial accountability of the AMiA and whether money that was promised to flow in from the Americas had actually arrived. As if the financial scandal that caused ‘the transition’ weren’t bad enough, Alexis point-blank takes notice in a letter dated 9 June 2011 when Rwaje fails to acknowledge his title, and thus his status: ‘Also, in your reply to my letter, you failed to recognize me as the Dean of the Province. Was this intentional or simply an oversight?’ Facepalm. Revivals replaced status? Hm.

This, by the way, is why I find the central geographical claim of the current Anglican realignment–that the Global South Anglicans whom we in the West evangelized during the missionary movements of the nineteenth century are now returning to evangelize us–completely ludicrous. Again, this is like Hong Kong. By all accounts, the early British attempts to colonize Hong Kong turned out to be a complete failure, and it was not until the development of a Chinese merchant elite that the semblance of order took shape in the 1870s. But by the time the British left in the 1990s (and with some colonial political maneuvering since the 1970s), the narrative that was left over was that the British had done a wonderful job with Hong Kong as a ‘borrowed place on borrowed time.’ The idea that we in the West evangelized the Global South is already a problematic notion because one wonders how effective the missions that came alongside the crown actually were, especially if these were Anglican missions catering to European elites. Instead, as was often the case, there was a breakout of charismatic revival among the Anglican parishes quite late in the game, which made for quite a bit of indigenous revival, to be sure. And yet, these revival movements often didn’t often lead to the development of a new indigenous theology (Archbishop Paul Kwong in Hong Kong pretty much admits this in his fascinating book, Identity in Community), but a recycling of the old colonial theologies in charismatic garb, partly because the church still needed to function under the auspices of first the colonial empire, and then the developing post-colonial nation-state. That these supposedly ‘post-colonial’ Anglicans whose identities are still heavily tied to their nation-state’s political regimes are now returning to evangelize us is a bit of a ridiculous claim in terms of Christian orthodoxy, then. It’s more like they’re rebuking ‘the West’ for shedding the old colonial theological frameworks that used to underpin their imperial regimes, for (to put it crudely) failing to be the good, strong white people that we used to be. There should be no celebration that race has been overcome in this new Anglican re-alignment; it should rather be the lament that race has been refashioned with post-colonial clothes.

What I’m saying here is that in the Anglican Communion, everything within its polity that has been touched by the British crown is subsumed under the rubric of class, including race. Anglican racism is about class hierarchy in a political regime. It’s about British colonizers being superior and segregated from the natives. It’s about the native converts being superior to the plebs. It’s about climbing the ladder of race for class advancement. It’s about class advancement for increasing political influence toward the established national regime. Class, and thus, race, are in many ways built into the fabric of the modern Anglican Communion. Modern Anglicanism, in short, is little more than a political theology for the colonizing state.

The second thing I learned was that most every other English-origin denomination is a church split from Anglicanism, which means that Anglicanism can be taken validly as a proxy for all that’s wrong with Anglophone Protestantism writ large. Think about it. Presbyterianism: split off from Anglicanism to form presbyteries with Calvinist theologies. Methodists: split off from Anglicanism based on missionary methodologies. Baptists: split off from Anglicanism over the credo-baptism thing. Even the separatist Puritans (sorry, J.I. Packer): split off from Anglicanism for a more pure form of religious practice.

This has two implications. First, if Anglicanism was the religion of the state, these church splits were no mere private backroom poobahs; they were political splits that challenged the authority of the crown. What we have in the various Protestant denominations is not simply the debate over fine points of theology; it’s also a debate over what it means to be English, what it means to be under the British sovereign, what it means to be part of a British colony, what it means to do theology for the state. If indeed Anglicanism is a political theology, then splitting from Anglicanism implicates all the other English-speaking denominations also as alternate political theologies to Anglicanism at the core.

Second, then, this means that Anglicanism has a very special and schismatic relationship to the other Protestant denominations. You can see this in the current Anglican crisis. Since the late 1990s and the early 2000s, it was like all the other denominations were waiting with bated breath over what would happen regarding LGBTQ+ clergy, LGBTQ+ bishops, and the recognition of gender-neutral unions and marriage within Anglicanism. Now if all the other denominations were really independent of Anglicanism, then you wouldn’t think they’d feel the need to do this. But they did. If I might steal from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s title as ‘first among equals’ among the primates, I’d speculate that this suggests that Anglicanism is first among equals in terms of the Protestant denominations, partly because all of them take their Protestant cues from the Anglican Communion. In fact, I know the English denominations do this. Go find a Presbyterian book of worship, a United Methodist hymnbook, or a Baptist manual of service, and tell me what you see. I see the wholesale importation of prayers, baptism services, wedding services, funeral services, Good Friday services, Easter services, Christmas services, and even some Eucharistic prayers straight from the Book of Common Prayer.

In short, I hate to be disappointing to the evangelical liturgical hipsters, but if you were looking to escape Protestantism by becoming Anglican, you have simply jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Modern Anglicanism is all about Protestant identity. All the Protestant identities. Too many of them.

Which brings me to my third point…

The third thing I realized was that this whole crisis about sexuality is not really about the authority of Scripture or the divinity of Christ, but about the conflicts among the various theological factions of Anglicanism finally coming to a head after the last five hundred years or so. What I mean to say is that the factions in Anglicanism are not simply theological disagreements about this or that articulation of God; they are deep fissures over what theology is, period.

Allow me to illustrate. A very senior Anglican cleric with whom I spoke (I should not reveal what his position was) told me that when he had worked in the Global South, he was in fact good friends with Rowan Williams when he was Bishop of Wales and had enjoyed a thriving Global North-Global South partnership with him during those years. However, as both of them were promoted into even more senior positions, they discovered that their different actions in the Anglican Communion caused their personal friendship to drift apart. My senior Anglican friend had supported a Global South excommunication of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, which had in turn led to the consecration of alternate bishops with alternate provincial jurisdictions. These were actions that neither George Carey nor Rowan Williams (both Archbishops of Canterbury) could support, for they felt that these cross-episcopal consecrations fractured the Communion.

I then asked my friend what he thought of Rowan Williams. He said this: ‘Rowan and I both have a line. I draw the line here; he draws the line there, and so if Rowan doesn’t like me anymore, I suppose it’s because we draw the line in different places. But I know Rowan has a line. When Jack Spong said that he denied the resurrection, Rowan went ping! like that to Jack Spong.’

What my senior Anglican friend was telling me was more profound than I realized then, for in that moment, all bets were off. My friend was within the evangelical stream, Rowan Williams in an Anglo-Catholic stream, and Jack Spong in a very extreme latitudinarian stream. That my friend emphasized ‘drawing lines’ demonstrated what he as an evangelical Anglican thought orthodox Christian theology was: it was about keeping within boundary lines that fenced in what the truth of God was. This was, after all, the logic of the Anglican Communion crisis: several bishops had crossed theological lines that should not be crossed, and thus, their provinces should be excommunicated and those who are faithful to historic Anglican orthodoxy, i.e. those who stayed within the fence, should find alternate orthodox episcopal jurisdiction.

Imagine my utter surprise and consternation when I actually went to read Rowan Williams’s book on Arius. As an Anglo-Catholic, Williams had come to a radically different understanding of orthodoxy. He argued that it was Arius who was drawing the lines for God while Alexander and Athanasius had to use their creativity in relation to the tradition to articulate orthodox formulations of God, articulations that eventually became known as the Triune Personhood of God. For Williams, orthodox theology had nothing to do with drawing lines; that was Arius, for crying out loud. Orthodox theologians had to use their creativity to find truly catholic solutions to sticky doctrinal problems. Orthodoxy wasn’t about drawing lines; it was about tapping into what Williams has long called ‘the mind of the Communion.’

I imagine that theology is even different still for Jack Spong. My evangelical friend told me that Williams had a line that Spong crossed. But in Williams’s actual open letter to Spong, Williams (as an Anglo-Catholic) asks, given Spong’s desire to change everything in orthodox Christian belief: why does Jack Spong even bother to stay? Williams wasn’t appealing to Spong’s boundaries; he was appealing to his sense of catholicity. This in turn probably puzzled Spong, whose latitudinarian tendencies had led him to conceptualize God as a progressive revelation that could be experienced through modernity. As a result, this liberal theology might cause him to see my friend’s boundary-drawing and Williams’s catholicity as too conservative and not open to the progressive revelation of God. As Spong might say, both put too much emphasis on tradition and the institution and in turn might be seen by him as heretical because they denied God’s ongoing work and revelation in the present.

You see what just happened there? My friend, Williams, and Spong don’t simply disagree about theological positions; they are deeply divided over what theology actually is. Get ‘sexuality’ as a catalyzer, and bam! you have an Anglican crisis with no one who actually even agrees on what theology is. Is it boundary-drawing? Is it creative catholicity? Is it progressive revelation through modernity? Who knows?

What we do know is this, of course: of these three theologies, only one of them is really accepted in the Catholic church, as the evangelical one sounds a bit Jansenist and the latitudinarian one was the subject of Pius IX’s fulminations in the Syllabus of Errors. And thus, back to the Protestant point: yes, Anglicanism is Protestant. It’s so Protestant that it has two streams of Protestant theologies called anathema by Rome and one stream for catholic theologies, none of which currently get along because none of them agrees on what theology actually is.

Now take all this insight from the level of global communion, and plug it back into parish life. That was my brief Anglican apprenticeship experience. Those backroom deals and private conversations that I was talking about was all about this stuff: class advancement and maintenance, racial hierarchies, Protestant identity, relations with other evangelicals (some of whom began working in the church and decided to introduce elements of congregational democracy, which caused a bit of a rebellion against the rector that was kinda fun while it lasted), potshots thrown at liberals without any knowledge of what liberal theology actually was (take that, Jack Spong, although we have no idea how you do theology!), reading other people’s theologies through your own theology, having parish members go to evangelical/charismatic/liberal/catholic events and coming back wanting to change the church into their image, etc. Of course, I’m sure you can say this about non-Anglican churches (I grew up free church most of my life; I definitely know that you can say this in non-Anglican settings), but within Anglicanism, you could read all of the political problems happening at the parish scale within ever larger diocesan, synod, provincial, and communion-wide scales.

The honeymoon was over, the beauty dissipated, the communion turned into infighting. Selina Kyle Anglicanism. Got baggage?

Stay tuned now for Part 3, on why I’m not about to call quits on Anglicanism, or, for that matter, Anne Hathaway.

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