What’s So Good About Being Anglican? (Part 3)

What’s So Good About Being Anglican? (Part 3) June 18, 2013

beowulf - by Phim Anh (2495606565_e17d29f23a_o.jpg) (CC BY-SA 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]), via Flickr
beowulf – by Phim Anh (2495606565_e17d29f23a_o.jpg) (CC BY-SA 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]), via Flickr
If you haven’t read part 1 yet, or the ‘Is Anglicanism strategic’ post, go catch up there first.

I am now deeply satisfied. After reading part 2, Churl is now wanting me to perform some sort of ‘theological magic’ to enact a ‘Houdini-like escape,’ as ‘digging one’s grave very deep makes rising from it that much more spectacular.’ Moreover, after the previous Wong Fu diversion, he is now commending my Anglican theological acumen:

“It’s kind of complicated. Let’s talk about something else for a while and maybe it will go away.” I gotta say, Chinglican certainly knows how to do Anglican theology – and I mean that of course in the most loving and Christian way possible.

He knows, after all, that I really can’t live up to the order of the Resurrection; after all, that declared a wandering rabbi the Son of God, produced what Karl Barth called a ‘krisis’ of the powers that styled themselves as godlike, and started a church whose complex history we have been exploring. Moreover, the question of whether Anglicanism can rise from the dead? is likely territory where even angels fear to tread. While the Lord Jesus promises us that we will do greater works than those he did (cf. John 16:12), I unfortunately do not wish to presume that I can give life to whomever I wish (cf. John 5:21).

So I won’t try.

My question is more modest: why do I stay Anglican? Picking up on Churl’s question about ‘theological magic,’ today’s answer comes to us first by way of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.

Because The Tempest was the obsession of my Catholic creative writing mentor in high school and the first thing I ever read in university, I’ve come up with a reading of The Tempest that will make all the people who think that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic very happy (apparently, this hangs on a reading of Hamlet, but that’s another post).

Here’s my read: Prospero is a Protestant Anglican. Of course, it might be tempting to read Prospero as a Catholic: he has control of the winds and the waves, the spirits on the island, the book of magic that perhaps the pope has.

But this reading doesn’t quite work if, at least as I was taught, The Tempest is at heart Shakespeare’s ultimate parable about modern science and political sovereignty, making apparent what has long lain hidden in his theatrical oeuvre. For cryin’ out loud, the guy’s on an island, controlling the spirits (like Ariel), kicking the monsters around (like Caliban; yes, I read Prospero as a racist colonizer and Caliban as a post-colonial cry for liberation; that’s another post too), and micromanaging his daughter (Miranda) worse than any stereotypical tiger parent (sorry, had to throw that in there; I am a Chinglican, after all). Prospero is no church controlling the world; he is the state subjectifying his citizens, including their spirituality.

Here’s the comedic twist, though. Spoiler alert: at the end of the play, Prince Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda, and the brothers who usurped Prospero’s throne back in Milan are reconciled with him. Once this happens, Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book of magic. He’s done with the magical subjectification of everything on the island under his sovereignty. He lets go of the establishment he invented. He is ready for reconciliation.

I’m sure that Shakespeare never intended The Tempest to be taken as a parable for Anglicanism. But it certainly can be received that way. After all, on a cursory reading of the play, one might think that Shakespeare is pro-Prospero: Prospero’s brothers stole his throne, Miranda is over-protected and rebels with Ferdinand, Ariel complains too much, and Caliban is a deformed asshole (can I say that on A Christian Thing?). But that Shakespeare makes Prospero give up the new establishment at the end of the play signals that he might be critical of Prospero, that is, critical of establishmentarian politics, as he is in many of his plays.

Shakespeare is thus providing a re-reading of Anglicanism. A non-establishmentarian reading.

Which brings me to the central proposition of this post: blessed are the English majors, for theirs is the Anglican portion of the kingdom of heaven.

I say this completely without guile, because I was never an English major. I am in fact a social scientist. (I need to put that in bold in case anyone wants to challenge my reading of English literature: yes, I am ignorant, untrained, uncouth, and make pronouncements on things beyond my discipline. Deal with it.)

But I wanted to be an English major in high school, so much so that while my Catholic high school required us to take at least one English course per semester, my junior and senior years were filled with at least two per term, partly because I liked literature so much and partly because I didn’t want to do home economics (imagine my regret when they cooked rotisserie chicken, though).  That all changed when I got to university. I’m frequently told that I took the smarter, more lucrative way out of things: rejecting my recruitment into an English honours program because the history honours program had no exams and lectures, I did my undergraduate degree in history, after which I defected in graduate school to the social sciences. We’ll talk more about the social sciences in part 5 (so stay tuned!), but while I suppose the stuff that i do in the social sciences is more ‘relevant,’ ‘scientific,’ and ‘secular’ (though the social sciences are also chafing under budget cuts), English majors and graduate students seem to have it the worst these days. They’re often told that they were fools to choose literature as a major or graduate specialization because of the putative death of the humanities in the academy. Become an English major, and throw away your entire career. After all, look at Anne Hathaway’s character in the often-panned Valentine’s Day (though my wife and I love this chick flick, partly because we quite uncritically love all chick flicks, and are proud of this ethic). Spoiler alert: we discover that Anne Hathaway’s character moonlights on the side as a phone sex escort because, as she explains, ‘how else is a poetry major going to pay back all her college loans?’ As the English graduate students on this Thing have also described it, the job market in literature is one that doesn’t value what they do, leading Lelbc43 to describe it even as a ‘theodicy.’ If English majors are indeed in such a state of poverty, it would be ‘very meet, right, and our bounden duty always and everywhere’ to acknowledge that they are poor not only in spirit, but in material means, and that their mourning will be comforted and that because of their meekness, they will inherit the earth, including the academy.

But poor as English majors are, the English majors will also inherit the Anglican portion of the kingdom of God because the English canon with which they wrestle stands as a crypto-theological critique of the modern Anglican establishment. Which leads to our second beatitude: blessed are those who ponder the English canon while hungering and thirsting for justice, for they will be filled.

Of course, the moment I bring up the word ‘canon,’ I realize that I’m in very hot water. So even though I am a social scientist, let me say that I’m aware that I will be slowly boiled alive. I understand that what purports to be the ‘English canon’ is in fact the invention of American universities’ ‘Great Books’ programs from the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and is now enshrined in the core curriculum at St. John’s College. I know full well that the canon has been used to construct a sort of ‘Western civilization’ approach to the world, one that is firmly pro-establishment and works against my post-colonial tendencies. I appreciate immensely the assaults on a fixed canon as a bastion of work written by dead white men (erm, Jane Austen? George Eliot? the Brontë sisters?) that is purportedly anti-feminist, pro-establishment, homophobic, exclusionary of subaltern voices, and discursively propping up an epistemic era in which (as Foucault would say) ‘man’ has become an object of intense scientific scrutiny. And so I fully take the point that in the English-American canon, it would seem that the ‘subaltern’ voices never seem to be heard, and everyone who’s worth reading are dead white men because those are the heroes of the establishment.

But allow me to protest by saying that this is a pro-Prospero reading of the canon. If we are trying to take apart modern Anglicanism from the inside-out, the canon is a remarkable gift. (I know that the One Ring of Power was too, but that’s different.) Because the function of the canon in elite universities has often been used to form a political class with critical civic faculties, you could say that the canon has often been used in the service of the state.

By canon, then, what I mean to refer to is that very loose collection of English-language books, many of which were written by British authors usually from Shakespeare onward to the nineteenth century (with some American inclusions for American state subjectification purposes and pre-modern works, usually of a Greco-Roman imperial nature, just to be well-rounded with the politics of pagan antiquity), that is often taught to us as ‘the classics.’ What I mean to say is this: if I start discussing a book that’s not in your canon, please don’t skewer me. Instead, it just proves my point that this is a ‘very loose collection of English-language books.’

I’d like to co-opt this (very loose) canon for our own purposes. Let’s move the canon back from its service to the state to the service of the church.

And thus, completely ignoring the canon debate because it really is a very state-centric conversation, let’s think about an alternate ecclesial way forward: let’s read the canon as Anglican theology.

In so doing, what we might find is that there is something in the canon that predates the modern Anglican establishment, something perhaps even akin to a Shakespearean critique of Prospero’s magical subjectification strategies. Indeed, let’s co-opt philosopher John Searle’s assertion that the reading of the canon inculcated a ‘critical attitude’ that ‘served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie’ and thus ‘once served an unmasking function.’ For us, the task of canon reading is not to be formed into an American political elite, although I’m sure that we’d all be better off as critics of American imperialism once we’ve read the canon. Instead, if we read English literature as Anglican theology, we might find that what has ended up in the canon is all the stuff with a tense relationship to the state establishment. In other words, the canon may well be the seeds that lead to the dismantling of Anglican church-state entanglement.

Here’s where some critical theory might actually be helpful. As a social scientist, I’ve found the notion of the ‘public sphere’ as a circulation of literary, artistic, and theatrical works particularly helpful. The go-to guy here is critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, who says that around the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there arose (particularly in England) a bourgeois public sphere, which was located between the authoritarian Enlightenment state (it behooves us always to remember that the first iteration of Enlightenment monarchy was the ‘divine sovereign,’ even in the British Isles…or did you forget to read Hobbes?) and the governed masses. The public sphere emerged as a conversation among a liberal, property-owning middle class about how the state represented itself. Starting out by portraying the state’s court, these comedies and dramas in art, theatre, and an increasing amount of literature became texts through which the bourgeois could critique the state. As people like Habermas as well as Michael Warner show, what we now call the ‘canon’ was instrumental in creating this buffer zone between the state and its citizens, between the establishment and the masses. And in time, of course, this public sphere became a vehicle for the state, what we now call modern democracy.

While theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh have often knocked democratic movements for being overly state-centric and otherwise nihilistic (and indeed, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the church functions as just another democratizing institution in the service of the democratic state), I’d like to join someone like Nicholas Wolterstorff in saying that the language of democracy, human rights, and justice predate modern democracy.  Following that, I’d like to suggest that if the canon can be read as sowing the seeds for the relativization of state authoritarianism, all of this might imply a sort of Anglican impulse that predates the establishment of modern Anglicanism, one that finds itself constantly in tension with the state establishment, one that is ultimately concerned with the human person and his or her mystical communion with the living God as the critique of state subjectification. It’s that impulse that I am arguing is more properly called Anglican Christianity, one that functions constantly as an undercurrent of critique to the modern Anglican establishment that is so embedded with the powers of the state.

And thus, walking onto territory that is definitely more properly Churl’s and Lelbc43’s than mine, I’d like to suggest that what is needed is a reading of the English literature prior to the Anglican establishment that remains in continuity with what comes afterward. In other words, let’s read the canon as Anglican theology. Put another way, let’s read Shakespeare’s critique of Prospero as a continuous thread through the canon. (Just so you know, I’m going to be very selective here. As in, you may come away from this survey very dissatisfied that your favourite author didn’t get covered. I apologize for two reasons. First, I am running out of room. Second, I’m a social scientist and thus incompetent to discuss everybody competently. In fact, if you see any incompetence in what follows, please feel free to laugh.)

And let’s start precisely where I should not, that is, by colonizing Churl’s territory and saying that something like Sing Me Hwaethwugu is what I am calling a ‘crypto-Anglican blog.’  Let’s re-read Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. Of course, by including these in the Anglican canon (heh, see what I did there), I’m saying that the ‘Anglican canon’ doesn’t need to start with the old pagan Near Eastern and Greco-Roman imperial ‘classics’ (as most canons go), as if those were really necessary for full catholicity (Augustine basically says that they’re nice to critique in The City of God, that is, except for Plato; Augustine kinda likes Plato). Let’s start instead with the Anglo-Saxons.

If we read Beowulf and Bede with an Anglican eye, we might find that much of what has been construed as ‘Celtic Christianity’ in our popular Christian parlance is more properly described as ‘early Anglican Christianity.’ After all, this was the point of the Gregorian missions: to evangelize the Angles, a job that St. Augustine of Canterbury discovered was much harder than Gregory imagined because the British isles were the site of all kinds of tribal warfare as well as already-existing monasteries that had to be brought into full catholicity with Rome (hence the need for the Synod of Whitby). This evangelization brings out a central theological point that arguably runs throughout medieval Christendom: the state can really only do so much against the forces of evil. From Ambrose excommunicating Theodosius to Gregory VII excommunicating Henry, the point is that the church always relativizes the powers of the king. Beowulf recognizes this limit. As the hero of the Danish court, Beowulf goes out to fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother and wins a great victory for the Danes. But he’s outclassed by the dragon, whom he does slay, but he ends up getting killed himself. So too, the whole point of Bede’s book is that the Gregorian missionaries came to the British Isles, and, finding the tribes at war, they relativized the powers of the tribal leaders (sometimes even calling down curses upon them), and as peace came to the Isles, they relativized the independence of the Isles altogether by making the church there conform to an Easter date. In short, the church always says to the state and its proto-state ancestors, Your powers are limited. When they get too big, they cause all sorts of violence. Recognize your relative power. (This point is arguably also in the Arthurian legends, especially when we compare Galahad to Lancelot. But I’m running out of room!)


Forgive me the next anachronistic move (I’m going to combine a few centuries that I know that I shouldn’t; this blog post would never get past a peer review, which is why it’s a blog post!): this is why I think we should read Anselm and Chaucer together. After all, Anselm was an Archbishop of Canterbury in tension with the state: trying to bend William and Henry to submission to the pope (and arguably to Canterbury) even while those two kings were trying to consolidate their state power, Anselm got the the boot twice from England. In turn, Chaucer was writing about Canterbury pilgrims grappling with the murder of another Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, arguably by the state (and by another Henry) because he tried to resist Henry II’s consolidation of state power. After his assassination, Henry went and prayed at his tomb in penance, which is nice because that relativizes the state too.

Here we see that when the church tells the state that its powers are relative, the state sometimes wants to exclude the church, often to its own detriment. Read this way, and Anselm’s ‘debt’ atonement theology makes a lot of sense: after all, as he’s writing Cur Deus Homo in exile (well, he started it at Canterbury, and then got the boot), he’s probably thinking that William and Henry have a lot of debts to pay and a lot of divine wrath to satisfy for their actions. So too, as Chaucer concocts The Canterbury Tales, everyone–especially clergymen and monks out for their own power and pleasure–gets wickedly skewered in bawdy comedy, which suggests that in the tension between the church and the state, the struggle of the powers produces plenty of fodder for hilarity. Indeed, we learn something new from Chaucer: as the church vies for power with the state, as if the church should engage the state on its own terms of power, the church becomes no better than the state and should thus also be subjected to comedic critique. Struggle for power, Chaucer says, and the joke’s on you.

It’s that hilariously critical hermeneutic that becomes veiled from Shakespeare onward. By the time that one gets to early modern English literature, especially after the Elizabethan settlement, it becomes easy to read the canon as pro-establishment, trying to subjectify citizens with moral virtues that are conducive to their participation as agents of the state. After all, Henry VIII was somewhat successful: in Henry, you could say, the struggle of church against state in the British Isles culminated with the state eating the church.

And so, it’s now really easy to read British literature through a sort of Anglophilic, pro-establishment way. In fact, this is how I grew up. I was told that because I read Dickens, Austen, Trollope, etc. in late elementary, junior high, and high school, that I was a nice conservative child. To some extent, I believed it. I read ‘classical literature’ (Austen and Dickens as classical? Hm.), listened to ‘classical music’ (you mean to tell me that Bach and Elgar were classical?), and watched period movies and ‘classical’ plays (Shakespeare as classical?) because I was that kid. Not just the nerdy Chinese kid (as you may recall, the stereotype usually has more to do with math and science than with English), but the kid with character, the kid with virtue, the kid who was superior to all of his Chinese church and Christian school pleb friends because he was classical.

When I discovered that I was in Selina Kyle Anglicanism, I realized that it was precisely the canon–the same canon that I had read as a sort of pro-establishment conservative child–that in fact undermined the modern Anglican establishment. In other words, while the canon can be used for the purposes of state subjectification through the academy and the church, the works in the canon actually posit a tension between what the establishment is trying to do and what it means to be truly human as a critique of the establishment. (I suppose this is true of the biblical canon as well.)

In other words, read as Anglican theology, the English canon works to dislodge the church from state ideology. I don’t have time to now go back and re-read Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (a non-Anglican who wrote an awful lot about Anglicans), among others, with you. But I trust that with this hermeneutic, you’ll find out why despite the best-laid plans, the Austen characters working through their comedy of manners always wind up with the least-expected guy. You’ll re-think the whole plot of Jane Eyre as a not-so-subtle critique of Anglican colonizing missions and its impulse to subjectification, ironically finding in the ‘establishment’ of Mr. Rochester the seeds of the colonial state’s relativization. You’ll get your aha moment when reading Middlemarch and finding out that Eliot’s critique of the Anglican establishment is in fact a relativization of the powers of the church co-opted by the state for the sake of political gain. And you will laugh incessantly (as I do) every time a beadle shows up in Dickens’s novels.

As I read the canon as Anglican theology, then, I have great hope that the oppressive modern establishment that styles itself as the face of Anglican Christianity can be dismantled, and the true Anglicanism that predates modern Anglicanism can once again be known as Anglican Christianity. In fact, I know it must be dismantled because of the conclusions of yet another literary scholar, René Girard.

If we were to read the founding of modern Anglicanism through a Girardian lens, we would find that much of what modern Anglicanism purports to be was founded on a series of original murders, namely the long consolidation of Tudor England as a culmination to the War of the Roses. But what if we take those founding myths and posit them not as foundational, but as merely an episode in the ongoing tension between church and state in English Christianity? What if we take the long view and see that since the Gregorian missions, and arguably before that, the church has always been in tension with the state? What if we see in English Christianity that the church co-opting the state and the state co-opting the church, and both of them being subjected to literary ridicule, is business as usual? What if we say that Henry VIII founded nothing, that Elizabeth I settled nothing, and that Anglican Christianity does not actually hinge on the state’s actions because of the long ecclesial literary tradition that predates it? In other words, what if we stop thinking that the state won its battle against Canterbury in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that we still remain in an ever-unfolding story of Anglican church-state relations?

This is precisely what’s so fascinating about the very people who should be the face of modern Anglican Protestantism over the last fifty or so years. Since Michael Ramsey, there has been an increasing recognition on the parts of Archbishops of Canterbury, especially Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, that the church should not be tied to the crown, or indeed, to a construction of what British identity (courtesy of the state) should mean. This, I submit to you, was the point of the whole poobah when Rowan Williams came out and said that shari’a law should be recognized in the United Kingdom. Williams was taking apart the whole notion of an established British identity, saying that the United Kingdom needs to understand that the Isles have always been a complex space with many different groups and that it’s pointless to impose one law on all people, especially if there are fellow Muslim citizens. The response to Williams was outrage: how can an Archbishop of Canterbury say such a thing about British identity? Here’s how: by not believing that the founding myths of British sovereignty are true and by disentangling the church from its modern role as the arm of the state, returning it to its original, pre-modern tension with the powers. (Ditto Welby’s comments on the banking system. Ditto the weird game that Welby and the English bishops are playing on the same-sex marriage bill.)

I recognize that this argument for a pre-modern/post-modern Anglicanism sounds dangerously close to some of the arguments in the Oxford Movement, and particularly that of John Henry Newman. If there’s something that predates the schism and thus de-legitimizes it, then shouldn’t we all hop over to Rome? Maybe, and so, people like Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins did.

The only thing, though, is that Newman and Hopkins lived during the height of the British Empire. We live in the wake of its collapse, a crisis that affords us Anglicans who do not believe that Henry VIII’s state-eats-church move was legitimate an opportunity to do something unheard of: work for Anglican-Catholic home reunion from the Anglican side of things.

Indeed, you could say that the reason there have been so many good and interesting Archbishops of Canterbury since William Temple forward (yeah, actually, Ramsey can’t take all the credit) is that they were all too clear that with the dissolution of the Empire, it made the church’s entanglement with the state look increasingly like nonsense and madness. With the advent of Vatican II, this disentanglement has been coupled with serious dialogue with Rome and the Orthodox Church, particularly in the conversation that Michael Ramsey started with Paul VI that has led to the very interesting work done by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), who have released statements that basically say that despite different theological language being used for the sticky theological issues between the two communions, Anglican theologians basically concur with their Catholic counterparts on the primacy of Rome and the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is the sticky issue of women’s ordinations and consecrations, as well as the status of LGBTQ+ populations in the communions, but I look forward to what ARCIC will do on this in years to come.

In other words, when I say that I’m staying in the Anglican Communion and when Churl says that he’s leaving for the Roman Catholic Church, we are saying pretty much the same thing. Churl is following Newman: having realized that the entire modern Anglican enterprise is basically a secular one, he is ready to jump ship into a Church where (as Charles Taylor points out) a real, full-bodied sacramental ontology is to be found. This is good and fair. But having read Newman, I’m not convinced that every Anglican who becomes convinced of what Churl has been convinced of must jump ship to Rome. If that were the case, I might ask: then how would the Anglican Communion keep being able to produce figures like Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams, and Justin Welby?  What we see is that in the English canon, Anglicanism has its own internal resources for undermining its own establishmentarianism. As this becomes undermined, the central question behind the Anglican-Roman Catholic schism will sound increasingly more ridiculous, and that is: can a state’s sovereign exert his rule over the church and her claim to channel one into mystical participation in the life of Christ? Of course not!

Then OK, if that’s so, then why continue the schism? Put another way: why can’t the Archbishop of Canterbury finally come home to Gregory? (Let me note that this is precisely what Justin Cantuar said to Pope Francis last week.) And put a final way: Churl and I are doing the same thing: we are working for the undermining of schism in different ways to which the Lord has called us. He will likely be going over to Rome; bless him. I will stay here in the Anglican Church. We both protest the notion that what is known as Anglicanism is founded on schism because, as the literary tradition suggests, this simply is not true. It is a state ideology. It should be disentangled from the work of the Body of Christ.

And thus, as we work for the truth on both sides of the Anglican-Roman Catholic conversation, who knows what will happen? I do not dare to predict the future. But know this: I’m an Anglican because I refuse to believe in schism. And since Anglicanism has its own resources for undermining schism, I’ll side with the long tradition of the Archbishops of Canterbury from Augustine to Justin who undermined the powers of the state (I forgot to say this earlier, but Cranmer also met a pretty ugly end when he finally ended up opposing the state). As a social scientist who loves his literature, I’ll also keep reading the canon that pokes fun at Anglican power wherever it rears its ugly head. I’ll stay right where I am and milk those traditions to the full, all in the hope against hope that one day, Anglicanism will cease to be a schismatic, self-referential modern identity and recognize its unique and vital contributions to the church catholic and the life of the world. Indeed, as I have suggested, this is already happening. It’s incumbent on me to join in.

So shouldn’t you go up for ordained Anglican ministry, then? Absolutely not. I’ll explain in Part 4. I might do some magic there too.

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