Saturday, September 10, 2005

Griffiss' Anglican Vision, Ch. 1

Griffiss: The Anglican Vision, Ch. 1: The Big Picture

The Episcopal Church might puzzle more than a few people, not least among them Episcopalians. Why the fuss? What is the leadership out to accomplish with its concern for homosexuality? With this post, I hope to continue with my original project of clarifying ECUSA's theology. Griffiss doesn’t discuss that particular issue, but what he does say sets out a clear context for understanding the leadership—which includes, for anyone unfamiliar with ECUSA’s polity, both clergy and laity. ECUSA, on Griffiss’ account, found it necessary for reasons especially of social justice to make a break with certain elements its own past.

Before and After
According to Griffiss, ECUSA once had been the church of choice for America’s wealthy and politically powerful elite, a bulwark of assurance and stability for them in the flux of a hostile world, validating the American status quo, and helping instill sociopolitical conformity in line with widely accepted American mores. For instance, earlier on the issue of slavery, and later on racial segregation, on questions over investing in slums and the place of women in the clergy, a general Episcopal pattern was clear: “let us not make waves.”

ECUSA thereby generally confused Christianity with middle-class morality—and too many ECUSAns were ready to go along without a peep of misgiving. The church, nostalgic for a “Christian” America, looked at itself as having a cultural role in upholding the status quo, and cultivated within itself a medieval spirituality, seemingly a brand of Anglo-Catholicism, withdrawn from radical political engagement in the name of social justice. Nevertheless, some prophetic voices within ECUSA discovered that American society was not “OK” in its socioeconomic mores; they began to “make waves” and eventually succeeded in changing the moral orientation of the church.

The apostolic, catholic Church, and ECUSA as a part of that Church, Griffiss rightly says, exists to proclaim the Gospel, that God is reconciling the world to him in Christ; this is ECUSA’s essential faith and reason for being. The church’s recent change in moral orientation is a matter of “returning” to this core Gospel faith, in the sense of being true to the gospel witness. In ECUSA after the change in moral orientation, one receives God’s grace to hear and be shaped by the Gospel—implying among other things (1)learning what sin is, and that it includes social injustice of the sort ECUSA had ignored or condoned, and (2) confessing sin, including social injustice, being forgiven, and healing.

Both churches and individuals have been caught up in our society’s socioeconomic injustices—some especially in sinning, some in being wounded, etc. ECUSA is a place where they can all come to repent and be reconciled to God. Griffiss targets these people explicitly: believers hurt and alienated, questioning and revolting. Thus, ECUSA not only works to change the world; it does so while remaining rooted in the ancient Gospel preaching and Spirit inspired praxis of the early Christian Church, becoming a force for liberation here and now. That is the distinctive “Anglican vision” of ECUSA.

Nota Bene
Christian tradition on Griffiss’ view, as it will turn out, is especially received through the liturgy—the worship practice of the early Church—and the Gospel we receive from that Church. The latter is not so peculiar—ECUSA would not be the first church to claim a mandate for social justice from the Gospel of Christ. Rather, the peculiar Episcopalian strain is in the significance of liturgy; it is not a matter of metaphysics, dogma, or personal worship so much as a corporate commitment with moral implications. As liturgy spills outside of the church walls into ordinary life, activism cannot help but follow. The culpable moral complacency Griffiss laments from ECUSA’s earlier days cannot help but evaporate in the heat of living liturgy true to the praxis of early Christianity.

By implication, earlier ECUSA had not properly instilled the necessity of social justice for worship in its members: it emphasized personal holiness, and let American mores, by and large, take care of social commitments. Conservative backlash against ECUSA’s recent reforms, especially but not exclusively that connected with homosexuality at GC2003, looks on Griffiss’ account like reprehensible obstinacy carried over from the older order—more and meaner nostalgia.
Still, current Episcopalian conservatives might claim his account is one-sided for giving dogma short-shrift at the expense of liturgy and praxis. For instance, his summary of the core of the Gospel is thin, and a conservative might well worry if it is sufficient to rule out historical heresies.

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