February 5, 2013

"Why are you moving to DC?!" pt. III

A few years ago, my friend Todd Hunter wrote a book called, The Accidental Anglican. While Todd has had a deep influence on my Christian journey, I didn't think the title would ever apply to me. But here I am working for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, finding my way into the Anglican tradition quite unintentionally. I promised to share some of the theological reasons why our move to D.C. worked for us. I'm going to try to do that here. If I use terminology that doesn't make sense, please let me know. I'm aware that many Christians use too much "insider language." If I slip into that unwittingly, please let me know. These things are important enough to me that I be clear. As well, this is a summary. I confess that I don't do justice to the depth of the traditions and practices I touch on.

A number of Christians spend their whole life–even generations–within one particular Christian tradition. I admire this. But it has not been my story. My father was raised attending Brethren, Lutheran, Baptist and Assembly of God churches. My mother comes from a long lineage of southern Pentecostalism. When my grandfather was near death a few years ago, I asked him why this was so. In so many words, he expressed that wherever Jesus reigned and the church was on mission with God, that's where his family would be. My grandfather's philosophy has kind of worked its way into the "spiritual DNA" of my family. It was only as an adult that I would realize how unusual it was for our family to have been a part of so many different traditions. Nonetheless, we have always had an appreciation for the different accents and strengths of the broader Christian family. Because of this, the weight of transitioning from one tradition to another has not been the same as it might be others. I don't think that this is better or worse than another person's experience. It's just mine.

While easily ecumenical in practice, most know that I've summed up my theological convictions as Anabaptist. Anabaptist distinctions could be briefly stated as reading the whole of Scripture through a Christological lens, an emphasis on Christian discipleship and responsibility of all church participants, and a commitment to non-violence and peacemaking. Other Christians claim these as well but it was Anabaptists that taught me these distinctions. Though, not all by denominational affiliation. I wouldn't have readThe Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder if I hadn't first read Walter Wink and Stanley Hauerwas–both of whom I would argue are Anabaptistic while not affiliating with a historic Anabaptist denomination. Several years ago, I was listening to an interview with Jarrod McKenna and others on Anabaptism. At one point, Dr. Christopher Marshall said, "[Anabaptism is] a set of ideas, a set of commitments, a set of priorities, a set of instincts almost, that can work itself out in almost any tradition." I couldn't agree more. Still, some would say as–Kurt Willems did in this post–that the nationalism of Anglicanism is unnerving and may possibly be what separates it from Anabaptism in practice. It is unsettling to me as well. But I will say that while this is historically true, the practice is not held by Anglicans alone. And today there are many–like Dwight Zscheile, Stephanie Spellers, Justin Duckworth and the Fresh Expressions folks in England–that are attempting to discern what a "disestablished" Anglican church might look like. This tradition may have more to lose than many denominations in this regard but I'm impressed by the willingness I see to follow the Spirit. So, I find myself becoming an Anabaptist(ic) Anglican... but let me explain a little more about the Anglican part for myself.

My senior year of high school, I transferred from my neighborhood public high school to a private Christian Reformed high school. I still remember sitting in Church History and knowing I didn't lean towards Calvinism. The nearly three years before moving to D.C., I worked with a brilliant Calvinist theologian. To his chagrin, I imagine, I remained unconvinced. But through his leadership, I did find my view of worship taking a more central theme. I had previously grown bored with the standard evangelical worship format. It seemed, for me, little more than theologically-shallow, poorly-crafted karaoke. Like many younger evangelicals–as Robert Webber summarized–I had simply grown to desire something different. Something more than pop culture mimicry. But almost three years with a Calvinist, and the reading of a few books in particular, started helping me see how worshipwas more than music and ought to be counter-cultural. Purity Of Heart Is To Will One Thing by Sören Kierkegaard made me think about how Christian worship shapes how we see the world. And A Public and Private Faith by William Stringfellow–an Episcopalian–made me think about what Christian worship says to the world. While some may criticize Episcopalians for their theological flexibility, their rootedness to historical Christianity, centrality of (and trust in) Scripture, a commitment to prayer ordered not on personality or agenda but on equity–all made evident in their worship–is compelling to me. As The Rev. Jennings wrote in a Washington Post article several months ago, "It might disappoint sensationalist critics, but Sunday mornings in most Episcopal churches are short on political rhetoric and debates about sexuality and long on Jesus." That works for me.

Another evolving aspect of my theological framework was the Eucharist. One of the things that touched me most deeply while working for an old mainline church in San Diego was watching the urban poor celebrate the Lord's Table with the suburban wealthy. It was an image that would move me to tears almost every time. From this to backyards and border fences, the power of participating in this practice was reshaping me. It was becoming to me a binding, disciple-making force that I couldn't argue with. The Eucharist has increasingly been moving to the center of Christian practice and witness for me. It doesn't hurt that I had also been reading the work of Roman Catholic theologians such as Leonardo Boff and William Cavanaugh as well. But I did say central, not formal. The formality, I confess, I still don't get. I'm still as one of my colleagues said, a "snake-belly low" Christian in that regard. But's that seems to be okay here and that's why Anglicanism works for me.

... This really doesn't define why we relocated (that I explained here). Instead, it explains why relocation worked for us–for me, in particular. There is an even shorter way to answer this: it simply happens to be the journey God has us on. I look at all of what I wrote here and see God at work. It's nothing unordinary to me. Just our experience of trying to figure out what God is up to in the world and follow... Time to get back to that now.