Anglicanism…and Anglicanism Lite

To understand contemporary Anglican theology, prepare to reconcile the irreconcilable. Or, if you prefer, discover something altogether new about human nature.

Back in the 1980s, when Coca-Cola executives made the colossal blunder of changing their secret formula without adequately testing the market, the maladroit pairing of “new” and “classic” Coke prompted some whimsical musings from a writer at the Wall Street Journal, who made the light-hearted suggestion that Catholicism might try the same sort of marketing techniques. The Church might offer a “new” Catholicism, with guitars and liturgical dance, the writer suggested. Then keep the traditionalists happy with Catholicism Classic: plenty of Latin and incense. Lackadaisical Catholics might enjoy “Catholicism Lite,” and proponents of liberation theology would swing toward “Catholicism Free.”

The Journal column was a joke, and a good one. The Church of England, on the other hand—permission to speak freely?—risks losing its comic valence. There’s no fun to be had shooting fish in a barrel. Silly Anglicans, pompous Anglicans, fussy and illogical Anglicans: all of these have been legitimate objects of fun for Catholics since the time of Henry VIII. But utterly absurd Anglicans? Anglican leaders who make no pretense at logic? They’re no fun at all!

A full generation has passed since a wag in National Review observed that the remarkable thing about Anglican statements of faith was that they were couched in language so vague that no one, from Pope Paul VI to Mao Zedong, could say with any certainty that he disagreed. Now we’ve moved beyond that level of incongruity, approaching the limits of the absurd.

Last summer brought the news that the archbishop of Canterbury foresees a two-track future for the Anglican Communion. Then this summer, partially fulfilling his own prediction, Dr. Rowan Williams ruled that those Anglican provinces that have ignored pleas to hold off on the ordination of homosexual bishops will be suspended from participation in ecumenical talks. Still more recently, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, was asked not to wear her miter during a service at Southwark cathedral, since many in the congregation would be unwilling to accept a female bishop. American Episcopalians are still recognized as Anglicans, but not quite the same kind of Anglicans. Anglicanism and Anglicanism Lite, so to speak.

Still, the comparison with popular beverages does not hold up. Bud and Bud Lite are recognizably products of the same brewery. The tastes are similar; the marketing campaigns are coordinated. Consumers of each product are looking for the same thing: the taste of beer.

With the Anglican Communion, on the other hand, the “consumers” of the two different types of Anglican religion are looking for radically different things. No—more than that: the two types of Anglicans want to eliminate each other. Since the difference is most evident on the question of homosexuality, we could say that one “track” envisioned by the Druid Archbishop sees homosexual unions as an abomination, while the other sees them as a sacrament.

An abomination, a sacrament. A toxin, an antitoxin. The Christ, the Antichrist. You can choose sides, and cheer for your favorite.

This just in: Homosexuality Discovered!

There may be a way to resolve the tension between the two types of Anglicanism, if you believe that the world has known of homosexuality for “about 125 years.” This wisdom was vouchsafed to us by the world’s first openly homosexual Episcopalian bishop, Gene Robinson. He was responding to a question about how he could reconcile his behavior with the exhortations of St. Paul to the Romans. No problem, the Anglican divine replied. St. Paul was “absolutely correct in his own context given what he knew.” But the Apostle—even with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit working in his favor—couldn’t possibly imagine that some men would lust after men. Which is odd, because that seems to be exactly what St. Paul wrote to the Romans. But evidently the interpreters of the past 20 centuries have been missing something, because Robinson tells us: “It never occurred to anyone in ancient times that a certain minority of us would be born being affectionally oriented to people of the same sex.” Remarkable, isn’t it, that Sappho would have had such success writing about a condition that was inconceivable to her?

Casting his personal interests aside, Bishop Robinson helps his fellow Anglicans to understand what the poor benighted St. Paul would have thought, if he had had at his disposal all the analytical tools that are available to an Episcopalian in New Hampshire in the early 21st century. It’s true that St. Paul condemns homosexual acts. And rightly so, Robinson tells us. But “St. Paul was talking about people that he understood to be heterosexual engaging in same-sex acts.” Aha! So the Apostle was giving his readers the very useful advice that they shouldn’t do things that they don’t feel inclined to do. Heterosexual people should not commit homosexual acts. We can all agree on that at least, can’t we? And teetotalers definitely shouldn’t get drunk.


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