The Church Where Getting a Straight Answer is Next to Impossible

Many of you wonder why I, now holed up in a Pentecostal church, take so much interest in the Anglican/Episcopal world. Much of that answer is here, but there’s the opposite question: with that interest, why did you leave the Episcopal Church to start with?

One lesson from teaching is that a worked example is excellent pedagogy, and this one–from the liberal Anglicans Online–illustrates the problem perfectly.  I’ll reproduce it in its entirety, since they change the front page every week:

Not long ago, a person came to Sunday service at our parish, seeking. He came from a Pentecostal background, and seemed very pious, but he said he wanted to explore Anglican worship. He’d been attending various Anglican churches and this week it was our turn.

After the service, we approached him at the coffee hour, and he peppered us with questions. His first question was ‘Why are Anglican churches all so different? If I go into a Baptist church, or a Presbyterian church, or a Methodist church, or an Assembly of God, I know pretty much what to expect. I know the music, I know what’s going to happen as the service progresses. But the worship service at every Anglican church I’ve been to has been really different from the others. Why is there so much diversity?’

We gave him a relatively vague answer based on history and the role that an established church had played in society, and the spread of Anglicanism to the colonies. It probably wasn’t a satisfying answer, but he went away seeming happy.

Some weeks later, he was back, and at coffee hour he had another question for us. He asked ‘In more than one Anglican church I have heard and read things that make me think the church believes a person must be baptized to gain eternal life. Is that true?’

No easy questions here. We referred him to the catechism section in the Book of Common Prayer, and a listener referred him to Mark 16:15-16. A nearby lawyer pointed out that Mark does not say that one who is not baptised will not be saved. We asked our inquiring visitor if he would be back next week, and planned to discuss the question with others.

Which we did. The various answers were too long and thoughtful to put here in their entirety, but here are some snippets:

‘The Anglican Church definitely does not teach that one must be baptized in order to attain eternal life. God chooses whom he chooses; his grace is freely bestowed and he is not limited to or by the sacraments or the Church. The sacraments bring us into community with other Christians and with the risen Lord. They are means of grace — Christians believe they are specific means God has designated to give us the benefits of his unconditional love and care. They nourish us, strengthen us, bind us closer to God, and help us to grow into the persons God intends us to be.’

and

‘If someone is in a community of faith over a period of time, trying to be a committed disciple, and knows what baptism is, and yet chooses not to be baptized, then I have to wonder about their receptivity to grace. In that sense I think it is “necessary” for believers.’

and

‘I believe a sacrament is an outer and visible sign of an inner and invisible grace. Only the spirit knows which comes first in any given case.’

and

‘What doesn’t get taught, but should be is that the Church recognizes baptism in three forms: ritual baptism with water in the name of the Trinity; baptism by blood – martyrdom; and baptism by desire. For the last, there’s nothing about when the desire is expressed, and nothing to preclude it happening after death. The third is those “whose faith is known to you alone.”‘

The last comment that we got tied it all together. The advice came from a thoughtful priest whose faith is powerful despite having suffered extraordinary hardship:

‘Why don’t you just give him all of the answers that you’ve gotten, without trying to reconcile or combine them, and tell him that this is what he’d get himself into if he ended up becoming an Anglican. Every answer is different, none definitive or unequivocal, except agreeing that Baptism is a sacrament of salvation and grace and that God is sovereign.’

And that brought us right back to the first question, about why there is such diversity in Anglican churches. It’s a mystery. How very Anglican.

And how very frustrating.  When wrestling with the greater questions of life as a teenager (in an Episcopal prep school, no less), what I found was that the answers I got from the church I was raised in were not wrong as much as an endless fudge, hopelessly uninformative and useless for either understanding the world around me or building a life upon.  So I left.

Evidently, in their quest for “red letter Christianity,” (i.e., only the direct words of Jesus count, not the whole NT) they forgot this:

“Let your words be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from what is wrong.” Matthew 5:37, TCNT.

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