Squaring the Circle of Anglican/Episcopal Ministry

At the end of Dante’s Paradiso, in his vision of God, he says the following:

Like a geometer wholly dedicated
to squaring the circle, both who cannot find,
think as he may, the principle indicated–

so did I study the supernal face.
I yearned to to know just how our image merges
into that circle, and how it then finds place;

But mine were not the wings for such a flight.

Paradiso, XXXIII, 133-139

“Squaring the circle” was a favourite pastime of geometers; it became a proverbial way of saying that something was impossible.

Now we mourn the sudden passing–a classic “challenges infinity and is soon gone” moment–of Thomas McKenzie, rector of the ACNA Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, TN.  McKenzie was on the more progressive side of the ACNA, one that was making itself known–and entering into conflict with more conservative people in the church who thought, “wasn’t getting away from this kind of thing what we’re all about?”  Escaping such is easier said than done, and I think that McKenzie’s life and ministry is a good way of forcing some of us to face reality on some things that we were hoping weren’t true.

I followed McKenzie from a distance like many people: on Twitter, in earlier times on his podcast, and of course his blog.  There are many things he said I didn’t agree with and some I did.  I think what needs to be done is to consider his ministry–and that of many others in the ACNA–in the context of the people he faced every Sunday and ministered to then and during the week.  (Some of the things he set forth made me ask myself, “Why did he leave the Episcopal Church?” but I digress…)

I’ve noted before some important things about the demographic of the Episcopal Church: it’s largely prosperous, educated and white.  That demographic basically replicated itself in the ACNA, and it did so at a time when those who were in that demographic were less inclined to be Christians or go to church than in the past, back when Christianity (in whatever form) was the “way up.”  This presented pastoral challenges for the minister whose flock was drawn from this demographic, and McKenzie met those with gusto.  In doing so he ran afoul of some of the political and theological sensibilities of people inside and outside his parish.

McKenzie sometimes spoke disparagingly of the Anglican/Episcopal world of the recent past, but ultimately he followed the lead of those who, faced with the same demographic, made the same activist response, i.e., people such as Ian Mitchell, James Pike and my high school chaplain.  In doing so he was aided by the influx of the “exvangelicals” (the “C4SO types”) whose aversion to their past fuelled their own “way up” both ecclesiastically and socio-economically.  (We’ve also seen that in the Episcopal past.)

But doing that butts into the obvious (to me at least) problem: the elevated, white demographic was and is part of the problem, not the solution.  For all the social activism in and out of churches, income inequality has generally increased during most of the last half century, the benefits accruing to those in churches such as his. Critical Race Theory types say that ills such as this are due to systemic racism; this is arguable since many of those at the bottom are white.  But according to the “Hoyle” of the present hour, churches such as TEC and ACNA are part of the problem and no amount of angst can fix that, which is why it’s hard to understand why ministers in both take up woke causes and ideas.

But appealing to Hoyle is ultimately unnecessary.  After so many years of trying, I think it’s safe to say that the Anglican/Episcopal paradigm of SJW ministers and privileged laity is unfixable.  North American Anglicanism is stuck in this “lather-rinse-repeat” cycle, and until the secular circumstances change, the cycle won’t.  Like squaring the circle, the attempts by people like McKenzie to make the church relevant to this demographic will insure that it is incapable of real change, either in its laity or in society in general.  This doesn’t mean that all ACNA churches will experience this; however, Episcopal experience teaches us that, if enough do, the rest will be taken down with them.

So is it really that hopeless?  Well, yes, but outside of the wholesale importation of secular ideologies (which some have done) there are two approaches our ministers can take to address this problem.

The first is to teach our people to be equitable, fair and “team player” elites.  This is the classical Episcopal approach and has been for generations, embodied in the “give back” principle that George Conger advocates.  I’m not sure it’s done as much for their eternal destiny as they think, but it’s made for a better society: we only need to look around us to see what happens when it fades away.

The second is to do what Our Lord did to the rich young ruler: tell him to sell all.  That will go over like a lead balloon, and the current substitute for it–be the “quit” in “equity”–won’t go over much better.

To push back against that ignores how Our Lord came into the world in the first place.  As Bossuet notes:

Let us once again go over these words of the angel: You will find a child in swaddling clothes, on a manger; you will know by this sign that it is the Lord. Go to the court of the kings, you will recognize the newborn prince by his covers embellished with gold, and by a fancy cradle which we would like to make a throne. But in order to know the Christ who was born to you, this Lord so high, that David his father, king as he is, calls his Lord, you are only given as a sign the manger where he is lying, and the poor swaddling clothes where his weak childhood is enveloped; that is to say, we only give you a nature similar to yours, infirmities like yours, poverty below yours. Who of you was born in a stable? Who among you, however poor he may be, gives his children a crib for a cradle? Jesus is the only one we see abandoned until this extremity and it is by this mark that he wants to be recognized.

If he wanted to use his power, what gold would crown his head? What purple would burst on his shoulders? What gems would enrich his clothes? But, continues Tertullian, he in turn judged this false splendour, all this borrowed glory, unworthy of him and his family: thus, in refusing it, he despised it; by despising it, he proscribed it; in proscribing it, he has categorized it with the pomp of the devil and of the age.

This is how our fathers the first Christians spoke; but we, unhappy, breathe only ambition and softness.

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