Saturday, January 27, 2007

"A Christmas Church?"

I've just started reading Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality by Richard D. Schmidt (Grand Rapids: Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002). It's a collection of short biographies of 29 Anglicans from Thomas Cranmer to Desmond Tutu, and the sort of book I've been wanting to read for some time. Along with the biographies are brief selections of the Subject's writing, such as the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and Thomas Traherne, and gems from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Madeleine L'Engle.

And while I recommend the book, I'm troubled by a passage in the introduction, in which the author attempts to answer, "What is Anglicanism?" Schmidt rejects the idea of Anglicanism as a "middle way" (via media in Latin) between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism because Catholics and Protestants have "found each other and begun discussing all sorts of things--without benefit of our bridge. The whole idea of via media also omits Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians, so perhaps it's time to drop it."

Schmidt also dismisses William J. Wolf's definition of Anglicanism as a "pragmatic church," as opposed a "confessional" or "experiential" church. "Anglicans, Wolf says, are a pragmatic church. Individuals may hold various doctrinal positions and may or may not have had a conversion experience. What makes us part of the church is simply that we do what the church does." But Schmidt writes that "the usefulness of Wolf's comparison is limited, because most churches, including Anglicanism, contain elements of all three 'manifestations,' and no such categorization can be absolute."

Instead, Schmidt proposes the following:

"If we are going to compare ourselves with other Christians, I prefer a comparison based on the major holy days stemming from the life and ministry of Christ. For many Christians, the central event was Christ's death on the cross for the sins of the world. The Roman Catholic Church and most Protestant churches are Good Friday churches. Other Christians see the resurrection of Christ, signifying his victory over Satan and sin, as the central event. The Eastern Orthodox are Easter churches. A third group focuses on Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit as the chief event. These are the Pentecostal churches. Anglicans--and this will become clear to anyone reading the essays in this book--focus on the incarnation of the Son of God, the Word made flesh. Anglican churches are Christmas churches. ...these distinctions are not absolute; all four groups recognize the importance of all four events. But there are unmistakable emphases, and there can be no doubt about what theological doctrine vibrates most strongly within the Anglican soul--it is the Incarnation."

I asked my wife, a Roman Catholic, whether this passage made sense to her. She said no. And I agree. In my experience, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Anglican Church focus on the Triduum--the three days beginning with the evening of Holy Thursday (Anglicans usually call it Maundy Thursday) and ending with the evening of Easter Day .

Anglo-Catholics, when reciting the Nicene creed, bow at the words, "by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man." But so do Roman Catholics. And these words refer more to the Annunciation than to Christmas. But the Annunciation, a major celebration during the Middle Ages, is a decidedly minor one today. If the Incarnation were the central focus of Anglican worship, one would think the Annunciation would be a major holy day.

Christians did not begin celebrating Christmas until the fourth century, though it had become a major celebration by the time the Church of England broke with Rome.

In the seventeenth century, Puritans opposed the trappings of Christmas as popery, and Parliament under Cromwell banned its public celebration. Even after the restoration of the crown, Christmas was not a major feast day among Anglicans. It took Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" and the marriage of of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, to turn Christmas into the British holiday it has become. (Albert was German and the German celebration of Christmas, including the Christmas tree, came with him.)

The Incarnation and Christmas are important to Anglicans. It's just that I don't see Schmidt's distinction as helpful to Anglicans or anyone else. I still see the Great Anglican Compromise, the middle way, which allowed most Protestants and Catholics to worship together, as the communion's unique strength. I believe that spirit of compromise and inclusiveness will get us through the current controversy over the ordination of gays and lesbians.

And the major celebrations of Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection do not define the way a Christian is to live his or her life, for Anglicans or any Christians. Perhaps the best short description of the Christian way can be found in Rite I of the Holy Eucharist service in the Book of Common Prayer. (Rite II, in contemporary English, does not include it--which I believe to be a mistake.) Here it is:

"Hear what the Lord Jesus Christ saith:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

I can't say I come close to living up to the Two Commandments, but it's my goal.


Stacey said...

AMEN to this post!

Glad you knew Fr. Tim. He is a great priest. This weekend we lost a parishoner named Charlene, I don't know if you knew her? She suddenly passed and her service is at St. Luke's tomorrow. She was well liked by the parish and we are all pretty devastated.

Peter said...

You contend forcefully for your point, and you educate me well in the process. Schmidt’s distinctions are novel and interesting, but the idea that one church is an “Easter” church because of some probably subtle emphasis it gives the resurrection over the incarnation relative to its sister churches is hard to build on.

Fascinating post. You inspired me to research the book on Amazon. I’m giving it to my mother as a supplemental birthday present, and I’m going to insert a copy of your post.