American Church? English Church?

Another fine article from Fr Jonathan Munn: Can there any good thing come out of America?

I have been four times to the USA: January 1998 to Maryland, June 2002 and a year later to Tennessee and in December 2003 to Tampa, Florida. It is quite an experience for a European, and we see a long history of integration of different Christian cultures and people of other religious traditions or none. The American Constitution set out to guarantee equal rights for all, freedom for all religions and cultural expressions and the freedom to earn one’s living and put one’s God-given talents to good use. I have seen people as enthusiastic about their guns as I am about boats! The gun has always been a means of self-defence, and we Europeans have to take more care to keep out of trouble if the police cannot be depended upon to intervene quickly enough to save our lives or property from wrongdoers. America has a political philosophy of libertarianism that is almost unknown in our Europe of capitalism and socialism. There are also many things that would keep me away from the USA, like its controversial health system, an inexorable slide down a slope to a totalitarian police state and perhaps the spectre of a second civil war.

I have often wondered how it is that Christianity of a particularly convinced and committed kind can exist alongside the same materialism as we have in Europe, Canada, Australia and the entire western world in which Christianity is dissolving away to nothing. America is certainly going the same way, but more slowly and less evenly. Is it thanks to the radical separation of Church and State or the contrary in the mind of Conservatism in its Protestant and Catholic versions? Churches are more alive, people more committed, and even small minority denominations and dissidences from Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy are able to thrive, at least more than survive. There is something that remains of European Christian culture that is gone here in Europe.

Fr Jonathan wonders at how he can belong to anything that isn’t British or English. I have lived for many years outside England, and seem to have lost my roots in the morass of a “United States of Europe”. I don’t know whether I’m at home anywhere. I am sure that many immigrants into the United States kept something of their cultural origins, as I have, but melted in with succeeding generations. I haven’t “become” French either. I speak their language, respect their laws, socialise with them, but something remains empty, up in the air. In this I am at one with the old Romantics who aspired to something far beyond this world and what this world cannot satisfy.

Maybe, Fr Jonathan is more conscious of this issue. He has remained more English than I. I am something of a “lost soul” drifting in a world where nothing can become an absolute for me. A couple of quotes from my favourite American poet Walt Whitman:

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,
All nations, all identities that have existed or may exist,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

and

Down from the gardens of Asia descending,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, with restless explorations,
questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts
that sad incessant refrain, – Wherefore unsatisfied soul?
Whither O mocking life??
Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of impassive earth?

Our Church is really no more American than French or anything else. I pray at Mass in union with our Archbishop Mark, our Bishop Damien and Queen Elizabeth II, and I hardly give a thought to the nationality of these three leaders in our faith.

I suppose that the ideal English religious expression is the “mainstream”, cold classical rationalism and the notion of some distant God who has not a care in the world for human beings. There are more very rich people in America than in England, but England seems more materialistic, more pragmatic and more willing to put wealth before humanity. There is something that makes me very alienated from my native country – that being the dark heart of the City of London and Westminster. The English public school taught us to be churchgoers and adhere to moral principles, but above all to eschew “enthusiasm”, piety and a quest for contemplative life, at least outside a formal monastery. Americans are more free to be enthusiastic and pious, and that is something good that comes from their country. Where would we have been without them? Perhaps none of us would be practising Christians and our only god would be money and material things, a mentality that is so depressing in England.

The Americans seem to be more into “marketing” that we Europeans. I find it quite revolting, and incompatible with my way of seeing things. I see Christianity more in terms of a loose informal monastery of contemplative life rather than the modern business corporation. The problem of totalitarian cults is not limited to America. Europe has had and still has its “fair” share, including the murderous Solar Temple that caused people to kill and commit suicide. The word sect is used more in Europe, but the etymology of the word only reveals the notion of cutting away, of separation. It manifestly means more than simple schism from the Roman Catholic Church which claims to contain the whole Church of Christ. Diversity in America is the result of religious liberty, and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. If man should no longer be free, then we confront the parable of the Grand Inquisitor and a goodness of truth that becomes evil and loss of faith. We can only be good if we have the choice and possibility of sinning.

In France and most of Europe, laïcisme is quite different from American secularism in that atheism is the philosophical system that has favour with most politicians and other authorities. That being said, the notion of secte or cult becomes very precise, with a number of objective criteria. Unfortunately, they can also be extended to the State and mainstream politics! The usual criteria are those of “seduction” (appealing to the person’s spiritual aspirations and noble human values), leadership by a “guru”, typically a narcissistic personality wanting power and control over others, “social rupture” of the individual from family, friends and mainstream life, “mental manipulation” by means of brainwashing, getting people to give increasing amounts of money. It is as difficult for someone to leave a cult as it is easy to enter it. Unfortunately, these criteria often apply to mainstream churches and religious communities – and to many secular and non-religious organisations. However, the criteria help us to seek to be different: not go in for marketing, serve rather than to seek to control, encourage people not to break from their families or normal social contexts, above all seeking to make people free rather than prisoners.

I suppose that in terms of organisation and institution, the ACC is an American Church which has spread out into other countries where England had spread its empire and Anglicanism. If we go by the above criteria, we are not a cult or a sect. We have had some odd bishops and control freaks, but no one was ever stopped from leaving. I find that in England, we are no more sectarian than any ordinary parish with its clergy and people. As Fr Jonathan mentions, the ACC is very diverse in spite of common themes like the Prayer Book Office and our Affirmation of St Louis. Some clergy continue to use the Thirty-Nine Articles as a basis of doctrine, but they are not required as they once were in the Church of England for clergy. Some altars have two candles, others have six (or more). We English tend to be more Anglo-Papalist, at least in terms of appointing churches and liturgical ceremonies. I tend to be more “monastic” and use a classical English translation of the old Use of Sarum. Perhaps Gricigliano freaked me out somewhat! I still dream about the place twenty-five years later… The ACC is also culturally diverse. We English tend to be monarchists and love our Queen and Royal Family, at least the institution even if some of the people in question are less edifying than they should be. This diversity is healthy.

My notion of Anglicanism is a little different from that of others. I tend to extrapolate from the notion of French Gallicanism, the Church under Lous XIV. It was the national Church, but which only relativised its relationship with the Pope. The Church of the Tudors was not very different, except that Henry VIII went too far and broke that relationship with Rome. England could have remained like France. Nothing is ever ideal, but there was a sense of national identity that was lost in the nineteenth century after the overthrowing of many of Europe’s monarchies and the Ultramontanist movement leading to Papal ambitions that would seek to fill the gap left by guillotined kings. I see things in a much more European context rather than going into all the usual controversies between Calvinists, Arminians and those seeking to assimilate Anglicanism with Jansenism in the seventeenth century. The collusion between the Oxford Movement and the revival of the monastic life and piety in the parishes points to one thing: it is not about Anglicanism or national culture, but a turning point of history represented by Romanticism and the passing of the old certitudes. Much of the Catholic movement in the Church of England looked to the Middle Ages before the trappings of the Roman Counter-Reformation. There are parallels between Anglo-Catholicism and the Old Catholicisms of Utrecht and Bonn, but the cultural and historical contexts determine each movement in its origins and later evolution.

This diversity of culture is a gift, and it is reflected in the ACC and even within our little English diocese. I cast my mind back to last Saturday and my tiny twelve-foot dinghy sailing alongside ships proudly flying colourful flags and sporting polished bronze bells. We all rode the tide together as we enjoyed every minute from Port Navolo to Vannes. All Churches are on a pilgrimage. There are many things we Continuing Anglicans cannot accept and will not adopt, but we are called to sail forth on our pilgrimage and teach through example and inspiration – the very contrary of the cults and sects in our world.

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5 Responses to American Church? English Church?

  1. Fr. David Marriott SSC says:

    Father Munn’s concerns as expressed in the title is so very interesting to me as it reflects some of the commentary that was flying about when some of us were advised / encouraged / told to leave the TAC church in Canada because of our concerns about the ordinariate proposal. As several had been in contact with Archbishop Haverland of the ACC, the news was bruited abroad that we had gone to an ‘American Bishop’. The Bishop who promulgated this is still active in that church: which at that time had an ‘Australian Archbishop’ and later had an ‘Indian Archbishop’ and at the present time has, surprise, surprise, a ‘Canadian Archbishop’……

    In the C of E, do we ever hear the Archbishop of Canterbury spoken of as an ‘English Archbishop’? It would be nonsensical : how should we speak of the Pope: as the Argentinian Pope, as the Italian Pope, given where he resides, or as the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church which in itself surpasses those borders erected by man – just in the same way that the Anglican Catholic Church, or the Traditional Anglican Church each do likewise…..

    I was born in England: how long does it take to stop being English? I am Canadian by adoption: how long does it take to be a ‘real’ Canadian? I am priest of the Anglican Catholic Church. How long will it be until I am a ‘real’ priest?

    All of these are simply the proverbial red herrings to divert thought from what matters…..the development of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It would be interesting to know who took what sort of interest in such matters, historically. Meanwhile, Wikipedia, for example, has a ‘Category’, ‘Popes by nationality’, with this introductory note: “There have been 217 popes from Italy, 16 from France, 15 Greeks (of whom 3 born in Greece), 8 from Germany, 6 from Syria, 3 from Africa, 2 from Portugal, 2 from Spain, 3 from Iudaea (Israel), and one each from: England (Adrian IV); the Netherlands (Adrian VI); Poland (John Paul II); and most recently, Argentina (Francis).” It certainly seems to have been part of the public imagination a century or so ago, with Frederick Rolfe imagining a second English Pope in Hadrian the Seventh (1904), and Robert Hugh Benson imaging another (Sylvester III) in Lord of the World (1907).

      Again, when has it been common to think of that prominent early Archbishop of Canterbury as St. Theodore of Tarsus? And, with what, if any, implications?

      ‘Haverland’ appears to be a Dutch name in origin (‘haver’ is ‘oat’), though I imagine the Archbishop’s Dutch paternal ancestors must lie considerably further in his past than the Italian immigrant father of whilom Jorge Bergoglio.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It’s striking what an interest both Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst took in Walt Whitman – I wonder if this was more widely characteristic of English composers? (Whitman’s Wikipedia article, saying, “it has been suggested his poetry has been set to music more than any other American poet except for Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”, also notes Frederick Delius and Benjamin Britten, and, more recently, Ronald Corp, as well as, across the Irish Sea, Rhoda Coghill.)

    • There seems to be a close relationship between American Transcendentalism and English and German Romaticism. I find the general lines appealing, but the movement was strongly 19th century, influenced by reactions to the prevailing religious fervour especially in the smaller Christian communities and Unitarianism. Transcendentalism came in two essential waves, and our English composers straddling the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th revived many of the tenets of Romanticism. Walt Whitman is said to span the gap between Transcendentalism and Realism.

      We find this sentiment in many who are disenfranchised from organised religion and churches, but who yet seek to fulfil an aspiration beyond materialism. This could be a contribution to man’s spiritual future in the absence of a visible and coherent universal Christian Church. It might give a more positive idea about the hackneyed expression “spiritual but not religious”.

      It occurs to me that a philosophical basis of the very subject of my article is highly germane. We stuffy Brits all too often assume that the USA is devoid of culture. European immigrants took their culture, and it evolved and developed in a different way. Many American English expressions are purer grammatically than present-day English usage. We are not going to compare Californian “airheads” with British intellectuals, nor British yobbos from most towns of any size with the Elite of Harvard and Yale. There is American music, this whole current of literature, poetry and philosophy. I am very fond of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber amongst American composers of the same era. I have enjoyed visiting Pennsylvania, and would have loved the time and means to explore Massachusetts and Vermont. Perhaps one day.

      American religion is a new world for us lukewarm Europeans. Fundamentalism and Conservatism are quite a shock for us, but Transcendentalism among those who differed from church conformity and orthodoxy showed a healthy reaction like Romanticism in England. The political world is very revealing: Trump could win but Le Pen and Nigel Farange, Geert Wilders and Norbert Hofer could not. American libertarianism cannot thrive in socialist, statist and nationalist Europe. The American mind can bring refreshing inspiration – and this is something powerful and positive in the Continuing Anglican Churches that emerged from the Congress of Saint Louis in 1977.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        In this context, I attended a fascinating course of lectures by the late Joel Porte on earlier Nineteenth-century American fiction, but have never yet caught up with all the reading – in any case, it only heightened my admiration for the writer among them I’d read most of, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

        I have also never yet caught up Chesterton’s What I Saw in America (1922), but the taste I just took of the volunteer-read audiobook of it at LibriVox.org, prompts me to scoot it up my list.

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