C. S. Lewis envisioned Christianity as a house with “a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.” The rooms are ecclesial traditions that offer disciples a fire for warmth, a chair for rest, and a meal for nourishment and fellowship, whereas the hall is “mere” Christianity, a place where disciples greet and gift each other with riches from their respective rooms.
Against tradition without tradition (nondenominationalism), Lewis encouraged Christians to find themselves in a room because “the hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.” He adds, “I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise.”
Lewis’s analogy has organized the shape of my Christ-life with remarkable clarity. My childhood and adolescence were spent in the hall, oblivious that it was a hall and unsuitable for the long haul. Only when I studied abroad and worshiped in the Church of England did I find a room—or it found me, satisfying questions that Lewis advises in our search: “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?”
The journey I made from generic evangelical to Anglican fits a recent pattern narrated by American theologian Robert Webber in his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. The Anglican room welcomed Webber and other evangelicals, including myself, with six areas of orthodoxy that were “not adequately fulfilled” in our Christian experience: mystery and awe, liturgical worship, sacramental vision, historical consciousness, catholic sensibility, and holistic spirituality.
The analogy of Christianity to a house originates with Paul, who reminds Gentiles that they are no longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise,” but now “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:12, 19–20, ESV unless specified, emphasis added). If we reside in a house, then logic holds we must also be members of a family—and no family, east of Eden, is free from dysfunction and discord.
As I read The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism, an engaging collection of essays edited by Anglican priest and theologian Gerald McDermott, I realized that my Anglican family—the third-largest Christian communion in the world (85 million) behind Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy—bears resemblance to the Karamazov family in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.
For Dostoevsky, the family was an emblem of the promises and perils of 19th-century Russia. Just as that family was in a full-blown crisis, so too Anglicans face their own turning point five centuries after their inception in the 16th-century English Reformation. Who are we, and where are we going? The question of identity and destiny hangs not on which brother is the greatest but on whether the members of our family will practice the kind of fraternal love that Jesus exemplified when he washed the stinky and dirty feet of his disciples before they supped together for the last time.
Let me tease out the parallel between the fictional and ecclesial families. With absentee parents—mothers who desert or die and a father who is murdered—the Karamazov brothers have only each other. They must either learn to be each other’s keeper or refuse their appointed role, like Cain, through prideful disobedience or careless dereliction.
Each son in the Karamazov family represents an aspect of the human personality: Dmitri the body, Ivan the intellect, and Alyosha the spirit. Patricide exacerbates the fragmentation of the integrated personality: Together, the brothers will survive and perhaps even thrive; apart, they will dissolve. As tendencies, Dmitri’s passionate sensuality yields to bestial debauchery, Ivan’s cold intelligence succumbs to nihilistic despair, and Alyosha’s zealous spirituality detaches from worldly troubles, particularly his familial drama.
Zosima, the elder at the monastery, exhorts Alyosha to leave the security of the monastic enclosure and participate in God’s “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Once equipped, Aloysha follows his mentor’s direction, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), starting with his own flesh and blood. Although the novel does not tidy up the messiness in the Karamazov family, it ends hopefully, as Alyosha demonstrates that he is his brother’s keeper not only inside the family but also outside with the neighborhood boys that he befriends.
Contemporary Anglicanism, like the Karamazovs, shows all the signs of a fractured fraternity: the Global North is an amalgam of the death-dealing brothers Dmitri and Ivan, whereas the Global South is a profile of the life-giving Alyosha, which makes it (in the words Dostoevsky uses to describe his protagonist) “a humble and indefinite hero” in the Anglican family.
If healing and harmony are in its future, the Anglican Communion, whose power and privilege reside in its birthplace of England, must give way to the new center of gravity in Africa, which boasts “more Christians than any other continent” as of 2018, according to McDermott. “Significantly, Nigeria has more Anglicans than any other country on the globe, and Nigeria is poised to become the third most populous nation on the planet by 2050, surpassing the United States.” Thus, McDermott reasonably claims Nigeria is “a harbinger of the future of orthodox Anglicanism. By itself, it tells us that future Anglicanism will be largely nonwhite, vibrant in mission, and a suffering church.”
Former Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola puts it well: “We don’t need to go through Canterbury to get to Jesus,” which indicates that “the long season of British hegemony is over,” as his African brother Henry Luke Orombi, former Archbishop of Uganda, says. Of course, the stakeholders in the Global North are reluctant if not resistant to cede any ground, even though this appears to be a providential correction to the waywardness of the Anglo-American provinces, who have failed to “guard the good deposit [of faith] entrusted” to them (2 Tim. 1:14).
The volume, organized by regional, vocational, and ecclesiastical perspectives, ensures that readers hear the polyphonic voices of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Predictably, voices culled from the Global North carry a lower register of somber notes. They belong to “a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5); a majority of their brethren have bowed the knee to what Foley Beach, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, provocatively but convincingly calls “neo-pagan Anglicanism”—Anglican in style but not substance.
Speaking with a prophetic mantle, Beach observes that “liberal innovations in theology and sexual ethics” are hidden within an orthodox façade, comparable, I would say, to the Trojan horse: This so-called gift to Anglicans in North America and Great Britain signals ruin. He bemoans:
Neo-pagan Anglicanism is beautifully packaged in some of the most elegant liturgy, music, and tradition in Christianity. But it has become liturgy for the sake of liturgy, music for the sake of music, and tradition for the sake of tradition. As the apostle Paul wrote, they are “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). And as Athanasius argued against Arius’s heresy, the Jesus whom they promote is not the Jesus of which the Bible speaks.
As a result of this tragic accommodation to culture, Beach eschews the flaccid slogans of Canterbury and New York City about “communion across difference,” “mutual flourishing,” and “walking together” because there can be no truce with heretics and schismatics who advance a counterfeit gospel (Rom. 16:17–18). Estranged Anglicans in the Global North, he argues, can address their “ecclesial deficit” by joining forces with Anglican leaders from the Global South, who, beginning in 2008, formed the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which has continued to serve as a vital reform movement: “As colonial and aging wineskins continue to promote neo-pagan beliefs and practices, the new wine of Christ’s continuing redemptive work will burst out to transform lives and renew our churches among the nations.”
Other voices from the Global North are comparably grave, as if singing a requiem for Anglicanism. For example, theologians Ephraim Radner and Gerald Bray, the former an Episcopalian and the latter an evangelical Anglican, share a view that Anglicanism, as a “genetic linkage” of churches, may not survive the social upheaval of late modernity.
Radner posits that “God has, until the present, been using Anglicans as a figural outworking of Christian reconciliation in a fragmented, post-Babel world.” Reconciliation of the divided church has been achieved through Anglican habits encapsulated in three Latin phrases: ecclesia semper reformanda est (ongoing reform of the church), ad fontes (retrieval of the apostolic tradition), and lex orandi, lex credendi (reciprocation of prayer and belief). Another contributor to the book, Anglican journalist and theologian Barbara Gauthier, maintains that Anglicans have wrought reconciliation through the three streams of Scripture, sacrament, and Spirit, “representing Anglicanism’s evangelical, sacramental, and charismatic traditions.”
Because Anglicanism seems to be dying, Radner suggests letting it go as “a discrete ecclesial vocation and allowing its historic and contemporary forms to be remade for some further divine purpose.” This echoes the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey’s vision about the built-in obsolescence of Anglicanism, as summarized in the book by Stephen Bayne: “The vocation of Anglicanism is to disappear because Anglicanism does not believe in itself but believes only in the Catholic Church of Christ; therefore it is forever restless until it finds its place in that one Body.” Bray makes a similar point: “If Anglicanism is anything, it is a servant church in which every member has a ministry and in which all who believe in Christ are equally welcome.”
Indeed, a servant church may ultimately become invisible if the schisms in the worldwide church are healed, but ecclesial unity may not be possible without “Anglican essentials,” which have faded from the Global North. What other room off the hall summons the entire Christian family to the belief and practice of the undivided church during the first five centuries, as outlined by 16th-century Anglican Divine Lancelot Andrewes: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the Fathers in that period (the three centuries before Constantine and the two after) which determines the boundaries of our faith”?
The shorthand for Anglicanism is “reformed catholicism.” That seems as relevant today as ever because Geneva, Rome, and Constantinople have not come together in the ministry of Word and sacrament. And yet, as Bray recognizes, Anglicans in the Global North have either ignored or revised the formularies of the tradition—the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Homilies, the Ordinal, and the Book of Common Prayer—which are critical to its work of reconciliation: “Can a theological tradition exist without theology? That often seems where we are heading, but if we ever get there, Anglicanism will be as good as dead. Theological renewal is essential if we are to survive.” The via media of the Anglican tradition (interpreted in various ways as a mediator between Catholicism and Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, popery and Puritanism) constitutes “the best of Anglicanism and its template for the future of Christianity after Christendom,” but also “evokes the worst aspects of Anglicanism: the spineless, muddling middle way that encourages a managerial mentality and gives rise to a false peace without principles,” avers ex-Episcopalian, Catholic theologian R. R. Reno.
When the ear inclines to voices from the Global South, the reader experiences a jarring register break: Southern brethren hew to orthodox Christianity and therefore sing with a higher register of exultant notes. Listening to Eliud Wabukala from Kenya and Mouneer Anis from Egypt, one hears, against the rigor mortis that paralyzes the Global North, churchmen who are “resurrected by love,” to borrow Dostoevsky’s memorable phrase in his epilogue to Crime and Punishment. Their missional vigor, rooted in the formularies of the Anglican tradition, inspires hope.
“The ‘Anglican experiment’ is not ending in failure,” says Wabukala, “but is on the verge of a new and truly global future in which the original vision of the Reformers can be realized as never before.” When Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey said in 1990, “You don’t have to be English to be Anglican,” he probably could not have foreseen that today, “Anglicans in the Global South represent more than 80 percent of the members of the Anglican Communion,” according to Anis.
All of which makes British colonial rule in a postcolonial world not only an anachronism but an anathema, insofar as pride of place must yield to the new reality with humility instead of reluctance and resentment. The mission field is reversed, where the once-evangelized are now the evangelizers. Fraternal love involves correction, which can be heard in Wabukala’s gentle rebuke: “Leaders from the Global North have led us down unhelpful paths. The so-called instruments of unity—the archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meetings—have failed to provide unity and focus for effective mission.”
Africa not only shaped the Christian mind in the past but will shape its mind—and, just as importantly, its heart—in the future. The way forward is backward through a recovery of apostolic faith that took shape with first-century African theologians like Augustine of Hippo, Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage, and Clement, Origin, Cyril, and Athanasius of Alexandria. In short, the Global South, like Alyosha, serves as a brother’s keeper to the Global North, loving the family to a healthier and holier future.
The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov, which quotes from the Gospel of John, fits the overall impression that The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism left with me: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (12:24, KJV).
For the Christian, death is never the final word. What follows is greater: walking in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). It’s worth remembering that Anglicanism has died twice before: once in the 16th century during Queen Mary’s bloody reign, where she tried, in vain, to reverse the English Reformation, and again in the 17th century during the puritanical reign of Oliver Cromwell, whose commonwealth tried to banish, in vain, the Anglican Church.
In light of this history, what reason is there for fear? As Ray Sutton, presiding bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church, observes, “Each resurgence of life after death left Anglicanism with a greater capacity to become a more unifying church. To cite the great Roman Catholic writer Henri Nouwen, out of the wounds came an ability to heal: a wounded healer. Anglicanism emerged with greater comprehensiveness, bringing in more branches of God’s vine.”
As Radner perceptively claims, the “giftedness of death is true for human persons; but it is equally true, as the Scriptures point out, for our communities of faith—Israel and the church both.” From the context of the Global North, where I worship, the Anglican family seems on the cusp of imprisonment like Dmitri or madness like Ivan. But I share Alyosha’s indefatigable hope in the Resurrection. Paul reminds us that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:8–10).
In a final scene from The Brothers Karamazov, Kolya, the neighborhood scoffer turned seeker, asks Alyosha, “Can it really be true as religion says, that we all rise from the dead, and come to life”? When Alyosha replies, “half laughing, half in ecstasy,” he offers a word that inspires confidence in the fruitfulness of Anglican witness bearing in the future: “Certainly, we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been.”
Christopher Benson serves as the curriculum director and humanities instructor at Augustine Classical Academy in Lakewood, Colorado, and worships at Wellspring Anglican Church in Englewood. He blogs at Bensonian.