The liturgy started sleepily this fourth Sunday in Advent, people trickling in later than usual. A traffic jam made traveling downtown to our Anglican parish especially difficult. It turned out the standstill was caused by the Secret Service. As we, like the Magi, made our way to Christmas, the Maga were making their own pilgrimage, following a reality star turned politician to First Baptist Dallas. There, the 45th President was met with adulation and praise.
That event was the lens through which people saw and interpreted the second biggest news item of the week on Christian Twitter: Beth Moore’s conversion to Anglicanism. If Moore was walking away from the denomination of FBC Dallas, as “right wing” as it is, her destination must be “left wing,” mustn’t it? The answer is no.
Beth Moore becoming Anglican doesn’t in and of itself signal a slouch toward “liberalism.” It’s important for all of us to get this right, but it’s especially important for those remaining in the tradition of Bunyan and Broadus who presumably have an interest in keeping the next generation within that tradition.
To be clear, I do think there are people on a journey to a bougie sort of secular progressivism. Once one understands love to entail a tacit approval of every lifestyle, the days of picking up one’s cross and following Christ are numbered. Having said that, it behooves Baptists to understand the quest for a tradition as something different than a quest for worldly approval.
As a priest, I hear stories of people who are leaving the Baptist mega-church world for Anglicanism every week, sometimes every day. And when the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAGCON) interviewed me about my own journey, I heard from folks across the communion who made a similar pilgrimage to Canterbury. I know these stories as well as anyone.
In my experience, “Right” to “Left” is the wrong paradigm to understand the exodus happening from the institutions of the 2nd Great Awakening. Anglican converts don’t understand their journey as one from “conservative” to “progressive.” Those words, or their antonyms, are never used in my experience. Instead, the words are “loud” to “quiet,” “casual” to “reverent,” “consumable” to “permanent,” “transient” to “rooted.”
These converts aren’t looking for a political home, they’re looking for a spiritual home. They are looking for the grounding and sturdiness of a proper tradition. I suppose this is what frustrates me most about the antipathy many of these converts nurse toward the Baptist church of their past.
To love “the Christian tradition,” one has to have sympathy and respect for brothers and sisters who very imperfectly tried to live out their faith. How one can embrace “the Christian tradition,” with all its warts, while holding the church of their youth in contempt is beyond me. Of course I’m in favor of pointing out error where it’s to be found, but if we’re able to extend charity to folks in the 2nd century, why can’t we do the same for those in the 20th?
My purpose here isn’t to chastise those leaving the Baptist church, however, it’s to help the Baptists keep those thinking about leaving. My advice to them is simple: Embrace your tradition. Be Baptist.
What is often lost in these conversations, of course, is the simple reality that there really is a Baptist tradition. This is often forgotten in our day, but that doesn’t change the history. Baptists have long been marked by a deep concern with the new birth, a jovial confidence in the simple preaching of Scripture, and a keen concern with the church’s calling to be a people set apart from the world, holy, equipped for God’s service. Contemporary Baptists deny this tradition to their own peril.
Future historians will study the ways in which the modern Baptist church understood itself as “Merely Christian,” and future theologians will study the ways in which that self-understanding kept it from maturing. To improve one’s self one must criticize one’s self, to criticize one’s self one must reflect upon one’s self, and to reflect upon one’s self one must have a sense of self in the first place.
There’s truly much to commend in the Baptist tradition, but there’s no question that it’s a tradition, and an idiosyncratic one at that. It might be a lovely room in the house of Christendom, but it isn’t the hallway.
If they’re to move into the future, the Baptist tradition will need to grapple with itself as such. The good news is, there are plenty of Baptists who are doing just that. I think of the eminent historian Michael AG Haykin. I think of my friend Brandon Smith and all of his colleagues at The Center for Baptist Renewal.
Yes, many who’ve left the Baptist church recognize how noxious it is for a church to host Donald Trump in a worship service. But one need not use Anglican logic to critique that act, a public theology in the Baptist tradition will reach that same conclusion. These people aren’t being drawn to some Anglican utopia—the church of Henry VIII has some questionable political ties as well!—they’re being pushed away by the rootlessness of a tradition that has given up the project of describing and refining that tradition.
To my Baptist friends: The Anglican church needs you. Indeed, the whole catholic church needs you. It’s time to once again be you and offer your people a tradition that is, indeed, yours.