The end of the Anglican Communion

There’s an Anglican church, St. Luke’s, a few blocks up Old Georgetown Road from my parish in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. St. Luke’s recently posted a large sign on the church lawn: “No matter who you are, no matter what you believe, you are welcome at our table.”

Which is, in one sense, a noble sentiment: if it’s meant to convey that, look, we’re all sinners, and no matter how awful you may think you are, you’re welcome in the communion of Christ’s Church if you’re truly repentant. Judging from recent events in the Anglican Communion, however, St. Luke’s sign isn’t a synopsis of the parable of the prodigal son and his merciful father; it’s a succinct, if unwitting, statement of why the Anglican Communion is coming apart at the seams.

No Catholic serious about the Catholic commitment to the unity of Christ’s Church can take any satisfaction from today’s Anglican meltdown. It now looks as if John Henry Newman was right when he concluded that Anglicanism was not a “third branch” on the tree of historic Christian orthodoxy, of which the other branches were Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of the Christian east; rather, Newman decided, Anglicanism was Protestantism in English guise. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, as hopes for ecclesial reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury ran high, it seemed, briefly, as if Cardinal Newman might have been wrong. With the Anglican Communion now fracturing into a gaggle of quarreling communities no longer in communion with each other, it looks as if Newman had the deeper insight into what King Henry VIII wrought.

But neither the late cardinal nor the multi-uxorious king could have imagined that Anglicanism’s breakup would result from some Anglicans’ insistence that sodomy can be sacramental.

Yet that is precisely what is happening. As Canada’s finest Catholic commentator, Father Raymond de Souza, wrote last year (reflecting on the attempts of Dr. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, to hold the Anglican Communion together), “Some [Anglicans] argue that [homosexual acts] are sinful; others that they are sacramental. This is an unbridgeable gap and it appears impossible for Canterbury to straddle it, try as he might.” Dr. Williams has tried mightily; he seems to have failed. There are indeed unbridgeable gaps, and it turns out that it does matter what you believe, if you wish to be seated at “our table” — at least in the minds of the majority of the world’s Anglicans, who disagree with the Episcopal Church USA’s determination to bless same-sex unions and ordain practicing homosexuals to priestly and episcopal ministry.

An American Anglican clergyperson, debating all this on PBS’s “NewsHour,” said that, if schism were the only answer, she and her Pasadena congregation would choose “the Gospel” over “the institutional Church.” From a theological point of view, no more thoroughly Protestant posing of the issue could be imagined. And what does standing up for “the Gospel” have to do with embracing the Zeigeist of the more delirious suburbs of the People’s Republic of California?

Shortly after Rowan Williams was named to Becket’s chair, we spent a cordial ninety minutes together at Lambeth Palace, Canterbury’s London headquarters. I gave him a copy of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II; we spoke of John Paul’s theology of the body, and then fell to discussing the difference between “sacramental” and “gnostic” understandings of the human condition. The former insists that the stuff of the world – including maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity — has truths built into it; gnostics say it’s all plastic, all malleable, all changeable. The sacramentalists believe that the extraordinary reveals itself through the ordinary: bread, wine, water, salt, marital love and fidelity; the gnostics say it’s a matter of superior wisdom, available to the enlightened (which can mean, the politically correct). Dr. Williams seemed convinced that the gnosticism of a lot of western high culture posed a great danger to historic Christianity and the truths it must proclaim.

He was right. The gnosticism that infects the Episcopal Church USA has just about driven the Anglican Communion over the cliff.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.