The centre cannot hold—mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
so that they may be one as we are one.
My theological journey, as a young man in my early twenties, took me to L’Abri in Switzerland from 1973-1974. I was quite taken by Francis Schaeffer, but I was never fully convinced by his brand of an updated version of Calvin and the Calvinist tradition. In short, I was never held by the Reformed tradition. The Reformation is the womb of modernity, and much of the fragmentation we face today is the consequence of the reformation. The children are out of the womb, now adults and each doing what is right in the sight of their own eyes (and few agree on what the right is).
I had been reading a great deal of C.S. Lewis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I was quite aware that Lewis and Schaeffer dwelt in different environs. Lewis was grounded in the classical way, a Medieval-Renaissance scholar, a catholic Anglican and he had serious doubts about both the Reformation tradition and puritan Calvinism. Schaeffer was a true believer in the Reformed read of the reformation, and its implications for the church and society. Lewis could argue the case for mere Christianity, but there comes a point in the trail when Schaeffer and Lewis part paths for substantive theological, ecclesial and cultural reasons.
Lewis, as I mentioned above, was a catholic Anglican (meaning his thinking was deeply rooted in the Bible-Patristics-Medieval-
The fact that Lewis had a deep respect for the Patristic era meant that he dwelt in a period of time that the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglicans hold high as a significant moment of church history. Lewis was, in fact, part of the catholic renaissance of the 1930s-1950s that attempted to restore the classics to the life of soul formation, formal education and the church. This was why, for example, Lewis wrote the introduction to St. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation that was eventually published by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, although Lewis’ introduction to On The Incarnation had been published much earlier.
I did a BA at the University of Lethbridge from 1977-1979, and as I neared the end of my studies, taken as I was by the insights of Lewis and Thomas Merton, I seriously considered doing graduate studies at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies (PIMS) in Toronto. I was convinced it was in the synthesis of the Patristic-Medieval way, when engaged with the Modern, that a way forward could be found. The Classic Christian, if nothing else, highlights and priorizes unity within the body of Christ, whereas the modern protestant way has ushered in an unprecedented era of fragmentation within the church.
I decided against studying at the PIMS and went to Regent College where I focused on both the Desert tradition and the Patristic era. I did an MA thesis on John Cassian (who Merton used a great deal), then I went to UBC and did an MA on Origen and Anthony. I was, in brief, thoroughly immersed in the leading Ammas, Abbas and mystical theologians of the Patristic period. I was a student and teaching assistant of James Houston’s when I was at Regent College, and James suggested, given my obvious commitment to the Patristic tradition, that I seriously think of becoming an Anglican priest. Jim, when in England, worked closely with many Orthodox and Anglicans. My wife and I pondered such a suggestion on a long walk by the ocean in Vancouver, and we decided, like C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, S.T. Coleridge, Stephen Leacock and George Grant, my vocation was that of an informed layperson, and my task was to work more in the world than the church. I remember, with much fondness, my many conversations with Jim Houston.
Regent College had obvious reformed and evangelical institutional leanings and commitments, but Jim Houston, again and again, led the interested and spiritually hungry, to the classics of the Christian mystical and contemplative way. When I was at Regent from 1979-1981, Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge had both spoken, at different times, at the College. Jim mentioned how disappointed many were with Schaeffer’s reactionary reformed ways and how taken many were by Muggeridge’s informed catholicity.
I was also reading a great deal of Vladimir Lossky at the time, and I had thoughts of either attending St. Vladimir’s Seminary (Orthodox) or Nashota House (High Church Anglican). So, I had a great affinity for both Orthodoxy and High Church Anglicanism by the 1980s, and I was somewhat gratified to know that the future Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) did his doctoral dissertation on Lossky when at Oxford. A.M. Allchin’s The Kingdom of Love and Knowledge: The Encounter Between Orthodoxy and the West (1982) brought this into sharp relief for me. The Kingdom of Love and Knowledge was dedicated to Lossky, and there is a fine chapter on Lossky and Williams in the alluring book.
Rowan Williams was just emerging as a significant English theologian in the 1980s (he had visited St. Vladimir’s in 1974), and the publication of The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (1979) placed Williams at the forefront of Anglican-Orthodox relations. The publication of Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (1981) was also a significant crossroads book for me as I was thinking through the Patristic Orthodox-Anglican dialogue.
Needless to say, the world of High Church Anglicanism and Orthodoxy had taken me a long distance from Schaeffer and L’Abri by the 1980s.
I mention the above for the simple reason that St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary invited Archbishop Rowan Williams to give the 27th annual Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture on January 30/2010. Williams lecture was called ‘Theology and the Contemplative Calling: The Image of Humanity in the Philokalia’. I had, when doing my studies at Regent College and UBC, spent a great deal of time in the Philokalia and many of the short yet pithy Desert wisdom sayings, and I did a course when at UBC in which I translated and read Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. I was fortunate, for a few years, to study regularly the Philokalia with Archbishop Lazar Puhalo at the Canadian Orthodox monastery in the Fraser Valley. St. Vladimir’s also gave Archbishop Rowan Williams an honorary doctorate when he gave his lecture on the Philokalia. Indeed, the Anglican and Orthodox way have many a meaningful affinity.
Rowan Williams is part of a High Church Anglican tradition that has attempted to discern the relationship between spirituality, the church and prophetic politics. I was quite drawn to the radical anglo-catholic way that those like Williams, Kenneth Leech and others have articulated. I was fortunate to spend time with Kenneth Leech in East London, and his earlier book, Soul Friend, played a significant role in my inner-outer growth just as missive, Subversive Orthodoxy (1992) congealed much for me.Subversive Orthodoxy was a series of lectures given at Trinity College in Toronto in 1991 and published by the Anglican Book Centre. Needless to say, both Williams and Leech are quite fond of Thomas Merton.
There is much more that I could say about the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue. My leanings are High Church (Anglo-Catholic) Anglican, and I have been quite fortunate to work with many Orthodox over the years. In fact, a couple of years ago (2008), I was in Alaska (Eagle River) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the last final retreat that Thomas Merton gave before he traveled to Asia. The area where Merton gave the retreat is now an Orthodox Cathedral, and the Orthodox community was most receptive to my visit. In fact, I stayed in the Merton room, and when there, gave a lecture to the Orthodox on Merton and Orthodoxy. The recent book, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (2009), makes it abundantly clear Merton’s many affinities with Orthodoxy. Merton, in his final retreat in Eagle River, turned to Lossky as a serious entry point to Orthodoxy.
Some of my concerns about the recent convergence of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical linking of arms in affectionate familial bonds have much to do with how theology is translated into the public realm. Sadly so, much of the concord between those turning to ‘The Great Traditon’ often translates into a form of republican politics in the public square. I don’t think that the richness and fullness of the Christian Tradition can be reduced to a right of centre ethical stance in the culture wars. Most of the finest thinkers and activists in ‘The Great Tradition’ would surely question the tribalism of the right, left and sensible centre. It is one thing, therefore, to hear the clarion call to return to the ancient ways. It is quite another thing to restrict the prophetic like dynamism of the Tradition to a plaything and dancing bear of republican conservative politics. I’m all for a return to ‘The Great Tradition’, but I question whether the Tradition can be merely interpreted, in the present tense, to serve the agenda of the political right of centre (whether in a sophisticated, popular or crude manner).
There is a form of conciliar Roman Catholic thought as embodied in those like Thomas Merton, and a form of High Church Anglicanism as incarnated by Rowan Williams and Kenneth Leech that has a great deal of affinity with an Orthodox tradition that has dug deeply into her peace and justice way. The future of the church hinges on how these classical and ancient types of faith are interpreted and work together. The ecclesial journey into the future must surely oppose both the fragmentary forces at work in modern and postmodern forms of Christianity that erode, yet further, the centre and increase the fragmentation that so defines and besets liberal modernity. Such a pilgrimage into the Great Tradition must be wary of any public agenda that reduces the political vision of the church to the ideology of the right, left or centre. It is by articulating a higher and more consistent ethical stance that the church is true to her prophetic calling, and within the Canadian context, there is no doubt that George Grant has pointed the way to such an ennobling place to live, move and have out being.