Select Page

In “20 Theses on Justice,” the Revs. Esau McCaulley and Jonathan Warren invite us to reflect on “the role the ACNA should play in the present moment as it relates to justice,” which we are attempting here. We have been explicitly involved in the discussion of Anglican identity and theological formation for 20+ years now (and counting). Before both attending Trinity School for Ministry, we worked in Episcopal boarding schools, then served parishes in the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe (Berlin and Vienna), moved back to the Episcopal Church (Louisville, KY) and are now the ACNA (Mt. Pleasant, SC). We say that only to highlight how the question of Anglican identity and theological formation, which is at the core of the disagreement outlined by these theses, is one very near and dear to our lives. So, like the Revs. McCaulley and Warren, we do not claim any special authority other than being two people who have devoted their lives to working out this very question. The original theses are included here and our responses are underneath.  We very much appreciate the medium, the tone, and, hopefully, the benefit of this discussion for our fair church. 

Jady & Liza Koch

There has been some conversation about the role the ACNA should play in the present moment as it relates to issues of justice. These 20 theses are attempts to move this conversation forward by highlighting some less helpful trends and to place us on more solid Anglican footing by looking to our authoritative sources, our history, and our global communion. Our hope is that this conversation would become more authentically Anglican in its ethos, sources, and posture. We claim no special authority other than being two priests committed to the faith once delivered and the well being of our province. We hope that theses are received in the charitable spirit in which they are offered and that they spur on needed conversation and reflection.

The argument over what constitutes source material that is “authentically Anglican” has been a topic of debate since the publication of the first BCP in 1549. Historically, our influences have been a mix of renaissance humanism, Augustinianism, continental “evangelicalism” (i.e. Lutheranism), and Swiss (and other) Reformed (c.f. Martyr-Vermigli, Bullinger, et. al,) with a dash of Tractarian high-church influence that would come later. All of that is to say, it will be hard to argue for the existence of some sort of distinctly Anglican way for Christians to talk about justice apart from any cross-pollination from other traditions. There is an implication that the discussion so far has been less than Anglican; we will see. 

1.The Prayers and Collects in the Book of Common Prayer presume the participation of Anglicans in the pursuit of social justice. Our own prayer for social justice (No. 43) asks that we be empowered to “make no peace with oppression” and that God would “help us use our freedom rightly in the establishment of justice in our communities and among the nations.” The Prayer Book enjoins us not to turn a blind eye to the organization of our society but to seek and to denounce oppression. See also elements of the Great Litany and a variety of prayers for justice in our liturgies.

This is a fair way to begin a set of theses on “justice,” but we must deal right away with the underlying issue: how “oppression” (and further below, “justice”) is defined will be seen as critical to this discussion. (more on that below). At this point, suffice it to say that it is absolutely our responsibility, as the BCP says, not to turn a blind eye to the way our society is structured. This would come as no surprise to Cranmer and the other English reformers who saw nothing wrong with the Erastianism that existed then (and now) in the Church of England; somebody tell those Bishops seated in the House of Lords that they need to worry about society! Now, our American church has had a different relationship to the government than the Church of England, but we nevertheless can affirm, with the Anglican Church through the centuries, a concern for “justice and peace.” 

2.Historically, the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic streams of Anglicanism in the UK had a strong emphasis on social reform as an aspect of gospel witness. William Wilberforce’s commitment to the dismantlement of slavery and John Stott’s work to incorporate the article on “Christian social responsibility” in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 are examples from the evangelical stream. Bishop Frank Weston’s address at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress and Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s writings on Christian social responsibility, and his insistence that clergy “witness to justice and brotherhood and human dignity” in their churches and communities are examples from the catholic stream.

See above, but the idea that the church’s witness includes social reform seems fairly obvious. For example, since the earliest extra-biblical teaching—the Didache—the church has advocated for a culture of life over against the support of abortion and euthanasia and continues that work today. 

3.The threefold renunciation in our baptismal liturgy of the world, the flesh, and the devil presumes the idea that society and spiritual powers and our own desires can lead us into sin. The description of the demonic origins of war and ethnic striving in the writings of the church fathers is evidence that these powers are not merely interpersonal.

Still in agreement here. The law was given to reveal sin and constrain evil, and Christians are called to protest the unjust use of the sword. 

4.Global Anglicanism is often engaged politically. See the church of Uganda here: If we are to follow the lead of the global south, we must think carefully about the shape of our witness.

Again, who is arguing against this? Interestingly enough, the link provided is to the Abp. of Uganda’s appeal for election integrity and transparency, something that very few ACNA theologians shared public concerns about in this past election, but we hope that they will join with the Abp Kaziimba publicly to call on our leaders for a fair, transparent, and just electoral process.

5.An examination of our calendar of saints reveals that they are often praised for their faith in Jesus and for the social reforms that they brought about as a result of their faith. Our own Prayer Book calendar has a category for saints called “Reformer of Society” which includes a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr 

We don’t understand this refrain. Is anyone seriously arguing that Christians should not try to reform society? We need names and receipts, as they say, of the Anglicans who are advocating that we have no obligation to societal engagement.

6.If we have the saints, the Prayer Book, and history on one side of justice, then what is the explanation for controversy?

Ok, here we go.

7.Careful attention to critics of the pursuit of social justice in an Anglican context reveal a primary dependence on conservative Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian thought, not Anglican formularies and history.

This is an interesting move. Disregarding the fact that Anglicans have historically drawn from a large cross-section of theological traditions as a matter of course, there has never been a particular allergy to Reformed thought among Anglicans, at least not ones well-versed in our Reformation heritage. Our 39 Articles and the 1662 BCP — which the 2019 ACNA BCP follows — explicitly reflect the influence of Reformed (and Lutheran!) thought clearly and without apology (much to the dismay of John Henry Newman, but that is a different story).

8. This is a noticeably unecumenical set of conversation partners. There is little engagement with Catholic Social Teaching or the sources mentioned above (global Anglicanism, history, our liturgies). If “reformed Catholicism” is indicative of the Anglican way, then we are in danger of losing much of the “catholic” part of that tradition. We are engaging only a small segment of the American evangelical tradition.

Who is doing this? Who is consciously rejecting our global Anglican partners, our history, and our liturgy? Now, one might think that there are other sources that are more authoritative or insightful, but that would be a matter of debate, not error. “Reformed Catholicism” means that we are free to utilize the insights of the church catholic, not obligated. And, to characterize the insights of the “conservative Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians” as “a small segment of the American evangelical tradition,” is really a stretch. These traditions are working within a long and distinguished intellectual history that extends well beyond (and before) the “American evangelical tradition” (as if even that could be simplified into one recognizable thing).

9. In part, this focus on a portion of the American evangelical conversation about social justice comes from a false sacralization of the American republic and an implicit narrative of decline about American history. This narrative sees the past as more Christian than the present and seeks to return the nation to the status quo ante. Communities and churches of color by and large have a far more complex relationship with American both church and society for participation in oppression.

Despite the fact that this is simply stated as if unassailably true (which it is not), this is not an either/or. We should be able to look back at American history and both, like the prophets, “denounce church and society for participation in oppression” and acknowledge (and bewail) the legitimate decline in Judeo-Christian principles in the larger society. The simple fact that fewer people in America identify as Christian should be a concern, for instance. Now, that each generation must struggle afresh with what it looks like to be a Christian and wrestle with the sins of their fathers and grandfathers is explicitly mentioned in scripture and attested to throughout history, so we do not need to excuse the errors of our past. That being said, show us the people who are arguing that the American past was sinless. This vague assertion is why we must nail down what the sin(s) of oppression actually were and are and what injustice was done and is being done now, by defining clearly what constitutes biblical justice. This is where the definitions-rubber hits the road.

10. Too often critics of the advocacy for justice argue that concerns for justice are rooted in a worldview antithetical to the gospel. In other words, we are seeing an end- run around the actual theological and exegetical issues by de-Christianizing the arguments of the advocates of justice. Commentary that begins by saying “what they really mean is…” or “the real source of this argument is” is intended to poison the well.

It is clear with this thesis that this conversation needs to continue. First of all, nobody is a “critic of the advocacy for justice,” until “justice” is defined in non-biblical ways, which is precisely what is happening in much of the conversation both within the church and in the wider culture. It should be noted that these terms are used and assumed throughout these theses over against their “opponents” and “critics,” as if there are those involved in this conversation who are legitimately opposed to “justice” and, by extension, somehow “pro-oppression.” If one examines the arguments of these so-called ” critics of justice,” what is clearly evident is a sincere belief that there is great danger in appropriating non-Christian worldviews and concepts to diagnose and cure the human problem. Acknowledging the Marxist and postmodern theories undergirding the discussion surrounding much of what passes for “justice” is a necessary part of defining fully the terms at play. Read Marx, Marcuse, Alinski, Gramsci, Foucault, Baudrillard, etc., and show how their ideas can be baptized, rooted as they are in the fundamental convictions that 1) there is no God, 2) truth is relative, 3) morality is culturally bound, and 4) every relationship in life is a zero-sum power struggle. Until that work is done, the (so-called) “critics of the advocacy for justice” will continue to ignore the unfounded (and frankly slanderous) repeated assertion that anyone who disagrees with this new understanding of “justice” (and by extension, racism, oppression, equality, etc.) is indifferent to the biblical demand for justice.

11. This de-Christianization of the arguments of justice advocates is achieved by asserting a worldview that does not inhere in the words themselves, but in the meaning critics impose on those words. There are rarely good faith attempts at clarification, but simply assertions that the language is unchristian.

If only things could be as simple as “the words themselves.” As language develops, the meaning of a word is the only important thing. The critics here are not simply claiming that the language is unchristian—and this is the whole point!—but that the worldview is unchristian. That unbiblical worldview works itself out in the meaning they give to words that can also be used rightfully in a biblical way. In our experience, “good faith attempts at clarification” do occur, but the “critics” are generally not swayed and maintain their legitimate disagreement. And, as is often the case, when “critics” do not change their minds, then it is assumed that they were simply not willing to listen; again, this is untrue. We’ve been talking about this for a while now, and it looks like we might simply disagree on some things. 

12. The supposed worldview that is antithetical to the gospel is created by linking current proponents of justice to a series of stereotypical villains (usually European progressives and radicals or “cultural Marxists”). There is no engagement with the theological convictions arising from ethnic minority communities. These convictions arise from their own encounter with Scripture and experiences of oppression. Rather the – usually unrelated – ideas of European or American dominant populations are centered. There is no attempt to trace the development of ideas (for example) through the African American Christian tradition.

It is difficult to take this thesis seriously. The influence of radical European and Marxist philosophy into the modern discourse around modern theories of “justice” is well-documented, and, simply stating that the theology of ethnic minorities sprung up entirely apart from those influences does not prove it so. What is more, the African-American Christian tradition, insofar as people like James Cone are illustrative of at least one stream, was and is deeply influenced by (so-called) liberation theology and other theological schools explicitly indebted to Marxist influence. Again, just saying that it’s not true doesn’t make it so. 

13. Historically (look at the period of slavery and the Civil Rights movement) demands for justice have been met with similar accusations that advocates have abandoned the gospel and have become socialists or cultural Marxists, or there is an angry assertion that minorities should be satisfied with the progress made and should stop talking about race. 

Fair enough, but an argumentation formerly misapplied does not invalidate similar concerns within this current conversation, nor does it mean that all radical calls for justice are automatically right. Discernment and the continued application of biblical justice are needed, just as they were during the civil rights movement. The great strength of MLK’s argumentation was its foundation of biblical, universal, unbiased, non-discriminatory justice for all, which differs entirely from the cultural Marxist approach of so many current “social justice” advocates.  

14. While a hermeneutic of suspicion is applied to those contending for justice, there is a vocal demand for the most charitable interpretation for racially insensitive remarks and actions. See certain spaces where extensive racialized discourse is not to be questioned or named.

The ideology behind BLM, phrases such as “do the work,” and the concept of “white privilege,” etc., is deeply intertwined with much of this recent energy toward racial justice in the church, all of which are built on an unchristian foundation. So in this particular cultural moment, a hermeneutic of caution at the very least is a wise one, and one of suspicion is at times warranted. We are talking about people with real, genuine, and deep disagreements on both the definition of the terms at play here and their theological implications, and when one side consistently views disagreement with its assertions as “harmful,” insensitive, or worse, then actual conversations become a challenge.

15. Therefore, the actual debate is not on the basis and norms of an Anglican political witness. What we have instead is the desire to import the culture wars roiling in Baptist, Presbyterian and non-denominational contexts to the Anglican Church.

Nothing before this point warrants a “therefore.” We’d say that even though the ACNA is somewhat late to the game, the same biblical concerns about “social justice” (so defined) that are roiling other denominations and traditions are equally important to discuss and, yes, disagree about in our own. In fact—and we don’t know why it hasn’t been released—the ACNA College of Bishops brought together a task force to look at this very question. Hopefully its report will be as thoughtful and courageous as their recent letter on human sexuality. 

16. The fruit of this war in the Baptist and Presbyterian circles has been the discouragement of many ethnic minorities and their departure.  Evidence has shown that attempts at clarification and dialogue with opponents of justice in those circles have largely proved fruitless. After many years, ethnic minorities in these spaces and those sympathetic to them leave or give up.

This again is a set of claims and blanket assertions stated as fact. It’s true that some high-profile people have left various churches, but people are free to determine what is most important to them in any given denomination. There is a global theological conversation about race, gender, sexuality, etc. that has caused and is causing a disruption in every denomination that affects all people, not just ethnic minorities. In this particular case, there may be some churches that are legitimately “opponents of justice,” but it’s also just as possible that some of those who left were/are the ones elevating race and various other “identities” to an idolatrous level. It makes sense that those who disagree with what’s being taught, when they try to “dialogue” and don’t make any headway, would give up and leave. That by no means proves their mistreatment.

17. Those who do not know about this history might wonder why many have largely disengaged with this segment of the church. This is the answer.

Some have disengaged for the reasons previously mentioned, some haven’t. 

18. Many have convinced themselves that they are simply defending the faith from those who would distort it. We contend that they are doing real damage to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is very strange how often these defenses of the faith lead to the particular discouragement of many of the ethnic minorities (and women) in their midst who are confessionally committed to the faith once delivered. At some point, we are going to have to ask why.

So what was a set of theses offered “in a charitable spirit,” now turns the way most of these conversations go; namely, that any who disagree publicly and refuse to admit error (i.e. adopt unbiblical critical categories about the world) are actually perpetuating damage and (one imagines) “harm” to their brothers and sisters in the faith. We are surprised that, given this charge, the discourse has been so restrained up until now. 

19. None of these claims are totalizing. In other words, not every critic of justice fits this description. Some criticisms of some people talking about justice are valid. But the current sources of discourse and the level of rancor do not reveal a desire to discern the shape of the church’s public witness.

This caveat should have been made closer to the top, but even so, it’s inaccurate. (see above) 

20. There is an Anglican conversation to be had that takes seriously the difference in character of our sources and history from other Christian traditions. This will take courage, patience, biblical fidelity, and clear headed reasoning.


Share This