History's humongous wheel turns and turns and turns again. Over time, mud and sludge accumulate on even the sprucest institutions. Take the 500-year-old Anglican family of churches, Christianity's third-largest, after Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy.
With Anglicanism's biggest family event under way -- the every-10-years gathering of bishops and archbishops in England -- what the world sees, accurately or not, is a family in moral and spiritual disarray.
Anglicans -- whose main American franchise is the two-century-old Episcopal Church -- seem unable to agree on anything. Especially on religion -- an odd state of affairs for a religious enterprise. The steady, stately commitments that Anglicans formerly took for granted in the Christian message cut little ice today. Observers see the communion as likely to split -- to the extent it hasn't split already, "liberals" on one side, "conservatives" on the other.
Political labels of this sort have obvious limitations in a religious context. Would the bodily resurrection of Christ be a "conservative" doctrine? A liberal one? What about the atonement? What (SET ITAL) does (CLOSE ITAL) Ronald Reagan have to do with all this anyway?!
For all that, Anglicanism's public troubles proceed from the takeover of Western Anglicanism by theological activists whose purpose is the remolding of Christianity into something less like the old-time religion than like the platform on which Barack Obama will run for president.
Whereas orthodox Christianity insists on the salvational role of the second person of the trinity -- more popularly called Jesus -- activist orthodoxy calls for supporting climate change and advancing women's rights. And for establishing homosexuality as a sexual "preference" equivalent to heterosexuality.
It was the Episcopal Church's consecration of a gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire that, for many Anglicans, here and abroad, finally ignited the gasoline on the brush pile. American conservatives blasted the consecration; foreign heads of overseas Anglican churches promised to support their brothers' stand for God-given, as they saw it, moral norms. Great ugliness ensued: ungenerous words spoken on all sides; declarations of independence from the church; lawsuits levied by the church against rebels seeking to take their churches with them; the Gospel made a token of strife and mutual accusation.
A fourth-century father of the church, speaking of his own time, pronounced on ours: "We are making war upon one another, " said Gregory of Nazianzus, "and almost upon those of the same household. Or if you will, we the members of the same body, are consuming and being consumed by one another."
Meanwhile, in Australia, addressing 350,00 Roman Catholic pilgrims, not to mention millions watching on television, Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to the "spiritual desert" spreading through the world -- "an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair," being the product of de-spiritualization.
Anglicans would be right in saying it's not just us. It's one of those seasons when spiritual sails -- to extend the pope's metaphor -- dangle in exhaustion, waiting for a breeze. The quasi-secular liberals who operate Anglicanism talk as though some or all of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals -- e.g., "halve extreme poverty," "ensure environmental sustainability," "promote gender equality and empower women" -- are the tickets to renewal.
One problem arises: By and large, working through secular questions is what secular entities like governments equip themselves to do. Religious institutions, for all their great works of mercy, have a still larger function; namely, the presentation of reality -- the truths, permanent in character, about who these crazy humans are and what they need to do about it.
What they don't need to do is attempt to reorder reality on their own: the reality of relationships, the reality of joy and satisfactions achieved within a grand design not of human authorship. Or so Anglicans used to understand the matter before the Millennium Development Goals came along and sighs of joy arose in high places.