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Sunday, April 01, 2007

What is Anglicanism?

As the crisis in the Episcopal Church appears to be nearing a climax (but haven't we been saying this for years now?), one hears more and more virulent rhetoric on both sides. And the most common charge made by "reappraisers" and "reasserters" alike is that the other side has somehow betrayed what it means to be Anglican. These charges are made with great sincerity, and I think they are both correct--given the presuppositions with which each group is starting.

On the liberal ("reappraiser") side, the definition of Anglicanism is primarily methodological. Anglicanism is defined in terms of the "three-legged stool" of Scripture, reason, and tradition (a definition which I find either tritely obvious and common to all Christians, or completely ahistorical and false as a description of historic Anglicanism); or it is defined in terms of the independence of national churches (which I admit is a historic principle of Anglicanism, but which I believe has always been our Achilles' heel); or it is defined in terms of some vague principle of not being very assertive or confident about doctrine, and particularly not being fundamentalist (or anything that looks to a liberal Christian remotely like fundamentalism) in one's interpretation of Scripture. Obviously if Anglicanism is these things, then conservatives are betraying Anglicanism. That is to say, we do not believe that Scripture, tradition, and reason are equal and co-ordinate authorities for Christian doctrine (neither, of course, did Richard Hooker!). And we certainly treat doctrinal and Scriptural questions in a manner that seems too dogmatic and "fundamentalist" to the "reappraisers" (few if any American Episcopalians are anywhere near real fundamentalism, but by liberal standards many of us look fundamentalist). And it is certainly true that "reasserters" are becoming more and more convinced that the complete independence of national churches is fatal to any attempt to maintain a common Christian orthodoxy, and that we must have some structure of mutual accountability if Anglicanism is to be more than a gaggle of sectarian national churches each pursuing an agenda dictated by the local culture. (To the "reappraisers," I would hold up the Nigerian antigay legislation as an example of this--do you really think that Nigerian Christians should be allowed to support such legislation and still be part of the Anglican Communion? I don't.) Yes, this requires us to rethink the position taken by 16th-century Anglicans over against Rome. And apparently to some liberal Episcopalians this is the ultimate taboo. We cannot suggest that our spiritual ancestors might have been wrong in rejecting the concept of an international ecclesiastical authority. (Note--such a suggestion does not require us to accept every aspect of the RCC's understanding of that authority--papal infallibility, for instance. This is a common scare tactic used by liberals, and it's intellectually empty.) We can question every other doctrine of the English Reformation, but not this one. . . . .

Conservatives, on the other hand, see Anglicanism in terms of beliefs and liturgical practices. To "reasserters," it seems downright perverse to accuse people of being "un-Anglican" for wanting to develop new authority structures in order to defend traditional beliefs and practices. To conservatives, liberals appear to be fighting to keep the windowpanes intact while demolishing the building at its foundations.

Consider the very different way two retired bishops have been treated in the Episcopal Church. John Shelby Spong published "Twelve Theses" which rejected most of the things Christians have traditionally believed. He was never disciplined. But William Cox gets swift and speedy justice from the ecclesiastical courts for daring to administer the sacraments without the approval of the local bishop.

I have heard sermons in Episcopal churches implicitly comparing conservatives to the Pharisees of Jesus' day as described in the New Testament. But surely the privileging of questions of jurisdiction and canon over basic issues of faith and practice is as "Pharisaical" (in the traditional, pejorative Christian sense) as anything one can find on the conservative side.

That is not to say that the conservative flouting of canons is to be justified. There's something to the charge that the so-called "reasserters" are looking more and more like typical American Protestants out to start their own church. But they are doing this because the pursuit of theological, moral, and liturgical innovation by liberals has weakened or destroyed the hold of traditional Anglican structures and conventions on the volatile and individualistic minds of American Christians.

2 comments:

thoughtspot said...

An interesting distinction lurking in the background would the whether one defines "Anglicanism" in contradistinction to other Christians (RCs, evangelicals, etc.) or in contradistinction to nonbelievers. Which are we more afraid of being confused with? This seems to me to be important in any group's attempt to define itself, especially when undergoing internal conflict.

Kerberos said...

"To "reasserters," it seems downright perverse to accuse people of being "un-Anglican" for wanting to develop new authority structures in order to defend traditional beliefs and practices."

## It's not perverse at all - it depends on whether one's standard of reference is:

how things have come to be in the Church

or

how things were in the beginning.

It's more complex even than that - because there several points of reference for people to choose:

1. How the Church was, once it was set going at Pentecost

2. How the Church developed by the
close of the Book of Revelation

3. How the Church developed by the
close of the last book of the NT to be written

4. How the Church developed by the death of the last Apostle

5. The time of the last one of the first 4, or 6, or 7 Ecumenical Councils

Or some other date or period.

The chosen date or period is then made the yardstick for the life of the Church thereafter, according to taste, whether Churchmanly or other.

The complication is that the "re-asserters" and their critics have different yardsticks, & different perspectives: within the RCC, for example, should the Councuil of Florence seen as completed, & interpreted, by Vatican 2 - or, is Vatican 2's doctrine, (& therefore, doctrinal legitimacy) to be judged by past Councils, such as Florence ?

Is Orthodoxy "ossified" - a frequent characterisation - or, is it faithful ? And if the latter, faithful to what ?

As for *o*rthodoxy generally: what is the standard for it ? How far back does one go ? Or is it simply a man-made construct of no lasting value ?