Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anglican Comprehensiveness

From the Church of England website:

A Comprehensive Church

The history of the Church of England from the 18th century onwards has been enriched by the co-existence within it of three broad traditions, the Evangelical, the Catholic and the Liberal.

  • The Evangelical tradition has emphasized the significance of the Protestant aspects of the Church of England's identity, stressing the importance of the authority of Scripture, preaching, justification by faith and personal conversion.

  • The Catholic tradition, strengthened and reshaped from the 1830s by the Oxford movement, has emphasized the significance of the continuity between the Church of England and the Church of the Early and Medieval periods. It has stressed the importance of the visible Church and its sacraments and the belief that the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons is a sign and instrument of the Church of England's Catholic and apostolic identity.

  • The Liberal tradition has emphasized the importance of the use of reason in theological exploration. It has stressed the need to develop Christian belief and practice in order to respond creatively to wider advances in human knowledge and understanding and the importance of social and political action in forwarding God's kingdom.

It should be noted that these three traditions have not existed in strict isolation. Both in the case of individuals and in the case of the Church as a whole, influences from all three traditions have overlapped in a whole variety of different ways. It also needs to be noted that since the 1960's a fourth influence, the Charismatic movement, has become increasingly important. This has emphasized the importance of the Church being open to renewal through the work of the Holy Spirit. Its roots lie in Evangelicalism but it has influenced people from a variety of different traditions.

What has held these disparate traditions together historically has been the common worship and theology of the Book of Common Prayer along with a general disinclination to define the boundaries of faithfulness very definitively.

This comprehensiveness is one of the things that drew me to the Anglican tradition and the Episcopal Church. When I was becoming an Episcopalian, I remember being shown a video produced by the Episcopal Church (USA) in which these three basic sub-traditions were identified. A church that balanced the three was appealing. Though I remained influenced by my Evangelical upbringing, I was becoming more “catholic” in my appreciation for the importance of the Church as a belonging to one another (including the others of the past, i.e., tradition) while I had also become more “liberal” in my appreciation for the need to take into account what humans, using their God-given reason had learned about creation as it presents itself to us. I have sometimes described myself as a somewhat Liberal Evangelical Catholic Anglican.

I would argue – pace the C of E website – that each sub-tradition has solid roots in Anglicanism going back at least to the 17th century and each can find a congenial teacher in Anglicanism's seminal theologian, Richard Hooker (1554-1599).

In the four centuries since Hooker these three traditions have lived in a sort of balance and sometimes in tension, with each having a turn as the party in ascendance at different periods. Each sub-tradition has been informed by the others and each has usually been kept from wandering too far off into the less healthy tendencies peculiar to itself. It has not always been an easy or comfortable balancing act and that very balancing act has given rise to the Anglican reputation for being messier and less straightforward than some other Christian bodies. Still, however lopsided the balance might have been at any given time, each tradition has been able to claim a legitimate place in the Anglican fold.

This comprehensiveness has not been easy to maintain. And I suspect it has gotten harder. Partly that has to do with the church being coopted by the polarization of contemporary society. We live in a an impatient age and patience is a key virtue in the maintenance of comprehensiveness in as much as it requires a willingness to bear with one another and go the second mile to accommodate those with whom we do not agree. But when the church begins to act as 'borderline' as the rest of society, divide the world into friends who are all good and enemies who are all bad, there is little room for patience and accommodation. For a generation the church we have indulged in a lack of patience, charity, and respect. All have fallen short of the glory of God in this respect. The result is the Episcopal Church - to our loss - has become less comprehensive than it used to be.
I suspect there is another challenge to real comprehensiveness. When one of the sub-traditions is dominate over a long stretch of time, as has been the case with the liberal tradition in the Episcopal Church for the last two or three generations, it is easy for those whose primary identification is with that sub-tradition to begin to assume that it is actually the normative expression. The other sub-traditions are then treated as anomalous deviations. One does not have to look hard to find examples of this attitude. The result is that those whose primary identification is either Evangelical or Catholic - especially in their more traditionalist expressions - feel alienated.

One of the challenges facing the Episcopal Church is just how comprehensive we desire to be. Are we willing to talk about ourselves in ways that remind ourselves and others that while we welcome the Liberal tradition, we are not merely a liberal church and do not desire to be? That the Evangelical and Catholic traditions are also welcome - and respected? Some of the apologia coming from Episcopalians after General Convention was not encouraging in this regard.

It is all the more complicated given that not all Evangelicals or Catholics line up on one side or another of particular church controversies. And when it comes to political convictions, Evangelicals, Catholics and Liberals are sometimes 'conservative' and sometimes 'liberal' or 'progressive'. Again are we willing to truly welcome and honor this comprehensive diversity? Again, the fact that many post-General Convention defenses of the Episcopal Church were framed as defenses of 'Liberal Christianity' raises questions about our commitment to comprehensiveness as opposed to a liberal broadmindedness that is actually not that broad and ends up being less than comprehensive.

Members of the Episcopal Church who are currently in the minority also need to find ways to engage the majority with patience, charity, and respect. What might it mean to accept the status of minority witness out of love? And what would it look like to demonstrate good will in that context?

Those in the Liberal majority need to decide if they truly cherish comprehensiveness in which Evangelicals and Catholics - including traditionalists - are welcome and respected.
What would that look like in practice?


Chase said...

Great post! Very interesting and thoughtful.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Chase.

That's quite an eclectic collection of blogs you follow.

Unknown said...

You've encapsulated so well the reasons that my wife and I became Episcopalian. It's a wonderful tradition!