It has become something of a cliche to say that Anglicanism is broad and diverse. High Church Catholics who send up clouds of incense so thick that they would make the pope cough are just as Anglican as Low Church Evangelicals whose praise bands and seeker services make them hard to distinguish from Baptists and Pentecostals. Many modern Anglicans argue that this is Anglicanism’s great strength. Critics, including those who have left Anglicanism for greener pastures, often feel that this diversity is Anglicanism’s Achilles’ Heel. If Anglicanism does not stand for something, perhaps it will fall for anything. If the tradition is really so broad as to include everyone and anyone, then there is reason to wonder whether there really is a tradition to speak of at all.
Worry over this critique during the last century and a half has led Anglicans to try to define themselves. From the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the 1880s to the debates over the Anglican Covenant today, Anglicans have become obsessed with showing the world that there really is content to our tradition, that it is not simply anything goes. There are a thousand articles out there and probably tens of thousands of blog posts on the topic of “Anglican essentials,” and yet no one ever seems to be able to come up with the definitive list. Evangelicals stress certain things, Catholics others, Liberals still others. Generally speaking, each camp stresses those pieces of the Anglican puzzle that will make Anglicanism seem most likable to members of their party in other, less ambiguous traditions. “No, really, we’re Catholic, we have apostolic succession, look!” “Surely we’re as Evangelical as you, we believe in the supreme authority of scripture!” “We make decisions based on reason, just like all right thinking Liberals!” And on and on the dance goes.
Of course, the great irony in all of this is that modern Anglicans have simultaneously made the claim that there is nothing unique about our tradition. In the middle of the twentieth century, Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher wrote that Anglicanism “has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by others. While I certainly would not want to disagree with the good Archbishop that the faith taught in Anglicanism is the Catholic faith found in the creeds, I believe that the Anglican Reformers and Divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would be quite surprised to hear that Anglicanism does not have its own thought or practice.
Despite my tone, I do not wish to give the impression that I believe the project of identifying Anglican essentials is unimportant. Indeed, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was a phenomenal achievement, precisely because it demonstrated the fact that Anglicanism is grounded in something firm and unchanging, despite the great diversity of the tradition. Nevertheless, I believe that we do Anglicanism a disservice when we seek to define it in a particular way that is meant simply to show a wider audience that the tradition is authentically like other Christian traditions. Yes, we are Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal (in the older sense of all three words), but that does not mean that we can or should define ourselves solely by reference to those particular tent pegs. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the effort to reduce Anglicanism to a set of intellectual propositions that can be written on the back of a three by five note card robs the tradition of its essence. If you tried to do the same thing with a person–”male, 5’11″, 190 lbs, father, husband, member of the following political party and social clubs…”–you would end up with nothing more than a very thin outline of what the person is really like.
The Conciliar Anglican as a project is concerned with articulating what it means to be Anglican. It is my conjecture that Anglicanism is not just a set of ideas, but also a living, breathing tradition that carries within it both a worldview and a lived experience. That is not to downplay the fact that we root this worldview and experience in core, shared doctrine. However, I believe that it is in the way that this doctrine has shaped us through the centuries that we come upon a practice of faith that is at once both unique within the Christian family and yet entirely in keeping with the example set for us by the Early Church and maintained through the centuries long before the Reformation. I refer to this unique worldview and practice of faith as the Anglican way. Over the next several weeks, I intend to begin an exploration of just a few of the hallmarks of that way. The topics that will be covered are as follows:
Scripture First but Not Alone
The Organic Episcopate
The Monasticism of All Believers
Poets, Priests, and Princes
From Monarchy to Conciliarity
I hope that you all will join me in this exploration. I also hope to present something that stands outside of the traditional Anglican “parties” and presents something that is authentic to the tradition as a whole. I look forward to the conversation.