I would be grateful for your thoughts on why you feel classical Anglicanism preserves the Apostolic faith with more fidelity than the Eastern Orthodox church, which also makes the claim to be the most Patristic, similar-to-the-the-undivided-church Church. I have been having conversations with quite a few Anglicans that, observing the turmoil in the Communion, decided that Orthodoxy is ultimately the best and “most right” place to be. What do you think about this phenomenon?
Amidst the turmoil of life in the Anglican Communion today, it is understandable that many orthodox Anglicans have been looking for a lifeboat. And it’s equally understandable to me that Eastern Orthodoxy would be the lifeboat of choice for so many. It is a tradition that is appealing on a number of levels, particularly for disaffected High Churchmen. It has a rich liturgical life, an unwavering teaching on the truth of the Christian faith and on Christian morality, a history of saints that is wonderfully impressive, and of course, a deep sacramental theology. It is outside of Protestantism and therefore outside of the unending squabbles that crop up amongst Protestants, but it is also outside of Rome, allowing converts to carry with them their anti-Roman biases and, more importantly for clergy, their wives. The problems in American Orthodoxy–financial malfeasance, power struggles, and hidden sexual scandals amongst the clergy–seem downright pedestrian when compared to the all-out apostasy that rules so much of American Anglicanism. In almost all ways, Eastern Orthodoxy seems like the perfect escape hatch.
There is a great deal more that Anglicans have in common with Orthodox than we have in common with almost any other Christian tradition. Our understanding of ministry and mission, our ecclesiology, and even our understanding of the sacraments have deep resonances with one another. It is possible for a faithful Anglican to read a book like Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way and agree with almost all of it without feeling the slightest guilt about betraying his own tradition. At the heart of classical Anglicanism is the recovery of the Catholic Christianity of the Early Church Fathers, and no tradition holds the Fathers in greater esteem than the Eastern Orthodox. In fact, it is because of such resonances that there have been so many positive contacts between Anglicans and Orthodox over the centuries. The Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius is an ongoing testament to this.
Nevertheless, despite the great wealth of things that we have in common, there are four major ways in which Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy differ from one another. I believe that these four divisions fall in favor of classical Anglicanism as being a more faithful form of ancient Christianity than Eastern Orthodoxy, although this statement must be made in humility and repentance since so little of the modern Anglican world actually practices the faith in a way that would be recognizable to our forebears. Eastern Orthodoxy is certainly preferable to modern Anglicanism in either its liberal, pentecostal/charismatic, calvinist, or papalist forms.
Holy Scripture and the Fathers
To understand any of the other differences between our traditions, we have to start with first principles. And at first glance, it seems that Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy have the same starting place. After all, we both believe in the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and we both honor the Fathers of the early Church. However, beneath the surface lies a major chasm between our two traditions in how we apply this principle.
For Eastern Orthodoxy, both Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers are part of Holy Tradition. The entire experience of the Christian community through the ages is counted as a source of divine revelation. As Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it, “Although containing many written documents, Holy Tradition is not at all limited to what is written; it is not merely a body of literature. It is, on the contrary, the total life and experience of the entire Church transferred from place to place and from generation to generation. Tradition is the very life of the Church itself as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.” Within this body of inspired tradition, the Bible holds a special place. Nevertheless, the decisions of the Church through the ages, the icons, the canon laws, the architecture, and even the music are in some sense inspired and must be weighed against the biblical witness when establishing doctrine.
When the Orthodox make appeal to the Fathers, the appeal is not simply to their application of Scripture but to their entire corpus of work which is authoritative on its own merits. The authority of an Ecumenical Council, for instance, derives from the active presence of the Holy Spirit guiding every single decision, including the establishment of canon law and procedure, rather than narrowly to the consistent interpretation of Scripture within the Church.
By contrast, Anglicans understand that the starting place and ending place for divine revelation is Holy Scripture. This does not mean that we lack an appeal to tradition. We take very seriously the witness of the Early Church and honor it to the point of believing that the consistent and universal witness of the Early Church as to how the Scriptures are to be interpreted must be accepted by all Christians who wish to authentically adhere to the faith once delivered to the saints. Nevertheless, all of our doctrine is based on the notion that the Scriptures themselves are where God speaks uniquely. If every single Father believed that all people should refrain from flying a kite on the Sabbath, but none of them made any reference to the Scripture to back up this assertion, then it would not be binding on Christians. The Word of God is what gives authority and life to all that we celebrate within Holy Tradition, including icons, music, and all the rest.
Does this mean that Orthodoxy is more faithful to the Fathers than classical Anglicanism? Only if the Fathers’ own witness is left out of the equation. The Fathers appeal to Scripture over and over again to prove every assertion they make. To hold the Fathers out as self-authenticating is actually to oppose what the Fathers believed about themselves.
From the Orthodox point of view, the addition to the Nicene Creed of the words “And the Son” is the most serious point of departure between our traditions. I have written previously about the Filioque controversy, and so I won’t re-hash it here. Suffice it to say, though, that our disagreement on this matter is directly related to our disagreement over how we view Scripture. The Eastern Orthodox make a fair point that our usage of the filioque is in violation of conciliar principles. But we make an equally good point that their rejection of it is in opposition to the way in which Holy Scripture actually describes how the Spirit proceeds.
Justification By Faith Alone
While Roman Catholicism flat out denies that justification is by faith alone, Eastern Orthodoxy is much harder to pin down. The most common teaching that one encounters in American Orthodoxy today about our salvation is the doctrine of theosis which asserts that through our union with Christ we become more and more like God until we are so filled with Christ that only His holiness remains within us. This is, in fact, a teaching that is compatible with classical Anglicanism. It coincides well with the theology of some of the greatest Anglican divines, like Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor. Nevertheless, while Andrewes and Taylor understood theosis as being simply the outgrowth of our sanctification, which itself is totally dependent on Christ’s atoning for us, many Orthodox today deny the very need for justification.
Much of this denial is built upon a critique of the way in which western Christianity describes God’s wrath. From the Orthodox perspective, substitutionary atonement seems to make God the Father into a giant ogre, ready to beat His Son into a bloody pulp in order to satisfy some hidden urge within Himself for revenge. This is a reasonable critique of the way that some western Christians have portrayed the atonement through the ages, encouraging us to grow close to Christ out of fear of His Father. But this sort of violence is foreign to the teaching that Anglicanism embraces. Scripture teaches that Christ gave Himself up not to appease the Father’s irrational anger but to ensure that God’s justice is equal to His mercy. For whatever else His purposes might be, many of which remain veiled to us, a god who built a world in which evil need not be met with justice would be a cruel god indeed. God’s wrath is not a quality that needs to be balanced against His mercy; His justice is His mercy, all of which is part of the deep mystery of the Cross.
In any event, the Scriptures are clear that justification is necessary for us, that it comes to us only through Christ, and that our own works contribute nothing to the process. Orthodoxy is at best vague about this. Many Orthodox say that it is impossible for the Church to speak to this since the Ecumenical Councils are silent about it. But what is plainly spoken of in Scripture need not be denied simply because there was not controversy about it in the early Church, particularly given the strong antecedents in many of the Fathers for understanding the Atonement in just this way.
The Need for Reformation
Eastern Orthodoxy claims to be the Church of the apostles, never having needed to undergo reformation because she has always remained true. Anglicanism, on the other hand, only exists because the Church of England recognized her need to reform in order to return to her true glory. This is often a point that Orthodox apologists bring up when asserting the superiority of Orthodoxy. Why go with a tradition that only exists out of brokenness when you can have one that has never been broken at all?
Some Orthodox even go so far as to claim that the Orthodox Church has never experienced a schism, a patently absurd claim that is disproved not only by the Great Schism itself but also by the defection of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox five centuries earlier. The fact of the matter is, all churches need reform because all churches are filled with sinners, and it is preposterous to believe that the effects of sin will never touch the core of the faith itself. This is not to make the error of radical Protestants by suggesting that the Church of the middle ages was totally corrupted, to the point of disappearing until the Reformation restored it. Anglicans certainly believe that the true Church exists and has existed in every age, even amidst and mingled with errors, and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Nevertheless, in every era there will be heresy in the Church that will need to be corrected through reform, through returning to first principles, through returning to the Scriptures and the mind of the early Church.
None of this is to say that Orthodoxy is without merit or that we should not count the Orthodox as our brothers and sisters in Christ. On the contrary, I believe we have more fertile ground for renewal and reunion with the east than perhaps with almost any other body of Christians. But these issues that divide us are real and substantial, and frankly, many of the Anglicans who convert to Orthodoxy never really deal with them, either because they see them as unimportant or because they never actually accepted the classical Anglican position on these things in the first place. If we can begin to recover a sense of who we are as Anglicans, we will be much better equipped to have meaningful ecumenical dialogues, with the Orthodox and with others. But that will not happen until we stop looking for an escape hatch and start to realize just what it is about this ship called Anglicanism that made it worth boarding in the first place.