The Myth of the Big Tent Church

A while back, I heard someone describe Anglicanism as an effort to get Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin to sit together in the same pew. At the time, I thought that was fairly clever, but in retrospect I realize that this way of understanding Anglicanism lies at the heart of our precipitous decline. We have come to think of ourselves as a church without a theology, even to pride ourselves on that description, but it is not true. It is impossible to be a church without a theology. The very act of saying that we have no theology is itself a theological statement. We may be a church that has often had competing theologies, but that is not quite the same thing. In a competition, for better or worse, there is a common acceptance that one party is right and the other is wrong, that there will be winners and losers, and so no one is surprised when one group or the other rises to the top. But in the murky world of the modern Episcopal Church, where we have told ourselves repeatedly that we have no theology, we are constantly shocked and surprised when someone else makes a competing claim, which leads to an almost constant state of outrage.

In My Father’s House There Is Much Roominess

I thought about all this today after reading this post by Fr. Matt Marino who is distressed over the goings-on in South Carolina (the details of which I will not go into, but you can find lots of info here). Fr. Marino laments the breakdown between liberal leaders in The Episcopal Church and conservative leaders in South Carolina that has led to what appears to be schism. It is a sad state of affairs, no matter how you look at it. But Fr. Marino’s concern is in part that we are abandoning big tent Anglicanism:

The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.

The problem is that this “roominess” was always manufactured and does not reflect the history of Anglicanism. The Anglican Reformers did not believe they were inventing a big tent church but rather that they were restoring the Church of England to what they believed to be biblical and patristic faith. The contours of this Reformation were made clear in the Elizabethan settlement by the authoritative formularies that were produced. Anglicanism was going to be both Reformed and Catholic, not so as to keep everyone getting along but so as to comprehensively express the truth of the faith that was obscured both by papism and puritanism.

Of course, the theology of the Elizabethan Settlement never had everyone’s support, despite the fact that it formed the legal and doctrinal basis for the Church of England. Roman recusants tried to bridge the gap of schism that had opened with Rome, while puritans slowly became more and more disenchanted with the lack of further reform, eventually leading to a civil war. But recusants and puritans never labored under the illusion that the Church of England had a unique theology that allowed all of them to get along. They understood that the theology of the Elizabethan Settlement fundamentally clashed with their own, which meant that they either needed to get the Church of England to abandon the Settlement, or else they needed to abandon the Church of England.

It’s Our Party and We’ll Schism If We Want To

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the phenomenon of modern church parties began to influence the development of Anglican identity, even as Anglican churches began to spread around the globe. Over time, the adherents of these parties would begin to find common cause with like-minded people in other churches, slowly drawing these movements further and further away from classical Anglicanism. But in the beginning, both Anglican Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism were reform movements aimed at bringing the church back to basics, which meant a return to the formularies. Evangelicals like Charles Simeon fought for and defended the Book of Common Prayer. Anglo-Catholics insisted upon strict adherence to the 39 Articles.

By the twentieth century, however, the remnants of classical Anglicanism were largely buried under the disparate visions of church parties that were less and less interested in connecting with classical Anglican theology. The fight for control was bitter and brutal. Catholics, Evangelicals, and the johnny-come-latelys known as Liberals hardly talked to each other within the Church of England. Meanwhile, around the world, churches had been planted not by Anglican missionaries but by missionaries from the various parties who enshrined their own visions in the DNA of these upstart Anglican provinces. Anglicanism as a theology had been reduced to an option on the menu, and it was largely one that was never ordered. Yet no other option was floating to the top. The Anglican world had myriad theological options, but no clear way forward.

Making Virtue Out of Vice

Steps towards healing the rift between the parties were taken as early as the 1930s when Michael Ramsey wrote his famous The Gospel and the Catholic Church, arguing from the Anglo-Catholic position that the Church needed Evangelicals. However, it was not until the 1960s that Anglicans began to argue that Anglicanism itself is a lowest common denominator compromise between competing theologies. Bishop J.C. Wand wrote in his 1962 book Anglicanism in History & Today that the parties within Anglicanism are “the glory of the church.” According to Wand, while some Anglicans might bemoan what appears on the surface to be incoherence, Anglicans ought rather to be proud of the fact that so many different views can be held together within one tradition. “It is surely a good, even a splendid, thing,” wrote Wand, “to have groups of people so unwilling to surrender any particle of the truth as they see it, and yet maintaining their unity in one communion and fellowship.” It was a perfect PR solution to a situation that seemed so dire just half a century earlier. Instead of insisting that the Church adopt and maintain one theology, we can claim that the Church should adopt and maintain every theology and that this somehow makes us superior to those narrow-minded Christians who only manage to believe one thing at the same time.

Of course, in order to maintain this idea that we can be a church of conflicting theologies, we had to come up with some kind of common ground. After all, even if we did not agree on everything, there had to be something we could all say we held in common, or else there would be no point. So theologians and apologists began to try to tease out where the center might lie in our giant Anglican Venn Diagram. But nothing has ever seemed to stick for long. Wand and others in his day argued that our common ground was common prayer. Catholic, Evangelical, or Liberal, we all prayed using the same prayer book. Of course, that was already beginning to erode back then, but today this is a complete fiction, our prayer books around the world now being largely divorced from one another and often overtaken by a flurry of liturgical supplements and imports from other traditions. Other folks have pointed to the creeds as our common ground, but these have been re-defined to the point of meaninglessness by some of our more colorful characters. The Scriptures are of no help since any interpretation goes. Even Jesus Himself is now largely compromised as we see clergy embracing other religions with other gods while trying to maintain that they are faithful Anglicans.

Majoring in Minors Means Minoring in Majors

The truth of the matter is, there are no minor theological issues. This is not to say that we must all agree on everything, down to the letter, in order for us to be the Church together, but we do need to have a common set of first principles, and many of the theological issues that are often marked as “secondary” by one group or another — such as marriage, ordination, election, sacramental theology — lead inevitably back to those first principles. In North American Anglicanism today, traditional Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals have become strange bedfellows, largely because their first principles, while radically different, are nonetheless much closer to each other than they are to the first principles of Liberalism. But take away the common enemy and the old conflict quickly re-emerges.

Another Way Forward

So what is the answer? In the current climate, it is hard to say. Certainly, the kind of mean spiritedness that has marked our separations thus far is not necessary, but the reality is that without common first principles we will pull apart, whether today, tomorrow, or a century from now. It would be helpful if we could acknowledge that reality and own it, which would allow us to treat each other with more grace and charity. From there, we can stop trying to discern whether we want to be together or apart and start actually discerning the truth.

And when that happens, perhaps classical Anglicanism will have a chance to re-emerge as a long forgotten gem from our past, a pearl of great price that was buried by our ancestors for us to find. The first principle for Anglicanism is that we come to know Christ primarily through His Word, we come to understand His Word through the witness of the early Church, and we come to be formed in this patristic and biblical faith through common worship in the prayer book tradition. We need to re-discover the beauty and truth of the formularies, particularly the Book of Common Prayer, if we wish to have an Anglican future. The classic prayer book tradition is not a catch all. It is a vibrant and living expression of the true faith.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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14 Responses to The Myth of the Big Tent Church

  1. mattarino says:

    Between your poster and the titles, I laughed the whole way through a very solid post. Still, which Anglicanism? Anglicanism according to whom? Early Cranmer? Middle Cranmer? Late Cranmer? Hooker? Btw, I linked to this through my Facebook page.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Matt,

      I still intend to answer some of those questions which you raised to me in the comments on your post, but the short answer is Anglicanism according to its own first principles, which means the Anglicanism of the formularies as they came to be shaped in the Elizabethan Settlement. But even more elemental than that, it means an Anglicanism that embraces the Scripture as read by the Fathers as its starting point. The sixteenth century Anglican Reformers weren’t perfect. There are things that have legitimately evolved in Anglicanism, particularly through the revision of the prayer book between 1559 and 1662. Nonetheless, that revision was careful, conservative, and based on first principles. No one thought they were dreaming up something new, nor did anyone think they were coming to a new conclusion that would undo the prayer books of the past (save maybe for the first two which came prior to the Elizabethan Settlement). Hooker and the divines of the seventeenth century are also helpful here since in their writing we can see how this theology was applied, but the theology itself is much older and much stronger than something that any one figure can dominate.

  2. Stephen says:

    As an American who not only has a strong interest in my Faith but also a strong interest in history, I’ve often looked at The Episcopal Church in the US and how far it has strayed from a position it held as a cornerstone of Christian Faith in America 50 years ago to the stumbling, bumbling Self it is today.
    In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed how The Episcopal Church in the US has taken Itself from what was once THE Faith of Presidents and a position of Respect and Statesmanship, to a Church where even It doesn’t seem to know what It’s doing or where it is headed.
    Remember the east coast earthquake we had a short while back? I live less than an hour from Washington DC and I recall it very well.
    One of the structures that suffered a large amount of damage happened to be the National Cathedral in Washington DC.
    As someone who follows ‘Churchy’ agendas, I couldn’t help but think that the damage to the National Cathedral pales in significance to the damage done to the Denomination that maintains the Cathedral, The Episcopal Church BY The Episcopal Church Itself.

  3. guyer says:

    I think that this is a great article! I think, too, that it is the kind of thing that ought to be published in The Living Church! Have you thought about submitting it? I’m not sure of what the policy is on publishing articles formerly published as blog posts, but again – I think that this is great and that it would work well in TLC!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I’ve been emailing back and forth with Dr. Wells about a different article, but perhaps something like this would be better? I don’t know. You probably have a better handle on their editorial policy than I do.

  4. Jesse Reese says:

    I think I can get on board with what you’re saying here, but to clarify: Does our acceptance of common first principles still leave room for varying understandings? I’m somewhat concerned by the attitude that there are “no minor theological issues.” Your series on what you call the Anglican doctrine of election takes deliberate steps to distance itself from Calvinism and Arminianism; are those theologies out of the “tent?” Must we accept the same position on, for instance, the nature of the episcopacy (as in esse, ben esse, plene esse)? I am with you on the need to name and truly claim the Bible, understood through the patristic tradition, AS IT HAS BEEN DELIVERED to us in the formularies of the English Reformation, as the basis of Anglicanism. However, honestly I don’t want to throw out the language of Anglicanism as, to some degree, “big tent,” because honestly authentic Anglicanism as I understand it does have a much greater level of diversity than other denominations both Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox, and I don’t want to start acting like those other denominations in how we handle that diversity.

    • Jesse says:

      I also may want to mention that my only real experience of Anglo-Catholicism was through a priest who greatly honored the Prayer Book as authoritative for Anglicanism, and of Anglican Evangelicalism through parishes that upheld the BCP and 39 Articles, so I might not be aware of the extent of the diversity you speak of here, though I am aware of the existence “party churches” where the formularies are treated flippantly.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Jesse,

      There are, of course, matters upon which disagreement can exist in the Church, either because they are things that we cannot know very much about (how exactly does Christ’s presence in the Eucharist work, what exactly will it be like in heaven) or because they are things that really do not matter much in the end (should we use a pipe organ or guitars and pianos for our music, should the sanctuary have stain glass windows or clear ones). And certainly, within the Anglican synthesis, there are places where we are still trying to figure those things out with greater clarity.

      When I say that there are no minor issues, what I mean is that there is no way for us to be neutral about things that affect our faith. So to take the example you cite, if we say that election is a minor issue and that it is perfectly acceptable to maintain the Calvinist view or the Arminian view or the classical Anglican view, we are either saying that it is impossible for us to actually know what God has revealed about this, which effectively denies all positions as being anything but theoretical, or we are saying that election does not really matter very much. But election matters a great deal. It affects how we preach, how we teach, how we understand God’s salvation, how we approach the mission of the Church, everything really. Whatever else election is, it is not adiaphora.

      Of course, the reality is that there are lots of Anglicans who believe lots of different things. I don’t think the answer is to roll back the clock to 1662, as if the great reform movements had never happened. In their infancy, Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism both sought to return us to classical Anglicanism and to re-expose the Church to something that had gotten lost but that was always meant to be a part of our tradition. And as you said, even today you can find Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical parishes that are proud of their distinctives but that nevertheless are firmly adherent to the theology of the formularies. There is much in our differences that can be attributed to adiaphora, particularly when we get into things like style. But the fact remains that by and large, these movements developed in totally different theological directions upon which there is simply no way to bridge the gap. And yet, by remaining in communion, they testify to these things not being all that important. So the Evangelical parish that is essentially Zwinglian in its Eucharistic doctrine stays in communion with the Anglo-Catholic parish that buys Roman style transubstantiation hook, line, and sinker. The Eucharist is obviously very important to the Anglo-Catholic parish, but by staying in communion with the Zwinglians, they are saying that it doesn’t matter that much. So too, the Evangelical parish with a classically Protestant understanding of justification that stays in communion with the Anglo-Catholic parish that preaches a synthesis of faith and works is saying that justification is just not that big a deal. At least, that’s what they’re saying if we grant the “Big Tent” hypothesis, because the “Big Tent” hypothesis assumes that Anglicanism’s glory is to be found in some sort of lowest common denominator agreement.

      The other option, more true to the history of these reform movements themselves, would be for us to say, when it comes to these very important issues that we disagree on, that we remain in a kind of loose communion only until we can work out and persuade the Church to change. We stay in communion with Zwinglians because we believe that they will eventually either choose not to be Zwinglians anymore or because we believe that eventually we’ll be able to have our view dominate. This is the brutal truth that no one wants to accept, that the kind of internal division in Anglicanism has never been about comprehension but about conquest. It is ugly, but for those of us who adhere to classical Anglicanism, it provides an opportunity to join the fray and offer our theology as a viable alternative to the madness around us. A return to classical Anglicanism need not mean an erasing of all the distinctives of Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism, but rather a re-claiming of the original purpose of both movements to remember and celebrate the truly Evangelical and truly Catholic nature of Anglicanism.

      • Jesse Reese says:

        Ok, maybe one more point of clarification: Before you came to your conclusions regarding the “Anglican doctrine of election,” you thought that Anglicanism had not spoken difinitively on this issue and that it was fine for us to differ. Here you lay a great emphasis upon the importance of election. Is this to be interpreted as a direct retraction of that previous view, or would you say that even in agreeing to disagree, we should not labor under the assumption that these things are not important and that we are not still trying to promote our own positions to become dominant?

      • Jesse says:

        OK, my last comment reads like a syntactical nightmare. In an attempt to elucidate the last part: Do you no longer think that we can agree to disagree on election? Or, rather, would you say that we CAN agree to disagree, but we still are vying for our view to become dominant?

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        I would say the latter. The last thought on all of this isn’t what was written in the sixteenth century. But we have to acknowledge, if we say that the view of election presented in the articles is wrong, that Anglicanism is wrong, at least on that point. In other words, we have to do what the older representatives of the parties did and say that the advantage of Anglicanism is that it allows a space for the authentic practice of something else. Anglican churches are good places to be Catholic or good places to be Evangelical. In other words, we have to outsource the locus of doctrinal authority.

      • Jesse Reese says:

        OK thank you, I don’t mean to keep nipping at you but I’m trying to understand the parts that I’m having trouble with. This is just really difficult to swallow from my background: In the evangelical world, I had (and still have to some degree) given up on the idea that any denomination has found the final truth, or the ultimate formulation. Thus my approach to denominations, Anglicanism included, is, “Is this the best option available to me, given my understanding of Christian truth and how it is reached?” I am very hesitant, because of this, to say that someone is “out” if they disagree on any particular point of doctrine except the most crucial to denominational understandings. I think that this can be taken too far (if I may use an example, J. I. Packer, who has used Puritanism as his way to be Reformed dressed in Anglican garb, as far as I’m concerned), but I do tend to see doctrinal issues as being prioritized though interrelated, and in a way I rely on that distinction to fit in any place in the Christian world at all.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Thanks, Jesse. That’s some helpful context. It is difficult to navigate just how far out the “core doctrine” goes. Certainly there are some things that are more important than others. But I tend to think that we’re often too quick to put things in the “second tier issue” category for the sake of getting along, rather than exploring how these things interconnect and what’s really at stake if we let certain things go.

  5. MichaelA says:

    Good article,Fr J. Plenty to think about. Thank you.

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