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.