It is very difficult to speak of Anglicanism these days without a modifier. There is no longer Anglicanism but rather Anglicanisms. Catholic Anglicanism, Evangelical Anglicanism, Liberal Anglicanism, Charismatic Anglicanism, Calvinist Anglicanism, even Lutheran Anglicanism. And within each of those groups, there are probably forty or fifty more branches that we could tease out. Even in what has of late been called classical Anglicanism–perhaps the strangest modifier of all–there are further gradations when we investigate closely. Most everyone in the classical Anglican movement holds to the necessity of the formularies as standards for both doctrine and worship, but interpretations can vary widely as we continue to try to fit our favorite theological ideas into the words we have inherited.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Some people argue that this endless division is Anglicanism’s fatal flaw, but in reality it is the fatal flaw of the postmodern waters that we swim in. There is no form of Christianity that has been immune to this kind of endless subdivision. Rome has its happy clappy post sixties aging radicals, its Latin Mass enthusiasts, its Thomists and its Molinists, etc. Orthodoxy is divided largely along ethnic lines, though there are also pockets of theological division between old calendarists and new, western converts and more liberalized native born, the Russians pushing towards erastianism and the fathers in the Phanar who argue for the centrality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And within Protestantism, where do the divisions end? Gather any five people who call themselves “Lutheran” or “Calvinist” or “Baptist” and you are likely to find at least three qualifiers attached to each term per person. Not all of this is directly the result of western culture, but all of it has some connection to the fact that most of the world has now been influenced by post Enlightenment values. It took a couple of centuries to accomplish, but individualism has finally planted its seed just about everywhere. We construct our own identities now, starting with what we feel and what we want to believe and working our way outward. Even those who seek to be “traditional” today are working from that basis, picking and choosing which “traditional” ideas or attitudes they want to adopt. Tradition is by definition not a taste preference but an inherited wisdom that we receive. At the point when you are choosing to be traditional, you have to admit that tradition has already largely been lost.
It was inevitable that Christianity would be affected by this kind of identity deconstruction. But Anglicanism has had more than its fair share. While there may be many different kinds of Roman Catholicism that are in some ways at odds with one another, there are at least a few basic principles that continue to make sense of why the disparate pieces stay together, a general belief in the authority or at least the honored place of the pope, a high view of the Eucharist and of Mary, etc. In Anglicanism, the things at the center have become rather thin, despite more than a century of Anglicans discussing just what those things might be. The varied Anglicanisms that exist today stay connected with one another more from inertia than from anything else. In some ways, the Puritans and Anglicans who fought each other bitterly in the English Civil War had more in common than differing factions of Anglicans do today.
Putting Lipstick on a Pig
In order to reconcile this, since the mid twentieth century Anglicans have attempted to make a virtue out of vice, arguing that the incompatibility of our various theological streams is all part of some master plan called Anglican Comprehensiveness. The Elizabethan Settlement even gets invoked in this regard, not as the articulation of Anglican principles that it actually was but as a kind of agreement to disagree, as if the idea all along had been that we will just be together as one Church and ignore our obvious divisions. We hear the language of “Anglican streams” and the idea that all of these competing theologies ought to be left alone because we are really all headed in the same direction anyway. Anglican pluralism mimics the pluralism of the post-enlightenment western world in which all religious claims have to be treated as being of equal value and the only idea that is out of bounds is the claim that a particular religion is true to the exclusion of the others.
Those who attempt to stand against the tide of Anglican pluralism are pilloried for it. People laugh at the poor souls who try to argue for the ongoing place of the 39 Articles in Anglicanism or who make use of one of the classic forms of the Book of Common Prayer instead of always reverting to one of the newer, jazzier rites. The very notion that Anglicanism is more than a placeholder, that it actually is something, is seen by many Anglicans today as kooky, on the level with the person who wears a placard and hands out Chick tracts at the mall. Once, during a conversation with an English Evangelical, I told him that I believed that Anglicanism was a genuine theological tradition and he looked at me as if I had sprouted a pair of wings and simply said, “Well, that’s extraordinary!”
The madness of all this is frustrating, but we do not do ourselves any favors when we retreat into our cozy ideological enclaves instead of engaging with the people around us. Prayer Book Anglicans, Classical Anglicans, whatever modifier you want to use–we have been incredibly bad at articulating our theological position and explaining why anybody not living in the seventeenth century should care about it. Our strategy has been defeatist, running off to try to found purer and purer churches or parachurch organizations, talking only to ourselves, complaining about our fate. We have to break free from the victim mindset. We have to stop complaining and start evangelizing. We have to stop fetishizing the past and start joyously proclaiming in the present that the Kingdom of God has come near.
What Classical Anglicans Need to Do
How do we do that? I think the first step must be to formulate a positive theological position that is not based on reaction against that which dismays us. For sure, we must be able to be critical of harmful things in the Church, but today it often sounds to many like our whole argument is simply based on tearing down rather than building up. We need to think like evangelists. People outside of the Church may or may not be won to the faith by a clear exposition of the Gospel, but they certainly will not be won to the faith by a critique of modern liturgies or a conversation about all of the awful things that this or that particular Anglican leader has done. Those things have their place, but what is our central message? What do we believe? What do we teach? What is our message to the culture that we live in? What hope do we have to share with the world?
Second, instead of trying to fight head on against Anglican pluralism, which is a bit like trying to beat up the ocean while swimming in it, we need to make use of Anglican pluralism to share the truth of the Gospel that is found in our formularies and our rich heritage. Rather than saying to Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Liberals, and all the rest, that their Anglicanism is illegitimate and that we want nothing to do with them, what we ought to be doing is endeavoring to show how our “stream” of Anglicanism is the source and font of many of the things they hold dear in their own. We need to fight for our legitimate place at the table, alongside our brothers and sisters. Instead of evading them or constantly critiquing them, we ought to be seeking out ways to engage with them. After all, most of the parties within modern Anglicanism started out as reform movements aimed at returning the Anglican churches to some aspect of our theological synthesis that had become lost or obscured. By building relationships across party lines, we can slowly start to show how a return to classical Anglicanism benefits everybody, how it provides a strong anchor for our tradition as a whole and a basis upon which to wrestle with tough questions.
Finally, we need to recover for ourselves a sense of humility in the face of the truth that we proclaim, a truth that is bigger than us and that can be applied critically to our own thought and practice as much as to anyone else’s. If the prayer book truly is a magisterial authority, than we cannot be content simply to use it to bolster the theological positions we already hold. We have to allow it to mold and change us, to challenge us to go back to the Scriptures and the Fathers and really discern how to live in the light of truth. We have to allow the prayer book to be an authority over us, while at the same time acknowledging that the prayer book and the other formularies are not perfect but that they reliably teach us the truth because they are built upon a powerful first principle, that of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture and the reliability of the early Church as interpreters of Holy Scripture. The reformers and divines knew that nothing outside of the Scripture itself was perfect and so they allowed for the possibility of revision of the formularies, slowly, over time, to make course correctives. But they also knew that the general course which the formularies set is steady and true, and that if we follow it we will find ourselves traveling deeper and deeper into the heart of Christ. For classically minded Anglicans today, our task is to share this abiding truth, not with the world that was or with the world that should have been, but with the world that is.