Before going any further, take a look at this post by Br. Tobias Haller, BSG, over at his blog, “In a Godward Direction.” It’s only two paragraphs, but it serves as a succinct explication of an unfortunate mindset that holds much of modern Anglicanism captive. To understand this mindset, let us carefully examine what Haller says here to see the assumptions that lie underneath. Bear in mind from the outset that I do this not to mock Haller or to suggest that the position he takes is unusual. Rather, it is a viewpoint that is all too common in modern Anglicanism and can be found throughout the spectrums of churchmanship and church politics that are usually cited as dividing lines within modern Anglicanism.
Haller begins, “The proposed Anglican Covenant threatens to destabilize, deface or destroy the one thing of value that Anglicanism has to offer: our polity as a comparatively loose fellowship of self-governing churches.” I am not interested here in debating the merits of the Anglican Covenant, but take note of the second half of the sentence. Haller suggests that polity is what Anglicanism has to offer the wider Christian world. Of course, polity can mean many things to many people. Over the last eight years, many leaders in the American Episcopal Church (TEC) have argued that the reason other Anglican churches have rejected TEC’s evolving approach to moral issues is because other Anglican churches have a different polity than TEC. The narrative is that the churches of the global south are autocratic and top down, while TEC is democratic and bottom up, and that therefore global south churches cannot understand how a church like TEC comes to its decisions. Polity has become something of a shibboleth in these conversations. Yet here, Haller, who certainly favors TEC’s approach to moral issues, argues that the thing that unifies us as Anglicans is the very thing that TEC has argued for years divides us. Haller now believes that there is such a thing as a unified Anglican polity. Moreover, he believes that said polity is characteristically Anglican and that it is the only uniquely Anglican thing there is, that if it were not for such a polity the Anglican Communion would really have nothing to contribute to the Church Catholic that cannot already be found in other quarters.
Haller proceeds to contrast polity with doctrine. “Anglicans have little to offer world Christendom by way of doctrine, except in the choice language of some of the very best English around.” The only thing remarkable, then, about Anglican doctrine is the poetic language used to express it. Otherwise, Anglican doctrine is not unique at all. It is hard to tell from this whether Haller believes that Anglicans have doctrine at all, but given some of his other writing I would be willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt that he believes that the doctrine of Anglicans is simply the core doctrine of the Christian faith. Clearly, though, he does not believe that this approach gives us any doctrine that cannot already be found elsewhere. Of course, the other possibility is that each individual church of the Communion has its own unique doctrine and that Anglicanism as such is doctrinally neutral. Either way, Haller’s point remains that Anglicanism teaches nothing unique.
“We do have (variably throughout the communion) some wonderful liturgy,” he says, “again in rather fine language and music (some of which has indeed been borrowed by other traditions.)” This just reinforces the previous point that the way we express our doctrine may be beautiful, which is itself something worth sharing, but that this does not in and of itself amount to a unique doctrine. Even in our liturgy, we offer nothing unique to the Christian world. “But it is the idea of being a fellowship, a communion — not a ‘church’ or a ‘federation’ — of self-governing churches whose individual decisions do not bind the others, even as they cooperate in mission and ministry, that forms our only peculiar offering to the tapestry of world Christendom.” Here we start to get to the meat of what Haller means by polity. Communion for him equals autonomous churches (geographically oriented, presumably, though he does not say this explicitly) that share in something called “mission” and “ministry” rather than sharing in doctrine. What holds us together is not a common doctrine and certainly not a unique doctrine, but a way of operating which Haller further explicates to be anti-hierarchical and christocentric. “It is a model of service and fellowship, of work with rather than power over, commended by Christ himself as a model of churchly governance. If that is not worth preserving, then we have little else to offer.”
The Myth of No Unique Doctrine
Haller falls into a common trope here, the idea that Anglicanism has no unique doctrine. It is an idea that I have tried to address here and here. Anglican scholars like Stephen Sykes and especially Paul Avis have attempted to debunk this myth in the last few decades with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, the myth remains very much alive.
There is a bit of a grand irony in what Haller is trying to argue here. He asserts that Anglicanism has no unique doctrine but that we do have a unique polity and that this polity is worth conserving because it is patterned on the ministry of Christ Himself. Yet Haller’s belief about Anglican polity is itself a doctrine which is only commendable to the wider Christian world in so much as it is both unique to Anglicanism (meaning that if Anglicanism disappeared the world would not have access to this teaching) and founded on Christ’s own design (meaning that if this polity disappears than gone with it is something essential about Christian truth). So then, what Haller really means when he says we have no unique doctrine is that our only unique doctrine is in our polity, which in the way that he defines it is tied to the development of the Anglican Communion since the decline of colonialism. But if that’s the case, than classical Anglicanism–the Anglicanism that existed long before colonialism–has absolutely nothing to say to us. Classical Anglicanism is devoid of unique content altogether, which makes one wonder just why the Reformation needed to happen in the first place.
The Empty Hardware Theory
Lest we think that this sort of thinking is confined to liberal Episcopalians in North America, there are plenty of examples of this kind of thinking around the Anglican world. In the Diocese of Sydney, for example, this recent conference, linked to helpfully by a commenter on my last post, exhibits a wonderful example of the same kind of thinking at work. One of the conference organizers, Dr. Michael Jensen, attempts to argue that being an Anglican is the best way to be an Evangelical in Australia today, but in so doing he implies that one has a choice in the matter. “My conviction is that not only is being evangelical the most authentic way of being anglican [sic], we’ve been saying that for years, but also that being anglican [sic] is the best way of being evangelical in australia in the 21st century.” Note the caveat at the end there. It’s the best way to be Evangelical in a particular place (Australia) at a particular time (the 21st century). It is not universally the best way. The reason, according to Dr. Jensen, that Anglicanism is so great at this particular time in this particular place is because of its ecclesiology. “Evangelical software needs some ecclesial hardware to run on. It’s not catholic to say this. Other protestants are saying exactly the same thing. Mark Dever and Tim Keller for example. They’re not embarrased by the denominational hardware that they cast their evangelical software in. Why are anglicans so embarrased about our ecclesial hardware.”
Jensen, like Haller, seems to believe that Anglicanism has nothing doctrinally to offer that cannot be found in equal measure in other places. The good thing about Anglicanism for him is its ecclesiology, or more specifically its way of organizing itself as Church. In the context of contemporary Australia, Jensen believes that this model of organization is best, for reasons that he likely laid out in detail at the conference itself. But regardless of what those reasons are, Jensen’s assumption remains that church structure is really all Anglicanism is, that such structure may be worthwhile in one context but not in another, and that the only real reason to be an Anglican is so that you can more successfully do something else entirely.
Anglicanism and the Gospel
Obviously, I do not think this is so. Quite to the contrary of both Haller and Jensen, I believe that Anglicanism is much more than simply a convenient or even a holy organizational system. Our notions of unfettered autonomy for individual churches are very recent and not at all tied to classical Anglicanism which balanced the doctrine of self-governing, national churches with the much more central doctrine that Holy Scripture, interpreted through the lens of the Fathers and the creeds, is our highest authority, through which the Lord governs His Church. Our retaining of the three-fold ordained ministry is definitely a part of what we offer to the Church, but not because it is unique in itself, since others obviously have it. Rather, it is our defense of such a ministry on scriptural grounds that is essential, along with an unswerving conviction that such a ministry, along with the sacraments, ancient liturgy, an ongoing appeal to the Fathers, and a proper understanding of human reason and the natural law are absolutely at harmony with the key Reformation tenets of the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone. That, in a nutshell, is the classical Anglican doctrine that Anglican Catholics and Evangelicals and Liberals alike tend to only refer to for their own purposes while ignoring the bits that they do not like. Yet, in truth, that unique mixture forms the basis of a shared though often obscured core of doctrine that makes Anglicanism at all intelligible and worthwhile. Without that classical understanding, Anglicanism really does just become a convenient organizational system, at which point one has to wonder what the purpose of Anglicanism will be once the organizational system is found wanting, as seems to be happening throughout the Anglican Communion today.
The telos of Anglicanism is not Anglicanism itself but Jesus Christ and the Good News that sets the world free from sin and death. Yet, if Anglicanism is anything, it is an articulation of that same Gospel, and the characteristic “hardware” that we make use of as Anglicans is a direct expression of the Gospel that we have received. We make a categorical mistake when we think of Anglicanism as merely a way of finding the Gospel and not as a true and accurate expression of the Gospel itself. Polity, by definition, is nothing more than an expedience. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, is the way in which we understand what it is to be the Church, which is the way in which we come to be made one with Jesus Christ. Our ecclesiology is an essential element of Anglicanism not for the sake of convenience but by the grace of God.