Not too long ago I reviewed a book entitled Was Jesus an Evangelical? by the Rev. Thomas Reeves, an ACNA priest in Roanoke, VA. He’s come back with some interesting points (most of which are in his book, in more detail) and he’s given me the opportunity to post then and comment. We’ll start here:
While it may sound reductionistic, this is one reason that I am convinced that an honest look a the Nicene Fathers and what they believed (in a shared, core way) about the church, the sacraments, conversion, etc. could help us to cut through the divisions that have occurred in Anglicanism since the Reformation.
One way of looking at Anglicanism is that it is an attempt to restore a Patristically based Christianity. There are those who would object to this characterisation but I think there’s enough evidence that at least some important people in the early years of the Church of England desired to do just that. The retention of the episcopacy and the liturgy make that desire evident.
The problem with this was pointed out by Bossuet in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches: where do you stop? The Roman Catholic Church claims continuity both in its institution and in its carrying forth of tradition. Protestants say that somewhere in there the church excessively erred from the Scriptures. Bossuet’s question is valid: where do you draw the line?
Let’s take the example of Vigilantius, a priest in fourth-century Gaul. The main thrust of his writings (as best as we can tell) was as follows:
- Devotions to the relics of martyrs is superstitious. Also, offering prayers to saints and martyrs, was unnecessary since they were with God, and pagan.
- The observance of all-night vigils was unacceptable.
- The ascetic ideals of fasting, monastic withdrawal and virginity were not necessary for Christianity, and that included a celibate clergy.
- He proposed ending sending alms to Jerusalem and the monks who lived there.
Vigilantius was savaged for these ideas by Jerome in a fashion that anticipated the online abuse we see today. For its part the Church of England pretty much went along with Vigilantius on all of these. But Jerome was not only a Father of the Church but a Doctor. So where do we stop? We also have the case of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which commended the veneration of icons and relics, and is held to be on par with the other six (including Nicaea.)
If the Reformation was truly only a response to the abuses of the Medieval Church (in ethics, practice, and theology), then the unity of the Patristic theology behind the creeds should be a reasonable starting place for discussions among Anglican thinkers. However, I believe that the Reformation in the end became the wholesale rejection of Western Catholicity. The Creeds just became historic documents that Protestants reinterpreted out of their original contexts.
I think you’re basically right about this. One enduring problem in the Anglican/Episcopal world is that the creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) are recited but many of the ministers–and laity too–who recite them don’t believe them!
Of course, my belief is that the Reformation had much more to do with societal and cultural changes desired by the populous who wanted more say and freedom and the Reformation was swallowed up very quickly by Pietism which then became rampant sectarianism. Thus, the Reformation quickly devolved into an over-reaction which essentially cherry-picked the theology of the creeds according to “whatever groups” Reformational, limited, and desired theological assumptions.
The largest movement to come out of Pietism (with apologies to the Continentals) is Wesleyan Methodism and its progeny, and I don’t think that this has “swallowed up” the Reformation or Reformed Christianity. In fact, one of the major challenges of Wesleyans (and that includes modern Pentecost) is to keep Reformed theology from making inroads. The Baptists have the same problem for different reasons.
Some of the problem here is that the creeds don’t cover the issues that resulted in the fracturing you describe. That includes the nature of the Eucharist, election and perseverance. The creeds crystallised fairly early before these issues came to the forefront. In the case of Eucharistic theology, problems came with the Reformation. For the other two, Augustine’s theology (which anticipated but is not identical to Calvin’s) was accepted (after a fight) in the West but not the East. The only creedal difference between the two is the filioque clause, which is far less important than Augustinian theology!
I submit Anglo-Catholicism, while important, is still caught up in propping up their own particular sectarianism as the ONLY WAY…
If one looks at the Oxford Movement at the start, one sees an admirable attempt to bring unity between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. That ran into two large obstacles: the unwillingness of the Church of England to move in that direction, and the unwillingness of Roman Catholicism to move at all. The latter ultimately inspired people like Newman and Manning to “swim the Tiber.” Those two immovable objects have bedevilled Anglo-Catholicism ever since.
One the one side, the Anglo-Catholics have had more success outside of England than within. Part of that may be because they weren’t saddled with “unEnglish and unManly” like they were in the old country, but that’s another post…the 1928 BCP was, in many ways, an Anglo-Catholic triumph. And it’s not an accident that the first group to bolt the TEC and set up institutional alternatives were the Continuing (Anglo-Catholic) Episcopalians; their boldness inspired the Dennis Canon. Other provinces (notably the West Indies) were deeply affected by this movement.
On the other hand, frankly I am surprised that the Ordinariate has gotten as far as it has. I didn’t see that happening. What I think happened is that the conservative Ordinariate served the purpose of Traditionalist Catholics (like Benedict XVI) in their struggle with the more liberal wing of the church.
That brings us to the greatest fault of Anglo-Catholicism, one they share with the Orthodox, St. Pius X and #straightouttairondale types: the idea that tight liturgical precision is the key to great churches and great church life. On the Anglican side, we have the church Robin Jordan joined, with the 1928 BCP as the ne plus ultra of Anglican life. On the Catholic side, the broadest-based liturgy, incorporation elements of Eastern and Western worship alike, is the Novus Ordo Missae, but don’t tell that to the trads, some of whom don’t believe the Mass it celebrates is sacramentally valid.
Anglo-Catholics’ ultimate goal is reunion with Rome, with Rome making concessions. That’s about as realistic as the unrequited (and declining) desire of many in the ACNA for full communion with Canterbury. Since both Rome and Canterbury are under shaky leadership these days, the best course for Anglo-Catholics would be to clean up the careerism in their ranks, unite institutionally, and act as a witness to the Gospel as they see it. Who knows, they just might pick up a #straightouttairondale Catholic or two on the way.
I submit that a future for Anglicanism is not MY theology getting adhered to (or any other sectarian groups particular theology), but a return to OUR theology with clarity regarding what is essential to an Anglican definition or what is not. However, very few seemed interested this discussion.
I think getting agreement to the creeds is the easy part. But the issues beyond the creeds is where things get tricky. There are too many people involved whose agendas are driven by purism, nostalgia or both. They’re justified in being wary of “innovations” (the TEC is enough to cure anyone of that) but they don’t have the theological framework to work through the problems.
This is what so few seem to understand: We don’t have the right to cherry pick the creeds, and it is a reason that the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (with all of their own problems) in part has had fewer problems being shaped by the cultures around them in their core theological (and ethical) beliefs. The Patristics gave us a unified set of scriptures and the Creeds. Why do we think we don’t need their grounding as a starting place?
I think that Patristic theology is the best place to start, but you need to be aware of the issues that block that other than ignorance.
The first is the “stopping point” issue I mentioned above.
The second is that the Patristic method of allegorising Biblical interpretation is going to be a hard sell in seminaries, which are too centred on the German methods. (Modern philosophies and theologies, I think, are an obstacle to progress in many ways.) The ancients had good reason to go that route, and our butting heads with the atheists (who routinely shove back a literalistic interpretation) should tell us something.
The third is that the differences between Patristic and Charismatic views on the church and the move of the Spirit are different. I don’t think this problem is insoluble; it’s one that has occupied my thoughts (and much space on this blog) for many years. Frankly modern Pentecost’s greatest enemy is cessational Reformed theology, and Patristic thought goes a long way to address that.
I would love to hear another option to true Christian Unity than getting back to a generally unified theology of those attending Nicea. With these “gogles” then, we could more clearly start evaluating our numerous mind-numbing amount of ever developing, sectarian, and individualistic streams. It isn’t that there is no place for such streams, but without a clarifying unity regarding core beliefs and practices,
One thing that would mitigate this is an understanding that differences in fundamental belief are more important than mode of worship. But it’s simply too easy to turn lex orandi, lex credendi into a reductio ad absurdum. Anglicanism is supposed to be “comprehensive,” but the divisions over the fundamentals has shattered that broad nature. Putting it back together again–or at least the part which wants to stick with the basics–is a daunting task.
Anglicanism will just continue to be an every fragmenting, self-supporting, sectarian Protestantism. A Christianity that I submit that has little lasting future beyond this century.
And that would be a tragedy of the first magnitude.