An interesting article came out in the January 18, 2004 issue of The Living Church by the Rt. Rev. Christopher Epting, who serves as the Presiding Bishop's Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. I've found it a helpful summary to use for Adult Inquirers' classes and on other occasions. And I continue to believe that, in spite of our many differences and disagreements (and in spite of the aberrations which make headline news and play into the divisive strategies of the Episcopal Church's critics and enemies), the majority of Episcopalians across the theological spectrum are comfortable embracing the kind of orthodoxy Epting describes.
Orthodox: Does the Term Fit Episcopalians?
by C. Christopher Epting
As ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church, I am often asked today, either implicitly or explicitly, whether we are still “orthodox” or not. In other words, now that we have revised our liturgy (and continue to experiment with “supplemental” liturgical texts), ordained women and homosexual persons, and have acknowledged that, at least in some of our churches, same-sex unions are blessed, have we departed completely from what might be called “orthodox” Christianity?
Obviously, we are not Orthodox (with a capital O). That designation is reserved for the Eastern or so-called Oriental Orthodox churches, tracing their identities back beyond the Great Schism of 1054. By this definition, the Roman Catholics, as well as protestants and Anglicans, agree that we are all non-Orthodox. The questions is, are we orthodox (with a small O) – do we hold “the right opinions” on essential matters of the Christian faith?
Of course, much hinges on what we call “essential,” but I was much helped recently by reading this statement describing the approach of our great friends in the Armenian Church which “ … admits as essential only the dogmatic definitions of the first three Oecumenic Councils … so that every Church which accepted the dogmas of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, and of the Redemption, could, through following her own views, form a part of the Church Universal … the other points, concerning doctrine or opinion, can be admitted or rejected, whether they be the outcome of the decision of a particular council, or are based on the authority of theologians … For all these points bear a secondary character … they but bear the import of simple matters of doctrine, devoid of dogmatic force and, in consequence, are amenable to latitude in thought” (The Church in Armenia by Malachia Ormanian, St. Vartan Press, 1988).
That reminded me of a simple memory device we used in seminary to remind us of the formative nature of the early Church for Anglicanism. A similar, but not identical list is often attributed to Lancelot Andrewes. It stated that we base our faith on one God, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, and five centuries. What does that mean?
Episcopalians and Anglicans believe in one God. We are monotheistic. Not only do the Articles of Religion state that “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions …” but classically our primary form of prayer, the collect, is addressed to “God” or to the “Almighty Lord,” or our “Heavenly Father,” and concluded as being offered “through Jesus Christ our Savior who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever” (or some similar configuration, see for example page 211 of the Book of Common Prayer). We are neither tri-theists nor unitarians. We are monotheistic.
We learn of this one God through the two “testaments” of Hebrew and Christian scripture. Every ordinand in the Episcopal Church publicly makes and signs a promise similar to this one: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I. N.N., chosen Bishop of the Church in N., solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church” (BCP, p. 513). “The Apocrypha is a collection of additional books written by people of the Old Covenant, and used in the Christian Church” (BCP, p. 853). Therefore Episcopal lectionaries include readings from these books, but we do not use them in the formulation of doctrine unless their truths are otherwise included in the Old or New Testaments.
Summaries of such biblical doctrine are found in three ancient creeds, “The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” (The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, BCP p. 877) and the Quicunque Vult (commonly called The Creed of Saint Athanasius). The first two are used regularly in the Episcopal Church’s Daily Office and Eucharist (BCP, p. 96 and 358) and the third, because of its fulsome Trinitarian exposition, was printed in the Church of England’s standard 1662 Book of Common Prayer and is now found in the Episcopal Church's 1979 prayer book on page 864. In what is arguably the finest restoration of the ancient baptismal rite in modern Christian liturgy, “The Baptismal Covenant” (BCP, p. 304) includes at its heart the ancient question and answer fonnat of the Apostles’ Creed, our “baptismal symbol.”
The Episcopal Church’s “core doctrine” is formed especially by the earliest councils of the Christian Church. In addition to the Council of Nicea’s fonnulation of the Apostles’ Creed in 325 and the Council of Constantinople’s Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), the Episcopal Church has accepted the Council of Ephesus (431) in its condemnation of Nestorianism (which rejected the term Theotokos, God-bearer, for the Virgin Mary and taught that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ) and also, in the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (451) opposing the teaching of Eutyches, who seemed to confound the two natures of Christ and denied that the manhood of Jesus was “consubstantial” with ours. The “Chalcedonian Definition” of the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ is printed in the Book of Common Prayer on page 864, giving Episcopalians an even fuller exposition of the creedal orthodoxy to which their church holds.
The “five centuries” marker is harder to articulate in a brief article such as this. But in addition to the development of liturgies for the celebration of the sacraments, the formation of the canon of holy scripture (the Church’s decision as to what books to include in the Holy Bible), the formulation of the creeds, and the gradual development of a three-fold order of ministry (bishops, presbyters, and deacons) all of which occurred in these early centuries, Anglicans have been influenced heavily by such saints and theologians as Ignatius of Antioch (115), Irenaeus (202), the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus), Augustine of Hippo (430), and Benedict of Nursia (540), to name but a few.
So I would want to make the claim – in the same spirit as Ormanian’s description of the Armenian perspective – that we admit as essential only those markers listed above (inclusive of four ecumenical councils rather than the Armenian three) and that many other points (liturgical revision, the recipients of the grace of holy orders, and even certain moral questions) are either “doctrine” or “opinion” and can be admitted or rejected. “For all these points bear a secondary character (and) bear the import of simple matters of doctrine, devoid of dogmatic force and, in consequence, are amenable to latitude in thought” (ibid).