Friday, December 19, 2008

Generous Orthodoxy

The term “Generous Orthodoxy” is sometimes slighted by Christians as though it’s an oxymoron or (if the critics in question happen to be Episcopalians/Anglicans) an instance of “Anglican fudge.” The way I've seen the term disparaged on conservative blogs, critics seem to think that proponents of Generous Orthodoxy are too wishy-washy to take a clear stand on any biblical, theological, or moral principles. It's as though they are equating the term "generous," not merely with "liberal," but with "relativism." And clearly, relativism and orthodoxy mix about as well as oil and water.

Speaking as a proponent for an Anglican form of Generous Orthodoxy, I think this critique is a caricature. Here are just a few sketchy thoughts as to why I think so.

Borrowing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, I am committed to:

  1. The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two Dominical Sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

I believe that a commitment to these four aspects of the "sacred deposit" of the Church makes one orthodox (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

Some might object to the minimalism of this Anglican understanding of orthodoxy (I'm thinking in particular of friends speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions). But I believe that this minimalism is a strength, not a weakness. Luke Timothy Johnson's take on the "blessed simplicity of profession" offered by the historic creeds may also be applied to the orthodoxy outlined above. He writes:

"As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4)" [The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 320].

At the same time, a willingness to sympathetically engage a wide range of secular and theological views, trying to understand those views before deciding whether or not to reject or learn from them, makes one generous. (I'm borrowing language here from a nice piece in the December 30 issue of The Christian Century on the death of William Placher.)

It's this generous spirit that allows Anglicanism to take seriously rather than shun the findings of the natural and social sciences; to engage other Christian denominations in ecumenical dialogue and to seek closer relationships with them in worship and ministry; to listen to and learn from other religious traditions without sacrificing the dogmatic core of the Church's faith; to take the concerns and the convictions of conservatives, centrists, and progressives seriously without kowtowing to their ideological agendas; and to regard predecessors as diverse as the Church Fathers and Mothers, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Karl Barth, William Stringfellow, and Paul Tillich (among many others) as theologians from whom we have important things to learn.

Does The Episcopal Church always do these things perfectly? Of course not. We often fall short. Sometimes we fail miserably. But our failures only underscore the fact that these ideals of the generous spirit of Anglicanism are ones we aspire to faithfully live out in our mission and ministry.

The late James E. Griffiss succinctly sums up the core of Generous Orthodoxy in his book The Anglican Vision (Cowley Publications, 1997) when he writes:

"I believe … that our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” (p. 101).

This via media between continuity and change, and between the Monolithic Church type and the Over-Personalized Church type, is not always an easy one to walk. But it's central to who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition.

Generous Orthodoxy.

It's not an oxymoron.

It's not Anglican fudge.

Quite the contrary, Generous Orthodoxy is Anglicanism at its best.


Joe Rawls said...

Amen, brother. The more I observe the Great Anglican Meltdown, the more convinced I am that Generous Orthodoxy (stressing both words equally) will be one of the few things that will let TEC make it through the 21st century, if in a somewhat streamlined form.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Joe. I agree with you about the future of TEC, and that this future depends on stressing both terms in Generous Orthodoxy equally. The capacity to pull that off may be one of the unique gifts of Anglican Christianity to the larger Church and to the world - if we don't blow it by in-fighting factionalism, or by stressing one of the terms above the other one.

Matthew said...

What you wrote is great in theory, it's the practice that gets sticky. I think the problem is that a lot of us have been burnt severely by fudge and double talk, that we tend to over-react. It's very similar to the reaction of an ex-smoker to an object that resembles an ashtray.

The problem with Anglicanism is that we have taken our corporate personality from Archbishop Cranmer. That is also, sometimes, our glory.

Bryan Owen said...

The practice of the Christian faith is always "sticky." Anyone who tries to live the teachings and example of Jesus, and who tries to live the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, will find that to be true.

But perhaps it's even more true when it comes to living the Christian faith as generously orthodox Anglicans. Steering a middle way between the Scylla of the Left ("Over-Personalized Church") and the Charybdis of the Right ("Monolithic Church") is very difficult. But the struggle to hold together both generosity and orthodoxy is a worthy struggle.

All of which reminds me of a quote attributed to Fr. Tony Clavier:

"Anglicanism is a particularly difficult place for those with a narrow view and an easy place for the apathetic."

Peter Carey said...

Bryan, thanks for this piece, just so helpful. How do you think your thoughts on Generous Orthodoxy harmonize with the book by Brian McLaren by the same title? I think the term HAS gotten used in various ways by various factions, but I agree with the comments about stressing both terms equally, and engaging with those "others" with whom we disagree.

Thanks so much,
Advent Blessings,

Peter Carey+

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Peter. I have not yet had an opportunity to read McLaren's book Generous Orthodoxy, although I have certainly seen that book and others by him take strong criticism from the Matt Kennedy's and Albert Mohler's on the Right. So I'm sorry that at this time I am unable to answer your specific question.

If you haven't seen it, you may find Fleming Rutledge's website entitled "Generous Orthodoxy" interesting. Here's her statement of purpose (which I may post as a separate blog piece for comments later):

"The word ortho-doxy (Greek for 'right doctrine') has both positive and negative connotations. In a culture that prizes what is iconoclastic and transgressive, orthodoxy has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst.

"The position taken on this website is that we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the 'righteous' by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.

"The articles of faith distilled in the historic Creeds and Confessions of the Church are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Christian doctrine is the foundation for a dynamic, courageous intellectual life at the frontiers of 21st-century challenges. Without basic affirmations, we are dangerously unequipped. An analogy might be the successful rock climber who puts up new routes and achieves maximum exhilaration; without strict discipline, tested equipment, and exceptional patience, however, the climber’s ambition will lead to failure and even death. When the Biblical and creedal bedrock of the historic faith becomes optional, it is fatal for the Church, for she loses her distinctive theological character. Ultimately, it’s about God. If God is who he reveals himself to be in the Holy Scriptures, then his Word is the true and trustworthy guide to the heights of human aspiration and depths of human disappointment. The One who identifies himself at the burning bush as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the same Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who guides our destinies to their fulfillment in his eternal Kingdom."

Nate Dawson said...

I'm glad somebody mentioned Brian McLaren's book, A Generous Orthodoxy. The important thing about Brian's work is that he is bringing just this sort of conversation to an evangelical audience. Sadly, he gets much the same reaction from the right that anglicans receive. But he, as well as people like Jim Wallis are making the point that we must move beyond our polarizing views in order to find a Generous way to engage everyone into the conversations that we (anglicans) hold in such high regard. Even in TEC there are many too polarized to one side - I pray that we can move beyond this and become a generously orthodox communion.