Sunday, December 5, 2010

Two Movements Within the Anglican Communion

One of the blogs I regularly read is the Rev. Peter Carrell's Anglican Down Under. Peter describes the purpose of his blog in the phrase: "An evangelical looks for signs of one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in the Anglican Communion." He consistently fulfills that purpose by sharing thoughts and insights about events unfolding within the Anglican Communion that are always worth pondering. I've especially found his many postings on the proposed Anglican Covenant and its critics both thought-provoking and compelling.

Out of curiosity, I checked out his earliest posts from back in 2007. One of them in particular caught my eye. Entitled "Communion or Community of Communions?", it lays out two movements within the Anglican Communion that represent diametrically opposed approaches to the Christian faith. Here's how Peter puts it:

At risk of over simplification, I suggest two movements within the Anglican Communion are driving the current crisis forward to its eschaton. One movement could be described as ‘Jude 3’ since it understands ‘the faith’ as that which ‘was once for all delivered to the saints.’ In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics were more or less settled with the final writings of the New Testament at the close of the first century A.D. When proposals come forward which appear novel, such as endorsing faithful same sex partnerships through blessing or ordination, or softening the exclusivity of Jesus from ‘the way’ to ‘a way’ to God, this movement is unmoved. What has been delivered once for all does not permit such endorsement or such softening. To be sure this movement is not completely united on some matters such as the ordination of women which is novel and unacceptable to some in the movement but is a flowering of that seeded in the apostolic age and thus acceptable to others.

The other movement could be described as ‘John 16:13’ since it works on the basis that ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ In other words ‘the faith’ was delivered to the saints but the saints did not receive all the truth. In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics are not yet, perhaps never will be settled. Novel proposals tend to be welcomed rather than rejected; the Spirit guiding into all truth, after all, is to be expected to catalyse such possibilities.

Whether either or both these two movements are legitimate developments of any preceding stage in Anglicanism need not detain us. These movements are entrenched in the reality of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. Neither is going to be ruled out by denying its validity as an ‘Anglican’ phenomenon because it is (say) lacking coherency with Hooker or repugnant to the Thirty Nine Articles. Either, even both movements (‘a plague on both your houses’) might be dispossessed of membership of the Anglican Communion but that would not stop vigorous assertion of claims by each movement to be truly and thoroughly ‘Anglican’. Thus the question which will not readily go away is whether the Anglican Communion can find a way to live with both movements or whether it cannot contain what Anglicanism has become.

Pitting Jude 3 Anglicans against John 16:13 Anglicans may be a bit simplistic. But there's something to it nonetheless. My experience with more conservative Anglicans/Episcopalians is that they do, indeed, appeal to unchanging norms and doctrine as they find those passed down in scripture and tradition. And I've often heard many more progressive Episcopalians justify the current trajectory of the Episcopal Church on the hot button issues du jour by appealing to a notion of "ongoing" or "progressive revelation," and often by citing John 16:13 as a biblical warrant (I recall the Presiding Bishop herself doing this on occasion).

It may be worth pondering whether or not conservatives/reasserters have always rightly interpreted and applied Jude 3, and whether or not progressives/reappraisers have always rightly interpreted and applied John 16:13.

What exactly, for instance, constitutes "the faith once delivered"? Does it include every injunction we find in scripture, or only some and not others? Is it limited, as some argue, to the articles of the historic creeds? Or does it include more than that? And if so, what exactly is essential and what is non-essential when it comes to the faith?

And as to the Spirit leading us into all truth, can the Spirit ever take us in a direction in which previous truths taught by the Church are rejected and denied? Would it be possible, for instance, for the Church to rightly discern the Spirit leading us to an understanding of Jesus more in line with the vision of the Jesus Seminar than the affirmation of Jesus as "true God from true God" such that we no longer use the Nicene Creed in worship and we adjust our Eucharistic and other prayers accordingly? (When it comes to the legislative authority of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I know clergy for whom the answer to this question is "yes.") And is it really possible, as some seem to be at least implicitly arguing, for the Spirit to say one thing to one part of the Anglican Communion while simultaneously saying the opposite to everyone else? (Joe Carter's essay "Is the Holy Spirit a Relativist or a Colonialist?" remains a thought-provoking read on this matter.)

"Between John 16:13 and Jude 3," Peter Carrell continues, "lies Philippians 2:2, ‘complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’"

As time passes and divisions deepen, the chances of "having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" appear less and less likely. And so the question remains: is it really possible to find a via media between Jude 3 Anglicans and John 16:13 Anglicans? Is it even desirable?


M Athanasius said...

It's a question of apposition vs. opposition when dealing with two Scriptures. It's OK to appose Jude 3 ands John 13:16. Holding Scripture thus is an oft-used exegetical tool.

Scriptures dealing with doctrinal norms cannot oppose. The Holy Spirit contradicts neither Scripture nor the Father nor the Son. If contradiction is even winked at, a faith based as such is without foundation, hopeless, no haven of trust, inconsistent, void.

James 1:17 and other passages attest to the constancy of God. Interpreting John 16:13 in the way the left does hardly gives testimony to the eternal truth of the LORD. Such interpretation is unfounded, and must be disputed wherever it appears.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, M Athanasius.

There is arguably a conundrum for some Episcopalians insofar they want to embrace "new revelation" that contradicts what the Church has always taught on the one hand, while simultaneously affirming the constancy of other things the Church has always taught (such as the doctrine of Christ affirmed by the creeds and ecumenical councils). If doctrine can be changed in the former areas, it's conceivable that it can also be changed in the latter area as well. Indeed, it's not hard for me to imagine a day in my lifetime when deputies to General Convention debate the divinity of Christ (perhaps with an eye towards the effectiveness of the Church's witness in an increasingly multicultural and religiously diverse society). But sawing off the limb on which one sits is not a way to stay in the tree!

hawk said...

I must admit to frustration with the locked in time folk. Why is the church one of the few institutions that celebrates that idea that everything is fixed. Our understanding of God is fixed. Our understanding of Jesus is fixed. Our understanding of the Bible is fixed. Our understanding of humanity is fixed. Yet, neuroscience and evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics are all suggesting that what we know about the world is not what we've thought before. I am frustrated by a Christianity that clings to creeds and scriptures written a thousand years ago and is unwilling to wrestle with the idea of continued revelation. I am not suggesting that we throw it all out, but I do believe the locked in time folk are adhering to a faith that will prove to be untenable and they will begin to look like the flat earth society in due time. I don't understand why we hold the ancients in higher esteem than our own capacities as human thinkers. Yes, much of what they wrote and said is brilliant stuff, but at the same time, there is so much that the did not know. Faced with some of our insights and knowledge, I wonder what they would have written. I doubt it would be what we spend our lives arguing about....

Bryan Owen said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you are expressing the kind of frustrations that fit well with the "John 16:13" construal of Anglicanism. And you're raising issues that are quite complex and perhaps beyond the scope of a blog comment. Years ago when I was in graduate school, for instance, I wrote many pages in my Ph.D. qualifying exams on the the different approaches/understandings of the relationship between theology and other sources of knowledge (e.g., the natural and social sciences) between James M. Gustafson and Karl Barth. It's not easy to succinctly summarize!

You wrote:
Why is the church one of the few institutions that celebrates that idea that everything is fixed.

One response would be an appeal to special revelation. For some who make this appeal, there are certain things that have been revealed to the Church that cannot be known via natural or general revelation alone, and which are, indeed, timeless truths about God, Jesus, etc.

You wrote:
I am frustrated by a Christianity that clings to creeds and scriptures written a thousand years ago and is unwilling to wrestle with the idea of continued revelation.

Perhaps there are two different ways of defining what one means by "continued revelation." It could mean acquiring new revelation that trumps, displaces, and discards what is old (I'm reminded of James Gustafson's work). Or it could mean acquiring (sometimes through struggle and great effort) deeper, more adequate insight into what has already been received (which is quite a different thing than saying that what is old has been shown to be wrong and/or irrelevant). In the former case, it is possible to imagine a Christianity that bears little to any resemblance to the theology we find in places like the historic creeds. In the latter case, it is possible to imagine a Christianity which is both faithful to what has been "once delivered" and able to employ historical-critical and other methods of inquiry to gain richer and deeper understanding of revelation.

One way or the other, all of this goes to questions of biblical and ecclesial authority. The different and sometimes incompatible answers given to such questions lie at the root of many of the divisions within Anglicanism.

hawk said...


Thanks for your response. Your blog is one of the few places I read on the net where I am generally interested in what you post. I admit that I fall into the John 16:13 crowd although I empathize with the other group from time to time.


Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the feedback about my blog, and I'm glad you're a regular reader!

The Underground Pewster said...

As far as generalizations go, I think the Jude 3 vs John 16:13 idea works pretty well. A bit like watching polarizing T.V. "news" shows, most pewsitters grow fatigued in watching the two movements duke it out and switch the dial on the set or tune out altogether. Thus it is possible that both "movements" will lose the audience they are really after.

The Underground Pewster said...

oops, subscribe...

Bryan Owen said...

That's an interesting perspective on the polarization of the two sides, Underground Pewster. I definitely relate to the weariness of watching the two sides duke it out (which is one of the reasons why, after first loving it back in the early 90s, I stopped watching the show "Crossfire" on CNN). And with friends and clergy colleagues on both sides of the ecclesial divide, it's not only wearisome but downright painful.

Having said that, after several years of active resistance, I haven't found a way to pull back from the conclusion that we Anglicans/Episcopalians are grappling with issues that make it impossible to compromise with an Anglican "via media." I'm not as convinced today as I was when I first launched this blog that there is stable ground on which a viable "Anglican Centrist" position can stand. One way or the other, the unfolding events within the Episcopal Church will force every Episcopalian who hasn't already done so to make a decision to side with either the Left or the Right (to put it in terms of this posting, you'll have to choose between being either a Jude 3 Anglican or a John 16:13 Anglican). Much the same can be side for unfolding events within the broader Anglican Communion. For some, that decision will be very painful and entail compromises that one never dreamed would have to be made. Regardless, making a decision to take sides one way or the other (even if the decision is the softer, easier way of simply going with the flow wherever one happens to find one's self), will mean accepting the consequences that follow as a result.

Sooner or later, some who consider themselves "Anglican Centrists" will be faced with options they have not, thus far, had to deal with directly and decisively. And when that time comes, there will be no fence on which to sit, and no neutral ground for cover.

plsdeacon said...

The Traditional Anglican means of change is unity in essentials and liberty in non-essentials. The problem comes down to what (if anything) are essentials.

Part of defining what the essentials are is who determines what are the essentials. Who has the authority to say that this is essential and that is adiaphora?

I submit that the question of what are the essentials is one for the whole communion rather than for a province, diocese, congregation or individual. When on province of the Communion determines that something that the whole communion consideres an essential is really adiaphora (or the other way around) then we have a recipie for chaos and schism. This is what has happened in the last 30 years within the Anglican Communion and I believe this is why a Covenant and a means of discipline within the Communion is essential to our common life.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Phil. Peter Carrell has made similar arguments for why we need a Covenant at Anglican Down Under.

Carson Clark said...

Fr. Owen,

Hello. I saw a link to this page from Anglican Down Under. Good stuff. Looking forward following you.

Hope you don't mind, but I wanted to tell you about my own blog. I'm an aspiring clergy-writer who's new to the Anglican tradition, and am trying to find Anglican readers. The title of my blog is "Musings of a Hard-Lining Moderate: The assorted thoughts of an evangelical Anglican."

I write about theology, culture, politics, movie/book reviews, pet theories... anything that’s on my mind. Right now I'm doing a series on the doctrine of Scripture, which was prompted by the crisis in the global communion. I also recently wrote a post on the value of the christian calendar.

Anyway, I don't know if you'd be interested, but here's the link: Have a great day.

Grace & Peace,


Derek said...

I admit that I'm always curious how the Jude 3 types work responsibly with something like Deut 21:23 and other texts of Scripture that seem to be contradicted by the person of Jesus...

(And if there is anything that, for the John 16 people, is not up for negotiation...)

I still believe that there's a place for a disciplined middle view but the key is a proper and appropriate hermeneutic that balances past, present, and future concerns.

Bryan Owen said...

Carson, welcome to Creedal Christian and thanks for the comments and for the link to your blog.

Derek, I wonder if the Orthodox tradition can offer answers to the question of how a "Jude 3" approach can work responsibly with passages like the one you cite.

And I will concede that there is, indeed, a place for a disciplined middle view on a variety of matters. But it's hard to see how hermeneutics can navigate a middle way between some of the divisive issues we now face. When General Convention approves rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, for instance, an ordained person is either in principle willing to perform such blessings or not. The answer is either "yes" or "no." Regardless of what reasons the individual may offer for his/her answer, for all practical purposes saying "yes" means giving a "John 16:13" response and saying "no" mean giving a "Jude 3" response.

plsdeacon said...

I would say that there is a place for the disciplined middle, but that place ends when discussion ends and action begins. For example, if I want to purchase a new Mustang 5.0 convertable and my wife believes there is better uses for our resources and I then go out an buy the car against her espress wishes, how do you think she will react when I want to continue to "dialogue" about the car?

If the Holy Spirit is leading us into new truths, then it should be apparent by the fruit of that new direction (per Galations 5) and that the Communion would move in that direction after discussion and prayer.

But when one group or other decides that the time for discussion is over and the time for action has come, that really shows that it is not of the Holy Spirit because we see the results.

If this is really such an issue that your conscience requires you to act on it and act against the expressed desires of the rest of the Church, then you should first leave that group and then act on the issue - that is the path of integrity.

As for Deut 21:23, I would reply with 2 Cor 5:21 - Jesus took on our curse on the cross and his body did not remain on the cross overnight.

Phil Snyder

Peter Carrell said...

Interesting to follow this discussion!

Carson T. Clark said...

In light of this post, I thought you may like to read pt. #3 of this post:

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for offering the link to your posting, Carson. I've read both parts one and two of your postings on this particular issue, and I applaud you for a job well done. You've offered a model of civility and balance in the midst of the hostile, imbalanced rhetoric of ideological ecclesial warfare within Anglicanism. I wish that more persons on all sides would follow your example.

In the part of your blog posting you link to here you compare the current Anglican/Episcopal culture war to the American Civil War as follows:

People still debate whether [the Civil War] was about slavery OR states’ right, economics, cultural differences, etc. That’s a poor way to approach the issue, though. Clearly those were all factors. The real question is which factor was primary. At least initially, the war wasn’t about preserving vs. abolishing slavery. Yet the South’s “Peculiar Institution” was the underlying cause that pushed all the others to the surface, thereby starting the war. The important distinction there is that the war wasn’t about slavery but it was fought over slavery. Likewise, the Anglican feud is over homosexuality, differing interpretations of Scripture, and so forth. But, as the CNN blogger suggested, it’s about “two rival versions of Anglicanism.”

I think there is much truth to this. But it may go even deeper than "two rival versions of Anglicanism." George Conger has recently suggested that the division over homosexual behavior "is slowly giving way to a new fight over the nature of truth and divine revelation." Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, over time, this division has exposed what's been there all along: rival, incompatible, and at times incommensurable understandings of Christian truth, divine revelation, biblical and ecclesial authority, and what it means to be human (including differences over whether or not theological language about the Fall and sin have any substantive meaning or relevance). In other words, it may be that what we're dealing with is not merely two rival versions of Anglicanism, but (at least) two rival versions of the Christian gospel.