Monday, July 25, 2011

Anglicanism as an Expression of Catholic Christianity

At his blog genu(re)flection, Caleb Roberts offers interesting thoughts in a posting entitled "Why I am Anglican." He expounds upon the following three dimensions of Anglicanism as expressions of Catholic Christianity that called him beyond his more Protestant upbringing:

  1. Nicene Orthodoxy
  2. Apostolic Succession & Episcopal Polity
  3. A Sacramental & Liturgical Spirituality

I resonate with the reasons why Caleb was able "to break the glass ceiling of 'TULIP Calvinism'" for Anglicanism. Increasingly, I, too, share "an appetite for catholicity":

... a real, tangible sense that I believed and worshipped in a manner that was representative of the whole scope of the Church’s life in history. That was really the impetus for it all: I wanted to be a Catholic Christian.

Perhaps it’s more than a desire; I often view it as nothing less than an obligation and a conviction to find the most catholic expression of Christianity I can and submit myself under it. The sad fact of our present moment is that the Church is visibly divided and we shout “I am of Apollos” louder and more fervently than ever in history. But there are still some simple criteria for those desiring true catholicity to consider. Some of my readers may be wondering, with all this talk of catholicity, why I haven’t “gone all the way” and become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Well, that is a valid concern but quite frankly, it is because neither the Roman Catholics nor the Eastern Orthodox are catholic enough that I have chosen to become Anglican. It isn’t because the Anglican Communion in its comprehensive, institutional state embodies the full breadth of catholic Christianity; some of the most foolish and poorly-disguised wolves to presently claim the name of Christ are Anglicans. It is rather that within Anglicanism, there exists and can exist, in my estimation, the most catholic expression of Christianity available to us today. It is by no means perfect — show me a church or a denomination that is — but the criteria for catholicity that I maintain can be found within her.

I agree: at its best, Anglicanism is the purest expression of catholic Christianity in the West.

Caleb continues with some excellent reflections on the centrality of the Nicene Creed for any genuinely catholic expression of the Christian faith that this Creedal Christian can't help but quote:

To be a Nicene Christian is to be a Catholic Christian in the most basic sense because the Creed is the foundational litmus test of true belief. Whereas one can disagree with the various statements of faith of today’s denominations and still remain a faithful Christian, to oppose any article of the Nicene Creed is to necessarily advocate heresy. Because the conditions of orthodoxy/heterodoxy are so simply defined in relation to the Creed, a Catholic-minded Christian keeps it always in view as the standard of doctrine and resists any temptation to place additional confessions and statements of faith alongside it to narrow the scope of orthodox belief to that of his particular affiliation. ... As a result, the Anglican standard of doctrine is ultimately a positive one; it reaffirms the beautiful simplicity of the Nicene Creed and only distinguishes itself from other communions in those areas where innovative doctrines have burdened authentic Christian belief.

Caleb's reflections remind me of a section in one of my earliest blog postings entitled "The Radical Creed":

The mysteries of God cannot be contained by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it. Anglicanism agrees. Beginning with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the late 19th Century and reaffirmed by subsequent Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of the Episcopal Church during the 20th Century, Anglicanism maintains that the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

It's worth pausing for a moment over that word "sufficient." The Nicene Creed is "enough." We don't need anything more to express the core of the Christian faith. But at the same time, we can make do with no less. This is why Anglicanism - unlike the Reformed tradition - is a creedal rather than a confessional tradition. Anglican bishop Charles Harris put it well when he said:

"The Nicene Creed aims at promoting unity, the later confessions at justifying division; the former states only what is essential, the latter descend into detail and include a large number of disputable and highly contentious propositions" [from Creeds or No Creeds (1927), quoted by Frank E. Wilson in Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlow, 1967), p. 71].

It's a very heartening sign to see folks like Caleb join the Anglican fold. May there be many more like him!


James said...

Could you expand on your comment "at its best, Anglicanism is the purest expression of catholic Christianity in the West."

I didn't really see an argument put forth for this proposition, but I'm curious as to the possibility of one.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi James. I think that the paragraph from Caleb's posting preceding my comment, coupled with the three criteria for catholicity retained by Anglicanism that he cites (Nicene Orthodoxy, Apostolic Succession & Episcopal Polity, and A Sacramental & Liturgical Spirituality) provides warrants for my comment. I continue to believe that, at its best, Anglicanism has retained what is essential to the faith and practice of the Christian Church, and that this faith and practice unite us with the Universal Church (even if others who belong to that Universal Church don't recognize us as legitimate).

Having said that, I'm less interested in arguing for the truth of this proposition than in being faithful to the criteria for catholicity that comprises Anglicanism at its best and living accordingly.

For a more polemical approach, check out Fr. Jonathan's "Either Anglicanism is the Truth or We Should Shut Up About It." This sentence sums up Fr. Jonathan's argument: "Either Anglicanism gives us the true faith that it is worth fighting for, or else it is a false religion that deserves to be displaced by other things."

Robin G. Jordan said...

It would appear that Roberts is writing about some varient of Anglo-Catholicism, not authentic historic Anglicanism. The long recognized doctrinal standard of Anglicanism is the historic Anglican formularies--the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571, the Prayer Book of 1662, and the Ordinal of 1661. There is a considerable body of historical evidence that shows that the Thirty-Nine Articles, despite their brevity, have been recognized in and outside of the Church of England as Anglicanism's confession of faith. The Jerusalem Declaration upholds the Thirty-Nine Articles "as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God's word and as authoritative for Anglicans today." The GAFCON Theological Resource Group in its commentary on the Jerusalem Declaration, Being Faithful: The Shape of Historic Anglicanism Today, point out that acceptance of their authority "is constitutive of Anglican identity." The Articles are, with all other Reformation confessions, Protestant and evangelical on Scripture, justification, faith and good works, and the church; they are "Reformed and moderately Calvinistic on predestination and the Lord's Supper." The GAFCON Theological Resource Group in Being Faithful also points out that "the Jerusalem Declaration calls the Anglican church back to the Articles as being a faithful testimony to the teaching of Scripture, excluding erroneous beliefs and practices and giving a distinct shape to Anglican Christianity."

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robin. Thanks for offering your thoughts.

I don't think your charge that Caleb is "writing about some variant of Anglo-Catholicism" sticks, particularly since he included the following sentence under the heading of "Nicene Orthodoxy":

As an Anglican, I submit to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion which attempt merely to restate the conditions of Nicene Orthodoxy, whilst correcting the few grievous errors of the late-Medieval Roman Church.

Perhaps the charge should instead be leveled at me for omitting that sentence in the section I cited from Caleb's posting!

Then again, I'm not the best Anglo-
Catholic ...

Fr. J said...

Great reflection. Always glad to see people really getting the heart of Anglicanism and not being deterred by all the nonsense that spins around us these days.

Robin G. Jordan said...


The Thirty-Nine Articles do more than attempting "merely to restate the conditions of Nicene Orthodoxy, whilst correcting the few grievous errors of the late-Medieval Roman Church." This is how Newman, Bicknell, and others have sought to interpret the Articles. As J. I. Packer in The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today and more recently Gillis J. Harp in "Recovering Confessional Anglicanism" point out Newman's interpretation of the Articles was extremely problematic, as are the interpretations of Bicknell and others who have followed in his footsteps. Newman's interpretation of the Articles in Tract 90 turned a number of churchmen who had been sympathetic to the Tractarian movement against it. The condemnation of the tract was wide-spread. It would be the last tract that the Tractarian movement published and Newman would subsequently abandon the Church of England for the Church of Rome.

Bryan Owen said...

Peter Toon, in his essay "The Articles and Homilies" in The Study of Anglicanism, offers some interesting concluding thoughts about the Articles of Religion:

" ... in the developing Anglican tradition since the sixteenth century the (orthodox) tendency has been more to view the Articles as one strategic lens of a multi-lens telescope through which to view tradition and approach Scripture, than to treat them as the single doctrinal foundation of the Anglican Household of Faith. Therefore it was recommended in Subscription and Assent to the 39 Articles that the Articles be always printed in the same volume as the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. The other important lens, on this way of stating their place, is the Catholic Creeds. Such an approach leaves open the possibility of a further 'lens' being produced by the Churches of today or tomorrow" (p. 153).