Thursday, July 28, 2011

Anglicanism's Magisterial Authority

A couple of years ago I published a piece entitled "How Much is 2 Plus 2?" in which I offered responses to troubling things I've heard from some "progressive" Episcopalians when it comes to doctrine and ecclesial authority. Here's an example of what I've heard someone say:

To claim that there is such a thing as 'the faith of the Church' and that the Bible, the creeds, and the liturgies of the Prayer Book embody that faith is merely a way of trying to impose one's own views on other people. The Episcopal Church doesn't have teaching that's binding on anyone. To say otherwise is to endorse indoctrination, not inclusiveness.

Fr. Jonathan of The Conciliar Anglican has written a piece entitled "The Anglican Way: Magisterial Worship" which refutes such nonsense. Here's a sample:

... classical Anglicans share more in common with Orthodoxy than with our sister churches in the west. We have no specifically Anglican confession. We do not narrow our doctrine down on every last matter but only on those matters where the Holy Spirit has definitively spoken in the Church through the Scriptures and the Fathers. We allow mystery to be, well, mysterious. There is, however, an important and distinctly western element to the way that we live this out that separates us from our Eastern brethren. We have a magisterial authority. 
The word magisterial comes from the Latin for “magistrate” or “master.” That which is magisterial is that which conveys the mind of the master. It is official and authoritative. Magisterial authority within the Church is that which is exercised to provide us with the framework of both how to understand our Christian faith and how to live good Christian lives. In the Church of Rome, this function is performed largely by edicts of the Pope. In traditional Reformation Protestantism, it is the work of the confessions. Some more radical Protestants deny the need for any magisterial authority beyond the Bible itself, though in practice this usually means that the whims of individual preachers and teachers fill in the gap. For Anglicans, magisterial authority rests in the Book of Common Prayer. ... 
Anglicanism holds scripture in the highest place of authority and yet acknowledges that scripture has to be interpreted from within the life of the Church to be properly understood. While there is more than one way to pass down this apostolic faith from one generation to the next, liturgy is by far the best. This is because liturgy is not simply didactic. Liturgy is participatory. Liturgy is dynamic and relational. When we read the words of a confession or listen to a good talk by a learned Christian preacher, we may learn many good things about God, but when we participate in liturgy we actually encounter God. We learn who He is and who we are in relation to Him by worshiping Him, hearing His Word proclaimed, and receiving His grace through the Sacraments. ...

... the Prayer Book has always been for Anglicans the highest source of authority for teaching and understanding the faith of the scriptures. The liturgy is not just an expression of our faith but the teacher of that faith itself. It forms us in our faith, and as such we are called to submit ourselves to it.

Fr. Jonathan also notes what can happen when we fail to submit to Anglicanism's magisterial authority:

It is no accident that the unraveling of traditional faith in some parts of the Anglican Communion has coincided with the introduction of new liturgies that obscure both the beauty and truth of classical Anglican worship. Our liturgy is our center. When it goes, everything else eventually will go with it.

And again:

At some point along the line—and it really would require some careful study to be able to discern when—we stopped thinking of the Prayer Book as magisterial, as an authority that we submit ourselves to, and started thinking of it as a creative outlet for the theological whims of the moment. Hence, we see turbulent efforts at liturgical revisions marking the last thirty years every bit as much as we see a breakdown in The Episcopal Church of belief in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Alternative liturgies abound today, each seemingly less historical and more heretical than the last, but even these do not seem to be placing limits on the clergy in many dioceses who feel free to dispense with authorized liturgies altogether and create their own from scratch. Letting go of the liturgy has meant letting go of the faith.

I note that some of the ways of letting go of the faith through illegal liturgical revision are downright silly and irreverent while others signal a renunciation of our core identity in favor of accommodation to religious pluralism and cultural relativism.

Fr. Jonathan has written a very fine piece, so read it all.

The motto “Praying Shapes Believing” sums up the importance of liturgy or common prayer as the means for passing on the faith of the Church and as the glue that holds the Church together. But there seems to be a breakdown in the connection between the liturgy and what people actually believe and how they are formed. So as part of a more proactive focus on doctrine (particularly as laid out in the historic creeds), we would do well to use the Prayer Book as a central resource for teaching. In addition to better education and formation as Anglican Christians, that might also address the problem of why so many feel the need to tinker with the Prayer Book.


Fr. J said...

Thank you, Bryan, for the link. I’m glad that I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness of the internet. I wonder sometimes why it is that we aren’t better able to communicate some of the real beauty and light of the Anglican tradition. Perhaps there are new media ways of making a witness for classical Anglicanism? Podcasts? YouTube? Something that would reach more people or a diversified group? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine has some vinyl albums of old Anglican services. As I listened, one of the things I enjoyed most was the slow and proper readings of the Biblical texts and Prayer Book liturgy in between songs (Evensong). The reverent and well-said readings of the collects, etc. are in stark contrast to what passes today for Anglican/Episcopal services at most churches. These recordings were from 1950s and 1960s England.
Thanks for this very good article.

Robin G. Jordan said...

For historic Anglicanism the Thirty-Nine Articles, the reformed Church of Englican's confession of faith, is more authoritative than the Prayer Book. As J.I. Packer points out in The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today, the Articles "were meant also as doctrinal standards for interpreting the Prayer Book." The ninteenth century Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle documents in his essay "The Thirty-Nine Articles" in The Old Paths, how the Ritualists were not content to reinterpret the Articles as the Tractarians had but sought to replace the Articles with the Prayer Book as the English Church's standard of faith and doctrine, calling for the abolition of the Articles. Jonathan would appear to stand in that tradition, which represents a deviation from authentic historical Anglicanism.

Bryan Owen said...

Fr. Jonathan, I think you're asking good questions about how to reach out. Speaking of YouTube, there's the video series Father Matthew Presents which some people love and others find somewhat cheesy. But at least Fr. Matthew is making a good faith attempt to share who we are with a larger audience.

In the long run, perhaps the most effective way remains (a) Episcopalians inviting persons they know who are unchurched to attend worship, (b) offering worship that is faithful to the Prayer Book liturgies, and (c) offering sound teaching in sermons and Christian formation classes that are grounded in scripture, the creeds, and the Prayer Book.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing, runnymeadeuk. There has, indeed, been a shift in the way that worship is approached and conducted. I can remember not so long ago that when people entered a church, there was silence. Now it's all chatty. And when the organ prelude begins, people talk louder. I'm sure there are noteworthy exceptions, but I also think we're losing a sense of reverence.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robin. I'd very much like to read Fr. Jonathan's response to your comments. In the meantime, given that the status and authority of the Articles has sometimes been a source of debate and disagreement among Anglicans, I don't think it's helpful to suggest that Fr. Jonathan stands in a "deviant" tradition that represents a break from "authentic historical Anglicanism" and which entails a call "for the abolition of the Articles."

If you haven't seen his posting "Ask an Anglican: The 39 Articles," I encourage you to read it and then pose your questions/challenges about his views to him directly.

Fr. J said...

I think that what Fr. Matthew does is a really good use of that technology, although I sometimes find that what he presents as Anglicanism is a little bit impoverished. Nevertheless, I have to give him credit for getting out there and doing it. We need some traditional folks who are willing to take the risk he has in making that happen.

For a really good example of what I think can be done with YouTube but from a confessional Lutheran perspective, check out Pastor Jonathan Fisk's "Worldview Everlasting." Fantastic stuff:

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the link to the Lutheran videos, Fr. J. I'll check them out.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some would favor making the 39 Articles confessional, such as, when a person is confirmed, a confirmand would have to explicitly subscribe to its tenets?

Making subscription to the 39 Articles "part of the package" when one is 'received' - typically from Catholicism and Orthodoxy - would make things "interesting". Some ex-Catholics [often divorced] could be indifferent to the 39 Articles but "go along to get along". Some evanglized by evangelicals might embrace the Articles positively. But many former Catholic or Orthodox Christians - with previous serious catechesis - would likely bridle at deliberate anti- Roman and subtle anti- Catholic polemical tone/teachings therein, and probably walk. Or so it seems to me.

still Orthodox, though received

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the interesting thoughts, still Orthodox, though received.

If I'm not mistaken, clergy in the Episcopal Church have never been required to subscribe to the 39 Articles, and that's now the case in the Church of England. If clergy don't have to subscribe to the Articles, why should the laity be required to do so when confirmed or received?

The Underground Pewster said...

Yes, liturgical revisions have led to a weakening of the authority of the liturgy.

To my analytical mind, the next question is what are the underlying problems that cause liturgical revisions to lead to a loss of definiton?

Unless that problem is corrected, any reformed revision of the liturgy is not likely to strengthen the notion of "lex orandi, lex credendi" amongst us pewsitters