Sunday, July 3, 2011

Debating Anglicanism

A very interesting discussion/debate about Anglicanism that raises issues about the Anglican Covenant, authority, ecclesiology, polity, the nature of autonomy and communion, and whether or not there is any such thing as uniquely Anglican doctrine was recently kicked off when Fr. Tobias Haller published a two-paragraph posting entitled Thought for 06.30.11 on his blog In a Godward Direction.

Since it's short and has sparked much comment, I'm sharing Fr. Tobias' posting in its entirety:

The proposed Anglican Covenant threatens to destabilize, deface or destroy the one thing of value that Anglicanism has to offer: our polity as a comparatively loose fellowship of self-governing churches. Anglicans have little to offer world Christendom by way of doctrine, except in the choice language of some of the very best English around. We do have (variably throughout the communion) some wonderful liturgy, again in rather fine language and music (some of which has indeed been borrowed by other traditions.)

But it is the idea of being a fellowship, a communion — not a "church" or a "federation" — of self-governing churches whose individual decisions do not bind the others, even as they cooperate in mission and ministry, that forms our only peculiar offering to the tapestry of world Christendom. It is a model of service and fellowship, of work with rather than power over, commended by Christ himself as a model of churchly governance. If that is not worth preserving, then we have little else to offer.

Characterizing these two paragraphs as "a succinct explication of an unfortunate mindset that holds much of modern Anglicanism captive," Fr. Jonathan at The Conciliar Anglican responded to Fr. Tobias with a posting entitled "Anglicanism's Unique Doctrine." Here's part of what Fr. Jonathan writes:

Haller proceeds to contrast polity with doctrine. “Anglicans have little to offer world Christendom by way of doctrine, except in the choice language of some of the very best English around.” The only thing remarkable, then, about Anglican doctrine is the poetic language used to express it. Otherwise, Anglican doctrine is not unique at all. It is hard to tell from this whether Haller believes that Anglicans have doctrine at all, but given some of his other writing I would be willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt that he believes that the doctrine of Anglicans is simply the core doctrine of the Christian faith. Clearly, though, he does not believe that this approach gives us any doctrine that cannot already be found elsewhere. Of course, the other possibility is that each individual church of the Communion has its own unique doctrine and that Anglicanism as such is doctrinally neutral. Either way, Haller’s point remains that Anglicanism teaches nothing unique. ...

There is a bit of a grand irony in what Haller is trying to argue here. He asserts that Anglicanism has no unique doctrine but that we do have a unique polity and that this polity is worth conserving because it is patterned on the ministry of Christ Himself. Yet Haller’s belief about Anglican polity is itself a doctrine which is only commendable to the wider Christian world in so much as it is both unique to Anglicanism (meaning that if Anglicanism disappeared the world would not have access to this teaching) and founded on Christ’s own design (meaning that if this polity disappears than gone with it is something essential about Christian truth). So then, what Haller really means when he says we have no unique doctrine is that our only unique doctrine is in our polity, which in the way that he defines it is tied to the development of the Anglican Communion since the decline of colonialism. But if that’s the case, than classical Anglicanism–the Anglicanism that existed long before colonialism–has absolutely nothing to say to us. Classical Anglicanism is devoid of unique content altogether, which makes one wonder just why the Reformation needed to happen in the first place.

The ensuing discussion between Fr. Tobias and Fr. Jonathan in the comments are well worth reading. And in fairness, it's important to take seriously Fr. Tobias' insistence that Fr. Jonathan has misunderstood him.

And so I also strongly commend Fr. Tobias' follow-up posting entitled "Taking Council or Leaving It." Here's an excerpt:

... classical Anglicanism is geared from the outset, not to a centralized conciliar form of polity, but to a distributed model in which, as it developed, the various member churches of the communion (most of them originating almost genetically) inherited certain characteristics, including the notion of strong autonomy from outside influence, even from other members of the Communion.

The group I'll call "conciliarists" hold the contrary view, that a deep conciliarity is part of the Anglican ethos. The "test" for this understanding of conciliar catholicity as engrained in classical Anglicanism is to look closely at what the classical Anglicans said to the Roman Catholic Church of their day, and how they felt themselves competent to judge the "errors" of ecumenical Councils, and reject them; and to accept the Creeds and other acts of the early Councils not on the authority of the Councils themselves, but because in their judgment the Creeds and doctrinal findings of the (first four) Ecumenical Councils were concordant with Scripture. (Note they did not go along with the disciplinary decrees of even the first four Councils, and felt themselves competent to disregard the three later Councils — again, on the basis of their own judgment.) This is all laid out in the Articles of Religion.

The point is that the classical Anglicans did not think of themselves as conciliar, but patristic or even apostolic. They were interested in "primitive Christianity" unadorned with the accretions of later traditions.

Fr. Peter Carrell in the Anglican Church of New Zealand has briefly weighed in on all of this over at Anglican Down Under by asking the question, "Is there a unique Anglican doctrine?" He writes:

I like Fr Jonathan's observation that some Anglicans, on all parts of the spectrum of our life, tend to think being Anglican is a convenient way of being Christian, or in the words used by many an evangelical Church of England preacher, our church is a good boat to fish from. Is that all there is to Anglicanism?

Noting the discussion/debate between Fr. Tobias and Fr. Jonathan, BC of Catholicity and Covenant has also weighed in from the Church of Ireland with a posting entitled "The late, great Anglican experiment?" BC writes:

The model of authority and communion summarised by The Conciliar Anglican has, unfortunately, failed. Significant decisions impacting on the Anglican claim to catholicity have been taken by national churches (sometimes even by dioceses) without regard to authority and communion beyond the confines of the national church.

While, therefore, I believe The Conciliar Anglican in his account of the classical Anglican understanding of the 'autonomy' of national churches, I also believe that those of us who subscribe to that understanding have - frankly - lost the debate.

Fr. Tobias has also offered a thoughtful response to BC in the comments.

I resonate with what I regularly read at The Conciliar Anglican and Catholicity and Covenant. And while I sometimes disagree with Fr. Tobias, I also hold him in high regard and deeply appreciate the clarity and civility of his blogging at In a Godward Direction.

I'm still trying to sort out the issues raised by the discussion/debate Fr. Tobias' initial posting has stirred up. But one thing I can say for certain is that I believe this discussion/debate is an important one. And the civil character of the disagreements expressed between Fr. Tobias and Fr. Jonathan is a most welcome and refreshing antidote to some of the vitriol out there in the Anglican blogosphere.

In the meantime, I'm left with many questions, including these:
  1. Is the fact that we argue and disagree with each other on such basic questions as "What is Anglicanism?" and "Is there a unique Anglican doctrine?" itself revelatory about the nature of Anglicanism?
  2. Is the term "Anglicanism" too monolithic and insufficiently descriptive of actual faith and practice? If so, would it be better to speak of a variety of Anglican identities (to borrow from the title of a book by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams)?
  3. Can Anglicanism be anything anybody wants it to be? If not, what are the boundaries?
  4. To quote from Fr. Tobias' initial posting, is "the idea of being a fellowship, a communion — not a 'church' or a 'federation' — of self-governing churches whose individual decisions do not bind the others, even as they cooperate in mission and ministry" a sufficient basis for stemming the tide of communion-breaking division and schism?
  5. Can unity or communion in practice ("mission and ministry") take precedence over unity or communion in belief and order?


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Dear Fr Bryan,
Thanks for your thoughts. If I'd known what a response my short thought would generate I'd perhaps have taken greater care! Maybe with it and your musing questions we might have something challenging for the GOE.

To take a stab at your questions, they are much the ones I have. I'm still wading through all of this, but my sense is that the very delicate balance of the Anglican model was "disturbed" when Lambeth, in 1998, tried to act as a Council, "settling" a matter that was really far from settled. It is the effort to build Babel as a center of unity in se that leads to the dispersion of the people. The focus of unity in service pro alia. This is what I mean about turning the focus of unity outward: in common service to others we find out identity with Christ and each other.

The difficulty on practical terms is that no one can declare what is adiaphorous at the time of the conflict. It seems to me the genius of Anglicanism up till now has been the very graciousness to close one eye and look the other way instead of engaging in head-butting or mutual anathemata. We lose our sense of the really large deposit of the faith we hold in common when we become obsessed with those things on which we differ.

I realize that is not really in the form of an answer to your question. But it is where my musings have taken me...

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for offering even more thoughts on all of this in your comments here, Tobias. It is, indeed, fascinating to see how such a short posting on your blog has ignited so many responses elsewhere in the Anglican blogosphere! You've touched a nerve, but I think in a good way. We do well to have these kinds of discussions and debates.

I think I have some answers to the questions I asked at the end of this posting. But one concern I have is that they may just be my answers without being widely shared among others who also identify as Anglican. The same may well be true of answers that others give to such questions.

While raising the problem of arbitrariness, this also goes to the point that has been raised elsewhere in response to your original posting: is this a sign that Anglicanism is merely a convenient receptacle for storing whatever content any one of us chooses to place within it?

On another front, I think you are right that the "very delicate balance of the Anglican model" has, indeed, been "disturbed." Citing Lambeth 1998 as the cause for the disturbance is one possibility for how and why that has happened. Others, of course, cite General Convention 2003 and subsequent related events as the cause for the disturbance. Still others cite changes in theology and practice with the shift from the 1928 to the 1979 Prayer Book, the ordination of women, etc., etc. I even recall once reading a piece in which the author argues that things started going awry when Lambeth 1930 allowed for the use of contraception in some circumstances. Most of us know things are out of whack. But, as with basic questions about Anglicanism, we don't agree on what that means or how it came about. Lacking such agreement makes it difficult (impossible?) to do much that's constructive about it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Bryan. It seems to me the bigger question -- and the one the Covenant actually appears to address -- is, How do we settle disagreements. We certainly could track back the "troubles" to the 1930s -- but then why not the 1860s themselves and the beginning of Lambeth in the divisions over Colenso? And then, of course, wasn't the Reformation itself the response to a number of disagreements, with the "Anglican" position laid out in the Articles? And of course we could continue on back to the Great Schism, or all the way back to the things that plagued, and divided, Peter and Paul.

This is why I hearken after the philosophy of letting things be; allowing for reception or rejection over time, rather than the urge for final and immediate answers to all controversies. If we can find ways of staying together -- and I think the Anglican way offers hope for that, in the provisions for local variety combined with the right of other provinces to receive or reject innovations elsewhere, the best way forward. This is the notion that is under assault since Lambeth 1.10, which tried (in vain) to impose a final and at the same time provisional decision.

I remain hopeful that things will continue to work out, under God's grace!

Blessings and peace to you.