Saturday, June 16, 2012

What is orthodox Anglicanism?

That's a question the Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu addresses in a reply to an Eastern Orthodox friend at VirtueOnline. He writes:

The Eastern Orthodox churches can attach positive meaning to the word "orthodox". It refers to a distinct body of scriptures, canons, liturgical texts and traditions. Today the Western churches, by contrast, use the word "orthodox" mainly in a negative sense. "Orthodoxy" is not identified primarily by what it affirms or accepts. Even when it is, there is always an implied contrast with that which it rejects. The word "orthodox" is used very much like the word "conservative".  
Among Anglicans the word has diverse and contradictory meanings. When "orthodox" means Anglo-Catholic, it often means that one rejects women in the priesthood and episcopate. Or else one emphasizes a supernatural doctrine of the sacraments in marked contrast with the "protestant" tendency to view them as mere signs. Some orthodox Anglicans are like "born again" evangelicals in their strong commitment to the inspiration of the Bible -- but always in ready contrast with "liberals" or "revisionists" who treat the Bible as a human document of limited value. 
Many orthodox Anglicans question the orthodoxy of others. As mentioned above, the rejection of female clerics is sometimes taken as the mark of orthodoxy. And yet there are female clerics who are biblically conservative or who hold a "high" view of the sacraments, and these are quick to distance themselves from the "single issue" feminists who have flooded the ranks of ordinands in recent decades. ... 
Perhaps the word "preference" is what most defines the crisis of contemporary Anglicanism and that of all the churches of the Reformation. It is a crisis of authority. Rome has its magisterium, presided over by the Pope. The Reformation churches have the Bible and the enthroned individual. Hence all the references by orthodox bloggers to what they personally "like", "accept", or "feel", along with their thunderbolt condemnations of liberals and other orthodox who stray past a point they have personally certified for the orthodox interpretion of the scriptures. Protestants (and here I include all Anglicans) are much too comfortable in making magisterial pronouncements regarding divine truth. That is the heart of the authority issue. That very impulse is the antithesis of Christian orthodoxy. 
Anglicanism is the most elegantly appointed buffet table in Christendom. This is its greatness but also its despair. There is no authority that supersedes the individual and his preferences and choices. If truth comes down to a matter of individual discretion, then call it what you like, but it is not orthodox. This is the heart of the crisis of Anglican identity. ...  
If orthodoxy comes down to a matter of personal preference or taste, then the liberals were right all along. There is room at the table for Christ and Belial after all.

Canon L'Hommedieu is right: if there is no authority above individual preferences and choices, and if truth is nothing more than a matter of private judgment, there can be no orthodoxy.  This once again raises the question, "What is orthodox Anglicanism?"  And by extension: how do we know that our response to that question isn't anything more than an expression of personal preference and taste, and thus the antithesis of orthodoxy?

5 comments:

George said...

I struggle with the conflict of a culture that taught me that my relationship with Jesus/God is very personal very direct and yet the sense that the Church/church somehow also expects me to adhere (not a good word) to how they prescribe that relationship should be manifest. Not sure if that makes sense, I guess I am confused that sometimes these 'arguments' seem to be more about allegiance to the earthly body rather than the heavenly one.

Seldom in these debates about what is right and what is wrong belief do I ever see the word 'love' used, and yet is it not to Love that we are drawn, is not in Love that we all ultimately hope and long to find true selves our completion?

Fr. Jonathan said...

The authority question has always been a sticky one for Anglicans, but never more so than in the present. But I think that authority and orthodoxy, while related, must be approached as two separate questions. Orthodoxy has generally become a kind of shorthand for those who accept the Nicene Creed plus the ethical implications of the Bible, but I think that's woefully incomplete.

An orthodox Anglicanism is one that is rooted in the faith expressed in the formularies. You cannot be an Anglican in any meaningful sense and eschew the prayer book or the 39 Articles. But even to say that is not enough.

It's interesting that in Canon L'Hommedieu's piece, he mentions that his Eastern Orthodox friend is curious as to whether modern Anglicanism is considering a return to the faith of the first millennium. What surprises me is that the Canon's answer wasn't to immediately say that the whole point of Anglicanism is to live and breathe the faith of the first millennium. If it is anything at all, classical Anglicanism is a reforming of the Church along patristic lines. In that sense, it has always sought to be by reformation what Orthodoxy claims to be by birthright, the Church of the apostles.

The problem, of course, is that it has been so long since Anglicans have thought this way about ourselves that we simply no longer have any concept of who we are. And the lack of common structures in the Communion have made it impossible for us to recover that core truth. That is where the problem of authority comes in, because the Anglicanism that spread around the world was the Anglicanism of church parties, Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism, and not the Anglicanism of the Reformers and Divines.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi George. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt struggles with the Church and in your relationship with God.

You wrote: "Seldom in these debates about what is right and what is wrong belief do I ever see the word 'love' used, and yet is it not to Love that we are drawn, is not in Love that we all ultimately hope and long to find true selves our completion?"

I think this is a critically important point. In our attempts to preserve and promote orthodox doctrine, we can forget the deeper point of it all.

Fr. Stephen Freeman (an Eastern Orthodox priest) gets at that deeper point in a blog posting entitled "Love and True Faith." He writes:

"True doctrine is of great importance because it reveals the nature and truth of God and the world to us. But such knowledge is not the final goal of the Christian life. Our final goal is indeed the true faith – that is – the love of God towards all the world dwelling within our hearts. ...

"There is no opposition to rationality in any of this and certainly no opposition to true doctrine. But there is a recognition that the very simplist of all things – available to children and the weak minded (perhaps more truly available to them than the rest of us) – is the love of God dwelling in our hearts. Without this there is no true faith, no true salvation, no theosis, no true conformity to the image of God. ...

"The words spoken by the Deacon at every liturgy when he summons us to repeat the Nicene Creed say everything: 'Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.' We may say the words for the rest of eternity – but unless and until we love one another we will not truly know or believe a word of it."

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Fr. Jonathan. You've made excellent points that I agree with. I particularly like the way you put it when you wrote: " ... the whole point of Anglicanism is to live and breathe the faith of the first millennium. If it is anything at all, classical Anglicanism is a reforming of the Church along patristic lines. In that sense, it has always sought to be by reformation what Orthodoxy claims to be by birthright, the Church of the apostles."

As time passes, however, it becomes increasingly clear that too many of us in TEC no longer seek "to be by reformation what Orthodoxy claims to be by birthright." The push for Communion Without Baptism is just one of many examples that make that sad point.

Fr. Jonathan said...

Bryan, you're certainly right that TEC is very far from this ideal in our current state. But I expect better from those who call themselves "conservatives" and "orthodox," and perhaps that is my great mistake. Because no one seems interested in the project of recovering Anglicanism as something more than just a holding place for Christians of other stripes, least of all those who most eloquently defend Anglicanism against the jaws of liberalism.