Monday, September 3, 2012

Resurrecting Our Neglected Catechism

One of the things I've consistently highlighted on this blog is the fact that Anglicanism has doctrinal content and orthodoxy is about both right worship and right belief.  Contra the proponents of certain strands of 'liberal' or 'progressive' theology, we have identifiable doctrine in the Episcopal Church in The Book of Common Prayer.  And we are accountable to that doctrine in both our Baptismal Covenant and ordination vows (yes, lay Episcopalians are bound by vows, too!).  Fortunately, we have a summary of that doctrine in "An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism."

Here's what the Prayer Book says on page 844 about the catechism (emphasis added):

The catechism is primarily intended for use by parish priests, deacons, and lay catechists, to give an outline for instruction.  It is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher, and it is cast in the traditional question and answer form for ease of reference. 
The second use of this catechism is to provide a brief summary of the Church's teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book. 
It may also be used for form a simple service; since the matter is arranged under headings, it is suitable for selective use, and the leader may introduce prayers and hymns as needed.

By providing an outline for instruction, a commentary on the creeds, and a brief summary of the Church's teaching, the catechism is a gift to the Episcopal Church.  And yet, how many Episcopalians are familiar with its contents?  Indeed, how many even know that we have a catechism?  And how many parish priests, deacons, and lay catechists actually use the catechism in their teaching ministry?

Such questions may have been on Fr. Tony Clavier's mind when he wrote a blog posting entitled "Our Forgotten Catechism."  Emphasizing the authority of the catechism, he writes:

When a bishop, priest or deacon takes an oath to be faithful to doctrine, where may we find a convenient summery of what that means? When a lay person wants to know what a Christian should believe, where is that to be found? Well yes, the Bible, the Creeds, the writings of the Fathers, the General Councils, but what does that all mean? None of us, even a theologian, has time to mine the teachings contained in those authorities. Our Catechism is bound up in the Prayer Book to give us an authoritative summary. 
Yes, the Catechism has authority. It forms part of the ‘teaching law’ of the Episcopal Church. It should form the backbone of all instruction in enquirers’ classes and confirmation courses. However in my experience, our Catechism is largely forgotten or ignored.  To some, as with all doctrinal formularies, its contents form a challenge to be argued with or dismissed.  Such hubris makes Republican individualism sound tame. 
If we believe we have progressed beyond accepting doctrine on faith, then perhaps we should be honest and drop all the oaths to abide by doctrine?  To do so would transform what Anglicans have been.  Our Prayer Books would be cheaper and smaller without the Catechism and Historical Documents.  However until and unless we transform ourself into a religious organization in which every person is free to make up their own 'personal faith', we need to resurrect our neglected Catechism and take that which it teaches seriously.

Fr. Tony's emphasis on the "resurrect[ing] our neglected Catechism" dovetails nicely with the call to preach and teach basic doctrine about Jesus that Leander Harding and Christopher Wells issued back in 2010.  Here's part of what they wrote in an essay entitled "Teaching Jesus and the Unity of the Church":

The Episcopal Church needs a movement among a critical mass of leaders, especially priests and bishops of the church, to place the teaching and preaching of basic Christian doctrines about the person and work of Christ at the center of their ministry. This could take the form of line-by-line exposition of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Perhaps the House of Bishops could undertake together a study of 'the scandal of particularity': that through the Incarnation, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of the Son of God, the Father has provided the point of unity and reconciliation — salvation — for the warring children of the world. As a result of this common study the bishops could direct a teaching to the church on Jesus Christ today, Lord of the Church and Lord of the world. ... 
Such a movement would per force refocus the life of our church on that which is truly central, and help to frame a way forward in Christ with respect to our continued disagreements. The center of the Church is not the midpoint between extremes but the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of God. A renewed consensus about the person and work of the Lord might not immediately dispel our disagreements which are grave, wounding the body of the Church. It would, however, properly locate those disagreements, and mark the way to their resolution.

In a time of increasing theological incoherence and anomie within the Episcopal Church, resurrecting the catechism would go a long way towards answering Harding and Wells' call by helping us refocus on what is, indeed, truly central to our faith and practice.


Toni Alvarez said...

I think that our current catechism is a forgotten and neglected treasure. I do wonder how one might say include it in a class or education program.

Despite what I see as the value of our current prayerbook catechism. You often hear criticism from more "conservative" episcopalians that his catechism substantially departs from the traditional BCP catechism and is therefore objectionable.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Toni.

I have used the 1979 catechism as the curriculum for a small Sunday school class. We would take a section and read through it out loud, then back up and discuss. The discussions were always quite good, often raising questions that the catechism itself does not address (I note again that the Prayer Book says that it is "not mean to be a complete statement of belief and practice" but "rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher"). And I often found myself noticing things in the catechism I hadn't seen or thought about before. There's a richness in the catechism that deserves mining.

As for the "traditional BCP catechism" - I've just taken a short look at the 1892 Prayer Book catechism and the the 1928 Prayer Book catechism. Other than the fact that these previous catechisms are significantly shorter than the 1979 catechism, I don't see anything there that contradicts or calls into question the 1979 catechism's orthodoxy. Perhaps others have thoughts on that topic to share.

George William Pursley said...

Over the years, I've used the Catechism in adult forum, mid-week Bible study, and in confirmation classes. It has always been well received. I've also employed the 1928 Offices of Instruction as a part of the proanaphora in mid week services and in lieu of some parts of evening prayer and found it to be well received. My rationale for the 1928 use over the 79 catechism had purely to do with the length of the materials. I've found the materials largely stand on their own without a lot of comment from me. My comments have been pretty much limited to providing the Scriptural citations for the individual questions and short responses to questions from the students. We always try to stay away from "I think, I feel, and I believe" questions and statements, because they set themselves up as being of equivalent authority to the teachings of the Church.

The Underground Pewster said...

Why is it neglected? Maybe people neglect the catechism like they neglect the creeds because they feel that they limit freedom. I run into a lot of that line of thinking, and little thinking about the blind alleys and false paths we readily follow when we forget the instructions of our teachers.

C. Wingate said...

By my comparison most of the 1928 catechism that does not consist of repetition of the creeds, commandments, and the Lord's prayer is repeated in the 1979 version, albeit significantly reworded. The one obvious omission is the discussion of the Lord's Prayer; there is also a summary of the Trinity which is not repeated per se, but I'd have to go through the scattered material on the Three Persons in the 1979 version to be certain.

One should also keep in mind that the intent changed drastically. The 1928 is specifically written for instruction of children coming to confirmation, and is thus pitched to a fairly juvenile level of faith. The 1979 version is written to a much wider audience, and I also gather that the need to address more topics came to be felt anyway. I don't think the 1928 catechism is adequate for the purpose of the "brief summary" which the 1979 book attempts to address.

Whit Johnstone said...

I would argue that while the 1979 catechism is very different from the previous version found in 1928 prayerbook, I would argue that this is not because it teaches any new and strange doctrine. The previous Anglican catechisms were short catechisms intended for the instruction of children. They were therefore short and simple, and did not make any pretensions at being comprehensive expositions of Anglican doctrine. The 1979 catechism, OTOH, is a much larger document, intended for the instruction of adults as well as children, and covering, at least briefly, every point of Christian doctrine. It is intended to be for Anglicans what Luther's Catechism is for Lutherans and the Heidelberg Catechism is for the Reformed. So it is very different from previous prayer book catechisms, not because the Faith has changed, but because it has a different purpose.