Monday, 4 May 2009
Returning to the roots (of the problem)?
I read this article on Virtue Online (The Anglican Church in North America Welcomes You - Part I By Robin G. Jordan) with interest and a great deal of emotional sympathy, but also with increasing theological disagreement; in the attempted rebuilding of North American Anglicanism why should a historically important and formative strand within the Anglican theological tradition – classical evangelicalism - be left (seemingly) out in the cold?
I am very wary as an European outsider of passing comment, but the issues raised by this article are ones which should concern all faithful orthodox Anglicans, but perhaps not for the reasons the author himself gives.
Undoubtedly Conservative Evangelicals (despite making common cause with Catholics on some vital issues of moral theology and faith and order) have always privately regarded Anglo-Catholics as the theological cuckoo in the nest of Anglicanism, and the feeling has without doubt been reciprocated. What does that tell us in itself?
The problem we face is the problem of the essential incoherence of the English Reformation. It begins as an “act of state” under Henry VIII, as a form of Catholicism without the Pope or Caesaro-papalism to be less kind. Under Edward VI large elements were imported from Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. After the Marian restoration died with her, under Elizabeth I we have an essentially political settlement which combined a reformed Catholic order and a largely (but not exclusively) Calvinist soteriology in an uneasy co-existence: essentially a Protestant Church “haunted by its Catholic past” as Diarmaid MacCulloch has pointed out in a memorable phrase. If that were the end of the story we could confidently speak both of the legacy of the English Reformation and of its theological limits, but despite so much praise (or obloquy) having been lavished over the years on “the Elizabethan Settlement,” was it ever a lasting settlement at all in terms of the theological stance of the English church? Classical Evangelicals can point to Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley in a succession which seems to reach its conclusion with John Jewel. But when and where does the Reformation begin, and when and where can it legitimately be said to end?
It is to insert an historically artificial cut-off point in the story of the post-Henrican Church to regard Jewel as somehow formative to the “true” Anglican tradition, but not also include Hooker. It is similarly artificial to look to Hooker but not to Andrewes or Laud, or to Mark Frank and Jeremy Taylor but not to Bramhall or Cosin and the list can go on and on. Include the names of Tillotson and Hoadley and their various successors, and one begins to appreciate the problem which faces us.
The difficulty with the whole concept of the Reformation is that once the “reforming” process is started how can one determine where it ends?
One could argue that once begun “Reformation” becomes a kind of unending ecclesiological / theological / political rollercoaster which has led us precisely to where we are now – with competing and incompatible theologies wrestling for power and influence within the Anglican Church as each successive generation passes.
There has not been, and can never be, a “true” Anglican settlement, no period and no theology which one can say definitively sums up what the Anglican “tradition” stands for. Attempts to do so from a classical evangelical or Anglo-Catholic or latitudinarian (liberal) standpoint are doomed to failure: there is no one tradition to which we can all appeal.
So, in trying to reconstitute an “orthodox” Anglicanism for the 21st Century the vital question is do we want once again to sow the seeds of theological incoherence which will lead to a repetition somewhere down the line (and probably sooner rather than later) of our present catastrophe? A Church made up of at least three incompatible theologies and ecclesiastical parties and governed by an elected synod will undoubtedly result once more in an ecclesial body which is more indebted to the surrounding culture than to the gospels and the historic creeds.
On the other hand, if what I have been struggling to say is true, should we be embarking on this project at all? Can it ever be anything other than a marriage of convenience, a temporary expedient to get us out of our present predicament at the hands of an increasingly intolerant liberal hegemony?
Regretfully, I would have to say that the search for a wider theological and ecclesial unity is not one in which the historic parties within Anglicanism are able to undertake together. It would be more honest theologically, and more possible ecumenically, to go our separate ways in the hope and belief that God will, in His own time, bring us together again, but this time perfectly, in the great reunited Catholic Church of the future.
The true vocation of Anglican Catholics is not in trying to reinvent an illusory Reformation settlement, but will entail a return to the rock from which we have been hewn. To end the Jeremiad: for Anglo-Catholics the Anglican cistern, even if restored, simply cannot hold water.