Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Fathers; the past and the future...

Nicholas at the Comfortable Words blog (see the link on the right) has drawn attention today to the patristic basis both of the Anglican reformers’ intentions (albeit imperfectly perceived and even more imperfectly realised) and of classical Anglican theology itself from Hooker to Lancelot Andrewes through Cosin and Bramhall and beyond. It was, of course, the study of the Fathers which lay behind both the Catholic Revival of the Oxford Movement and the subsequent conversion of Anglicanism’s greatest gift to the Catholic Church herself, John Henry Newman.

Traditionally, although Newman’s own explorations into the principle of doctrinal development have somewhat robbed it of its force, Anglicanism has eschewed novelty, and what it regarded as innovation, in favour of the tradition of the primitive church and the appeal to reason both read in accordance with the witness of the scriptures. Yet this so called “three-legged stool” of Anglican theological method – scripture, tradition and reason – has become rather unbalanced of late, with “reason,” rather than being itself seen through the prism of Holy Scripture and sacred tradition, having been elevated above the other two elements and interpreted as subjective human experience perceived in accordance with the spirit of the age. It’s hardly surprising that the three-legged stool has for many of us become such an uncomfortable place on which to sit!
After the changes of the last few decades modern Anglicans (of the establishment variety anyway) can hardly use the criticism of innovation as a stick with which to beat anyone!

It may well be that this most patristic of popes has found a way both to recover that lost Anglican patristic ideal or, more accurately, ambition and to reabsorb it into the mainstream of the Western Church. As attempts to square the circle go, it could end up being a pretty impressive attempt!
One of the criticisms of Newman, made by Cardinal Manning and his supporters was that he exemplified “the old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone transplanted into the Church”. I suspect that from our present perspective (and perhaps from the perspective of the Holy Father himself) that particular complaint may have lost some of its force!

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