Saturday, 16 January 2010

No one “authentic” tradition

Much is being made in the pages of the Catholic Herald of the question of whether there is an authentic Anglican tradition to which appeal can be made. Robert Ian Williams (who seems to have embarked on a personal crusade against Anglicanorum Coetibus – like many sincere converts he seems to be saying “why can’t everyone just do what I did?”) has attacked the article by Fr Anthony Reader-Moore on Anglican patrimony published a few weeks ago
In a sense they are both completely right and both utterly wrong at the same time.
It is quite pointless to look for an “authentic Anglican tradition.” Cranmer’s intention in his various liturgical formulations are pretty much beside the point: Cranmer has never been accorded in Anglicanism anything like the authoritative status of the continental reformers such as Luther or Calvin.
In any case, it is quite clear that the problem with “reformation” is that once begun who can determine where it ends, or at what point its various “developments” cease to be authentic? Are we, in fact, as Anglicans committed to viewing the faith through the prism of the sixteenth century? And if the answer to that is a resounding “no,” then are we to stop at the seventeenth, nineteenth or twenty-first centuries? If not Cranmer, then is it Hooker, or Andrewes, or Newman (pre-1845) Pusey and Keble or are we left with John Stott or Jack Spong? That’s precisely our problem, whatever kind of Anglican we profess to be. We are committed to a highly selective (as I have been in the above list) and, on our own terms, ultimately unjustifiable reading of sources.
Fr Michael Rear in this month’s New Directions surely has it right when he describes his shock at the realisation that he was simply a member of a “Catholic movement” (albeit one he describes as " wonderful and remakable" - who would demur?) within the ambiguous structures of a State Church. There is ultimately nothing “authentic” to which to appeal, save the rather circular proposition of appealing to the consensus of antiquity; we know what conclusion Newman came to after precisely such an attempt.
And if we are still tempted to embark upon the quest for the one authentic tradition which we can regard as normative, we come up against the well-known problem that Cranmer and the other English reformers had a very limited understanding of and even access to the patristic texts and their context which we now are able to take very much more for granted. So are we then tied in to their intention or their mistaken analysis and application of Christian antiquity?
I have long come to the conclusion that the appeal to Anglican authenticity is fruitless, like chasing a ball of mercury across a laboratory table. We have traditions in the plural, and what Pope Benedict has done in the Apostolic Constitution is to expose the myth of a single, coherent Anglican "tradition" once and for all. “Come home,” he is saying, to those he recognises as displaced Catholics increasingly trapped within a structure which, by its own (lack of) definition, can have no “authentic” foundation.

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