Wednesday, September 14, 2011
In ancient times a conquered people might be carried away into captivity with the idea that, over time, their distinctive national and ethnic identity would vanish. Very likely, this was intended by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon against the people of Judah, and prevented by God Himself. In modern times, the Jewish people see assimilation as a danger to their existence, fearing the missionary nature of the Church as much as they fear hostility. Assimilation does destroy a people's distinctiveness, and with it their unique cultural contributions to the human race and to history.
About distinctiveness, it has been said many times that Anglicanism has no distinctive theology of its own, but only that of the Church. Sometimes we might phrase it as the Catholic Church, taking our definition of "Catholic" from the Creeds we say. (When we say "the Catholic Church" we include the Roman Catholic Church as only one part of the larger Catholic Church, not the whole and not possessing "the fullness" to any degree greater than we possess it as well.) That is, the whole purpose of Anglican theologians should be Christianity without any innovations. As the late Rev. Dr. Louis Tarsitano put it, in a conversation almost ten years ago among the Touchstone editors, "the only reason to be Anglican is to avoid the innovations both of Rome and of Protestantism." Not creating a distinctive theology is the distinctive theology of Anglicanism. Everyone else has created distinctions by their innovations, and continue to do so; but, we ought to remain committed to our own distinctive non-distinctiveness, as much as it may seem paradoxical at first glance.
Among Anglicans, however, we find many who have embraced partisan extremes that are very distinctive and controversial. These include people who call themselves, or who may be called, "Reformed," "Anglo-Catholic" or "Liberal." About the first two, both names have a perfectly good meaning. Anglicanism is Reformed, or Protestant; otherwise it would not exist in the West outside of the Roman Catholic Church. It is Catholic, with the fullness of Christian doctrine and all of the sacraments duly and validly administered, as well as having maintained episcopal order and the Apostolic Succession of bishops. Frankly, anyone who cannot accept this full package has already refuted or rejected Anglicanism, for we are uniquely able to reconcile the truth to itself even when that requires rescuing some neglected or over-emphasized portion of truth from those who would rob and spoil us of our full inheritance.
For example, some who call themselves "Reformed" want to forbid things that are deeply beneficial and edifying to people, even though they are not, strictly speaking, necessary. Some of them, to cite another example, want to deny the five "commonly called" or "lesser sacraments," because they simply do not possess the literacy it takes to read the Articles with understanding. The opposite example is that some who call themselves "Anglo-Catholic" wrongly accept those very definitions and low level of literacy, and are fooled into throwing away part of their own inheritance as a consequence. Instead of seeing that they need to accept the classic Formularies as a window to the ancient Church, they allow self-proclaimed "Reformed" extremists to set the definitions; and those definitions are no different from the confusion and distortion that is present in Roman Catholic polemics against Anglicanism.
The consequences of extremist partisan theology among modern Anglicans has created severe consequences. We see people so committed to defining Anglicanism in exclusively Protestant terms, and possessing insufficient learning, that they either throw away the meaning of priesthood Sydney style (that is, Lay Celebration) or by willingness to live with the ordination of women1 (which, of course, includes another form of Lay Celebration), sometimes even when they know and admit that is both a contradiction of Scripture and an unhealthy pastoral practice apart from direct sacramental invalidity. They have no understanding of Catholic order as God has established it, nor of the grace God works through the sacraments.
Among some who call themselves Anglo-Catholic we have extremists who are, in fact, Anglo-Papalists. But we have also those who allow outsiders to interpret Anglican doctrinal history for them. To them I would say a few things. One of those things is that I would be very unhappy to limit my thinking to the issues of the sixteenth century, because the issues of that period required reaction and remedial steps that would not be good in our time. But, the English Reformers were not wrong in thinking or doctrine; and the steps they took in their time were necessary. Later, when the Anglo-Catholics, the old ones called Tractarians going back to the Oxford Movement, sought to restore dignity to the sacraments (really after eighteenth century neglect) and a fuller grasp of genuine Tradition, they also affirmed their commitment to the classic Formularies. Even Newman, before his apostasy, reiterated the commitment and love they shared for the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, in his well-known Tract 90.
When I say I would not wish to limit my thinking to the sixteenth century, let me cite an example. I would not want to limit my understanding of the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood to what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer emphasized (mostly) in his Defence of the Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament. It comes up short in what it emphasizes. Nonetheless, I recommend his book, commend it, and would not want to lose it.2 For, Cranmer was right to say that Holy Communion is of no benefit to anyone who takes it apart from personal faith in Christ. The main consideration he taught about the sacrament is that it is efficacious by means of the sign, which makes Transubstantiation, as it was defined then, as wrong as Zwingli's "bare sign." The point is, I like a fuller view of the sacrament, but not a view that removes Cranmer's emphasis from the picture. We need it to complete the puzzle.
As for the Anglo-Papalists, they are simply wrong. They demand conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, making the absurd claim that it is the logical end of Anglican belief. Yet, they reject a great deal of Anglican belief as error, giving themselves no bridge to its "logical end." They call the Church of Rome by titles consistent with its enormous claims, that we have never recognized, such as "the Catholic Church," or "Mother Church." They demonstrate that they are "shocked, shocked" to learn that Anglicans exist who have never intended to become Roman Catholics, taking it upon themselves at times to scold and deride committed Anglicans. They wrongly assert that everything from the Tracts to the Affirmation of St. Louis was about getting back to Rome. Their image of the Roman Catholic Church is idealistic to the point of fantasy. Finally, they know nothing about real Anglicanism, and accept ideas such as those put forth by Abp. Hepworth, that Anglicanism is merely "English culture" with a "patrimony" that is merely ceremonial. The issue is not their conversion to Roman Catholicism, but whether or not they might be converted to Anglicanism, a church tradition they know nothing about.
In case you think I forgot the Liberals, or "those who call themselves Liberal," let me say that once upon a time there was a good meaning to this word also. The classic liberals of the past saw the places in Scripture where "God is no respecter of persons,"3 and where He commands mercy and compassion so that we exercise justice, that we feed the poor and needy and care for widows and orphans. They were against evils that other Anglicans blindly accepted, such as racism and antisemitism. The real image of a good liberal would be the Episcopal Missionary Bishop of Minnesota in the nineteenth century, Rt. Rev. Henry Whipple, who built the Church among the Chippewa and the Dakota, and other "Indian" peoples.
But, all the good they once stood for is now the common property of all; for we have taken their message to heart. The modern people who think they are "liberal" stand only for calling evil good and good evil4 , for murdering unborn children in the womb, for sexual immorality of every kind including the "Blessing" of same sex unions, and for a total rejection of faith in Divine revelation.
I want us to be glad to have our Anglican identity. We should resist assimilation because if we are taken captive into any other denomination, or "Anglican" copy of one, we will lose some part of the truth. For, only in our non-distinctive distinctiveness, are we allowed to have the whole doctrine and practice of the Church. That may sound chauvinistic or tribal; and I wish it could sound otherwise. But, I am an Anglican by choice in a free country, so what should you expect? When a day for outward unity comes, let us bring our gifts to the whole Church rather than having lost them by assimilation.
1. This error has been answered very well, and with a lot of work, by the Rev. Canon John Hollister on this blog. See the links in Briefcase: Priestesses in Plano.
2. I have never understood how anyone could accuse Cranmer or the other English Reformers of Zwinglianism, inasmuch as they denounced Zwingli's real absence by name, and labeled it "bare sign" when condemning it. However, some argue that Zwingli was not really teaching any such thing, though he will forever be perceived as teaching it.
3. Acts 10:34
4. Isaiah 5:20