Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Limits of Anglican Comprehensiveness

I have been reflecting on the issues I raised in the article, "Two Anglicanisms," ever since I posted it, especially in relation to much of the contemporary rhetoric associated with Anglicanism.  In that post, I referred to an article by Phillip Jensen, where he argues that there are, in fact, two Anglicanisms:  sociological Anglicanism and confessional Anglicanism.  I still maintain this distinction, when referring to the clergy.  I believe there are clergy who take their vocation as Anglican ministers seriously; who intend to live the Reformed Catholic faith of the Church of England and her daughter churches.  There are other clergy who do not take this call seriously and intend to teach as they please and do as they please, regardless of the teaching of the Church or at the request of their bishop.  I have come to reflect on another aspect of Anglicanism which is related to this distinction, I think, which is the "virtue" of Anglican comprehensiveness. 

I have been reading, as you know, for my own personal pleasure and also to report it to you on this web blog.  I think this aspect of Anglican identity is largely misunderstood or misapplied in current discussions of our life in the Anglican Communion today.  I think a refreshment of historical context will flesh out the limits of Anglican comprehensiveness, at least historically, and I would argue that those limits still apply today.

Hsitorically, the Church of England was not an ambiguous Church with no solid doctrinal foundation.  Work on the confession began before the reform of the liturgy in Henry's reign and was completed in Elizabeth's.  The Articles of Religion always accompany the Book of Common Prayer and are the authorized interpretation of that book.  The 39 Articles of Religion came to their present form in 1571 and since then, clergy in the Church of England have been required to subscribe to them.  In the Protestant Episcopal Church, the approach taken was slightly different in that a direct subscription was not required but an oath to the doctrine of the Church was required (in the Canons, the "doctrine of the Church" referred to the Articles and Prayer Book).  The canons of the Church of England, likewise enforce the authority of the Articles:

"WHOSOEVER shall hereafter affirm, That any of the nine and thirty Articles agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both provinces, and the whole Clergy, in the Convocation holden at London, in the year of our Lord God one thousand five hundred sixty two, for avoiding diversities of opinions, and for the establishing of consent touching true Religion, are in any part superstitious or erroneous, or such as he may not with a good conscience subscribe unto; let him be excommunicated ipso facto, and not restored, but only by the Archbishop, after his repentance, and publick revocation of such his wicked errors" (Canon 5)

Likewise, we can look to King Charles I's declaration, usually printed before the Articles in English Prayer Books, to discern the authority of them,

"That the Articles of the Church of England (which have been allowed and authorized heretofore, and which Our Clergy generally have subscribed unto) do contain the true Doctrine of the Church of England agreeable to God's Word: which We do therefore ratify and confirm, requiring all Our loving Subjects to continue in the uniform Profession thereof, and prohibiting the least difference from the said Articles; which to that End We command to be new printed, and this Our Declaration to be published therewith."

Likewise, Charles's declaration speaks against fanciful interpretations of the Articles (i.e. Newman):

"That therefore in these both curious and unhappy differences, which have for so many hundred years, in different times and places, exercised the Church of Christ, We will, that all further curious search be laid aside, and these disputes shut up in God's promises, as they be generally set forth to us in the holy Scriptures, and the general meaning of the Articles of the Church of England according to them. And that no man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to be the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense."

I quote these at length to put to rest several ideas.  First, that the Articles of Religion are void of teaching authority for Anglican churches.  While the modern Church may try to shove them aside for new expressions of faith (such as the Catechism in the 1979 Episcopal Book) but the reality is that the Articles have always been the standard for Anglican teaching and our authorized interpretation of the Book of Common Prayer.  The second idea is highlighted in Charles's declaration, that being that the Articles are often acknowledged today but interpreted in such a fashion as to avoid their plain meaning.  This is equally unknown in Anglican history until modern times.  Even until modern times in the Church of England the requirement to subscribe to the Articles is still required by the clergy.  Likewise, Church doctrine is defined in the canons as to refer to the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion:

Canon A2

The Thirty-Nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England.

Canon A5

The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.  In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.

Declaration of Assent

"I A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorised or allowed by Canon."

Unfortunately, the Protestant Episcopal Church has weakened its ordination oaths and attempted to dethrone the Articles by moving them to the "Historical Documents" section of our current Prayer Book (however that does not deny them their authority!). 

Up to this point, I have been referring to the clergy, in particular, from which the Church has always required confessional subscription, thus making official Anglicanism, Jensen's "confessional Anglicanism."  Earlier in my post, "Two Anglicanisms," I made the argument that there is no place for what Jensen calls "sociological Anglicanism" because it is not grounded on the Articles and Prayer Book.  I would like to submit a revision of the claims I made in that post to reflect what I view to be a better historical representation of what the Church of England and her daughter churches expected of the laity.

I do believe that "sociological Anglicanism" has a place in the life of the laity.  I think sociological Anglicanism is where the virtue of comprehensiveness comes to play.  I rest my claim on the fact that the Church of England and her daughter churches have never required subscription to the Articles as a prerequisite for baptism or confirmation.  The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer teaches the Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Creed as the basis for Christian orthodoxy and a brief touching on the sacraments.  Herein lies the basis of Anglican comprehensiveness, it is true that Anglicanism is a "church for everyone" and this is a good thing.  You can walk into any Anglican church anywhere and worship in good conscience while disagreeing with some tenet of the Articles of Religion.  However, that is not a representation of Anglican doctrine nor can the minister disagree with the teaching of the Articles of Religion and continue to minister in good conscience in an Anglican church.  Historically, the Church has adopted this broadness with respect to the laity for the purpose of encouraging conformity to the Church (especially in England).  Elizabeth I was known for this and desired that all her subjects would be united together in the Church of England.  However, I think that this should not be used to argue that Anglican churches have no doctrine for (again in England) to matriculate in universities, subscription to the Articles was required as well as to be ordained into public ministry. 

One other brief comment in reflecting on these themes, it is often said that the Articles of Religion are ambiguous.  I contest this description of the Articles and offer a better description.  Instead of being ambiguous, which they are not, the Articles of Religion are brief, in that they are not intended as the stand alone document of Anglican orthodoxy but rather the foundation.  They do allow a breadth of interpretation.  For instance, Evangelicals and High Churchmen have been in disagreement about the interpretation of the Article on Baptism and how it relates to Regeneration, which is allowable and desirable in Anglicanism.  Likewise, many subjects are not spoken of in the Articles, such as eschatology, which I believe means that a breadth of interpretation is allowed. 
I hope from this brief piece I have been able to demonstrate that the Anglican tradition does allow a sense of comprehensiveness but that this is limited in the sense that there are requirements for laity and especially clergy.  The laity are bound by Christian orthodoxy as found in the Creeds and a rudimentary understanding of the sacraments as found in the Catechism.  Clergy are required to believe and teach the Articles of Religion as the authorized interpretation of the Book of Common Prayer.  A strict adherence to the formularies is necessary, while allowing the comprehensiveness envisioned by our Reformers will allow Anglicanism to return as the truly, national, catholic and reformed Church, which has the space and capacity to minister to all sorts of people in different walks of life.

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