glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rediscovering Anglican Comprehensiveness

The recent Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the response by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church have led to numerous reflections on blogs and various internet sites. Some hail Archbishop Williams’ fortitude in working to defend the historic faith and practice of the church in the face of Western modernizing tendencies, particularly regarding sexual ethics and the common mind of the world-wide Communion. Others, particularly in the United States, have taken great comfort and pride in the forcefulness of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s pastoral letter, in which she has sought to describe how the Episcopal Church has come to its current decisions and practice vis a vis sexuality, particularly in approving the consecration of a second partnered and openly gay bishop. Interestingly, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church appeal to the voice of the Holy Spirit as guiding the unity of the Communion and/or the prophetic but undeniably divisive actions of the Episcopal Church’s leadership.

As thoughtful and skillfully written as these primatial epistles are, it is easy to find fault with both letters. In the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he seems to place unity of belief and practice above all else, while failing to recognize that there is already a profound diversity within the Anglican Communion. In practice, his emphasis on unity likely serves to enshrine the most conservative perspectives, while minimizing or rejecting new perspectives and practices that arise in various contexts. If the church is to grow and adapt to new contexts and new situations, including new understandings of holy living in the contemporary world, a more open approach is undoubtedly necessary.

Toward that end, I would argue that some provinces of the Communion should be allowed a generous degree of freedom to explore these new developments and practices in the context of the Christian community, and then after a time be given the opportunity to share the results of this period of testing with the wider church. If certain provinces aren’t given this freedom, how else will the wider church ever know if it can move in a new direction?

The example of liturgical revision may be helpful here. The Episcopal Church did not just leap from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the 1979 Prayer Book over night. Rather, there was a long period of trial spanning several decades, beginning with a few parishes interested in the Parish Communion Movement and expanding to dioceses and the wider church. In 1976 a new Prayer Book was provisionally adopted by the General Convention, but even then was subject to a three-year trial period. Following that book’s final adoption in 1979, other churches of the Communion began to experiment with the prayers and liturgies found in it. It was not an immediate process and while the “radical” revisions of the 1970s are common across the Communion today, there remains a vibrant and lively diversity of practice in the world’s Anglican churches, some preferring the traditional language of our heritage, others embracing contemporary liturgies, and a great many striking a delicate balance, offering both within the same faith community.

While not “officially” approached in this way, the Communion’s handling of the issue of women’s ordination to all three orders of ministry largely has followed this path as well. A few provinces of the Communion adopted the practice in the minority, much to the dismay of many, only to be followed by more and more after they had seen the undeniable fruits of women’s ministries in those few contexts that led the way. Had the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States been denied the opportunity to experience women’s ministries in the 1970s, the Church of England likely would not be debating the best way to adopt the practice of consecrating women as bishops today.

The fact of the matter is, the Anglican Communion has often held such open views when member churches have desired to push the boundaries of traditional practice. It has never required that all member churches come to the same conclusions, but rather has allowed for a significant degree of ambiguity, even with regard to very significant theological, moral, and liturgical issues. The recent attempts to clamp down on diverse practices with threats of punishment and exclusion are simply foreign to the long-standing ethos of comprehensiveness that has been so vital and life-giving within Anglicanism.

That said, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s Pentecost letter defending the actions of the Episcopal Church presents problems of its own. She is right to criticize the unprecedented centralizing tendencies of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his letter (and though unstated, in the work toward the adoption of the Anglican Communion Covenant). She is right to defend the autonomy of the Episcopal Church while desiring to maintain its strong “bonds of affection” with the churches of the Anglican Communion. However, her appeal to the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant is not theologically strong enough to justify her defense of the church’s actions, in my view. And as others have pointed out, her appeal to the Church’s history is not always accurate.

There is an unfortunate lack of theological grounding in the Presiding Bishop’s letter and also in the Episcopal Church’s regular appeal to justice as a defense for its actions. There’s no denying that a deep and abiding concern for justice has been a central facet of Christianity since the earthly ministry of Jesus and before him in the voices of the Hebrew prophets. However, for the concept of justice (which can be interpreted variously, depending on an individual’s or group’s point of view) to attain its most compelling meaning it needs a strongly articulated theological foundation. For many Anglicans, especially those inspired by the ethos of comprehensiveness, that theological foundation is the Incarnation.

The Presiding Bishop would have been on firmer footing if she had instead drawn more deeply from the rich well of the Anglican theological tradition, and especially the theologians of comprehensiveness, such as Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, B. F. Westcott, and even Charles Gore. In their own ways and contexts, each argues for the unity of the church in the face of diverse practices. For them, the central unifying force is nothing less than God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In and through the Incarnation of Christ, diverse persons, practices, and beliefs are ultimately reconciled and transcended. In and through the Incarnation of Christ humanity finds its true meaning—justice, love, peace, compassion, and unity in diversity.

In 1893 B. F. Westcott wrote (excuse lack of gender inclusive language):

However feebly we realize the fact, the truth, of the Incarnation, we find in it the inexhaustible spring of brotherhood. No difference which finds its expression in terms of earth can stay it. In this sense also, ‘brothers are brothers evermore.’ We spell out the Divine message little by little in thought and action, but the most rudimentary apprehension of its meaning brings home to us that man is bound to man, in virtue of his humanity, by that which is infinitely stronger than anything which tends to separate one from another: that in the reckoning of the great account the loss of one cannot be another’s gain…. We may be filled with shame and compunction for innumerable inconsistencies, failures, sins, but the motive which we have once felt loses nothing of its claim on our obedience. Christ—such is the formal confession of each one of us—took me to Himself when He took humanity to Himself, and I owe myself to those with whom He has united me.The Incarnation and Common Life, pp. 24-25.

Of course this idea presented so well by Westcott did not originate in the Anglican divines. It goes back to St. Paul, who argues that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. This is not to say that these differences disappeared (men and women aren’t neutered after all), but that in Christ, through whom and in whose image we all are made, our true and lasting unity is discovered, even in the midst of our inherent diversity. In Christ, we recognize who we are and who our neighbors are, whatever differences may exist among us.

Generations of Anglican divines have elaborated on this foundational Christian principle to present it afresh in new contexts and situations, many of them as marred by division as we find ourselves today. It’s lamentable that their inspirational work has not been better utilized (by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and others) in defense of the embattled Anglican ethos of comprehensiveness and even more importantly in defense of today’s diverse practices and beliefs. Ultimately, the differences among us, vast though they sometimes seem, reflect the quest of every one of us to discern truth and holiness in our age as we attempt in imperfect ways to live the bold life of Incarnation in the Body of Christ.


  1. Well said. A very nuanced reading of the situation. And of course, you had my heart all a-flutter even at the mention of B.F. Westcott.

  2. I thought you'd like that Dan. I put him in there for you--a thanks to my first supporter. But I also wanted to point out that FDM isn't the only one who ably uses the Incarnation to argue for comprehensiveness. Of course, BF Westcott was influenced by FDM.

  3. It's refreshing to read not only a recognition that the going arguments for inclusion are theologically weak but also a strong (and, I think, convincingly durable) alternative.

    A while ago I left a comment on a Thinking Anglicans post, expressing a desire for better theology to back up what I see as the call of God to inclusion. I was dismayed to find myself labeled a homophobe and all other manner of thing simply because I'd asked that we do the work. The replies were mostly shrill, dismissive and sectarian. While I understand that much of the venom is a reaction to a lifetime of rejection and hurt (not to mention, quite likely, a deep-seated realization that the theological work hasn't been done), it's still alarming to see such black and white thinking on a blog called "Thinking Anglicans". One commenter suggested that Bishop Robinson's life and ministry were all the theology that the church needs to proceed, a statement that touches the messianic if not hysterical. Things are hardly better among bloggers who oppose inclusion; in fact, the venom there is even more acid. It's as if the church dialogue has been infected by Crossfire, Hardball, and the American political ethos of division and destruction. It's so sad that people default to knee-jerk, louder-than-thou self-justification when there IS a good theological grounding to be mined and developed.

    Which is a very long way of saying, bravo.

  4. Thank you for your affirmation, Aaron. I appreciate it. And as you can tell, I share your disappointment that the inclusive position is not more often reinforced with a strong theological foundation. That, in fact, is the focus of my academic work in a way. Or at least it is with regard to the ethos of comprehensiveness. The only small disagreement I would take with your comment is to argue that the theological work has been done in various places historically--as I have tried to point out--but it's not being fruitfully employed today, at least by those in positions of leadership.

    Some of the problem, it seems to me, is the question of how (or whether) to employ the incarnational argument as I have done here, when many liberal Christians are not convinced of the truth of the Incarnation. For example, it can sound rather insensitive to other religions to say that all people are created in and through Christ. Or to say, as F. D. Maurice did, that "Christ is the Head of every man." This theological anthropology allows for a good degree of diversity and comprehensiveness, but it definitely poses problems if one wants to affirm the equality of all religions. For me, as a Christian, I have concluded that the incarnational approach is still best, even as I recognize its limitations. A really excellent contemporary book in understanding a liberal approach to the Incarnation is Roger Haight's "Jesus Symbol of God." He was silenced by Ratzinger over it--a sign that it must be good.

  5. Thank you Matthew. While my inner Barthian has always wrestled with the popular parodies of incarnational theology espoused in Episcopal circles, I found your post remarkably refreshing. It reminded me of how much I need to replace my own parody of the parody with the words of those like Westcott and Gore. Thanks, I needed that.