An Address to the Annual Meeting of the Lincoln branch of Forward in Faith, 1 November 2008
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, the Apostle Paul asked some searching questions of believers who wanted to take their new-found freedom in Christ too far:
For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?
Right now, a lot of people are asking the same question about any possible cooperation between Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics over the issues of women bishops and, to a lesser but still significant extent, same-sex relationships and their effect on the global Anglican Communion.
GAFCON and Anglican unity
This question has been highlighted by the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem this year, the issuing of the GAFCON statement and Jerusalem Declaration and the ongoing establishment of a worldwide Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.
On the one hand, GAFCON unarguably brought together Anglicans from across the world who considered themselves to be united with one another — a unity subsequently expressed in a form of words drawn up from scratch by the conference participants during their few days together.
On the other hand, there were observably divergent styles of churchmanship present at GAFCON, ranging from ultra-high African to ultra-low Sydney.
Thus one commentator to an Evangelical forum called this a “toe-curling compromise”, and predicted confidently that“GAFCON will implode” as Anglo-Catholics are squeezed out by the Conservative Evangelicals.
Sydney and lay presidency
And as if in fulfilment of this prediction, news came last week that the Sydney Diocesan Synod had affirmed its support for lay and diaconal administration — what we would call celebration — of the Lord’s Supper.
Significantly, the same motion requested the Diocesan Secretary to send a copy of The Lord’s Supper in Human Hands, a collection of essays by some of Sydney’s leading theologians, to all bishops who attended GAFCON.
On the Thinking Anglicans Liberal website, spleen has been vented in generous doses over this announcement. Yet on the Stand Firm website, which represents American orthodoxy, many of the responses have been the same — some even calling for Sydney to be disciplined alongside errant north Americans.
Thus in both the Liberal and orthodox camps, voices are asking the same question, “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?”
Bringing it back home
Was the unity experienced at GAFCON a genuine koinonia, or the spiritual equivalent of a holiday romance — a Shirley Valentine moment for unhappy bishops?
This raises serious questions about the talk of co-belligerency with Anglo-Catholics which was being tentatively voiced at this year’s Reform Conference in London. Would moves to unite our forces in this country over the issue of women bishops be anything more than a cynical ‘flag of convenience’?
It is my conviction that genuine unity may, just, be possible, but that it will require genuine openness and genuine change if Conservative Evangelicals and Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are to work together. In the rest of this talk, I want to explore what that might mean.
Can a Conservative Evangelical, then, feel any sympathy for or make any conciliatory gestures towards Anglo-Catholicism? At this point, a bit of personal background is relevant.
My own upbringing was orthodox Anglo-Catholic. And although my home church of St Luke’s Charlton has since shifted in a decidedly Liberal direction, I was brought up by people who, when they said the Creeds, believed what they were saying, without reserve or compromise.
My conversion to Christianity took place at the beginning of my final year at University, through the influence of the Christian Union, but I never felt the need to reject my early upbringing, which taught me much of what I needed to know.
Subsequently, my Christian path led through the Charismatic movement in the seventies and eighties and finally settled as Conservative Evangelical in the mid eighties.
And the seal was put on all this when I was able to spend a year at Moore Theological College in 1993, studying for a post-graduate diploma in theology. This not only gave me a much deeper (and, incidentally, broader) theological education but gave me first hand experience of Sydney Anglicanism.
Challenges to (my) Protestantism
And there I might have stayed, proudly and happily Protestant, but for two developments. The first was getting involved on the editorial board of New Directions in the mid 1990s, following my return from Australia.
There I found true spiritual friends, in the persons of Sarah and Robbie Low, Francis Gardom Arthur Middleton, Geoffrey Kirk, Andy Hawes, and others since then — not merely convenient co-belligerents, but people of shared conviction, even though their Anglo-Catholicism was often at odds with my own Evangelicalism.
The other, more recent, development is the growing gap between Conservative Evangelicals and those now calling themselves ‘Open Evangelicals’.
The cynic in me wants to say that Open Evangelicalism is defined by being open to anything except Conservative Evangelicalism.
In my experience, Open Evangelicals are willing to entertain, and often to side with, doctrinal and practical positions quite opposed to what was once the agreed Evangelical heritage: penal substitution, the sanctity of marriage, the wrongness of divorce, the headship of the husband, women in leadership, and even same-sex relationships.
In many cases, Open Evangelicals have also been quite hostile to GAFCON, and could certainly not be said to have wished this coalition well.
To this Conservative, then, the new Open Evangelicalism looks and feels like old Liberalism. But reading Alister McGrath’s historical survey, Protestantism: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, I have now become convinced something more is involved.
Conservative Evangelicals are, indeed, Protestants. Open Evangelicals, however, are not, as they characterize themselves, more towards the centre of the Christian tradition. On the contrary, Open Evangelicals are, in fact, hyper-Protestants — the true heirs of the Radical Reformation.
Why do I say this? Because for the Open Evangelical the final arbiter in spiritual matters is private judgement. And as McGrath points out, it is this which is the truly ‘dangerous idea’ of Protestantism.
It is private judgement, ultimately, which leads to the constant divisions which have beset the offshoots of the churches which separated from Rome in the 16th century.
By contrast, Conservative Evangelicals are self-consciously recipients of a tradition. The ‘Fathers’ of that tradition may be Luther and Calvin, or more recently Stott and Packer, but even these are standing within an older tradition, which includes not just the Reformation formularies but the historic Creeds.
It is this, I think, which explains why Conservative and Open Evangelicals experience so much mutual antipathy, whereas the Conservative may be much more at ease in the company of traditionalist Catholics.
Though the conclusions reached by the latter may be very different, the rules by which they are derived are very similar. By contrast, the Open Evangelical is felt not only to have arrived at different conclusions but to have a fundamentally different approach.
A new tradition?
To recognize this, however, is to acknowledge a general weakness within the Protestant tradition. As McGrath observes, Protestantism claims to acknowledge the authority of the Bible, but who is to decide what the Bible means?
Are not all biblical interpretations, in the end, opinions, and are not formularies simply those opinions that have the sanction of the denomination or the state?
And is not the Open Evangelical doing what the Conservative fails to do, namely bring every assumption to the bar of Scripture — even our cherished traditions?
The Challenge to Anglo-Catholicism
It may seem that Anglo-Catholics are in a much better position. But before they begin to feel too smug, they must also face up to some searching questions, the most obvious of which is, “Was the Reformation, simply a mistake?”
More specifically, how does the Anglican Catholic live within a Protestant church? And in case anyone should dispute the last suggestion, let me quote John Henry Newman before he became Cardinal Newman:
... it is notorious that the Articles were drawn up by Protestants and intended for the establishment of Protestantism; accordingly that is an evasion of their meaning to give them any other than a Protestant drift, possible as it may be to do so grammatically, or in each separate part.
Anglo-Catholicism must recognize that it is not Roman Catholicism if it is to find common ground with Evangelical Anglicanism. And it must also acknowledge its own historically cavalier attitude to authority within the Anglican church.
John Shelton Reed, in his Glorious Battle, quotes an English Church Union speaker of the nineteenth century who asked rhetorically, “When will the clergy obey their Bishops?”, answering, “My lords, when the Bishops obey the Church.” (145)
But as Reed points out,
... for an English churchman, determining when episcopal opinions were unepiscopal required something that looked very much like private judgement. (146)
And he quotes one contemporary thus:
The nineteenth century has seen personal infallibility claimed by others besides the Bishop of Rome, and by much younger men. (ibid)
Anglo-Catholicism has existed within the Church of England by sitting very light indeed to its structures insofar as they are expressed through approved liturgies, canon laws and episcopal injunctions.
The point of saying this, however, is not to reproach Anglo-Catholicism but to confront us all with the need for honesty about past and present weaknesses which must be addressed if there is to be any chance of drawing closer in the future.
Protestantism and Gospel Freedom
With the weaknesses of both parties exposed, how might we respond? And first, what might we do about our historic hostility?
Here the Anglican Protestant, might find an unexpected challenge, and the Anglo-Catholic an unexpected ally, in the writings of Martin Luther.
Facing opposition from both the papacy and the radical reformers, this was Luther’s position on the elevation of the host during the Mass:
The pope destroys freedom in commanding outright that the sacrament is to be elevated, and would have it a statute and a law. He who refrains from keeping his law sins. The factious spirit destroys freedom in forbidding outright that the sacrament be elevated, and would have it a prohibition, a statute, and a law. He who does not act in accordance with this law sins. Here Christ is driven away by both parties. One pushes him out of the front [door], the other drives him out the rear [door]. (LW 40:128)
The issue for Martin Luther was not whether the sacrament should or should not be elevated, but on what basis we should act in regard to this practice. Was it on the basis of gospel or of law?
Protestant Anglicanism is clear that the host should not be elevated, and that there are gospel reasons for this. But, says Luther, as soon as you make it a law in the Church that the sacrament must not be elevated, you yourself depart from the gospel. Why? Because law as such is strictly antithetical to the gospel.
It might be worth reflecting on this with regard to the Evangelical response to Ritualism in the nineteenth century. Evangelicals clearly had the law on their side — Anglo-Catholics went to prison as a result. But were these legal victories triumphs for the Evangelical movement? History clearly suggests they were not.
Let me read Michael Saward’s reflections on those battles and that period:
To the rest of the church, Evangelicals were legalistic, narrow-minded, hard-faced bigots who were prepared to put their brother clergy into prison for trivial liturgical and sartorial reasons. Enormous damage was done and the final vestiges of its impact are still with us in the 1980s. ((James C Whisenant, 473-4)
Could, then, Conservative Evangelicals be persuaded to accept the outward rituals of Anglo-Catholicism within the bounds of gospel liberty. And should they? These are, I think, questions worth asking.
Protestantism, Hermeneutics and Authority
And what about private judgement? Personally, I wonder whether the doctrines of both private judgement and the perspicuity of Scripture are Protestant Shibboleths which it is time to question.
To begin with the perspicuity of Scripture, the idea that the Bible may be understood equally by everyone is not only demonstrably untrue but unscriptural. “How can I understand,” the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Unless someone explains it to me?” And why else has Christ given to the Church teachers? Indeed, why do we have that most important of all Evangelical offices, the preacher?
But if we abandon the notion of the simple perspicuity of Scripture, we must also abandon the idea of a general entitlement to private judgement. How can ‘Everyman’ be the judge of that which everyone may not have understood?
In any case, Scripture teaches us there is a tradition to be handed on by the faithful and, just as importantly, received by the disciple — the mathētēs, or learner, of Christ.
After a while, someone may indeed be in a position to judge whether the tradition has been rightly passed on to them. But private judgement is often a subtle idol which is enthroned where humility should be.
But if we are to doubt private judgement and the perspicuity of Scripture, what, as a Protestant, can I put in its place?
I will not say “the Church,” or even “the Councils of the Church”. The Anglican Articles tell me that Councils, even General Councils, have erred. And in case that doesn’t persuade you, let me quote Newman on the Arian controversy, this time in his Cardinal’s hat:
The body of Bishops failed in their confession of the faith. They spoke variously, one against another; there was nothing ... of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony, for nearly sixty years. There were untrustworthy Councils, unfaithful Bishops; there was weakness, fear of consequences, misguidance, delusion, hallucination, endless, hopeless, extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic Church. The comparatively few who remained faithful were discredited and driven into exile; the rest were either deceivers or were deceived. (On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine)
But I would suggest that it is precisely this period which points us to where an answer might lie.
The suggestion I want to make is that systematic theology provides the proper antidote to private judgement, both for the individual and for the Church.
What was it that resolved the Arian controversy? Some might say it was the authority of the Councils, others the authority of the Emperor. In the end, though, I would argue it was resolved by the persuasive power of the theology itself.
As McGrath points out, the radical reformers were prepared to question everything up to and including the doctrine of the Trinity. And we will all have experienced the difficulty many new Christians face with an idea that is scarcely read straight off the pages of Scripture.
Why, then, do the Trinitarian Creeds retain their central place within the Church? The answer is surely because, after centuries of debate, discussion and even division, this doctrine retains its explanatory power in the face of other, competing, approaches to the wide and varied witness of revelation.
A workable model
The Arian controversy shows that the Church can resolve profound questions in ways that command almost universal assent. And it can do so without appealing to a higher authority than Scripture.
What I am suggesting is that the solution to mere private judgement lies in bringing interpretation to the bar of systematic theology and that the perspicuity of Scripture will only truly be experienced when we apply the insights of systematic theology to our reading.
Unfortunately, and especially amongst modern Evangelicals, systematic theology has gained a reputation for rigidity which makes people suspicious of the whole enterprise. Buying into systematic theology is often seen as buying into a system which cannot be questioned.
I think it was Colin Gunton, however, who observed that there is a difference between a theology which aims at a system and a theology which aims at some kind of orderliness and coherence.
Systematic theology does not have produce a rigid system. On the contrary, we can learn from a comparison with the scientific method. The scientist does not require a complete explanation of everything to accept a theory as well-established. Rather, the aim is to produce an increasingly better fit between the evidence the theory.
The revolution for systematic theology would be in admitting the partial nature of what we know. The revolution for Protestantism would be in admitting that what we can claim to know has to be integrated into a much wider field of knowledge than what I, personally, happen to know at the present.
Applying the model
But there is a further aspect to this suggestion, which applies to the question of relationships between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics.
If we accept the analogy between systematic theology and the scientific method, we should also note the importance of peer review. One cannot be published in a serious scientific journal without practitioners with established credentials judging the work worthy of publication.
Would that the same were more generally true of theological writing. There are indeed peer reviewed journals, but within the world of Protestant theology generally, and certainly within the Anglican world, there is nothing like the Roman Catholic imprimatur which certifies that there is nothing here of error.
Once again, the objection has tended to be that this gives too much power to the Church — and indeed it might. But why should there not be some recognised way of at least saying that a document does, or does not, lie within the established tradition, and giving it something like a ‘health warning’?
And why shouldn’t such warnings be accepted with grace by the author, if there is a shared concern for the truth and for the health of the Church?
The present Bishop of Durham, for example has put forward ideas which, by his own admission, involve a radical challenge to the inherited understanding of justification going back not merely to the Reformation but to St Augustine. If true, the ‘gospel’ preached by Evangelicals is not quite the ‘gospel’ at all, even though Wright staunchly defends his own Evangelical credentials.
Given the importance he attributes to what he is saying, however, Wright’s thesis should be submitted to peer review, not in a combative and jealous spirit, as often happens, but willingly and with an openness to correction.
And the bigger the ideas, the wider and of longer duration should surely be the review process. Thus on the issue of women’s ordination, the Evangelical world is deeply divided, not only amongst Anglicans, but more generally, where Complementarians and Egalitarians publish and counter-publish with an enthusiasm that would have done Arians and Athanasians proud.
Yet with 2,000 years of history — apart from some demonstrably fringe groups — and the opinions of both Luther and Calvin against them, should not the Egalitarians, who favour women’s ordination, be seeking the widest and the most careful scrutiny of their proposals, before turning them into actions?
The Challenge consensus
For the Protestant, this would represent a real challenge to centuries of practice. It might even threaten some of our cherished projects, such as Sydney’s enthusiasm for lay celebration.
Yet there are challenges also to Catholics, and not just Catholic Anglicans. The biggest challenge is that every theological position and tradition is, in fact, open to challenge — even the accepted formularies about the Trinity.
Then there is the challenge that every tradition must be demonstrably justifiable within a coherent theological framework. We cannot simply say that a thing is right because it is received. What Newman wrote about the laity should undoubtedly be true of all:
I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity ... You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it.’ ( J H Newman, The Present Position of Catholics in England, 1851 pp. 390-1)
Moreover, the Anglo-Catholic must face the fact that many things precious to the tradition are, in fact, at odds with the formal position of the denomination. The onus is, therefore, on the innovator to justify their position.
Above all the Anglo-Catholic must, if progress is to be made, demonstrate the coherence of his own position within Anglicanism. The systematic theology of Anglo-Catholicism at this point must include his present ecclessiology, rather than skirt round it as an inconvenient truth or a temporary aberration awaiting a better day.
Experience shows that the ‘farmer’ of Anglo-Catholicism and the ‘cowman’ of Conservative Evangelicalism can, indeed, be friends, and it is not unreasonable to seek to know why this is so.
I have suggested here that it comes from a shared approach to faith. I have also suggested that some of the tensions between the two groups may be addressed by accepting the existence of real weaknesses within their own position.
I am not saying that all the remaining problems can then be resolved. I am not sure they can be resolved at all. It may be that, after due consideration, we may conclude we hold irreconcilable positions.
But if that were so, I would have to hold that no Anglo-Catholic can be a Christian, or that if he is, it is despite, rather than because of, his Anglo-Catholicism. Frankly, I doubt whether that is true — or certainly that it is true at absolutely every point.
Yet as I have said, this does not suddenly make me an Open Evangelical. I am not adopting the view that every tradition may offer something which I can cherry-pick as seems fit.
If real rapprochement is to occur, then so must real change. If we remain as we are, then eventual division is inevitable. But if we seek a mere common denominator, then, paradoxically, we abandon the most important thing we have in common, which is our attitude to truth.
Perhaps, then, our hope lies in examining how we test the truth and how we respond to difference. That is not the Anglican way, but it may be a better way.Revd John Richardson
1 November 2008
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