Thursday, 29 October 2009

Aff Cath, or Anglican?

The recent press release by Affirming Catholicism and the Society of Catholic Priests regarding the Vatican’s offer of a Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans provides an illustration of what is implied by my suggestion that we should be more positive about the theological foundations and coherence of the Church of England.
Amongst other things, the statement contains the following:
We are actively working to see women ordained to the episcopate and hold that this is entirely consistent with the teaching of the church and the historic nature of our orders. [Emphasis added]
What is not said is that this is “entirely consistent with Scripture”, and this raises a question about the sufficiency of this statement within the framework of the Church of England. For the absence of this phrase, whilst it may simply be an oversight, must in the context nevertheless be set alongside the twentieth of the Thirty-nine Articles, which states that, “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.” And this, of course, is precisely the controverted issue when it comes to the ordination and consecration of women.
Now the point is not that the Church of England generally, or Affirming Catholicism particularly, have got it wrong. Rather, it is that a loyalty to its own foundational principles requires that the Church of England must act in ways consistent with Scripture and must never set this aside. Otherwise, it fails to be faithful to its own principles and is therefore open to challenge.
Significantly in this regard, Affirming Catholicism defines Anglican ‘loyalty’ as, “public recognition of and obedience to the decisions made by due canonical process by the Province to which one belongs.” Ultimately, however, the principles of the Church of England require that this can only be extended to matters where the Church has authority, such as regarding “Rites or Ceremonies” (Article XX). The individual must not “openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church which be not repugnant to the Word of God” (Article XXIV). Yet a faithful member of the Church of England could not be required to agree to something which was ‘repugnant to the Word of God’ —not without the Church acting contrary to its own principles.
This itself raises thorny issues related to conscience and the decision-making processes of the Church. We may note, indeed, that the first ordinations of women in the United States were, by Affirming Catholicism’s definition, acts of disloyalty, since they went against the canons of PECUSA at the time. They were declared “invalid” and charges were brought against the bishops involved. It may be wondered, therefore, whether Affirming Catholicism really means what it says on this issue or whether it does not itself recognize some higher loyalty than to decisions made by canonical processes.
This is not, however, to argue for an individual free-for-all. The point is that we must ask of Affirming Catholicism, or anyone else, “Is this consistent with Scripture? Can you show us your working and your reasoning on this?”
Of course, this entails openness on the part of all. If ordaining women is Scriptural, then so be it —all Anglicans should accept it, whatever the traditions of our Church may be. But the principle must be maintained. It is not enough for truly loyal Anglicans that ‘the Church teaches so’, much less that ‘the rules say so’ —even when it comes to the teaching and the rules of their own Church. Our foundational formularies demand more, and to insist on this is to be a loyal member of the Church of England.
John Richardson
29 October 2009
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  1. Liberal Catholics (which is what Aff Cath are) have never affirmed the supremacy of Scripture nor have they equated it with 'the Word of God'. They could never do so, because they have accepted liberal views of Scripture, including the scientific, moral, historical and theologico-philosophical critique. The best liberals can do is say that Scripture many "contain" the Word of God. This has been clear at least since the time of Gabriel Hebert ('Fundamentalism and the Church of God') and the famous book-length riposte this drew from Jim Packer ("'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God"). Since then, liberal catholicism in Anglicanism has tacked about the shore of Scripture, finding its theological center in broad principles seen through a sacramentalist filter rather than precise biblical exegesis. How else can Aff Cath founder Jeffrey John justify homosexual partnerships?
    The comparatively recent novelty (at least to this observer) is that of self-described 'evangelicals' - like the 'Fulcrum' group - coming to the same conclusions (all the while leaving one wonder what "evangelical" means today). As you've noted before, if the word can mean anything, it means nothing. But I guess bishops and rectors would lose some credibility with their historic constituency if they were to say 'I was conservative once, now I'm liberal.'

    Mark B.

  2. Biblical interpretation is constantly in flux, coloured by all sorts of outside debates, and highly controverted. Apart from in the Radical Reformation, it has always been recognised in Protestantism that the interpreter of Scripture needs a guide.

    For their part, the English Reformers insisted repeatedly that Scripture be interpreted in continuity with the consensus of the first five centuries of the Church Fathers.

    This isn't in the Thirty-Nine articles in so many words, but it is characteristic of the Homilies subjoined to Art. XXXV, of Bishop Andrewes, Bishop Jewel (though I think he said six?), and of course Archbishop Cranmer himself, and explicit in the Elizabethan Canons.

    The five century "golden age" reflects the Reformed side, too, so it is an entirely authentic Evangelical aspiration. I wonder if it might be worth looking at again?

  3. Mark B., I hope you'll see it is much easier to argue against a position on the grounds that it is un-Anglican (which we are all supposed to be) than on the grounds that it is un-Evangelical. My hope is that approach this might therefore strengthen the arm of the orthodox.

  4. Edward Bryant - Bexhill29 October 2009 at 18:13

    Thank you for this illuminating post - I suppose good Catholics *should* believe in infallibility, but it's ironic that the Aff Caths locate this in General Synod! Preumably if General Synod voted that God did not exist....

  5. Nicholas, I agree you are quite right to draw attention to the way that the Reformers respected the Church Fathers (though they weren't slavishly tied to them, as Article XXI is careful to acknowledge). It would, though, be to the undoubted good of the Church of England if there were more awareness of this period of history, as well as the Reformation itself.

  6. John, you make a good point about the Anglican formularies. I read on one blog of a bishop who insists he has "always been an evangelical", but no prizes for guessing who always draws his censure, while the "edgy" or left-wing are praised as brave and prophetic (as he described Barack Obama).
    As an evangelical, I have long insisted - in good faith - that I was a "traditional Anglican"; though this was not easily accepted by those who understood themselves as "traditional Anglicans", by which they meant a liking for Cranmerian cadences, chanted hymns, moderately "high" ceremonial, short, abtract sermons, and moderate theological liberalism.
    But you'll know also that the 39 Articles have no effective status throughout the liberal Anglican world.
    Further, the doctrine of PSA enshrined in Cranmer's eucharistic prayer is unknown in places (e.g. New Zealand) where the BCP has been largely swept aside.

    Mark B.