Monday, July 7, 2008

What is Anglicanism? (Can This Question be Answered?)

Book Review: Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Chapman (Oxford University Press, 2006)

There are various ways of answering this question, one of which is to give a historical account of Anglicanism. This is the way chosen by Mark Chapman and the account he provides is helpful because it raises important questions.

The theme of this book can be summarized by a sentence which appears in the first chapter: "One of the most important problems in Anglicanism continues to be the search for authority" (p. 3). The question of authority is a deeply theological one and finally comes down to this: How does the Church maintain her integrity and discern truth from falsehood? Some Anglicans have thought that a lack of clarity on this point is a positive virtue but in light of the Anglican Communion's current instability this view is becoming more and more difficult to indulge in.
The Anglican understanding of authority begins with Henry VIII's reformation of the English church. Here we need to avoid the stereotypes of Henry "creating" a church for the sole purpose of granting him a divorce. Henry appears to have had a genuine desire to reform the church in England and what he envisioned was a relationship between church and crown very similar to that which existed in the Byzantine Empire: the Church of England would be the Church in England under a Christan monarchy. Henry envisioned a Christendom made up of national churches presided over by consecrated monarchs. The major figures of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, agreed with this view and vigorously defended it. Chapman characterizes this view, correctly I think, as "Caesaro-papalism," meaning that the offices of prince and pope were combined and then exercised by successive monarchs. This understanding of Anglicanism remained viable (in England, at least) until 1689 when the Toleration Act allowed freedom to Trinitarian Protestants (not to Roman Catholics). With the Royal Supremacy of 1534 the English church was no longer defined by its communion with Rome but defined by the crown but this created a huge potential problem: the supreme authority of Scripture in the church became, as Chapman notes, a "legal fiction" in that what Scripture meant and how it was to be applied was now determined by the Crown.
It is a mistake to say, as has been said, that Henry VIII "invented" the Church of England since most of what came to define Anglicanism came after his death in 1547. It was during the reigns of his son Edward VI (1547-1553) and his daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603) that what we now call Anglicanism really came into existence. Four things were key to the formation of this identity: (1) The Book of Common Prayer: Cranmer's Prayer Book of 1549 and 1552 and the Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559 gave definition to Anglican worship and piety. (2) The Thirty-Nine Articles: Issued in their final form in 1571, these theological statements did not set out a complete body of doctrine but established the general theological parameters of Anglicanism. (3) The Episcopacy: There was pressure on the Church of England to abolish episcopal government and adopt a Presbyterian system. These pressures were resisted and the threefold order of ministry that had arisen in the early Church (bishop, priest, deacon) were retained. (4) Self-consciously Anglican theology: During the reign of Elizabeth I a self-consciously Anglican form of theology emerges in the persons of Bishop John Jewel and Richard Hooker: what is disavowed here is both Roman Catholicism and radical Calvinism and radical Protestantism.
There is a school of thinking which looks back on all this and draws the conclusion that Anglicanism is essentially a compromise movement, a safe middle ground between extremes and that compromise and moderation are its core principles. Such a view overlooks what actually happened. Each successive Prayer Book was established by an Act of Uniformity of Parliament meaning that it was the only legal liturgy in the kingdom. Neither Elizabeth I nor her successor James I (1603-1625) showed the slightest tolerance of Roman Catholics or Puritans (radical Protestants) and would not abide even hints about establishing a Presbyterian church in England. The notion that Anglicanism was built simply on tolerance, moderation and compromise would have struck Hooker and Jewel as quite wide of the mark; they saw Anglicanism as a theological position not as comfortable muddle.
As Chapman notes, the future difficulties of Anglicanism could be seen in two important developments. First, the development of parties within the Church of England and, second, the expansion of Anglicanism beyond England. During the 18th century Anglicanism went through an identity crisis as three distinct ecclesiastical parties developed, each adopting distinct identities. The Evangelical party took as its reference point the English Reformation and tended toward Calvinism. The Anglo-Catholic party took as its reference point the early Church and was patristic in its theological orientation. The Broad Church party aimed at what amounted to a least common denominator Protestantism. What might hold these three divergent tendencies together? What might Anglicanism be if all three claimed to represent true Anglicanism?
The expansion of Anglicanism beyond England, first to America and then to India and Australia, also posed challenges. Henry VIII's original vision was a series of national churches presided over by a Christian prince but this vision simply could not be applied to any of these places (particularly not to the newly independent United States). It is not surprising, therefore, to note that the Anglican Communion is a fairly late development, the first Lambeth Conference being held in 1867. The Communion's understanding of how its 38 provinces are related to one another, what it believes and what sources of belief it draws upon to make decisions still have not solidified. As late as 2004 the Communion's Windsor Report reflected on how provincial autonomy might be balanced with the obligations of communion. Chapman suggests that there is way for the Anglican Communion to survive despite current problems: the Communion must accept "diversity" and "comprehensiveness" and understand "itself more as a way of muddling through to the truth than a set of definitive judgments" (p. 144). Such a view does not strike me as being very heroic nor can I see that such an entity would really be a communion at all.
Michael Petty


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