My beloved church, the Episcopal Church, has been much in the news of late.
Some of the media focus has been flattering, especially the funeral services for former President Ford held in three Episcopal churches, including Washington National Cathedral. Much of the media focus has not been flattering, portraying a church fraying at the edges over issues of sexuality and the election of a female presiding bishop, the first ever in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is the second-largest Christian denomination with 80 million adherents, second only to the Roman Catholic Church.
Historically, the Church of England emerged from the Reformation as the least-reformed model of Protestant Christianity. Unlike many of the continental European churches, the office of the bishop was preserved as was a focus on the Eucharist in worship along with other sacramental rites. The liturgy was reformed, and the Mass was translated into English. Many of the continental churches’ drastic reforms in worship and church theology were rejected. Because of its uniquely preserved Catholic emphases, the Anglican Communion is considered the “via media”: the middle way between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.
In 1549, one of the greatest of all books in the history of Christendom emerged, the Book of Common Prayer. It is still used today throughout the Anglican Communion as the basis for communal worship services and private daily prayer.
I would guess Paul Greve is a nice man. I am sure he means well. I share his love for the beauty of liturgy. But this is the kind of article which makes me tear my hair out in frustration and will get us nowhere.
First of all there is the issue of basic errors of fact. The Anglican Communion is NOT the second largest Christian denomination in the world. This would come as news to the over 220 million Eastern Orthodox Christians! Goodness. If you use strict membership as a guide, you can make a case for the Baptists being number 3 at about 100 million worldwide. Nevertheless as a family of churches I believe you can try to argue Anglicanism is number 3–but not number two.
Richard Hooker not only doesn’t discuss the three legged stool, he never mentions it. Augustine? Someone please show me the three legged stool in Augustine! This is historic revisionism at its worst and it is reflected widely, alas, in the leadership of the Episcopal Church..
But the biggest objection to the article is that he never really gets to the meat of why the present crisis is such a big deal. If Anglicanism is a via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as he (thank the Lord) rightly says, then it is not a middle way to nowhere, nor is it a middle way between faith and life, or between all sorts of other false polarities which are suggested in a number of recent discussions. The heart of Anglicanism is as Marco Antonio De Dominis rightly said in essentials unity, in non essentials liberty, and in all things charity. But what happens when the ‘“big tent” of Anglicanism that comfortably accommodated a full range of conservative and liberal beliefs’ accommodates disagreements about matters which are not non-essential?
Here is what I said on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer a while back:
MARGARET WARNER: Canon Harmon, why can’t different views of these two issues — that is, whether to bless same-sex unions or allow priests who are in same-sex unions to become bishops — why can’t both be accommodated in the Anglican Communion?
Is this rooted in faith? Is it a question of — well, I don’t want to characterize what Reverend Russell said — but is it more sort of political and cultural? What is the nub of the inability of different views on this issue, these two issues, to coexist?
KENDALL HARMON: Well, the difficulty here is that Anglicans believe in the importance of tolerating differences, but Anglicans also believe in boundaries. Otherwise you can’t have any community to discuss differences in.
And the crucial point to make here is, there’s different kinds of differences. And it’s interesting that this is the topic of debate here, because in the Windsor report this specific subject is addressed. And in one section — it’s paragraph 89 — what they say in there is, in the New Testament, there are certain kinds of differences that actually Christians can’t tolerate, because it’s not part of what it means to be a genuinely Christian community.
Two examples they use are sexual behavior and lawsuits of one Christian against another. And it’s interesting that, in this communique, both lawsuits and sexual behavior are things that the primates are talking about.
So the reason is because there are different kinds of differences, and the majority of the communion sees these differences as not the kind of differences that can be tolerated.
Or as Stephen Neill in his wonderful book Anglicanism says:
So, by 1593 the Church of England had shown plainly that it would not walk in the ways either of Geneva or of Rome. This is the origin of the famous Via Media, the middle way, of the Church of England. But a ”˜middle way’ which means ”˜neither this nor that’ seems a rather negative road. And a middle way which is no more than a perpetual compromise, an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not likely to inspire anyone to heroism or to sanctity. Such is the caricaÂture of the Anglican position which is the current coin of conÂtroversialists, and nothing could be further from the truth. Anglicanism is a very positive form of Christian belief; it affirms that it teaches the whole of Catholic faith, free from the distortions, the exaggerations, the over-definitions both of the Protestant left wing and of the right wing of Tridentine Catholicism. Its challenge can be summed up in the phrases, ”˜Show us anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach, and we will teach it; show us anything in our teaching and practice that is plainly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.’ It was time that this positive nature of Anglicanism should be made plain to the world. It was the good fortune of the Elizabethan Church that it produced the two greatest of the positive controversialists of English ecclesiastical history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 119 (emphasis added)
Ah, different kinds of differences, there is the rub, but Mr. Greve never even makes this clear. This controversy does involve Scriptural interpretation but it also involves Scriptural authority (the two go hand in hand), it involves how the church makes decisions, it involves marriage, it involves the doctrine of humanness, the doctrine of sin, and even ultimately the shape of the gospel itself. We need better informed discussion that gets at the root of the real issues if we are going to get anywhere–KSH