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Whose Anglicanism? Reflections on Our Past

by The Rev. Dr. Canon Christopher Brown

In the current crisis in the Episcopal Church, the media has focused on homosexuality and the election of Gene Robinson, a partnered homosexual, as bishop of New Hampshire. Had this election not occurred, however, something else would have exposed the latent tensions within the Episcopal Church, since the root of the crisis lies not in so much in the hot button issues of the day as in the old question of definition: what is Anglicanism?

Anglicans have struggled over self-definition ever since Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century. From that time competing Anglicanisms have co-existed, each deriving legitimacy from its own interpretation of Anglican beginnings.

Three Classic Versions of Anglicanism

My initial Christian formation was Anglo-Catholic. Anglicanism was Catholicism minus the Pope; grounded in the seven sacraments, the ancient creeds, and the 3-fold order of ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. We pointed to the careful preservation of the Apostolic Succession of bishops by the Henrician and Elizabethan church of the 16th century, and to the continuity between The Book of Common Prayer (especially the 1549 edition) and the pre-Reformation liturgies.

Some years out of seminary I served a parish in New York City that identified itself as “Evangelical,” along the lines of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. Anglican Evangelicals stress the obvious point that Anglicanism is a product of the Protestant Reformation, motivated by Martin Luther’s emphasis on Justification by Faith, the Primacy of Scripture, and the rejection of medieval Catholic teachings on Transubstantation, Merit, Purgatory and the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.

Today, the majority of American Episcopalians are neither Anglo-Catholic nor Evangelical but “Broad Church,” a pragmatic approach that plays down doctrinal distinctives in order to stress a more comprehensive unity that can accommodate difference. This too finds its rationale in the historic origins of Anglicanism, especially in the “Elizabethan Settlement” which is said to have created a roomy church that encompasses a broad range of religious opinion.

While these three expressions of Anglicanism have coexisted within a single communion for centuries, advocates for each have always regarded theirs as the definitive historic Anglicanism, and the others as somewhat off the mark. Even those specifically committed to “comprehensiveness” and tolerance of theological differences, have suggested that Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals are “un-Anglican" in their emphasis on theological distinctives.

New Permutations

In addition to these three classic versions of “Anglicanism,” recent years have offered new permutations. Increasingly prominent, and exemplified by Archbishop Rowan Williams, is a vision of Anglicanism that could be called “Liberal Catholic,” a synthesis of Anglo Catholic and Broad Church elements. Along these lines, Paul Moore, the liberal activist bishop of New York in the 1980’s used to describe Anglicanism as “the Catholic Church in love with freedom,” which seemed to mean that at the core of Anglicanism was a commitment to egalitarianism and social justice.

Another “Anglicanism” to emerge in recent years could be called “Evangelical Catholic.” Bringing together elements that a century ago would have been regarded as irreconcilable, this development reflects the recognition that both Evangelicals and Catholics contend for the classic creedal and biblical faith and are jointly committed to what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity,” to the fundamentals of the Christian Faith: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, the authority of Scripture, conversion of heart and holy living. While differences remain between Anglo Catholics and Evangelicals on the sacraments, or what constitutes appropriate liturgical ceremonial, in their common commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they have been able to agree on essentials and disagree on inessentials in order to remain in fellowship – another expression of Anglican “Comprehensiveness.”

A Window into the Anglican Past

I have been reading a book entitled, God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible (HarperCollins, 2003). In telling the story of the King James Bible, the author, Adam Nicholson, paints a detailed portrait of the personalities and partisan struggles of the Church of England in the years just after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 – still a formative time for Anglicanism.

During a period of relative religious calm sandwiched between the Protestant Reformation and the English Civil War, the Church of England at this point was nevertheless sharply divided between the Puritans and the Establishment party of the Bishops. The Puritans looked to the Reformed churches of Europe, and believed that the English Church was not fully purified. They objected to bishops, vestments, liturgical ceremony, and the prayer book liturgy, all of which the Establishment party advocated and enforced with the power of the Jacobian State.

To contemporary Episcopalians it is tempting to interpret this struggle in light of current tensions in the church, and to identify the Puritans as narrow right wing Evangelicals and the bishops of the Jacobian establishment as cultivated and enlightened High Church humanists – similar, perhaps, to Archbishop Rowan Williams. The period thus becomes a template for the present crisis, at least as some see it: a gracious and “thinking person’s” High Church Anglicanism defending itself against an anti-intellectual, and restrictive Puritanism.

The Strangeness of the Past

Whether or not this is a fair picture of the present (and I don’t believe it is), it is certainly an inaccurate reading of the past. Reading God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible one is struck by the strangeness of the past in regard to the present. Adam Nicholson’s careful and detailed description of this early period of Anglicanism makes it clear how difficult it is to make it conform to our own categories.

It often goes unrecognized that during the reign of James I, both Puritans and the High Church establishment were “Anglican.” Both parties were essentially Calvinist in their theology, both, in varying degrees, drew from the influential theology of the Genevan reformer, John Calvin. Puritanism was a movement within the Church of England, and the boundaries between these two parties were porous and overlapped. Many establishment figures had strong Puritan sympathies, even including Archbishops of Canterbury such as William Sancroft, graduate of the Puritan Emmanuel College at Cambridge, and George Abbott, who is described as “fiercely Calvinist, anti-papist, anti-ceremony.”

Modern Episcopalians often identify themselves as “thinking Christians,” which they contrast to a narrow anti-intellectual Biblicism, identified as a holdover from the Puritan legacy. Actually, in the early seventeenth century both Puritan and Establishment leaders were highly educated. Moreover, Puritans had the more vibrant intellectual life as a result of their emphasis on the Word. Puritanism was intensely didactic and intellectual – indeed, their critique of the liturgical piety of the High Church establishment was that it has fogged the clarity of word and text with an unthinking reliance on outward ceremony. “For the strict reformers, only the naked intellectual engagement with the complexities of a rational God would do. All else was confusion and obfuscation. The word was the route to understanding.”

Yet by modern standards, the approach to Scripture by both parties was quite similar. Both were thoroughly Biblical literate; and “pre-critical” in their interpretation of scripture. A leading High Church figure, the chief translator of the King James Bible, Lancelot Andrews, stressed an elaborate liturgical ritual (even using incense in his private chapel), but he was no less “Biblicist” in his convictions about the authority of scripture. Unlike the Puritans, he and his colleagues valued ecclesiastical tradition, but it would never have occurred to Andrewes to place tradition (or reason) on the same level as Scripture.

Human Rights and “Divine Right of Kings”

Contemporary Episcopalians speak often of their commitment to freedom, human rights and inclusiveness. In the Jacobian period, however, it was the Puritans who promoted human rights, while the High Church establishment was committed to notions of public religious conformity and did not blink at the use of courts and civic penalties to enforce them.

A prime example was the case of the “Pilgrim Fathers.” A recent scholar has written, “one of the few signal successes of the York commission [a Church of England tribunal] was the destruction of a Separatist cell at Scrooby in Nottinghamshire.” This “Separatist cell” was the community that escaped to the Netherlands, eventually to become the “Pilgrims” who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Before that, they suffered harassment and persecution from the established church for their refusal to conform to the outward norms of Jacobian religious life. Sadly, the Anglican establishment of the time was hardly an example of the “Catholic Church in love with freedom.”

Our High Church Anglican predecessors revered royal authority. “Divine Right of Kings” sounds both quaint and wrongheaded to us, but to the Anglican Bishops and Divines of the seventeenth century, this was a fundamental theological conviction confirmed by their reading of scripture.

Making Sense of our Past

We cannot simply project our favored interpretation of what it means to be an Anglican into the past, and claim, “this is Anglicanism.” We cannot domesticate the past and make it say what we want it to. But we are the product of our past, and it is helpful to understand where we have come from as the Anglican expression of the family of God. Hence I would make the following observations:

As Anglicans, we need to reclaim Puritanism as part of our legacy. Simple intellectual honesty calls us to discard our cartoonish caricature of Puritanism as something intrinsically foreign to Anglicanism. There is much that we can easily affirm from our Puritan past – about conversion, about the seriousness with which the Puritans read scripture, about their practical commitment to holy living, about their commitment to justice and their willingness to stand for the Gospel against the culture.

We need not be uncritical, however. The reason why most of us are Anglicans is that we find immense value, beauty, and spiritual power in what the Puritans opposed: liturgy, sacrament and catholic tradition. Nicholson describes debates of the 17th century as a struggle over just these things.

“Reduced to its essentials, the struggle at the heart of the English Reformation had been the conflicting claims of word and of ceremony, of the verbal and the visual, of a naked and direct relationship to God through scripture against a mediated, elaborated socialized approach through an ancient church guided by tradition.”

The current debate over the interpretation of Scripture in the Church is not mirrored in the period during which the King James Bible was produced. Rather, it was over half a century later, when Europeans were exhausted by the religious wars between Catholic and Protestant, Episcopalians and Puritans, that there was a turn away from what some saw as the divisiveness of doctrine and dogma, in favor of a practical, liberal sort of religion focused on ethics and reason. This form of Christianity is traditionally described as “Latitudinarian,” and it here that English Christianity began to come to terms with rationalism, empirical science and an emerging secularism. But with these developments also came a suspicion of tradition and religious enthusiasm, skepticism regarding the authority of scripture, and a loss of mystery and a sense of the supernatural.

The present tensions in the Anglican world reflect not so much the struggle between Puritans and High Church divines, but between those who embrace a “Latitudinarian” accommodation of modernity on one side, and on the other a curious alliance of High Church and Low, Catholic and Evangelical. The cultural ground has shifted that the old debates are less significant. As result, descendents of the Puritans and their High Church opponents find it far easier to disagree on secondary matters and to contend together for the essentials of a creedal and biblical faith.

Rev. Dr. Brown is Rector, Trinity, Potsdam and a regular contributor to TAE

CAPTION: “We cannot simply project our favored interpretation of what it means to be an Anglican into the past, and claim, “this is Anglicanism.” We cannot domesticate the past and make it say what we want it to. But we are the product of our past, and it is helpful to understand where we have come from as the Anglican expression of the family of God.”

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