Anglicanism’s identity crisis

In the West (at least), Anglicanism has an identity crisis. Are we Catholic? Are we Protestant? Are we Evangelical? These are three of the fundamental questions. Additionally and relatedly, are we an Ancient Church? Are we a product of the English Reformation? Those are two more. What’s more, are we united as Anglicans? If so, how by the good Lord is that the case?

Akenside Press firmly understands Anglicanism to be a school of Catholic theology and spirituality. That others would take a different view is self-evident, which we why our true identity must be stated, restated, and repeated in such strong terms. Our shared narrative, in the opinion of Akenside Press, has to be retuned.

One solution is to deemphasize the role of polity. Too many Anglicans (in the West, at least) root our identity in polity — Henry VIII and that era, and post–civil war 1662 and that era, are two common source-points for the beginning of Anglicanism, as a polity. These days we have a multiplicity of polities within Anglicanism. But for our identity, why use polity as the primary criteria? Isn’t that a bit odd, if you think about it, for the average committed pew-sitting Anglican does not practice their faith according to polity. They practice their faith according to traditions rooted in theology and spirituality, anchored in The Book of Common Prayer. Any polity is nothing that lends itself whatsoever to spirituality or ultimate truth. There is nothing inherently theological about “polity”. Polity is just a system of organization. That is the core point.

Is a polity necessary? Of course polity is necessary, for order and organization are necessary. This is not a claim for the destruction of the institutional dimensions of life in the Body of Christ (as if such a thing were even possible). But it is a call to recognize how often we think, act, and react according to polity rather than theological/spirituality school or tradition. Polity, whether TEC, ACNA, CoE, many more in and beyond Anglicanism do not deserve, per se, all the attention they receive. Polity ain’t the main attraction. Should polity receive some attention, maybe less than 1%? Ok, but can we give the rest to theology and spirituality?

To which polity did the Noble Army of Martyrs claim membership? (Don’t know the reference? See the Te Deum.)

You see, polity gets in the way of what’s really important. Polity is a shield we use, even a weapon with which some fight. Perhaps, to be charitable, we can see why polity has become so important. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of the Information Age amid two World Wars, threat of nuclear annihilation, and the “global village” that long has threatened to wipe away local culture and flavor in all parts of the world. In other words, in times of stress, we cling to our polity. We do so because it is objective, and a badge we can wear. We can hold up that badge and say to others, “I am this (insert polity here)!”.

As a thought experiment, try for a moment to do some imagining. Get your inner John Lennon groove on and …. “imagine their are no polities it is easy if you try.

Well, maybe not that easy. But do try. What does the Church, right now, look like without polities? How would we understand Christianity?

I would suggest that we confine the possibilities to taxonomies that are theological, because the Church is fundamentally theological phenomena. So what are the possibilities? A taxonomy rooted in doctrine (or doctrines) is one; but that might be too narrow. One rooted in ecclesiology is another; but that might get us back to polity and denominational confusion, back to where we started.

I argue that the best taxonomy (particularly if one is concerned ultimately with unity within Christianity) is that of schools: schools of theology/spirituality. Such a taxonomy gets at what unites us, what divides us, but allows for a healthy amount of grey area (which is appropriate given that Christianity is a big tent, and should be). And the taxonomy of schools immediately suggests a complimentary relationship between the various schools. Not triumphalism, but partnership: schools have certain gifts, certain emphases, certain weaknesses. Schools learn from within their own tradition, but also through dialogue and mutuality with other schools.

Exploring this taxonomy, what emerges are patterns of behavior and thought: patterns of attitudes and priorities (about the Bible, about Liturgy, about Sacraments, about Doctrines/Dogmas, about the Kingdom of God, about Creation, etc.). You would see patterns of competency, of temperament, of style. Spend some time thinking about this. You might find that removing polity as a taxonomy in favor of taxonomy rooted in school of theology/spirituality yields interesting and unexpected bedfellows. How many Anglicans practice a truly Catholic spirituality, for example; and how many practice a functional congregationalism? How many Anglicans are functionally Roman Catholic? Or Eastern Orthodox? Or Baptist?

One of the gifts that Anglicanism has been given is a truly rich tradition of theology. No one has better demonstrated this than Martin Thornton, in his English Spirituality. What his work shows is that Anglicanism should be defined as a school of Catholic theology and spirituality. It is a school that is distinct yet complementary to other Catholic schools. It can be traced to the New Testament Church. Whether any Christian school must be able to trace itself to the NT Church is an interesting open question. I wonder if it might be the case that, if it can’t trace itself to the NT Church, that school has not yet understood itself properly. It would seem to me a kind of necessity, as a Christian, to be able to trace a continuity of theology and spirituality to the NT Church, no?

Spirituality and theology unfold in time and space, but they are not strictly bound by particular contexts. Old Saints become oddly contemporary, don’t they? We can adopt something of a 2nd century Christian spirituality, for example, rooted in what we know about 2nd century theology. How unlike this are polities. Polities come, and polities go, and are necessarily particular to their context — much like the weather in slow-motion. When it is stormy one day, and sunny the next, do we find ourselves with two entirely different lives according to the weather? Or do we have continuity from one weather pattern to the next, being the same people with the same general outlook and same general sense of priorities, but simply responsive in different ways to rain and sun? As with weather, with polity. We respond to our polity, but we aren’t shaped by our polity (or we shouldn’t be). We ought be shaped by our corporate prayer, for praying shaping believing. We don’t pray polity: we pray theology (God’s theology, to be precise).

Ok, back to theology and Anglicanism. The point is to consider how Anglicanism looks, feels, and lives as an organism without undue attention to the various Anglican polities. I have posed the suggestion that it is perhaps our disproportionate attention to polity that has contributed to, or perhaps created, the identity crisis plaguing us. And I have suggested that removing polity as the primary lens to understand Anglicanism issues in a recognition that Anglicanism is a theological and spirituality-based phenomena that is traceable to the NT Church. It is, in short, a school.

Now, tackling the nature of the identity crisis in Anglicanism would be the subject of enormous work. We can only hope to grapple with a problem this severe in incremental fashion, bit by bit, seeking a tipping point through a critical mass of people who understand (a) the problem, and (b) possible solution. For the challenge, put in positive terms, is to renew Anglicanism. To aid in that is the mission of Akenside Press, particularly renewal at the parish and family levels. Books have to be written, yes. But hearts have to be persuaded, behaviors changed. It is work we have to do, but it will take time. By my lights, this work is precisely what the Holy Spirit has led Anglicanism to confront as a corporate family. Who are we? What is our theological tradition? How do we talk about it? How do we make our tradition beneficial to the Body of Christ? What are the impediments?

In that spirit, reflect upon the following quote, from H.R. McAdoo, from his excellent work The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology, chapter 1, “The Anglican Approach to Theology”:

While a narrow local patriotism in theology would be disastrous, there is something strangely unreal in the prevalent neglect of the heritage of Anglicanism. Barthianism, Thomism, and even Counter-reformation thought posses a following in the English Church, and the study of the fathers [ed.: “and mothers”] of Anglicanism receives but a fraction of its rightful need of attention. A wide acquaintance in theology, ranging from patristic to the modern exponents of Continental confessional theology, is obviously desirable, but the danger lies not in grafting such study on an existing theological stock, which were admirable, but in making it the background. There follows a loss of root and idiom, and by neglecting those specifically Anglican presuppositions latent or expressed in classical Anglican thought and writings, we risk becoming mere theological vagantes.

When we let go of polity, it is this sort of stuff that shows up: that is, how we actually act theologically. What McAdoo is diagnosing is that Anglicanism, in practice, tends to choose for its own theological background non-Anglican theological traditions. Think about that for a second. We have chosen for our background non-Anglican theology. Instead of Anglican theological tradition, what have we used? We have used at various times in Anglicanism St Thomas Aquinas and his “Thomistic scholasticism”; or we have used Calvinism, and his successors, including Karl Barth and Alister McGrath and their “neo-orthodoxy”, whether high-church or broad-church; some have used (both via positiva and via negativa) the Liberal Protestantism of Schleiermacher;  or some (that is to say, Tractarians) have used theology from the Counter-Reformation spirituality. Yes, of course: the vast majority use the BCP for liturgy. But for talking about theology, reflecting about doctrine, understanding theological identity, or (perhaps most importantly) for forming Christians young and old, instead of our tradition, our school, we go elsewhere. That is McAdoo’s point.

McAdoo calls this “strangely unreal”. I would say it is downright bizarre. Talk about a recipe for identity crisis!  It would be one thing if we did not have a tradition to speak of. But we do! Ours is the NT Church to Celtic Church to Augustine to Benedict to Anselm to Julian of Norwich (and her contemporaries) to the Carolines to John Macquarrie (with plenty of folks in between). This is a glorious tradition, of Saints and blessed theologians! Why would we not want to root ourselves in this tradition? Nobody else does, in any central or primary way. Hey, here’s an idea: maybe we should — hey, it might be kinky.

The take away is this: consider that polity-identification gets in the way of theological- and spiritual-identification. Polities come and go: slowly, to be sure, but they do go. Out of expedience and facticity we have to operate through our polity. Again, this is not a call to pretend like we can destroy polities. But right now, as Anglicans who are living a tradition that by any measure (in the West, at least) is on life-support, let’s allow God to nurse the patient back to health. The best food is the Word of God. The best meal plan is our liturgical and sacramental life. The best diet is our school of theology and spirituality. Let’s claim who we are, and do so with all humility, commitment, and love for God.

 


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