Saturday, June 04, 2005

fractures in the alliance? anglo-catholics and evangelicals as bed-fellows one of another


immaculate conception
Originally uploaded by gwbrark.
I've spent a good deal of energy worrying about the current alliance in the Anglican Communion between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. I've wondered whether an alliance based on agreement concerning moral teachings might not be cutting off our nose to spite our face, i.e. in the light of what might be disagreements between Catholics and Evangelicals nearly as serious as those dividing both Catholics and Evangelicals from Liberals.

In the end I think Catholics and Evangelicals have more in common with one another than either have with Liberals. The question (as many have acknowledged) is really one of authority. The traditionalists (of both flavors) identify the source of ecclesial authority as definitively outside the constituency of the Church Militant. Both would perhaps agree that ecclesial authority is found in the person of Jesus Christ, but Evangelicals tend to find the primary locus for that authority in the Word of God, the Bible. Catholics, while tending often to have a high regard for the Bible, tend also to have a high regard for what they often call “Holy Tradition”, or the historical teaching of the Church, particularly in its undivided, pre-reformational, and even more particularly its first-millennial manifestations. Catholics like to accept the authority of the Bible as binding absolutely, yet accept it because it comes recommended as such by the Catholic Church, the Holy Tradition.

The Tradition of the Church is therefore the arbiter of the Bible’s authority. We must distinguish, however, between the Church’s role of arbitrating Biblical authority and the erroneous view that the Church is herself the source of the Bible’s authority. We accept the authority of the bible, we acknowledge its binding us, because the Church RECOGNIZES that authority, because the Church ACKNOWLEDGES that authority, and not because the Church BESTOWED that authority to begin with. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is therefore a locus of our Lord’s own role as “our only mediator and advocate”.

This, by the way, is the reason why there is no salvation apart from the Catholic Church. That is, because it is the Catholic Church who says to God, with the Blessed Virgin, “Be it done to me according to your word,” and it is the Catholic Church who asks, with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We ride on the coattails of the Communion of Saints in their acceptance of the hegemony of the prerogatives of God in Christ. It is their testimony that mediates for us the story of the unique salvation from sin and death found in the cross of Christ.

It is at this point that I begin to wonder about the long-term prospects of the current alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics. This is from a recent piece from the Institute on Religion and Democracy (thank you Fr. Harmon) about the commentary and involvement of Roman Catholics in the current Anglican mess:

Over the past two years, the debate has moved from fundamental disagreement over interpreting scriptural teachings on human sexuality, to fundamental disagreement over church polity. Arguments over the latter have been at least as heated as arguments over the former.


It is in the area of ecclesiology, however, where many orthodox Anglicans will find the Roman Catholic advice less helpful. It is no particular surprise that the Vatican would endorse a stronger "supra-provincial authority" to secure unity in doctrine and discipline. But there is a raft of questions that arise.


Would the strong-handed approach work in the Anglican Communion? Does the Archbishop of Canterbury wish to become a mini-pope or patriarch? How many Anglicans wish to have such a powerful figure seated in Canterbury? The proposal runs counter to 450 years of Anglican history.


The question, though, regarding the controversial recommendations of the Windsor Report, is not whether the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to have this or that power. The question is really whether he ought to exercise this or that power. For ultimately to be Anglican means to be in communion with the See of Canterbury, and the See of Canterbury decides with whom it is in communion.

This is where the recent ARCIC agreements become illustrative, as the IRD paper acknowledges:

Preliminary summaries of the [ARCIC Marian] document indicate that Catholic dogmas such as the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of Mary are defended by an appeal to the silence of Scripture on such matters. The dogmas are not directly justified; instead they are said to be not incompatible with biblical teaching.
Orthodox Anglicans are rightly suspicious of such double-negative formulations based on silence. They have heard them frequently from Anglican liberals, whose favorite debating point is that "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality." This kind of argument offers a very weak basis for altering long-settled teachings.


But notice that in the case of the Roman Catholic marian dogmas, the scriptures as a whole are silent, and that the tradition of the Church, from rather early, is anything but silent. As noted in the IRD paper, regarding the traditional teaching on homosexuality, the liberal refrain is not that the scripture is silent, but that Jesus is silent. The point is that, as everyone knows, the scriptures are not silent on the issue of homosexuality, St. Paul was not silent, and neither is the Holy Tradition, which has spoken loudly and unequivocally on the matter. The teachings of Jesus are shaped for us by, among other things, the teachings of St. Paul about the teachings of Jesus. Both Catholics and Evangelicals acknowledge that they are bound by the teaching of St. Paul in the Bible as much as they are bound by anything, and Catholics acknowledge the added constraint of Church Tradition.

The questions of authority dividing Evangelicals and Catholics are therefore about where, outside of themselves, the locus of authority is to be found. Ultimately, however, they agree that authority is located outside of themselves. They agree that it is to be found in God, in the person of Jesus Christ and the initiatives of the Holy Spirit. Catholics, however, discern the action of the Holy Spirit in the magisterial functions of the Church, whereas Evangelicals do not. The point is this: whereas Evangelicals and Catholics acknowledge that their belief is arbitrated by authority outside themselves individually or collectively, Liberals do not. Time and again Liberals appeal to the third leg of the “three legged stool” (which, by the way, is a misreading of Hooker); they appeal namely to their own reason and experience. When Bp. Griswold talks about “new truth”, all he is really saying is that our reason and our experience mediate the claims of both the scriptures and the tradition. He might say that Christ is the source of all authority, but that it is Christ-within-us who is the ultimate arbiter. That is just to say: we are the authority. We sit in judgment over the Church and the Bible. When our reason and experience run counter to the Bible and the Tradition of the Church, the Bible and the Tradition must bend the knee to our reason and experience. We will not serve.

But the Liberal position is untenable, for it posits not just our reason and experience as the foundation for authority, but our reason and experience AS CHRISTIANS as the foundation for CHRISTIAN authority. The fallacy is just this: WE HAVE NO IDENTITY AS CHRISTIANS APART FROM BOTH SCRIPTURE AND CHURCH TRADITION. Were there no Tradition or Scripture, there would be no Christians. We have no claim to the name of Jesus, and therefore no claim to a Christian identity, apart from the Communion of Saints from whom we learned that the Savior’s name is Jesus, and from whom we learned what it is to be baptized in that name, what it is to be a Christian.

8 comments:

Pontificator said...

I was confused in your article whether you were referring to the alliance between Anglican Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics or between Evangelicals and (Roman) Catholics. Can you clarify please.

J-Tron said...

I'm curious as well how you are defining "liberal." It seems like you set this up as a separate category, over and against Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic. If that's the case, one would assume that you are talking about the liberal, broadchurch tradition of Anglicanism, not social or political liberalism as currently defined by the common wisdom of the American media and political machine. But the way you use the term implies that you are speaking about political and social liberals, which also doesn't make sense since there are socially liberal Anglo-Catholics and socially liberal Evangelicals.

What is your definition of a liberal? I'm curious to know whether I would count.

For the record, I think it's wise to be concerned about the Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic alliance. If we all get our sinful way and the Church splits, all of these major differences that have been wall-papered over are going to come back in full force quickly. The schism will continue to break us into smaller and smaller chunks for a very long time.

father wb said...

Well, ultimately I am something of a nominalist about these kinds of labels, or at least a Wittgensteinian. Within this little piece, I mean by "evangelical" basically one with a very high view of the authority of scripture and a comparatively low ecclesiology. I was using "Catholic" as an umbrella term, basically, for those who have a high ecclesiology (and therefore a relatively high view of scripture -- because the Church has a high view of scripture). "Catholic" here would therefore encompass "Traditional Anglo-Catholics" as well as Roman Catholics who assent to the official RC ecclesiology. It would also probably encompass the Orthodox (i.e. Eastern). By "liberal" I mean basically those in the Church who talk so much about "new truth" and (though I didn't say this) the Church's new and "prophetic" radical inclusivity. These folks tend, as I noted, to subordinate the authority of scripture and the tradition to the authority of "reason" and experience, both of which are usually enunciated as a kind of spiritual / social-psychology. Their refrain is often that St. Paul didn't know about homosexuals like we know about them today (scripture / tradition subordinated to reason / experience).

J-Tron said...

Well, refraining from getting into a debate over St. Paul's understanding of human sexuality, I wonder where you think the appropriate place for reason and experience are, what place the individual conscience has in the discernment of truth. One of the reasons that I always find these labels so fuzzy is because I see them--at their best--as informing one another within the Christian tradition, rather than as being the seperate camps that we make them out to be when we push to extremes. Thus, I read your definition of "Evangelical" and I think "Well, I must be an Evangelical because I hold scripture to be authoritative above all else within the tradition." On the other hand, I can see myself reflected in your definition of "Catholic" as well, since I certainly have a very high ecclesiology, one that would quickly put me at odds with most American evangelicals. And I do believe that the tradition is of great importance, that the Church is the Body of Christ, that scripture is interpreted within the Church, that the sacraments are at the heart of our mission as the Church, that apostolic succession is important, etc. On the other hand, while I don't know what is meant by "new truth," I do believe that the Church must exercise its prophetic voice from time to time, bringing the truth of the gospel back into focus. So, does that make me an Evangelical Liberal Catholic?

Sorry to keep making this all about me, as it's obviously not (I will say a rosary of penance later should you wish to assign it). I guess I just figure I can't be the only one who finds the movement between the camps within Anglicanism so difficult to maneuver.

father wb said...

Say the Rosary, by all means. Just as a devotion, not as penance.

I don't think you would qualify as an Evangelical, since (as noted) I don't mean only that they have a high view of scripture. I have a high view of scripture, but I don't think I'm an evangelical. So a high view of scripture (in my loosey-goosey usage herein) is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for Evangelicalism. You also must have a low-ish ecclesiology (which you admit you haven't got ["I certainly have a very high ecclesiology"]). I won't say what is sufficient for Evangelicalism, but I think a high view of scripture and a comparatively low ecclesiology are both necessary. Maybe they're sufficient when taken together...?

Anyway, the whole point of the little essay was that I think Evangelicalism and Catholicism (as formulated) are probably incompatible. In order for them to enjoy conjugal felicity, one of them would have to give up its ecclesiology (low in the one case, high in the other); but that would mean giving up the Evangelical or Catholic identity, as each of the mutually exclusive ecclesiologies is a necessary ingredient for the respective monikers. That's my main point.

I'm putting my response to your question about reason and experience in a new post. It turned into another book-length thing.

The young fogey said...

As Archimandrite Serge (Keleher) said of the Continuum, the trouble with Anglican re-alignment, even though both sides are still Christian unlike the liberals, is that they're simply re-creating the Elizabethan settlement only without the force of the state behind it. 'The Anglican Communion/Episcopal Church fell apart once so let's re-build it exactly as it was so it can fall apart again.'

koenigsfreunde said...

WB, thanks for this post. I agree with you that it's wise to be wary of the alignment between traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and traditionalist evangelicals. It may well be unstable. However, I'm not sure if your definitions help. Defining an evangelical as having a high view of Scripture and a low ecclesiology may concede the ground too readily to the Anglo-Catholic. On important doctrines like ecclesiology, who wants a 'low' anything? What does that really mean?
It may be better to use these terms in the comparative. An evangelical like myself can say I have a high view of scripture and of the church. But I'm an evangelical because in cases where the tradition and scripture conflict, scripture should be the trump card.

father wb said...

Alan -- Right. I meant for the terms and definitions to be more or less relative to one another. I.e. Evangelicals have a low ecclesiology as compared to a tradtional anglo-catholic. I have no doubt that the Anglican Evangelical ecclesiology is rather higher than the Congregationalist, Baptist, or Menonite ecclesiologies.

Obviously this is all an oversimplification, but if we are going to talk about the "three-legged stool" (a notion I've come to find pretty annoying), Evangelicals prize scripture, catholics prize tradition, and liberals prize reason. I know there's a lot more texture and subtlety to that actual situation, but this analysis has a basis in realtiy. At least it has a basis in my experience of these three types of Anglicans.

As you said of yourself, evangelicals tend ot be willing to let go of what the Church says in favor of the plain meaning of scripture. Catholics are willing to let go of the plain meaning of scripture in favor of what the Church says. Liberals tend to be willing to let go of both in favor of what their reason/experience/intuition tells them.