July 2, 2011

Taking Council or Leaving It

My brief post (a "thought" really) seems to have struck a nerve in some circles. In part, I think it has not been well understood. Fr. Jonathan, at the Conciliar Anglican, has read far too much between the lines, and come to conclusions utterly at odds both with my intent and with what I actually said.
But he dissents courteously from the position he imagines I maintain, and all is well. For example, he says,

Communion for him equals autonomous churches (geographically oriented, presumably, though he does not say this explicitly) that share in something called “mission” and “ministry” rather than sharing in doctrine.
This is fine up through the word ministry but that "rather" completely misses my point in the whole thought — i.e., that it is precisely the shared minimalist doctrine that "goes without saying." Anglicanism classically professed not to be innovative in doctrine, but to be faithful to the biblical and ancient core of the faith. In this sense they were "catholic" — proclaiming the universal faith of the early church.

Of course, he and others disagree with, or wish further to explore, a position I actually do maintain, which is that classical Anglicanism is geared from the outset, not to a centralized conciliar form of polity, but to a distributed model in which, as it developed, the various member churches of the communion (most of them originating almost genetically) inherited certain characteristics, including the notion of strong autonomy from outside influence, even from other members of the Communion.

The group I'll call "conciliarists" hold the contrary view, that a deep conciliarity is part of the Anglican ethos. The "test" for this understanding of conciliar catholicity as engrained in classical Anglicanism is to look closely at what the classical Anglicans said to the Roman Catholic Church of their day, and how they felt themselves competent to judge the "errors" of ecumenical Councils, and reject them; and to accept the Creeds and other acts of the early Councils not on the authority of the Councils themselves, but because in their judgment the Creeds and doctrinal findings of the (first four) Ecumenical Councils were concordant with Scripture. (Note they did not go along with the disciplinary decrees of even the first four Councils, and felt themselves competent to disregard the three later Councils — again, on the basis of their own judgment.) This is all laid out in the Articles of Religion.

The point is that the classical Anglicans did not think of themselves as conciliar, but patristic or even apostolic. They were interested in "primitive Christianity" unadorned with the accretions of later traditions.

I have, of course, no objection to a discussion of the relative merits of the conciliar model, and it has many attractions, but I am finding the revisionism that wants to retroject a hankering after conciliarism onto primitive Anglicanism unhelpful. The Conciliar Anglican makes a number of claims, including this
Our notions of unfettered autonomy for individual churches are very recent and not at all tied to classical Anglicanism which balanced the doctrine of self-governing, national churches with the much more central doctrine that Holy Scripture, interpreted through the lens of the Fathers and the creeds, is our highest authority, through which the Lord governs His Church.
that does not quite pass the test of historical accuracy, or at least make sense as a complete thesis: that is, it was precisely the "unfettered autonomy" of the Church of England that allowed it to make the claims about the centrality of Holy Scripture, rather than the authority of the papacy or the councils, for establishing doctrine. The classical Anglicans did not look to the Bishop of Rome or the Councils of the Church for answers, but to Scripture.

This tendency continued, as I say, with the successive foundations that grew to become the Anglican Communion. Look deeply into the memoirs of William White concerning the founding years of the Episcopal Church, and you will find that TEC did not in fact adopt all of the doctrinal or disciplinary positions commended to it by the Church of England, and felt competent to do so. Examine the full record of the Lambeth Conferences down the years and see how various provinces have ignored its recommendations, until the things Lambeth sought to control became so common that Lambeth adopted what had been so long opposed. (I can cite birth control and reluctant toleration of polygamy as just two examples off the top of my head, but I know there are others.)

I think an accurate handle on the reality of our situation is the most helpful way to move forward. Conciliar government has its strong points -- it does not need a specious claim to historical roots in classical Anglicanism. I would find such a discussion helpful and interesting, and although I am a conservative at heart, I also am open to examining proposed revisions to old customs. This is one of the reasons I have been devoted to the Covenant Process and the discussion surrounding it, as I am not utterly opposed to the idea of improvements to the structures of contemporary Anglicanism. I just haven't seen them yet.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Update: Fr Bryan has added some thoughts to the conversation, and ends with some challenging questions:
  1. Is the fact that we argue and disagree with each other on such basic questions as "What is Anglicanism?" and "Is there a unique Anglican doctrine?" itself revelatory about the nature of Anglicanism?
  2. Is the term "Anglicanism" too monolithic and insufficiently descriptive of actual faith and practice? If so, would it be better to speak of a variety of Anglican identities (to borrow from the title of a book by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams)?
  3. Can Anglicanism be anything anybody wants it to be? If not, what are the boundaries?
  4. To quote from Fr. Tobias' initial posting, is "the idea of being a fellowship, a communion — not a 'church' or a 'federation' — of self-governing churches whose individual decisions do not bind the others, even as they cooperate in mission and ministry" a sufficient basis for stemming the tide of communion-breaking division and schism?
  5. Can unity or communion in practice ("mission and ministry") take precedence over unity or communion in belief and order?
I assayed a response as follows:

Dear Fr Bryan, Thanks for your thoughts. If I'd known what a response my short thought would generate I'd perhaps have taken greater care! Maybe with it and your musing questions we might have something challenging for the GOE.

To take a stab at your questions, they are much the ones I have. I'm still wading through all of this, but my sense is that the very delicate balance of the Anglican model was "disturbed" when Lambeth, in 1998, tried to act as a Council, "settling" a matter that was really far from settled. It is the effort to build Babel as a center of unity in se that leads to the dispersion of the people. The focus of unity ought to be in service pro alia. This is what I mean about turning the focus of unity outward: in common service to others we find out identity with Christ and each other.

The difficulty on practical terms is that no one can declare what is adiaphorous at the time of the conflict. It seems to me the genius of Anglicanism up till now has been the very graciousness to close one eye and look the other way instead of engaging in head-butting or mutual anathemata. We lose our sense of the really large deposit of the faith we hold in common when we become obsessed with those things on which we differ.

I realize that is not really in the form of an answer to your question. But it is where my musings have taken me...


Fr. J said...

The paragraph of mine that you pull there seems to be the one that keeps being appealed to, and I'm not entirely sure you understand what I am saying there. As I mentioned somewhere else--and please forgive me, as I'm starting to lose track of what I've said where--I do not suggest that conciliarity is how classical Anglicanism actually operated, though there are strong antecedents there that suggest that conciliarity is how we ought to operate in the situation we find ourselves in today, that of a global communion rather than a single, national church. But that wasn't my point in that paragraph. My point was that the autonomy that you champion, which the Church of England freely exercised, was bound by the authority which that same church accepted as being present in the Fathers and especially in Holy Scripture. They accepted the creeds and the doctrine of the ecumenical councils precisely because those things were rooted in scripture. They accepted the interpretive lens of the Fathers and the Councils as being authoritative. They did not imagine themselves to be doing a new thing at all, but merely adhering to a much older, deeper tradition which they were able to demonstrate through an almost constant appeal to the Fathers in their writing. Moreover, they recognized that the price of their fidelity to scripture and the early Church was to no longer be in communion with other churches that celebrated false doctrine. There was no pretense that somehow we can be in communion with others and hold to a completely different gospel.

Additionally, let me add that I don't think you and I mean the same thing when we say conciliarity. Recognizing the authority of a council is not about giving some lofty group unlimited power and pronouncing their conclusions infallible. It is about humbly accepting that the faith we share, if it can be in any sense properly called catholic, is not the property of any individual or any individual church, but the gift that God has given to the whole Church. Therefore, if it is the true and catholic faith that we seek to uphold, it should be recognizable in and throughout the Church, not just now but throughout history. We must be able to see it together, to teach it together, to proclaim it together, even if there is a great deal of variation in our languages and cultures and traditions. It is about receiving the Spirit of Pentecost, rather than rebuilding the Tower of Babel.

Christopher said...

authority diffuse, disbursed, challengeable, these are marks of Anglicanism as I have understood it coming from a variety of sources, including Ramsey and Sykes...

Christopher said...

I would add there seems to be a push for a maximalist notion of doctrinal agreement. We have tended on many things to allow for a range of positions. I may have particular notions, but part of Anglican courtesy is not to unChurch those around me who say, share a slightly less corporal understanding of the Real Presence. If we can allow such a range on this matter, or on the communio idiomatum, for that matter, I think we have to allow that ecclesiologically, a range exists in thought, and in practice on the whole authority is diffuse, disbursed, challengable, contingent in light of our one Head, Jesus Christ... Our practiced ecclesiology is thus open eschatologically...

Does that mean we don't need structures to facilitate better conversation in the midst of disagreement? Not at all, but the Indaba, which seems a positive way to do this gets lost in the more juridical approach put forward such that Lambeth and other similar opportunities to listen, talk, as faithful is now converted to another purpose...

Christopher (P.) said...

You know, I can agree with what Fr. j has written here, but not with its suppositions.

In short: if a more explicit delineation of communion is needed, then certainly one may make a Covenant or other agreement to better expand and specify conciliarity. I think that much of the hesitation I'm seeing in TEC is not in opposition to a Covenant, but opposition to this Covenant. In particular, any call for restraint may go both ways!

Many people in TEC--I would venture to say most of those that support the recent changes for equal treatment of gay persons--do not think that we have made any new doctrine in doing so. We believe that we have more fully understood God's unchangable decree with respect to the treatment of all his Children in the Church. The oft-cited analogous situation is the moral status of slavery--changed in status in the last 250 years from morally neutral to active evil. Only those caught in some Orwellian universe will think that slavery used not to be a sin, and is now a sin. It has always been a sin, but, through hard-fought battles of study, debate, and eventually force-of arms, we now perceive God's (constant and unswerving) purposes in a way that we formerly did not. As Lincoln said in his 2nd Inaugural: "with firmness in the right, as God has given us to see the right." So also in our current discussion. There is new teaching, yes, but no change in fundamental doctrine that would preclude communion, at least from our point of view. It is not a new Gospel, it is the Gospel of Christ incarnated, died, risen, and coming again. It is the same Gospel with, one hopes, a deeper and truer moral insight.

MarkBrunson said...

What Fr. J talks about there, we did that, and the so-called "conciliarists" took off in a huff because they just couldn't be bothered to even extend the courtesy of beginning to think for a second that we might - at least for us - have it right.

I cannot, personally, proclaim the "faith" of Nigeria and Uganda, which is, frankly, so much political strongman tactics and deflection, combined with a general appeal to ignorance and bigotry!