December 16, 2016

The nature of the/our church

In a recent interview, Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon revives interest in the Anglican Covenant. This proposal has only found favor among the minority who would like to see the Anglican Communion more tightly organized into a conciliar body, rather than continuing to be a loosely affiliated grouping of national churches sharing a common heritage but no central governance.

What I don't understand is why those who want to be part of a communion not based on independent national churches don't affiliate with the church that the Church of England left when it decided being an independent national church was of crucial importance. To claim — as do some who favor the Anglican Covenant — that the idea of “national church” is un-Anglican is to rob “Anglican” of any relevant meaning.

And if one believes conciliarity is of the esse of the church, to continue as a member of a non-conciliatory body is to be outside the church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


thomas bushnell, bsg said...


John Julian said...

Yes! There's that phenomenon of historical blindness caused by the passing of years which turns black into white and up into down.

The very title of the Anglican Communion connects it to England—there is no other origin for the word "Anglican." To try to be "Anglican" without England would be like trying to be Episcopal without bishops. What poor old Idowu-Fearon wants is to re-define the Anglican Communion as what might be called "Cantaurburian" since he suggests the impossible ecclesiastical surgery of disconnecting Canterbury from England. "Canterbury", he thinks, is okay—"England" not so much!

Oh! what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!

Tobias Haller said...

Thomas, did you mean the Mrss. Tudors, the Mrs. Cranmer, or the numerous present day Mrss. of unhappy Anglican clergymen? If the latter, Rome, at least, has made room for them with a special provision, so that need not be a problem; and if they've an eye to the East, the wives are no problem.

John-Julian, that is exactly the odd tangle of levels of relationship I'm seeing: the desire somehow to leap-frog the national church (elevating the diocese to a senior status) and vest all authority in a world council. In England's case it means a surgical excision of the primate from that over which he is primate!

Jesse said...

The Anglican Way of provincial autonomy is a tough row to hoe, for sure, especially in a mixed denominational economy where the "National Church" is embraced by only a tiny segment of the nation. I rather suspect that it was able to function so long in England only because Convocation wasn't allowed to meet for 150 years, and the Church just had to get on with its work, whatever disagreements there were! (And there were many.)

But if we are going to continue to try to make a go of it, I think the following advice, from Martin Thornton's English Spirituality (1963), will be helpful. It cuts across the question of national vs. international conciliar governance, and points to what seems to me "a more excellent way." If we're not willing to be Anglicans in this way, then I don't see much point at all in continuing:

The Caroline Church did not need a Pope to make authoritative decisions on current questions of faith and morals, because such decisions were hammered out by the Church, loyally united by the Prayer Book system. The modern Church has to face such questions as nuclear armament — or disarmament —birth-control, gambling, industrial relations, and so on, and it is justifiably accused either of saying nothing about them or of speaking with a divided voice. Two bold bishops will make honest, sincere, forthright, and contradictory pronouncements about any of these things, but this is not the opinion of the Church, nor even the Church giving a lead. It is but the view of a Christian individual against which the decisions argued out in the Reverend Mr Baxter's house on Thursday evenings [i.e. the "open houses" held by the Puritan divine Richard Baxter in his home to discuss the previous Sunday's sermon] carry far more moral authority. For that was at least the microcosmic Church, comprised of individuals grounded in the Rule of the Church, living daily within the channel of grace. [For Thornton this means the Prayer Book system of twice-daily Office, the Eucharist on Sundays and Red-Letter Days, and a personal discipline of private meditation, verbal prayer, and self-examination, under individual spiritual direction.] Do all members of the average Diocesan Conference, or of the House of Laity, live seriously and loyally by the Prayer Book pattern? Unless, or until they do, those bodies are theologically incapable of making decisions of any real weight.

In the seventeenth century, individual liberty of conscience was firmly guarded, yet the 'opinion of the Church' had real meaning. To-day it has not; not because individual Christians lack integrity or courage, but because they are not acting as, are not being, the Church. Our need is the same: spiritual guidance according to the Caroline pattern, based on the Catholic ascetical theology which the Prayer Book pattern embodies. To attain efficiency, we must either be true to our adult spirituality, or we must constitute a Sacred College through which the Archbishop of Canterbury can exercise total power!

Source: Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (London: SPCK, 1963), pp. 238–9

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Jesse. Thornton's reflection sums up for me much of my difficulty with the whole "Project" -- and highlights what I regard as two of the least attractive aspects of the church. First and foremost is the underlying sense that the church is to be some sort of moral arbiter called to speak univocally to the world on pressing issues. I do not see this as the primary task of the church, and see efforts to empower it to be so just the sort of thing most people in the world find so repellent about religion: that it consists largely of people telling other people what to do.

Second, there seems to be -- for want of a better term -- a kind of ecclesiastical Pelagianism about this; as if the church is defined by what it does rather than what it is. I resonate with the longing for a devoted and disciplined plebs Dei unified by a common Rule of Life -- but that seems to be wishful thinking and rather romantic history. Surely there were the households of Ferrar and others who adhered to Caroline devotion, and others less so at least with grace before meals -- but is this really the issue now facing us? No, I think what the Anglican Covenant project is about is the confection of a new world church with a central government and the ability to control and limit the actions of its constituent members. I believe it to be a demonic project.

Jesse said...

Thanks, Tobias. I'm a little confused by your reply, because I thought I was offering a helpful example of a learned writer who strongly and bitingly argues that such a scheme as the Covenant would be utterly contrary to our tradition, and you seem to be equating Thornton's thoughts with "the demonic Project"! Have I misread you, or has one of us misread him?

Three points on how I read him, offered in hopes of finding agreement or receiving helpful correction. (To be read in the friendliest and most open-minded tone of voice you can conjure.)

1. My reading of this passage is that Thornton precisely opposes the Church's "giving a lead" (as he puts it) or "telling people what to do" (as you put it). He clearly hasn't much time for any sort of synod. But moral and prudential questions are unavoidable in real life, and Christians are — or ought to be! — concerned to do right rather than wrong. And Thornton argues that the "microcosmic Church" (the parish) must ultimately work through these questions together in the all-encompassing venture of faith in a local setting; at the individual level, this is done under what he elsewhere calls "empirical" spiritual direction (in the sense of, "Guided by tradition and sound ascetical science, let's find out what actually works for you").

2. On your "Pelagian" worry, I find that ascetical writing is always a bit of a Rorschach test on this subject. The trouble is that spirituality is necessarily something one does, though only because of what one is. Grace is its precondition, its companion, its proximate goal. That is Thornton's governing framework. (You'll be hard pressed to find a less Pelagian writer: he's thoroughly Augustinian.) So there are patterns and disciplines of corporate prayer, private prayer, and active and habitual recollection. But these in themselves do not constitute progress. In fact, for Thornton, as for most of the ascetical tradition, the only reliable way to know if one is making spiritual progress is that one sins less. (Hence the right/wrong concern in Point 1.) This is what I think Thornton means by our "adult spirituality": a taking responsibility for ourselves, which must mean actually doing the work of spiritual growth rather than relying on some outside body to tell us what a minimally acceptable spiritual life looks like.

3. You're right, of course, that the number of people who have lived the Rule of the Church has been historically small. But I wonder if this surprising or particularly important. I'm sure you wouldn't argue that baptism magically confers gifts of spiritual wisdom separate from teaching, moral effort, ascetical discipline, lived experience, and sacramental means of grace. Do we not all desire that those who contribute to the counsels of the Church will possess a genuine spiritual authority (as opposed to power) arising from a life of Prayer? And if they lack such authority, will we not admit that we don't feel any particular loyalty to their decisions, so far as they impinge on our own spiritual life? I'd be interested to know what you mean by locating this authority in "what the Church is" as separate from what Christians do. (Thornton elsewhere works out a sophisticated theory of tiers of engagement in local Church life, arguing that 90% of the Church's effective spiritual work is carried out by a very small but vicariously potent "Remnant" — another Rorschach word!)

As I say, this is offered not to persuade but in hope of understanding your point of view more clearly. For my part, the more Thornton I read, the more I think he has to say to our current condition.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Jesse; and sorry for the confusion. I was unclear. What I mean to say is that I agree with Thornton in his belief that the "top down" model of church is not the right way to go. Where I part company a bit -- not in disagreement so much as being a realist -- is in what I see as a somewhat romantic hope to recover the moral fibre of the church in a revival of commitment to the ascesis of Anglican Prayer Book spirituality. As I say, there is never going to be more than a leaven in the loaf of this sort of thing.

And I suppose my argument is that this is adequate for the life of the church -- sort of like the rabbinic notion of the fifty righteous for whose sake God holds back the end of the world. I am a strong believer in lay devotion and clerical rule of life, but I am not of a mind that these sorts of disciplines will ever be a majority. I'm not sure Thornton actually thinks they will either, and is merely casting his hopes in big letters -- sort of like Dearmer hoping to save the church by all clergy wearing their "habit" in the streets. I realize of course that spirituality is Thornton's metier, and he would want to encourage as much as possible, and my cynical response may be too harsh.

As to Pelagianism, well... my long held sense is "Scratch an Augustinian and you'll find a Pelagian!" It gets particularly dicey when it comes to ascesis (Rorschach ineed), and I will say that one line in your note makes my blood run a bit cold: "In fact, for Thornton, as for most of the ascetical tradition, the only reliable way to know if one is making spiritual progress is that one sins less." (I think I can hear Luther screaming in the background... :-) )

So, on the whole, I share Thornton's view that a top-down governance of the church is not a good idea, and while I also share his idealized wish "that all God's people were" ascetics, I also suspect he knew this was a hope rather than a reality. But, of course, we are called to hope, as a virtue, so I cannot fault him there, and even join him in it, as my realist side gently shakes its head in resigned amusement.

Jesse said...

Many thanks, Tobias, for taking the time to depart from your customary epigrammatic style. Some of us need things spelled out! Thornton's notion of the "Remnant" (worked out at length in Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation) would answer most of your concerns and queries, I think. But he doesn't need me to defend him..

So should I sin more that grace may abound? :)

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Jesse; glad that was helpful. I don't think Thornton's "Remnant" needs defending -- as I say, it is a thread with roots in Isaiah and the rabbis, and it has a realistic edge to it in that expecting all the people to be disciples (in an ascetical sense) is understood as an ideal, not the reality.

But as I allude, it has its dangers, precisely where Pharisaic rabbinism led -- to a performance-based righteousness, standing in opposition to "those people" who fail to live a righteous life. It isn't a question of sinning "more" or "less" but the Augustinian (Pauline!) realization that sin is inescapable as a condition. Simul iustis et peccator isn't just a Latin tag, but a profound observation. And to stand apart (= pharisee) on the basis of fasting, tithing, etc. as opposed to kneeling in penitent acceptance of grace is a wrong turn in moral thinking. This is why Jesus held the pair up as a parable.

At its best the ascetical project practices virtue without neglecting service to others, in fact making service in corporal works of mercy central to an askesis turned outwards -- I think the great Orders got this right. But at its worst the project becomes curvatus in se, priggish and accusatory of those less perfect.

And this is, in part the dynamic at play in the Anglican Communion today -- a focus by some on what they regard as personal/corporate purity of life, as opposed to a focus on service to others.

Jesse said...

We seem to be in perfect agreement, with each other and with Thornton, at least as I read him. (E.g., he says exactly the same thing about the Orders.) Thanks for an edifying collegial exchange! Oremus pro invicem.

Michael Boyle said...

I should say up front that I am coming into the Episcopal Church from the Roman Catholic faith, so I am catching up on these issues and am not familiar with all the contours of these arguments. Nevertheless, I am confused about something, and perhaps Fr. Haller or one of the other commentators could clear this up--there is a pervasive reference (mostly by conservatives) to Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which is treated almost as if it is a kind of ur text. Where does this come from? A brief reading of the other kinds of resolutions coming out of the Lambeth Conferences strike me as the kinds of resolutions one sees from deliberative bodies generally--a decent expression of the "mind of the body" but not things that are treated as binding law. Is this a case where the thing was passed and then it was retroactively raised to the level of controlling law (at least in the minds of some)? Or was it conceived of as binding law at the time (again, perhaps by some)?

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, Michael, for the question. While resolutions of the Lambeth Conferences are sometimes treated (by those who agree with the resolutions!) as if they had the weight of law or expressed the "position" of Anglicans (or the Anglican Communion) this is not the case. The resolutions of Lambeth only reflect the mind of that particular gathering, and none of the resolutions are anything more than snapshots of that body's opinion (usually less than unanimous) and is only advisory and temporary. As the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in 1867 when calling for the first such Conference, "Such a meeting would not be competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine." The body was intended to confer, advise, and assist the bishops from the several churches of the Anglican Communion in coming to their own decisions.

A careful reading of the much-cited Lambeth 1.10 from 1998 shows it to be advisory, not authoritative. The active verbs in the resolution say that the Conference "commends... upholds... believes... recognises... rejects... calls on... cannot advise... requests... notes... and asks." This is not the language of law, but, as you say, a "mind of the house" resolution. As the adoption was far from unanimous, it could safely be said it was the mind of some of the house.

As a final note, here is what Archbishop Runcie said about the matter a decade earlier (1988):

One of the characteristics of Anglicanism is our Reformation inheritance of national or provincial autonomy. The Anglican tradition is thus opposed to centralism and encourages the thriving of variety. This is a great good. There is an important principle to be borne witness to here: that nothing should be done at a higher level than is absolutely necessary. So Anglicans have become accustomed to speak of a dispersed authority. And we are traditionally suspicious of the Lambeth Conference becoming anything other than a Conference. We may indeed wish to discuss the development of more solid structures of unity and coherence. But I for one would want their provisional character made absolutely clear; like tents in the desert, they should be capable of being easily dismantled when it is time for the Pilgrim People to move on. We have no intention of developing an alternative Papacy. We would rather continue to deal with the structures of the existing Petrine Ministry, and hopefully help in its continuing development and reform as a ministry of unity for all Christians. [The Lambeth Conference, 1988, The Truth Shall Make You Free (London: Church House Publishers, 1988).]

Michael Boyle said...

That is very helpful, thank you. Returning to your original point in the post, I agree whole-heartedly. If you want to be run by a rule-making, legislative authority, become Roman Catholic; if you want a polity where the institutional structures don't allow any change ever, become Orthodox. If you want to "rest on the clear reading of the Bible" (at least, in their mind), become part of some evangelical body. I am somewhat bewildered by the instinct to create ersatz versions of things that already exist and re-invent the wheel.

Plus, if I wanted some foreign leader dictating the terms of my local community's practice of the faith, I would surely rather continue to take my chances with Pope Francis than Archbishop Welby.