Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reclaiming Our Anglican Traditions
It's Time for Episcopal Theology 101

[Reprinted from The Abbey - Jan-Feb 2007 Issue]

What with all the uproar "across the river" about several Diocese of Virginia congregations seceding, I was very interested to read the Op-Ed piece from The Rev. John Yates, the former rector of the Falls Church (Episcopal), and Os Guinness, a parishioner, entitled "Why We Left the Episcopal Church." My interest lies in part in the fact that I have read and enjoyed many of professor Guinness's books on philosophy, culture, and religion (his book The Dust of Death still sits on my bookshelf). So I was surprised to find his name attached to an editorial which was so misinformed about Anglican and Episcopal theology and polity.

But I have to thank them for hitting one nail squarely on the head. They got it absolutely right when they said that the current dispute is not ultimately about women priests or the ordination of a gay bishop. Rather, it is about THEOLOGY and whether the Episcopal Church is being true to its theological traditions and understandings. (They cite the "abandonment" of these traditions and understandings as the reason for their departure.)

Unfortunately, most of what they said after that point portrays a profound misunderstanding of our theological traditions and understandings. Time and space do not permit a full, point-by-point discussion of their letter, but let me give one glaring example.

As one of their reasons for leaving, they say that the Episcopal Church has abandoned the doctrine of "sola scriptura" ("by the scriptures alone"). In fact, this has never been an Anglican/Episcopal doctrine. Anglican hold what my fairly conservative former mentor us to call a "high doctrine of Scripture." Anglican doctrine is that Scripture "containeth all things necessary to salvation," and thus commands a privileged position in our theology. Yet we also look to tradition and reason as our guides. In other words, Anglicans believe that, since none of us has a lock on the absolutely correct interpretation of Scripture, the most effective way to determine what God is trying to teach us about God's will is by testing our understanding of scripture by our tradition and reason. Likewise, we test the Church's tradition against scripture and reason, and we test our reasoning (even about our beliefs and doctrines) against scripture and tradition. Many have affectionately called this approach the "Three-Legged Stool" of Anglicanism."

In describing this testing process, I use the term "we" very intentionally. Because the key to this process is that it takes place in the context of the faith community, with the members of the community bringing their differing understandings – even major differences (especially those) – into discussion amongst the community of faith to be tested in the give and take between scripture, tradition, and reason. (It’s actually very much like the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash – well-known and well-used by the likes of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.)

Our forebears in the Anglican faith tradition understood that as fallen human beings (and fallen ecclesiastical institutions) we are apt to get it wrong in any of these three areas. So we are better off with a system of "theological checks and balances."

This approach also means that our theological understandings are not fixed in stone and unchanging. If we can get it wrong in any of these three areas (and our understanding of God's will is never complete), sometimes we have to grow and change in our understanding in order to move closer to the truth. And Anglican tradition is very careful about the number of issues it elevates to doctrinal significance. As Richard Hooker, one of the "founding fathers" of Anglican theology made clear, Anglicans view the Holy Scriptures as speaking authoritatively when it comes matters of salvation, but as providing wider latitude in most other matters.

Ultimately, for Anglicans the primary thing that holds us together is not complete agreement any number of truths, but rather our common worship of The Truth: the Living God, in the form of Jesus Christ.

I think this a great part of what lies at the heart of the current conflict: that a great many of us Episcopalians haven't done a great job educating ourselves and others about these issues (this applies to both liberals and conservatives and everyone in between). And so it becomes hard to give a good answer when someone says they want to secede from the church because it has gone astray from its historical teachings on theology or morality.

I'd like to see us change all that: to shed some light on the subject in place of all the current heat. And so in each of the next several issues of The Abbey I would like to take one or two important Anglican theological and ecclesiastical traditions and explain them in plain English (btw, preaching, teaching and worshiping in plain English is also an Anglican tradition). So watch this space . . .

Meanwhile, if you are impatient and want to "read ahead," just go to the website, click on "About the Episcopal Church" or "About Christianity" and start reading.

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