From Anglican Mainstream via VirtueOnline:
December 20th, 2009
From Barbara Gauthier
Five years ago Andrew Atherstone wrote "The Incoherence of the Anglican Communion" as a comprehensive analysis of the state of the Anglican Communion and the structural weaknesses that made it possible for the consecration of Gene Robinson to "tear the fabric" of the Communion. Over the last century Anglicanism has sought to develop an internal coherence in a number of different ways: a common culture, a common creed, a common liturgy, a common ministry, a common theological method and a common structure. Since 2003, that trajectory of self-destruction and implosion has continued, with the fracture lines becoming increasingly evident. Part 3 looks at the evidence for a common Anglican creed:
A common creed?
Back in the 1940s Archbishop Garbett of York declared: ‘No society whether religious or secular can hold together unless its members are united by some common convictions and aims. A Church with no statement of faith could not exist.' The Anglican Communion, however, has no common confession of faith.
The Thirty-Nine Articles once acted as a common confession. At the time of the Elizabethan Settlement they were intended to hold the church together in gospel unity, providing agreement on Christian essentials while allowing wide divergence of opinion on non-essentials (otherwise known as a ‘principled comprehensiveness’). However, over the last century the position of the Articles has deliberately been demoted within the Anglican Communion. By the early 1960s Stephen Bayne (first Executive Officer for the Anglican Communion) was happily describing them as ‘museum-pieces’. The 1968 Lambeth Conference recommended that provinces remove the Articles from their Prayer Books and no longer require ordination candidates to subscribe to them. As Ian Ramsey (Bishop of Durham) stated at the time:
‘We do not want to sweep the Thirty-Nine Articles under the carpet but to send them to a stately home in England where we can visit them from time to time.’ As a result, only eleven provinces now officially retain the Articles and most of the rest do not even refer to them in their constitutions.
If the Thirty-Nine Articles no longer provide a common confession for the Anglican Communion, perhaps the historic creeds do? Unfortunately this is wishful thinking. Many Anglican clergy in the West, bishops amongst them, now explicitly reject central tenets of orthodox Christianity. In the 1960s we had radical liberals such as James Pike (Bishop of California) arguing that the Trinity should be abandoned as ‘excess baggage’ and John Robinson (Bishop of Woolwich) with his notorious Honest to God. The 1980s and 90s brought David Jenkins (Bishop of Durham) with his denials of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ and Jack Spong (Bishop of Newark) with his ‘Twelve Theses’ rejecting the Christian faith wholesale. These are just the tip of the iceberg. A recent survey conducted by Christian Research shows that many English clergy today are far from credally orthodox. The numbers of those who believe the creed ‘without question’ (implying confidence to teach the faith) are disturbingly low.
I believe in God the Father who created the world
Male clergy 83%
Female clergy 74%
I believe that Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin
Male clergy 58%
Female clergy 33%
I believe that Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world
Male clergy 76%
Female clergy 65%
I believe that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead
Male clergy 68%
Female clergy 53%
I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way by which we can be saved
Male clergy 53%
Female clergy 39%
It would appear, then, that there are no longer any fundamental doctrines within the Anglican Communion—all is now adiaphora. As Hensley Henson proclaimed in the 1930s, the Church of England ‘exhibits a doctrinal incoherence which has no parallel in any other church claiming to be traditionally orthodox’. The historic creeds are still recited, but by many within Anglo-Anglicanism they are not believed. William Oddie observes—
"Having been emptied of conviction and meaning, they have been retained as decorative features so that if accusations are made of loss of theological identity they may be indicated as standing intact. In just the same way the great cannons which swayed the battles of former years, emptied of their thunder, stand in museums and on the battlements of ruined fortifications."
When this lack of doctrinal coherence in pointed out, it is often replied that the Anglican Communion is ‘comprehensive’—that is celebrates ‘diversity in unity’. This was one of the repeated refrains of Archbishop Carey, and Archbishop Runcie before him. The bishops at Lambeth 1968, whilst sidelining the Articles, attempted a definition of ‘comprehensiveness’.
"Comprehensiveness demands agreement on fundamentals, while tolerating disagreement on matters in which Christians may differ without feeling the necessity of breaking communion. In the mind of an Anglican, comprehensiveness is not compromise. Nor is it to bargain one truth for another. It is not a sophisticated word for syncretism.…It has been the tradition of Anglicanism to contain within one body both Protestant and Catholic elements. But there is a continuing search for the whole truth in which these elements will find complete reconciliation."
Although this statement begins well, it degenerates into a Mauricean view of truth as the reconciling of two opposites. As Stephen Sykes explains in his classic critique of the bishops’ definition, this approach—
"has served as an open invitation to intellectual laziness and self- deception…the failure to be frank about the issues between the parties in the Church of England has led to an ultimately illusory self-projection as a Church without any specific doctrinal or confessional position.…Lots of contradictory things may be said to be complementary by those with a vested interest in refusing to think straight.
Sykes goes on to reject this notion of comprehensiveness as ‘utterly inadequate…a dangerous form of ecclesiastical self-deception…a bogus theory…which for far too long has lain like a fog over the Anglican mind’."
Principled comprehensiveness’, based on an agreement on fundamentals, has been forgotten. Instead we have what Packer colourfully calls ‘theological glossolalia which Eeyore would have labelled a Confused Noise’. As long ago as the 1950s Alec Vidler warned that comprehensiveness had evolved into ‘an unprincipled syncretism’ which was transforming the Anglican Communion into ‘a sort of league of religions’. The situation has only continued to deteriorate in recent years, such that Anglicans may now believe anything or nothing. Francis Moss laments—
"These are the days of Situation Theology, Situation Ethics and theological subjectivity.…all is negotiable, all is dispensable, nothing is actually definitive or binding at least in the sense of being enforceable. All is fluid in the interests of current policy, ecumenical goals, and the commitment— above all—to comprehensiveness. It is unthinkable that officially anyone should be charged with heresy in the contemporary Church of England when it is a tenet of an accepted school of thought that there are no fixed criteria for the determination of theological truth and error."
As Robert Hannaford notes, the inclusion of radical liberalism within the Anglican Communion ‘tests the idea of comprehensiveness to destruction’. This theological pluralism has become a scandal to many and forced some out of the Communion. For example, Dwight Longenecker (once an Anglican clergyman and now a Roman Catholic) reflects—
"I had mistaken a confederation of contradictions for unity. The Anglican church with her various parties, clubs, confraternities, associations and societies is more like a Council of Churches than a Church.…Although I was attracted to Anglican comprehensiveness, the lack of any objective theology which was part of the bargain made my private prayer and public ministry seem like a daily attempt to dance on quicksand."
Likewise Richard Rutt (once Bishop of Leicester) describes the Anglican Communion as ‘a house built on the sand of shifting doctrines’. In the absence of a common creed, our search for theological coherence within the Communion must continue elsewhere.