One could consider this a contribution to our mini-series on Anglican identity as well as for ‘Big Tent Christianity.’ Among the many contributions do be sure to check out our friend David Henson’s here.
It might seem odd to some who know me that I would write a post about ‘Big Tent Christianity’ because I don’t really much care for it. To be more specific, I don’t think that a ‘Big Tent’ is something that we should celebrate and rejoice in for its own sake. The ‘diversity’ in the Church does not extend to Christian division nor the incoherence of Christian speech across groups. More often than not, a ‘Big Tent’ approach downplays the fact that the plethora of Christian groups and denominations are more the fruit of impatience with each other and the refusal to love (that is, ‘heresy’) than fruit of the Spirit. We should be more apt to repent for our division and work for stronger unity in both doctrine and practice than act as if there is no division; because how is there real division under a large covering?
This sounds doubly frightening I imagine coming from an Anglican. Surely we like to sell ourselves as a broad church? ‘We are the ‘Via Media’ of which Hooker spoke, able to leap evangelical and catholic doctrine in a single bound.’ It is to Hooker that I wish to dedicate this reflection. Specifically a famous sermon of his wherein he affirms what was incredibly controversial at the time: That Roman Catholics ‘could be saved.’ Ironically, as Rowan Williams points out in his little book, Anglican Identities (Cambridge, Cowley 2003), ‘he believe this, … for what are in fact sound Protestant [doctrinal] reasons.’ (24)
By doing this I hope to open an idea for reflection:
- It is often assumed that doctrine must be somewhat downplayed for ‘Big Tent Christianity’ to work. This strangely cuts off many from the Tent for whom doctrine is non-negotiable. I’d like to suggest that this tent can be filled up even with these ‘conservatives’ – which is what we want right? – by appeal to Protestant doctrinal distinctives as explicated by Richard Hooker, the inclusive Anglican par excellence, in his famous sermon ‘A Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and how the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown.‘
For Hooker, ‘ Many are the partakers of the error which are not of the heresy of the church of Rome.’ (London, Oxford/Clarendon, M.DCCC.LXV., vol. II, 613) As Hooker sees it, most Christians neither understand nor actively believe the sophisticated explanations of Christian faith and even such things as they do believe they do not realize how some of those might in fact be erroneous. He thinks this because we are born into situations over which we do not have control. ‘people follow the conduct of their guides, and observe as they did, exactly that which was prescribed them.’ (613) But the ‘foundation’ of faith is Christ alone and faith in him, not the whole of all we do or do not assent to, and this faith will be enough to sustain the Christian through judgment.
‘They be not all faithless that are either weak in assenting to the truth or stiff in maintaining things any way opposite to the truth of Christian doctrine. But as many as hold the foundation which is precious, though they hold it but weakly, and as it were by a slender thread, although they frame many base and unsuitable things upon it, things that cannot abide the trial of the fire; yet shall they pass the fiery trial and be saved, which indeed have builded themselves upon the rock, which is the foundation of the Church.’ – pp. 614-615
This is not at all novel, it is what we all learned as ‘Justification by Faith.’ But it is key for my point that Hooker draws the boundaries of the Church wide on account of sustained reflection on ‘doctrine,’ on the consequences of Scripture, rather than on the idea of Elizabethan comprehensiveness or an Anglian Via Media. Hooker is no help for those seeking to make of Anglicanism a wide church who are not also willing to flesh out the reasons why Hooker believed as he did.
Here, then, in Hooker, we find possible resources for ‘Big Tent Christianity’ which counter-intuitively came by way of doctrine. In fact I am a ‘Big Tent’ Christian. I am because I am confident that I myself do not have the capacity to be free from believing terribly ‘wrong’ things about God. My capacity for self-deception is vast and my openness to God’s grace is limited. I am because I am nobody’s judge. I am because we as a Church are dependent on the prior acts of a faithful God rather than our own attempts to maintain coherence.