In Defense of Liberal Theology

Tony Sig

“God has called us to unfold a growing message, and not to rehearse a stereotyped tradition” – B.F. Westcott

I have learned a great deal from Ephraim Radner, mostly having to do with Scripture and with attempting to be an academic theologian in a sentimentalist’s theological world, and I’m deeply indebted to him for this – but lord help me, when he ventures onto First Things I’m never sure what to make of his rather incoherent political ramblings. In a recent piece he seemingly assumes that political conservatism necessarily flows from theological ‘orthodoxy,’ or at least ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics.  Though his piece is purposely vague, Radner is quite clear that ‘liberal’ theology leads to a relativizing of Scripture’s authority, to ‘dogmatic dissolution’, and to a ‘laissez-faire’ view of ‘human relations.’ (Whether this statement is simply about sexuality is unclear. Does this indict conservative laissez-faire’ economics as well?)

The difficulty in engaging an essay like this goes back to language usage. Is all ‘liberal theology’ intrinsically unorthodox? Or is it, perhaps, that only liberal theology that ends in unorthodoxy is ‘genuinely liberal?’ My problem with Radner’s usage is that it needs some historization, something which, as a distinguished historical theologian, he ought to be doing automatically. In rereading the essay several times I think we should understand Radner to be suggesting something like ‘liberal theology is unorthodox, or at least leads to unorthodoxology. If it is still orthodox, it is not liberal.’ Bracketing, for the sake of discussion, the politics of what counts as ‘orthodox’ and what does not, I would like to assert that what has historically counted as ‘liberal theology’ is not often in direct conflict with traditional affirmations of the Christian faith. Indeed it is rather part and parcel of what is required of  theological work attempting to articulate a faithful proclamation of the Church’s witness.

But what is ‘liberal theology?’ Rather than answer this straightforwardly, I think it would be more fruitful to point to theologians who have consistently been called liberal. Classic examples from Germany include von Harnack, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann; in the contemporary anglophone world, J.A.T. Robinson, Raymond Brown, or Marcus Borg. But a great deal more than these have been considered ‘liberal,’ at least by their contemporaries, yet their insights have often been normalized and their reputations vindicated through time. Since Dr. Radner and I are both Episcopalians, I think some Anglican examples are apropos.

Bishop Charles Gore comes to mind, obviously, being considered the father of ‘liberal catholicism;’ So also does the Cambridge trio Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, whose work on the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers can hardly be overestimated  (Brown touted the genius of Westcott’s commentary on John in his NT Introduction). We might rightly add the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who, like liberal catholics before him, wasn’t afraid to incorporate historical criticism in his exegesis. With perhaps Gore only excepted (for his creative exploration of kenosis), there is hardly any thought that these scholars are not ‘orthodox,’ and while they may not now be considered ‘liberal’ generally, all wrote works that were controversial in their day using liberal methods. Just think of the stink around the usurpation of the Textus Receptus and the revised translation based on the critical text.

Liberal theology  is responsible for critical editions of the Bible, for advancements in historical work, for experimental integration of science and religion, for feminist theology, and a great many other things that have proved invaluable for Christians. It is doubtful whether conservative theology, left to its own devices, would ever have done as much. That liberals can err is no more remarkable than that conservatives can err, and no more clear evidence that they are fundamentally askew than that all conservatives fall prey to arianesque traditionalism. The continuing task of theology will require renewed pressing at the edges of what is respectable language. The tradition, in other words, should be non-identically repeated.  I don’t think we need liberal parties, or liberal identity policing (what is authentically liberal?), but we need the openness to the strangeness and newness of our encounter with God’s active grace; openness to the possibility that some assumed beliefs have grown wild and must be hacked off; that certain traditions cannot be maintained because they are actively harming people. “Christianity is not an uniform and monotonous tradition, but can be learned only by successive steps of life.” F.J.A. Hort


+Ramsey and the Evangelical Place of the Bishop

Tony SigI’ve been doing some work in +Arthur Michael Ramsey’s neglected The Gospel and the Catholic Church, specifically to his elucidation of the evangelical necessity of the bishop.  For Ramsey, the absolute foundation of the Church lies only in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but we participate in these historical events ever anew, especially in the sacraments.  (He is here, it should be noted, decades ahead of contemporary biblical scholarship that sees participation as one of the fundamental realities of Christian life, as in the work of Michael Gorman and Douglas Campbell.)

Nevertheless, following Ephesians, Ramsey traces the place and function of the apostles in the New Testament where most clearly they are understood as the foundational authorities of the Church.  He sees that St. Paul “has an office of ruling and integrating” and the apostles were “a ministry, restricted in numbers and of definite authority, not attached to local churches but controlling local churches on behalf of the general church.”  This “rootless” authority is an embodiment of the concrete unity given to the Church in the passionate flesh of Jesus, who himself gathered and commissioned the apostles.  They represent to congregations all the other congregations and act for and over all of them; thus by virtue of their office they enact the unity given in the Spirit and the Passion.

The question he then asks is this: Does the “more developed” episcopal theory of St. Ignatius fall in line with this?

“The [episcopal] ministry is important as linking the Christians with the historic events of Jesus Christ, since Christian experience is not a spirituality unrelated to history, but bears witness to its derivation from Jesus in the flesh…Thus the Church is one Body; its members glorify not themselves and their experiences, but the one historic Christ. And its worship is one; the Eucharist is not the act of any local group, but of the one Body, represented by its organ of unity in any place. Hence the Eucharist is to be celebrated only by the bishop [and those authorized by the bishop].”

His answer is yes, the bishop “succeeds” the apostles in function; the primary difference is now that the bishop is local, but as Florovsky says in Sobornost, “in its Bishop every single church transcends its own limits and comes into contact with and merges into other churches, not in the order of brotherly love and remembrance alone, but in the unity of mysterious and gracious life.”  So even this “localism” only has significance via the one Gospel, the one life of the Spirit, and so is also universal, a token of the unity that does not depend on the episcopacy but is expressed through it.

So Ramsey can go so far as to say that “the Episcopate is of the esse of the universal Church,” but only inasmuch as it expresses the unity of that one life given first in the flesh of Jesus and then in the Spirit through baptism –  It does not constitute the Church.  He would no doubt agree with Bulgakov, “First Church, then hierarchy.”

Anglican Identities: Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey

Tony SigAfter his retirement, ++Ramsey spent much of his time at Nashotah House Seminary.  At the time there was a nearby home for the mentally handicapped.  One day a resident of that home ‘escaped’ and police were looking for him.  Also on that day, Michael Ramsey was taking a walk in his full purple cassock.  Seeing a very hairy man in a long purple ‘dress’ the police stopped him on his walk and asked who he was.  ++Ramsey replied, “Why I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury!”

I just wanted to throw that story in there.  It doesn’t really serve a larger purpose in this post.

It has often been noted that most who have taken the name Cantaur have been less than the greatest minds of the Anglican Church, but somehow the last century has produced three ABCs about whom has been said, “He is the most theologically astute ABC since St. Anselm himself.”  I cannot judge such sayings, but at the very least, Michael Ramsey stands alongside William Temple and Rowan Williams as a creative and original theologian in his own right.

At this point I’ve not read as much Ramsey as I should like to.  But even what I have is enough to excite me to read more.  His classic theological work is The Gospel and the Catholic Church; a book written very early in his academic career and one that has apparently had a mixed reception.  Ramsey was writing this in an Anglican school system very much dedicated to the liberalism of its time yet also when Barth was starting to be read and the “Biblical Theology” movement was coming into its own.  It is remarkable the sheer amount of theology that is crammed into this thing.  From the first chapter Ramsey is quick to remove any sense of worldly ‘purpose’ from his ecclesiology; the Church is made and has its life only in the life death and resurrection of Christ.  It doesn’t play chaplain to the State, neither is it there to spread progressive values.

But this is also a mysterious participatory life.  Here Ramsey is well ahead of his time for a Protestant.  It may have been his deep appreciation of the Eastern Orthodox and/or his refusal to ‘rationalize’ how the New Testament talks about Gods life in the Church, whatever influenced Ramsey, he envisioned the Church as in the process of theosis.

But this forms only the beginning to this work.  From there Ramsey attempts to explicate church order and unity, the episcopacy and apostolic succession in light of this Passion as opposed to locating it in the predetermined discussions as they have been developed.  For him ‘Christian authority consists not in propositions about God [or, presumably the Church], but in God’s own redemptive action.”  This is a section I should like to work on in the future:  teasing out how the structure of the Church ought to be reflective of its life given by God in Christ.  This section of the work is among the most novel and creative.

The next part of the book consists in a series of three essays of historical theology exploring the “Church of the Fathers,” including both the Greek and Latin fathers; “Developments in Catholicism,” in which he critiques the Roman Catholic Church for what he sees as certain discontinuities; and “The Reformers and the Church.”  Ramsey was very much a sensitive reader of the Reformers and though himself often (and correctly) identified by others as “Anglo-catholic,” he was passionate that the Gospel and it alone stood at the heart of the Church.

In the next to last chapter Ramsey talks about the “Ecclesia Anglicana”  and (typically) locates it both in the Reformation but also, on account of it’s historic order, within the intents of the Catholic Church.  He here has a great little section on F.D. Maurice.

In a concluding note Ramsey returns again as he did throughout to the topic of Christian reunion, which for him cannot occur except as the Gospel is more and more ingested into the Church.

This work easily sums up the reason I feel so at home in Anglicanism.  As with any church, in practice we are mixed, but at its best Anglican theological reflection usually follows this exact order:  You must begin in the Scriptures; however authoritative and valuable the developments of history, Scripture (as it testifies to Christ) forms the heart of how we think of ourselves; then you move to the Church Fathers who still (providentially?) form a paradigm for integrating spirituality and philosophy into an holistic theology; but both the medieval church and the Reformation church have a rightful place even if both must be integrated with a tad bit more attentiveness; and it is only after this that we ought to begin to talk about the ‘Anglican Church’ and identity.  The mixing of the universal and the particular are perhaps one of the reasons that Anglicans have not historically excelled in systematics but rather in devotional theology.

But that’s mere speculation.  Whatever the case, by this book as well as his Anglican Spirit and An Era in Anglican Theology From Gore to Temple: The Development of Anglican Theology from ‘Lux Mundi’ and the Second World War 1889-1939, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury has taught me how to feel at home in the Episcopal Church even when sometimes I still feel like a baby Anglican.

Other important works of his include: (please leave comments with others)

The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ

The Christian Priest Today

Be Still and Know

A great starting point with secondary literature is Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings and Glory!. Owen Chadwick also composed this biography.

Anglican Identities

Tony Sig

So often in much contemporary Anglican disagreement, one hears that one or another position or action is “not Anglican;” as if there is a predetermined and widely understood notion of what is Anglican and what is not.  More often than not these Anglican ‘identities’ are warmed over secondary reflection on how Anglicanism is ‘inclusive – “We don’t have a confession” – or ‘Protestant’ – “remember the Articles of Religion?” or whatever.  Rarely have I found such cheap appeals convincing, and drawing from historical wells for invective has always produced less-than-complete pictures of our Christian past.

In his helpful little book, The Anglican Spirit, Michael Ramsey explains that there has seemed to be a general inability for Anglicanism to maintain anything like a coherent identity since WWII.  He points to several different reasons, among them the rise of optimistic ecumenism and the ‘Biblical Theology’ movement.  We see that this has carried on and accelerated up to the present debates surrounding authority, autonomy and theological revision.

On the one hand, it can become quite (for lack of a better word) ‘idolatrous’ to put an abstract ‘Anglican’ identity before the Gospel, yet so long as an appropriate perspective is kept, just as it makes perfect sense to talk about ‘Ignation spirituality’ within the Catholic Church as a distinctive vein,  it makes sense to speak of Anglicanism as a worthy part of the larger Tradition and as something valuable enough to retain.

But ‘identity’ is always something being constructed from memory, reflection and imagination.  It arises organically from going over the sources that feed us.  To figure out what such an identity might look like, it is better to go back and read the Tractarians, Hooker, Herbert rather than latch on to something like ‘comprehensiveness’ and try to fill it with meaning.

‘Identity making’ is in the end worthless since as the Church we receive our identity always from God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and not from the efforts of our own devising.  Nevertheless God has so made it that our lives are mediated by the stuff of this world, and so distinctive ‘cultures’ are not perversions of a transcendent universal standing over and above our existence, as if transfiguration had nothing to do with the ‘stuff’ of the world, but parts of a whole.

So we are going to offer a meager addition to this reflection.  Each of us is going to compose a short post about an Anglican thinker who has affected us significantly in hopes of renewing interest in our primary sources.  And soon we are going to add a new page, open to constant expansion, where we hope to list contemporary Anglican thinkers; where they teach and maybe some of what they’ve written; all in hopes that in attention to the particular we might understand more of the universal, and might get a better feel for how God is working among us today.

Thoughts, Anglo-Catholic: On ‘Traditionalists’ or “You Can’t Handle the Oxford Movement”

Tony SigAs a movement, as a theologically ‘centered’ or ‘coherent’ vein of Anglicanism, at least in my experience, and in the West, traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism is dead.  There are of course many Anglo-Catholics, many of whom drive the theological wheels.  I’d say in fact that the theological heavyweights in Anglicanism are in fact predominately though not exclusively ‘Anglo-Catholic.’  Long-lasting effects of Anglo-Catholicism can be felt in our revived Prayer Books; they can be seen in various liturgical performances; we like to recount the Oxford Movement and the (poorly understood and barely read) ‘Liberal Catholics’ in our histories; but if we are to take it as a continuing theological presence, and if we are to take the Oxford Movement and the Liberal Catholics as paradigms, then I personally don’t see many indicators that ACism sustains a theological vein apart from certain British movements of recent memory.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve gotten into not a few conversations about this with people who mostly disagree with me and/or disagree with how I define ‘Catholic.’  But as an example lets look at the possible move of some traditionalist AC clergy from the Church of England on account of the likely move to allow women to be bishops.

Without a ‘conscience clause’ these clergy would have to accept the sacramental and pastoral oversight of a woman if such a thing came to pass.  For these people, this would amount to an abandonment of true sacramentality; a transgressing of the apostolic office and the foundation that Christ himself laid and set out for eternity:  If you have a mitre, you must have XY chromosomes and a penis.

Let us assume for the sake of the argument that the Oxford Movement (OM) and probably even the Liberal Catholics (LCs) would disagree with both womens ordination and especially women bishops.  Current traditionalist ACs until this point have suffered their conscience on the matter of women clergy in the C of E so long as it didn’t happen in their parish.  Indeed, if a ‘conscience clause’ had not been rejected as it seems it will be, even still, so long as they themselves were able to practice their piety in good conscience, then it seems few if any would have been tempted to leave the C of E.

Enter a proposition: AC clergy (in the C of E) will not leave the church even if there are women clergy and bishops in the church so long as they are able to maintain their own practice.

That is, they can suffer a diversity on this issue in their wider fellowship, both in the C of E and in the wider Communion.

Proposition II – AC clergy are in Eucharistic (that is, the highest level of) fellowship with women clergy and bishops and parishoners ‘under’ them.

If we are to assume that a ‘true’ traditionalist AC does not ‘recognize’ the sacramental validity of women clergy, then:

Proposition III – ACs are able to abide ‘invalid’ sacraments in part of their church.

If these three propositions are true, and broadly of traditionalist ACs they are, then:

Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are in fact high-church Congregationalists.

The OM and even the LCs were very concerned with authority.  Indeed, many in the OM were not even thurible swingin’ high-churchers.  No.  Time and again when you read the Tracts for the Times, you realize that the OM was concerned to establish that the C of E sat in proper sacramental, that is episcopal continuity with the church of the apostles and that it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been allowed a thousand parishes to fill with chant and incense.  What mattered was whether or not they were practicing in the same church and with the same authority as the apostles.  Additionally, this would have had to have been true of the entire C of E, and indeed when Newman and many others deemed that it wasn’t, they left for Roman Catholicism.

Similarly Bishop Gore spent an awful lot of time defending the catholicity of the C of E.  Indeed he wrote an impressive and persuasive book on just that topic. (cf. Order and Unity)

Now, I usually situate myself within Anglo-Catholicism seeing a clear line from ABC Michael Ramsey to Rowan Williams to RadOx.  I would then consider myself a “liberal (charismatic and evangelical) catholic” though not in the way that term is generally used today.

But my point isn’t really in this essay to establish my own perfect catholicity (I’m pretty sure there isn’t such a thing) but rather to show that if traditionalist ACs have so far suffered sacramental invalidity in their church they should never have been in the C of E to begin with.  I wonder if they simply don’t get what it means to be ‘Catholics;’ whatever the case they have a long way to go before they can legitimately say that they stand in continuity with Anglo-Catholicism.

Towards a Teleological Theological Seminary III

Tony SigA long time ago I “started” one of the likely millions of neglected blog series in which I was hoping to address theological education:  It’s needs, it’s shortcomings, it’s potential and future(s).  Being inspired by several posts of late I wanted to take this series up again.  The possibility of re-configuring theological education is something that I take rather seriously and am passionate enough about to consider strongly participating in in my future.

A quick review:

  • In one post I said that so-called “ecumenical” seminaries are overrated.  If your priesthood is concerned with apostolic succession and sacramentology then it makes no sense to take the majority of your education in a Baptist school, though for “us” the “Anglican Year” is a brilliant stroke that lessens the ambiguity of ‘ecumenical’ schooling.  School for your denomination and theology is what I say.
  • In another, in answer to the musings (I and II) of Pastor Carol Merritt I replied that, No, we cannot afford educated clergy, but neither can we afford uneducated clergy; so we’ve got to find a way to do both.

Having laid a framework with these two statements I would like to build on it.  Having said what I think about “ecumenical” seminaries, from this point forward I speak as an Episcopalian to Episcopalians but I would hope that what I write would not be relegated relevant to Episcopalians only.  In fact I think that much of it could be highly relevant for most fellowships as most are facing financial setbacks and serious issues of a lack of Christian identity.

There is a place, a VERY important place, for “research” institutions in the Church, but I’m not convinced that every seminary should be such an institution, or at the very least, we should not be expecting all or even most of our seminary professors to be on the forefront of modern academic theology; writing articles for “Modern Theology” and composing exhaustive tomes of critical work.  It seems to me that there is a near anti-christian pace of academic-theological anxiety: “Publish, Publish, Publish!”

For most seminaries, the training of priests should be the single most important task to which everything else is secondary.

I would greatly appreciate any and all input especially for those who have been through seminary, are in it now, are teaching for one or who are soon to attend.

A Couple Transfiguration Resources

*I know the feast of the Transfiguration isn’t until August, I was just reminded of it because we read about it in the Gospel Reading today. Keep these in mind come the feast proper*

The Transfiguration is one of the most theologically rich stories in the Gospels.  I would point people in the direction of a few resources, two of which are by highly respected Anglican theologians.

The 100th Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey was an ecumenist extraordinaire and he was deeply involved in talks between the Eastern Churches and Anglicanism.  His theological study of the Transfiguration has recently undergone a re-print by Wipf & Stock publishers.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury also has a little book about praying with Icons of Christ.  It pays special attention to icons of the Transfiguration.

I leave you with Sufjan Steven’s profound neo-folk interpretation of the Transfiguration.

When he took the three disciples
to the mountainside to pray,
his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame.
Two men appeared: Moses and Elijah came;
they were at his side.
The prophecy, the legislation spoke of whenever he would die.

Then there came a word
of what he should accomplish on the day.
Then Peter spoke, to make of them a tabernacle place.
A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade.
They fell on the ground.
A voice arrived, the voice of God,
the face of God, covered in a cloud.

What he said to them,
the voice of God: the most beloved son.
Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come.
The prophecy was put to death,
was put to death, and so will the Son.
And keep your word, disguise the vision ’till the time has come.

Lost in the cloud, a voice. Have no fear! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Turn your ear.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Lamb of God! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Son of God!