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.

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2009 Reflections…

Tony SigReaders will know that this last semester has drastically reduced my ability to post.  I’ve been pretty weak on regularity until my recent binge with daily Propositions.

Over the short time that I’ve been blogging, blogging has helped me learn to focus my thoughts and hone my (incredibly limited) writing skills.  I’ve enjoyed greatly all the interaction and pushback I’ve gotten from readers from which I’ve grown immensely.

I hope I will be forgiven then for allowing Reflections on the past year flow over into 2010.  I had late finals and the Holidays have totally cramped my style.  I am excited to throw out some of the things that have been rumbling inside my head.

I also hope I will be forgiven for some of the narcissistic perspective many of them will take.  There are few things that will make me unsubscribe from a blog than daily spewing forth what are essentially poorly written journal entries.  But, being in The Episcopal Church, and considering all that has happened in the last year, I wanted to throw out there some thoughts on what is going on in Anglicanism.

I will certainly make for these reflections to be theological, but I imagine that some will fall back into sentiment and they will have a sense of arbitrarity, for which I cannot apologize.  It may seem that at times I will ramble but I hope, especially for our Anglican readership, that my fears and hopes will reveal a bit about the struggles in our Churches to be faithful both to the “gospel” as we perceive it, and to ourselves as a Communion of Churches.

I’ve grown a bit more into the role of a “Traditionalist” in matters of theological revision but I hope that I will never be received as a “Stand Firm” type.  I have no pretensions about having the whole of Truth wrapped up and if I say things that are “conservative” or whatever the damn word we want to use, I am quite passionate about living together in diverse minds.  But it is the width and nature of and reasons for diversity that is up for question.

Without further ado:

“My Reading and How It’s Affected Me”

2009 marks the first solid year of me reading “academic theology.”  I’d read some theology before this but mostly it had been the historical and exegetical work of N.T. Wright and the theology of Walter Brueggemann.

I read a substantial amount of the work of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.  I stumbled through his organized book of essays “On Christian Theolgy,” as well as most of the sermons in “A Ray of Darkness.” I was astounded at his incredibly concise but deceivingly deep account of Christian spirituality “from the NT to St. John of the Cross” in The Wound of Knowledge.” I came to understand facets of Anglicanism (especially with his two essays on Hooker) that I hadn’t known about in his “Anglican Identities,” I found fresh air in his collection of poems and I got a glimpse into his ability to make wonderfully revisionist yet clearly insightful readings of historical theology in “Where God Happens,” which as it so happens I took to be an excellent primer on Rowans ecclesiological leadership “method.”  I felt his introduction to Christian theology was just the book I would give to one to be confirmed or evangelized or an ‘old soul’ who needed to hear just how Christian theology makes any sense or difference.  His book on Christ’s “Trial Narratives” also unearthed the hidden ways that we can will to power.  I’ve begun but not finished his book on violence, on church history and on “cultural bereavement” and will soon take up his essays on St. Teresa Avila, Modern Theology, Christian devotion, art,  Russian theology and literature and the formation of orthodoxy.  There are several other books I’m looking forward to reading, he’s a rather prolific author.

All of these were an utter joy to read.  I came to get a feel for his style, for his themes, for his perspective and for a deftly compelling vision of how and why to do theology.  “Theology,” he says “Moves between the Celebratory, the Communicative, and the Critical styles” – On Christian Theology xiii

From my completely objective and unbiased perspective, the crown of his work that I’ve read so far and the most powerful book I read this year was his essay “Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel.” It’s a paradigm for how I should like one day to perform theological reflection.  It moves almost seamlessly through the three registers of theology he spoke of above, at times fully aware of the historical-critical problems, at other times practically doxological and always conscious of being a work directed to the Church, not simply among theologians.

The Archbishop is acutely aware of our propensity to deceive ourselves into thinking we can control our safety, our identity, our orthodoxy, or even those of other peoples.  So the Gospel is often Judgement, Christ is preached to those who condemned him and so condemned themselves.  He extends his forgiveness to those who abandoned him and those who betrayed him.  And forgiveness is nothing other than the giving of mission and restoration of trust.

Having read even this much of ++Williams’ work it is strange to me that so many find his way of being Archbishop so unpredictable, unstable and dispassionate.  He has been nothing if not consistent that he is not interested in the role of condemning and controlling members of the current Communion.  But, he also has an intimate understanding of how Christians have come to perceive themselves historically (see his work on Arius as well as on doing Church history).  It is incredibly difficult for me not to believe honestly that God has raised up Rowan to be Archbishop at this crucial time.  I am so grateful for having chosen him to read in these the formative years of my own training.  I have the same feeling I had after having read N. T. Wright’s “Christian Origins” trilogy…”Let’s do that again.”  And as I did just that I may run through a couple Rowan books before I move on.

At the risk of lengthening this post to an obscene length, for the sake of keeping on topic I wanted also to mention another book that was paradigm shifting for me but was not a part of my ++Williams regiment.  That book is “Hope Among the Fragments: The Broken Church and It’s Engagement With Scripture” by Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner.

Radner is famous as a central voice in the Traditionalist group of pastor/scholars known as the Anglican Communion Institute and as one who has helped frame the Anglican Covenant.  He has also been an incredibly creative and passionate theologian in regards to the Church, especially it’s boundaries and in discerning the “form” of Christ in diverse and sundry members thereof.  In addition to this Radner has also contributed to a series of Biblical commentaries that take an explicitly theological tenor.  An earlier book of his obviously provides a trajectory for this one which aims to look at how a Broken church can and should reflect theologically on Scripture.  Certainly there are few churches as broken as us Anglicans right now.

Though himself a self-styled “conservative,” Radner never comes off as a biblicist.  In fact it is difficult to read him as any kind of “Evangelical” conceived along any modern historical way of understanding the term.  This is because he reads Scripture Christologically following the famous Anglican-Catholic theologian and influential member of the “Oxford Tractarians” John Keble, who in Tract 89 laid out an impressive vision of Patristic exegesis.

Having set out a case for Christological interpretation Radner begins to reflect on “The Form of Christ” in Scripture and in the Church covering topics ranging from diagnosis of current ecclesiological ills to homosexuality and “bad bishops.”  All the while refraining from cheap biblical shots at those with whom he disagrees looking for Christ’s own form in them and in their readings of Scripture.

Keeping in mind Radner calls himself a “conservative,” and that he lays out a “traditional” sacramental reading of heterosexual marriage, it should astound “progressives” as much as “evangelicals” that he argues for the toleration of private practice and conscience in matters of sexual practice provided that the Church’s vision of Holy Matrimony is left unaltered.  Not, mind you, because he is a relativist or a closet liberal or “unconcerned with sin” (or some other boneheaded conservative phrase) but because he can see Christian faithfulness even in committed homosexual Christian couples!

This book really shook me up.  First, it challenged me to begin to learn to read Scripture, especially the Old Testament, Christologically.  I have long been captive to a narrow view of modern historical-critical exegetical methodology but this book, along with certain philosophical considerations, has convicted me that I’ve been reading Scripture incompletely, narrowly and even biggotedly as I poured scorn on so-called “metaphorical” readings of Church fathers and even of New Testament authors.

It also confirmed in me a conviction that I need to “commit” to this Anglican mess.  I must confess that even still, being a “johnny come lately” to this group of churches, finding in it a home and room to breathe, but also a gun to my head forcing me to “pick sides,” I’ve been hesitant to feel settled.  I’ve often got a sideways glance to the East as fundamentalist evangelicals and liberal revisionists fight this to the bitter end.  But this book stresses the virtue of “staying put” in a church.  In this he is much like Hooker:  Submission to a fixed law, even if perceived to be wrong, is preferable to chaos and rebellion and can even be the ground for greater growth.

Finally, and I’m pairing this with my previous thoughts on Rowan, I’ve been encouraged that our current struggles are not going to be solved by “a Pelagian ratcheting up of the theological task” (Radner, 202), as if we can just nail down this or that dogma or wing of the Church we can force the stability that we all so eagerly desire.  Other Christians, even and perhaps especially those with whom we disagree strongly, cannot be seen as people and identities to bring under our control.  The form of Christ in their own life must be allowed to be seen.