Love and the Limits of Latitudinarianism

William Love has resigned from his position as the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany. Love’s future is uncertain — his resignation is effective February 1, 2021, and he has not said what he intends to do after he leaves his position. Some have speculated that he will remain as a parishioner in The Episcopal Church, and others think he may move to the Anglican Church in North America in some capacity. We do not know, and any speculation would likely prove fruitless.

In brief, Bishop Love was found guilty of violating the discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church, as Love had banned any priest in his diocese from presiding over same-sex marriages. While The Episcopal Church’s General Convention had passed a resolution allowing for priests who wished to preside over same-sex weddings to seek alternate pastoral oversight in the event that their bishop did not allow for it, Love had issued a pastoral directive banning that practice as well. For this, Love was found guilty, and from his most recent statement it appears that he was left with a choice: resign or face being deposed. He has chosen resignation.

Conservative critics of The Episcopal Church were quick to say that all of this demonstrated that The Episcopal Church’s claims to offer a broad and inclusive religious environment were false — The Episcopal Church, they said, had shown itself perfectly capable of being intolerant. Progressive defenders of The Episcopal Church were quick to respond that all this demonstrated was that General Convention’s resolutions were binding on bishops.

Both responses ring hollow. The conservative critique attempts to catch The Episcopal Church in hypocrisy, but in this case there is none. The Episcopal Church has, over the last few decades, made its priorities clear; being openly and uniformly affirming of same-sex marriage is one of those priorities. Enforcing the canons and resolutions of the church in Love’s case is thus the natural, expected outcome. It is what you would expect of any organization with any real conviction, and especially with the particular convictions of The Episcopal Church. The progressive defense attempts to characterize what has happened to Love as a kind of procedural matter. Yet, given the historical inconsistency of enforcement of the church’s canons, it is hard to see this as little more than a rationalization.

It is not my intention to relitigate the Love trial, nor to argue for or against the decisions that The Episcopal Church has made. I wish instead to argue that there is, regardless of one’s theological views of same-sex marriage, a positive takeaway from all of this. By punishing Love, The Episcopal Church has constrained the boundaries of acceptable belief and practice for all Episcopalians in helpful and illuminating ways. Even those looking in at The Episcopal Church’s choices from the outside will find it helpful, because The Episcopal Church has demonstrated that there must be a limit to inclusivity. Any worthwhile organization must be willing to draw hard lines, to say ‘This position is acceptable, but that position is not.’ By charging Love and finding him guilty, Episcopal leaders have shown that they are willing to abandon a previous commitment to latitudinarianism. I contend that conservatives and progressives should agree that they are right to do so.

The Latitudinarians were moderates, stressing tolerance of diverging theologies and practices. There has never been a declaration from any Anglican body that the operative philosophy was to be latitudinarianism, but we see its influence throughout Anglican history. Debates over churchmanship and theology, sometimes even about the status of the Nicene Creed, have been categorized as differences of opinions or points of view; as such, the opposing parties that formed within parts of the Anglican Communion were to practice toleration and understanding regarding them. This disposition has sometimes been called the via media in practice, though it would be foreign to the Anglicans of the Elizabethan Compromise. When difficult questions arise in Anglicanism, there is always a temptation to follow the latitudinarian path. For many years, that was the path followed by The Episcopal Church.

After the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, The Episcopal Church was faced with a choice: what should be done to maintain stability between progressives and the conservatives who had not left? At the time, it seemed that there was a de facto latitudinarian policy — conservatives would be able to practice their faith in line with their convictions, and progressives would be able to practice their faith in line with theirs. While this compromise was new — Anglicans had not had this debate about human sexuality before — there were many historical models to follow. We have seen many heated debates within Anglicanism, and oftentimes the various Churches in this tradition have chosen to compromise rather than to make difficult decisions.

Compromise about what constitutes a marriage — acknowledged in every Book of Common Prayer not as a sacrament, but at least as a holy commitment between two persons before God and His Church — could not be sustained. Eventually, one position would come to dominate the other, becoming the de facto position of the church. And eventually the winning side would want to codify its beliefs and practices. Consider, for example, how the ordination of women came to be in The Episcopal Church. In 1976 General Convention voted to allow for women to be ordained to the priesthood; in 1997 a resolution was passed to bar dioceses limiting the priesthood to men. The Episcopal Church simply could not maintain a system in which some dioceses accepted women to the priesthood and some did not — doing so threatened its ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and more. Similarly, The Episcopal Church could no longer maintain a system in which some dioceses permitted same-sex marriages and some did not.

It is easy to confuse two issues: correctness and coherence. Conservative critics of The Episcopal Church criticize the decision to allow for the ordination of women or to bless same-sex marriages — the conservatives believe that The Episcopal Church is wrong to do so. The progressives disagree. This is not a dispute about the theological correctness of ordaining women or blessing same-sex marriages. What I am writing here is not about the correctness of either issue, but rather the theological coherence of certain compromises within a church. If one diocese believes that women may be priests and another diocese believes only men may be priests, the church which contains them is in a state of theological incoherence. That church cannot meaningfully answer the question ‘Who may be a priest?’ because different dioceses will answer in inconsistent ways. The disagreement is not just over who may be a priest, but more fundamentally over the nature and theology of the priesthood. This incoherence must be ameliorated before matters of theological correctness can be adjudicated. The risk of latitudinarianism is not that it allows the church to slip into error, but rather that it guarantees that the church will fall into incoherence.

Perhaps of greater interest for readers of The North American Anglican is what this means for the Anglican Church in North America. It is unlikely that the ACNA would ever begin blessing same-sex relationships; this controversy is for Episcopalians. But the ACNA does have its own compromises and tensions, and it is an open question as to how they will be resolved.

Consider the talk of the ‘three streams’ of Anglicanism. Proponents of three-streams ecclesiology hold that Anglicanism comprises three major streams: the catholic, the evangelical, and the charismatic. This view is put forward in books such as Simply Anglican, and it is repeated on the ACNA’s website (with a slightly differently metaphor):

The Protestant movement recalled the 16th century Church to the primacy of the Word—written, read, preached, inwardly digested. The 18th century Holiness movement reminded the Church of God’s love for the poor. The Anglo-Catholic movement re-grounded the Church in the sacramental life of worship. All three strands are grounded in the Gospel. Each one extrapolates the Gospel in a specific direction. No strand is dispensable. Other Christian bodies have often taken one strand to an extreme. By God’s grace the Anglican tradition has held the streams in creative tension. This miracle of unity is a treasure worth keeping.

Talk of three streams or strands within Anglicanism obscures the fact that proponents of these views have often seen themselves as in conflict with one another. Historically, one could see these conflicts in how the various parties interpreted or attempted to revise the Articles of Religion. It was clear to all of them that these views are in conflict, that it would be difficult for them to coexist within a single church. Yet three-streams ecclesiology treats them as merely different interpretations of the Gospel, competing emphases which balance each other within the church. It must treat them as such if it hopes to maintain unity within a new communion. But is this sustainable? Will the three streams eventually diverge? Is this a miracle unity or an illusion? These questions are difficult to answer in the abstract.

We see this play out in other ways within the ACNA — in which prayer books are adopted, in non-geographical dioceses based on churchmanship or liturgical stylings, in the varied views of the ordination of women — but the same questions always arise. Which compromises are sustainable, and which are such that one side must eventually win?

Of course, some compromises are worthwhile, and it is not as if every disagreement causes a communion-threatening incoherence. Traditionally, Anglicans have tolerated a range of views about several issues, though it is helpful to remember that this range was not unbounded. In the classical Anglican tradition there were always limits. Some compromise is to be expected, as the church is an earthly institution. Yet on some matters we cannot compromise. On some issues, the limits must be such that the range of permissible answers is quite small — sometimes so small that only one answer is permitted. There can be no compromise on the matter of the divinity of Christ, for instance. The difficulty is determining which issues tolerate compromise and which do not.

There are reasons to think that the ACNA could succeed in maintaining some compromises that The Episcopal Church could not. The Episcopal Church has long suffered a crisis of faith — to see this, one need look no further than the case of John Shelby Spong. Spong openly repudiated many core Christian claims — that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that Jesus was God Incarnate, that the miracles of the New Testament truly occurred — yet was allowed to carry out his ministry as priest and bishop. When a church refuses to discipline its bishops for even the most serious doctrinal violations, it must look for other ways to define its identity. The Episcopal Church must take hard stances, to say ‘This position is acceptable, but that position is not.’ It has now resumed doing so.

The ACNA has expressed a commitment to the Anglican Formularies as a basis for Anglican identity. If the ACNA truly commits itself to such an identity, then perhaps it can tolerate a wider range of views. So long as all of these views are truly consistent with the Anglican Formularies, then the ACNA may be able to maintain theological coherence. This will be a prerequisite for any sustainable ministerial or evangelisitic efforts. Unity has to be based around something. That the 2019 Book of Common Prayer includes a section entitled ‘Documentary Foundations’ rather than ‘Historical Documents’ signals that the ACNA takes those documents to be foundational, and thus they can be used as the basis of an identity and as a standard of coherence. This is the benefit of something like confessionalism, though ‘confessionalism’ may not be the best term for it in the ACNA.

A church cannot speak authoritatively on matters of faith and morals, and thus cannot function as a church, if major disagreements are treated as a matter of mere opinion. The difficulty is determining which disagreements truly are major and which compromises may truly be sustained. Now more than ever Anglicans must commit themselves to this labor.

 



Jared Henderson, PhD

Jared Henderson received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut. He now works and writes in Austin, TX. He hosts two podcasts: Matins, a weekly reflection on a text from Christian history, and Augustinian, a biweekly podcast about the writings of St. Augustine.


'Love and the Limits of Latitudinarianism' has 1 comment

  1. November 6, 2020 @ 10:26 am John Linebarger

    A thoughtful post, but ultimately an exercise in wishful thinking. Dr. Henderson is quite right that, theology aside, any organization is allowed to set boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and for healthy organizations those boundaries are coherent instead of incoherent. But his logic breaks down when he attempts, seemingly by sheer force of will, to assert that the ACNA is somehow exempt from the need to set coherent boundaries for itself, or can long last with a fuzzier set of boundaries than those that apply to other organizations. For the very same schizophrenia with regard to women’s ordination in the 60’s and 70’s that obtained in the Episcopal Church applies to the ACNA in 2020. And other fault lines exist along other dimensions.

    Let’s be honest with ourselves. The ACNA is at least three separate organizations inhabiting the same body only because they were escaping from a common enemy. Over time, in the very same way that just happened in The Episcopal Church, the organizational boundaries must rationalize and become coherent. Until then, the ghettoization of the ACNA along the lines of churchmanship, culture, and women’s ordination will sadly continue.

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