The Consistency of Anglicanism

Anglicanism is a large umbrella theologically speaking, with diverse, and sometimes even opposed beliefs and practices standing together in the same ecclesial space. Evangelicals, Catholics, Charismatics, and Reformed Christians, amongst others, all have a place (even if not an exactly equal place) at the table in the Anglican Church, giving a breadth and depth to our tradition (albeit with some tensions) quite unique in Christendom. The term “generous orthodoxy,” I think, well expresses this theological mood/approach. However, Anglicanism’s generous orthodoxy is not without its critics. Both within and outside the Communion, there are those who have argued that Anglicanism’s theological diversity suggests an inconsistency at the heart of the tradition, generating unsustainable tensions and contradictions in the Church’s doctrine and practice. I want to make the case, or at least begin to make the case, that this argument, while superficially compelling, is ultimately unfounded, and that, underlying Anglicanism’s theological diversity, lays a deeper and perfectly consistent logic.

First, Anglicanism is dogmatically consistent. Theologians often distinguish between dogma properly so-called, which refers to certain necessary and fundamental Christian truths, or, put another way, articles of faith, and other, lower orders of Christian truth (e.g. doctrine, pious opinion, adiaphora). When it comes to dogma (as defined), the Anglican Church has consistently maintained that dogma, and, concomitantly, all that must be believed for salvation and membership in the Church, is wholly contained in the catholic Creeds (the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan), as put forward in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Thus, while important, debates over the Real Presence, predestination, or what vestments are appropriate for worship, are not, strictly speaking, dogmas of the Church, for which reason we allow a variety of positions on these and other topics. Our generous orthodoxy, then, far from being an inconsistency, is rather our consistent application of the distinction between dogma and non-dogma in refusing to elevate non-dogmatic Christian truths to the level of dogma, which, of course, naturally lends itself to diversity on such points. No other Church can claim this: there is always the Creeds + some doctrinal idiosyncrasy (e.g. de jure papal authority, limited atonement, ubiquity)

Second, Anglicanism is consistent in its emulation of the primitive Church. Anglicans, regardless of churchmanship, have always sought to order their doctrine and discipline on the model of the primitive Church, which is to say, the Church of the first five/seven centuries following Christ’s death. But the primitive Church was a large, multivalent, and diverse Church. Indeed, one cannot take so much as a survey course in patristics or Church history without being amazed at the eclectic fecundity of the ancient Christians, and the wide range of beliefs and practices across her Latin, Greek, Coptic, and Syriac instantiations. Thus, Anglicanism’s diversity in doctrine (in contradistinction to dogma) and practice mirrors that of the primitive Church, consistent with her principled emulation of that Church. This is a rare treasure in the modern world. While most other churches have given in to the quintessentially modern, post-Enlightenment temptation to formalism, substituting broad catholicity for doctrinal system building, our Church has resisted this systematizing impulse, remaining faithful to the primitive and patristic example of theological diversity within dogmatic unity.

Third, Anglicanism is ecumenically consistent. Ever since the twentieth-century ecumenical movement, Christians have come to recognize that Christian unity is not some ornament or add-on, but a real imperative, and that the Church’s fragmented state has negatively impacted her witness in the world. However, all too often ecumenism stops at this recognition, due in large part to the undue elevation of denominational and sectarian idiosyncrasies to the level of dogma and conditions for communion, such as Rome’s commitment to a late medieval notion of papal authority, Calvinism’s distinctive view of a limited atonement, or Lutheranism’s peculiar doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body, to use our above examples. Not Anglicanism! Consistent with their desire for a united Church, Anglicans, within certain very broad limits, are perfectly willing to live with and within the tensions involved in the Church’s generous approach to orthodoxy, so long as there remains a baseline unity on the articles of faith as contained in the Church’s Creed.

Fourth, and last for this article, Anglicans are consistent in their reverence for mystery. With the exception of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, there are in most Christian communions/denominations two opposed and pernicious tendencies: either to over-define the mysteries of the Christian faith or, worse still, to reject those mysteries altogether. On the mystery of the Eucharist, for example, the Roman Church insists upon a fairly rigorous, and peculiarly late-medieval explanation of the Real Presence involving Aristotelian metaphysical categories, while, on the other hand, Baptists have rejected the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Supper tout court, holding that the Eucharist is a mere memorial of Christ’s passion. Anglicans, along with the Orthodox, have evaded both these tendencies, consistently maintaining the reality and sublimity of the mystery while not pretending to an exact or exhaustive definition thereof. To be sure, symbolic instrumentalism, receptionism, consubstantiation, etc., are all viable positions within the generous orthodoxy allowed by the Church as school opinions, but nothing more. The apparent inconsistency in doctrine relating to mysteries, therefore, is actually underpinned by a consistent and deeper recognition of those mysteries’ profundity, their transcendence as objects of theological inquiry, and, as a consequence, the limits of human reason in trying to account for them.

I hope to have shown, or at least to have begun to have shown, that Anglicanism’s “inconsistencies” are only apparent, and that, underlying them, are more fundamental dogmatic/doctrinal commitments, themselves perfectly consistent. Now, I am fully aware that this will not satisfy everyone, indeed, not even everyone who buys the basic thrust of my argument. There will always be those who desire greater doctrinal precision, or to worship with those who agree with them more fully, and without the tensions involved in Anglicanism’s generous orthodoxy. To those people, I want to say just a few things, or, rather, ask a few questions. One, for those desiring greater doctrinal precision, is an arid system of doctrine (say Turretin’s Institutes or Quenstedt’s Theologia Didactico-Polemica) really preferable to a living spiritual tradition? What does it say of a soul if it should choose written theological formulae, entombed in a hermetically sealed, self-enclosed system, over participation in a rich, dynamic tradition of liturgy, devotion, and scholarship, with space for imaginative development and free play (within certain bounds)? Two, for those who would presume to elevate this or that doctrine to the status of an article of faith, is this any less hazardous than subtracting an article? Does Scripture not condemn those who “add unto” along with those who “take away” from the apostles’ doctrine (Revelation 22:18-20), as the catholic Fathers warn again and again? Third, for those who might not elevate their favorite doctrine into an article of faith, but would, say, like to “live more fully into it,” or hold it with confidence, or some such notion, is this really worth breaking fellowship with other of the brethren? Does it not seem petty and uncharitable to refuse fellowship with one’s spiritual kin because one prefers their ritual a little higher, their conversion experiences a little more lively, or their ordo salutis a little more tightly organized? If you’re thinking about leaving, or remaining outside of, the communion of the Anglican Church you ought to ask yourself these questions. The Anglican Church, as we have begun to show, is consistent in her principles, devoted to the faith handed down by the apostles as contained in the Creed, with neither addition nor subtraction and, moreover, is the Church God has established for the English-speaking world. As North American Christians, then, to be outside her communion is to be in danger, which one should not venture lightly.

 

 


Fr Seth Snyder

Fr Seth Snyder is an Air Force chaplain in the Special Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces, and the vicar at St. Mary the Virgin's Anglican Mission in McConnelsville, Ohio. He holds a B.A.S. in philosophy and history from Ohio University, an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, an S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School, and he's a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University, Corpus Christi College. A brand new lecturer at Reformed Episcopal Seminary, he has a wife, Jessica, and two daughters, Alexis and Abigail.


'The Consistency of Anglicanism' have 10 comments

  1. December 15, 2023 @ 5:29 pm Christian Cate

    I commend the author on actually making a bold statement. To be outside of her communion is to be in danger. This is generally true for any catholic / orthodox Christian. To be outside of the Communion of the Church is to be in a state of danger. It is my hope that I’m in partial communion with Anglicans while formally being in Full Communion in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I regularly attend an ACNA parish with my wife, and Commune on the same Sundays at my Eastern Orthodox WR Parish. This year I was sorely tempted to be received into the ACNA, but I had doubts and pulled back from that decision. Perhaps according to this article the beliefs I currently have picked up from Orthodoxy could survive in the ACNA. But I don’t have peace about formally breaking with Orthodoxy after making a deliberate choice to join it 15 years ago. God considers our commitments and choices to be important, and takes no pleasure in fools, so I’ve read in Scripture. Fullfill your vow, he says to all of us. I’m still trying to live that out in this unusual situation that I didn’t anticipate happening a number of years back. Thanks

    Reply

    • December 18, 2023 @ 3:55 pm Seth Snyder

      Thank you, Christian, for your thoughtful and personal comment. Yours is an interesting situation, since you’re a member of a genuine branch of the Church catholic in apostolic succession, but, assuming you’re an English speaking North American, not one providentially fitted your specific historical and cultural identity. Without pretending to an authoritative statement on the issue, your situation might be better described as “unmeet” or “ill-suited” rather than “dangerous.” That being said, as a rule, the answer to the question, “where should I worship and serve?” is usually “where you’re at.” As to your thoughts on the place of Orthodox beliefs in the Anglican Church, you will find they are generally compatible, though the degree to which high church and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans venerate Mary and images will be quite subdued when compared to the Orthodox, and you will inevitably find 39 Article fundamentalists and Reformation Anglicans who will object to certain aspects of Orthodox-is theology and devotion in the Church.

      Reply

  2. December 15, 2023 @ 6:06 pm Philip Enarson

    …TO BE OUTSIDE HER COMMUNION IS Dangerous.”. If you are referring to TEC I respond by saying, “to be inside her communion is dangerous indeed” . The Post’s Creed and the Nicene Creed are exquisite dogmatic formulations of the Faith but are insufficient in themselves; the application of dogma in the Creeds to the morality of the life situations as amplified in the Gospels and Letters, partiularily but not exclusively in sexual matters is theologically and necessarily inherent in the Creeds and as such are not adiaphoria. Creeds alone are insufficient to retain unity in a broader Catholic church if not harmonious with the morality of Christ and His apostles.

    Reply

    • December 17, 2023 @ 10:06 pm Seth Snyder

      Mr. Enarson
      Thank you for your comment. I am most certainly not referring to TEC, which, in all likelihood, is an apostate Church (to say nothing of this or that individual member of TEC). I am referring to GAFCON, and in particular to the ACNA as the orthodox expression of Anglicanism in North America. As to the Creeds, I think we are by and large in agreement, and I share with you concern over the moral issues of our day, in particular theological anthropology (e.g., sex, gender, marriage, etc.). But we ought to distinguish between dogma as it pertains to the fundamentals of Christianity considered as a system, and those moral fundamentals essential to Christianity considered as a way of life, or being in the world (in der Welt sein). Both dogma and morals are fundamentals, but in different senses. Now, the liberals try and relegate issues of sex, gender and marriage to the status of adiaphora by denying their dogmatic character, which is correct as far as it goes; but it does not follow from issues of sex, gender and marriage not being dogmas that they are therefore not fundamentals. All dogma are fundamentals, but not all fundamentals are dogma. For this reason I argue only that the Catholic Creeds exhaust Church dogma, not all fundamentals.

      Reply

      • December 17, 2023 @ 11:31 pm Philip Enarson

        Agreed on all points; a very helpful distinction between fundamentals of Dogma and moral fundamentals . Question, if the Creeds delineate exhaustively the fundamentals of Dogma what source exhaustively delineates the moral fundamentals with the same authority and certainty as do the Creeds?

        Reply

        • December 18, 2023 @ 3:32 pm Seth Snyder

          Unfortunately, there is no source or statement on morals as clear, straightforward or authoritative as the Creeds are on dogma. The closest we have are the statements from historic Lambeth Conferences, but these have not adequately checked false teaching on morals amongst the various churches of the Communion. This is unfortunate, because most (though not all) of the statements and resolutions are actually pretty solid. However, they do not pretend to be statements of moral fundamentals, and with no one really wielding the spiritual sword, they don’t have much in the way of real force. This is actually something the ACNA has done well with their clear and firm statements on human sexuality and their signing on to the Kigali Commitment. Maybe now is the time to establish something like an Anglican equivalent to Roman ex cathedra statements on morals, and take a hard stand on some of these issues.

          Reply

          • December 22, 2023 @ 3:33 pm Seth

            It seems to me that to take a strong stance on biblical sexuality is merely a logical extension of the first clause of the Creed: We believe in the Creator. Rather than accepting the premise “The Creeds are silent on sexual/moral issues,” we should insist that sexual morality is implicit within the design of the Creator in the male/female body. To deny that distinction and teleological design IS to deny the Creator and therefore to deny the Creeds. Rather than believing in the Creator of heaven and earth as the creator of the body, sexual revisionists seem to believe that the body is merely the accidental, neutral, and even negative work of the gnostic demiurge. Whereas the maker that they believe in and follow is the maker of the internal emotional and spiritual self who “made me this way.”

          • January 4, 2024 @ 5:59 pm Seth Snyder

            Yes, there is an argument to be made on that front. In fact, I agree with you. However, I would advise caution when explicating the articles of the Creed, or making deductions therefrom, since a great deal can be illicitly inferred from the plain sense of the articles (e.g. the Roman Church argues that papal authority is included in idea in the article on the catholicity of the Church). There are other theological resources, for example, the plain sense of Scripture and the consensus patrum, which can uphold the fundamental character of traditional marriage and the integrity of the sexes, without risk of overextending the sense of the Creed.

  3. December 15, 2023 @ 8:27 pm Bob Hauer

    Well said Padre. We are a big tent.

    Reply

    • December 20, 2023 @ 6:20 pm Seth Snyder

      Thank you, Bob. And I think that our being a big tent is a good thing on the whole. Over-defined and unnecessarily restrictive doctrinal positions wreaks of system and denominationalism to me. It is proper that a catholic communion host a number of different schools, orders and parties.

      Reply


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