Asking the right question

By Marshall Scott

This past weekend I received my copy of First Things. Now, how I came to have a subscription to First Things is an odd and ironic story in itself; one that perhaps I will tell another time. However, suffice to say that once a month I am struck by the irony again: here I am, identifying myself as “somewhere to the left of Jesus” (and you get to decide for yourself where Jesus is on the spectrum, and just how much room there is to his left) receiving this thoughtful but quite conservative journal.

That, of course, means I received within this edition the article, “What is Anglicanism?” by Henry Orombi, Archbishop and Primate of the Church of Uganda. Of course, blogger that I am, I had already read it. In fact, I had commented briefly on it in other places. (Indeed, I was struck by the irony of Archbishop Orombi’s article being printed in a journal many of whose readers wouldn’t recognize his orders at all, nor the Anglican Communion as more than a “defective ecclesial community.” On the other hand, the archbishop’s opinions are congruent with those of other authors, and the editor of that journal.)

It will surprise no one that I disagree with Archbishop Orombi’s perspective. His recounting of the Anglican tradition, for example, is very one-sided. He recalls the evangelical perspective and the evangelical “heroes” of the Anglican tradition, but makes no mention of the Anglo-catholic tradition within Anglicanism. For example, he honors Cranmer and Hooker, but leaves out Jewell and the Caroline Divines. He leaves out Keble and Pusey and the other Tractarians, and F. D. Maurice’s Christian Socialism. He ignores the Broad Church tradition, and the contributions of Thomas Arnold and Samuel Coleridge. To speak of the Anglican tradition without those participants seems to me simply inadequate.

At the same time, I have to say he is asking the right question. We argue at each other (to argue with each other, all parties would have to listen with respect, and that isn’t happening all that much) about whether the important issue is scriptural hermeneutic or theological anthropology or moral theology or cultural colonialism (or anti-colonialism). But the really painful question is what is means to be Anglican – what we mean when we call ourselves Anglican.

I certainly appreciated the passion of Archbishop Orombi’s article, and I learned from it. At the same time, I found myself little clearer about this central question than before. Much of his evidence – on the importance of Scripture, the importance of revival, the impact on traditional culture, the emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ – is clearly Christian, but it is hardly exclusively Anglican. I honor with him the early Christian Ugandan martyrs, but I recall that they also included Roman Catholics. How much of his exposition delineates those facets of Christian life that we would clearly agree are Anglican?

I don’t want to suggest that this is a problem exclusive to Archbishop Orombi or to Global South Anglicans. One piece of the recent discussion, focused in the Draft Covenant, is the place of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England in the Anglican tradition. In response, many Americans have asked, “Why 1662, and why not the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church?” And yet, that is not so easy a parallel to assert. There is much in the 1979 Prayer Book – for example, the return of chrismation to baptism, or recovery of passing the Peace, or Eucharistic Prayers C and D – that owes more to ancient Christian practice retained in Eastern churches than to Thomas Cranmer. The 20th century liturgical movement drew from early church documents unknown to Cranmer, or to his successors in defining the 1662 book, such as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus; and as we participated in the movement, so did we. In what sense, and to what extent, do we want to identify those important aspects of our Episcopal life, as distinctively Anglican?

We are all, we Anglicans, antiquarians in one sense or another. We trust Scripture, but we look to our past, to our tradition, for guidance on how to live within it. That is not to reject our valued reason. Rather, it is to model our use of reason on the methods and products of our forebears. It’s in our roots: Cranmer and Hooker and Jewel all looked to earlier scholars of the Church in articulating their statements of how the Christian faith would be understood and practiced in reformed England.

But, there’s the rub: just how are we to emulate them? Do we focus on their products? In that case, we go back to their works, and perhaps update them appropriately for our use. That is what some have done in focusing on the “historical Anglican formularies.” Or, do we focus on their methods? In that case, we look as they did to earlier Christian traditions, including, as with liturgical renewal, traditions that they did not know.

What is Anglicanism? What do we mean when we call ourselves Anglican? That is really the question we face (and it really is one question). That question focuses for me the problem of an Anglican covenant, and especially the Draft Covenant circulated after the Primates’ Meeting in Tanzania. I have called that draft, and especially its resort to the Primates with their frequent meetings as the center for addressing issues, a bad expediency based on a false urgency. The Covenant Design Group has asserted a definition or a description of what it means to be Anglican, and then asked us if we can’t all sign on. But, doesn’t that put the cart before the horse? That has been a response I have heard from many quarters: that it is unreasonable to expect all to sign on to any definition of Anglicanism that all haven’t participated in formulating; that the hard work of coming to consensus on what it means to be Anglican needs to be done before we start codifying how we will live together within it

What is Anglicanism? What do we mean when we call ourselves to be Anglican? We need to recognize that these may well be – so far have been – divisive questions. To assert some things may well be to exclude others. To focus on Anglican content may well lose Anglican method, and vice versa. What some will consider clear definition others will consider narrow, excluding restriction. What some will consider adequate breadth others will consider vague to the point of being meaningless. This is not an easy question, and certainly not one to be rushed. Neither avoiding the work nor rushing to hasty “resolution” will serve us well.

The process has promises, perhaps, and risks as well. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures – our Old and New Testaments – were assembled in efforts to define identity. Arguably, both were developed to define Christians: to define Christians out (of Judaism), and to define Christians in (and heretics out). At the same time, Protestant history shows us the risk: the possibility that in our efforts we become the confessional church that so many of us wish to avoid.

But, that is, I think, the work before us as the Anglican Communion, and as the Episcopal Church. We need to define for our generation what we mean when we say we are Anglican. We need to incorporate as many perspectives and as many voices as possible in the process. We need, I believe, to hold off on defining too clearly autonomy or interdependence or mutual structures until we have made significant progress in that work. We must engage that work, certainly, before we can meaningfully put descriptions on paper and expect most of us to sign off. We must engage that work, knowing the risk – knowing, really, the predictability – that we shall all be changed in the process.

There is much on which I disagree with Archbishop Orombi, in his article and in his actions. But I have to give him credit for this: he is asking the right question.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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