Saturday, September 10, 2005

Griffiss' Anglican Vision, Ch.s 2-3, Pt. I

Griffiss, The Anglican Vision , Ch. 2-3: Roots in the English Reformation

Compared with Holmes and Westerhoff’s CB, where Christianity remains a bit of an abstraction, Griffiss’ AV is laudable for its attention to the concrete detail of Anglicanism’s history in England and our side of the pond. It is hard for me to summarize the history Griffiss presents without mere paraphrase that leaves the reader asking “So what?” Where is the significance beyond satisfying antiquarian curiosity? Well, we see glimmerings here of Anglicanism’s claim to apostolicity, being a Church that carries on the teaching and evangelical effort that Christ and his apostles began. The emphasis of the claim is subtle; it is not at all that Anglicanism claims to exhaust that effort, but rather that it claims to carry the effort of Christ and the apostles on even now among others. In particular, it is not any less faithful to that effort than the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. We also see the origins of the Anglican via media between Roman Catholicism and Puritanism in terms of rejecting their claims to infallibility. More needs to be said here—the genius of it is not so much in its pragmatic spirit of compromise, despite the state’s motives, but rather the more substantial acceptance of the task of rendering Christian orthodoxy consistent with the limits of human knowing and subsequent epistemic humility. No small task, and one all too often misunderstood as a total quietism acquiescing even in religious pluralism. Finally, we see that touchstone of Anglican thought, the Thomist theologian Richard Hooker who compellingly rendered the already achieved via media intelligible and cogent. He comes off as our classical theologian, to whom we may return in dark times for refreshment and inspiration.

A Narrative on the Origins of Anglicanism
The sixteenth century English reformers for the most part claimed they were not forming a new church. Nor did they see themselves as establishing in their actions principles for the diachronic identity of the Church catholic, though in fact they were doing this. When they broke with the Roman Catholic Church and its papacy, they appealed to the primitive church of Scripture and early councils, as did the continental reformers, to argue that they were continuing in the one Church of the apostolic past, the catholic, though not Roman Catholic, Church.

Their break was intended to accomplish a “purification” of that apostolic Church. The English repudiated the authority of the Pope, the celibacy of clergy, masses for the dead, indulgences, and the invocation of saints. In place of papal authority, they elevated the authority of Scripture: “whatever could not be justified in Scripture could not be required of Christians.” The primacy of Scripture powered the repudiation of clerical celibacy et al, as well as a new emphasis on preaching and translation of the Bible into the vernacular, English. Moreover, repudiation of papal authority came with clear and deliberate elevation of the monarch and Parliament’s authority over the Church in England; the Pope was seen as a wielding an invasive, foreign governing power, reaching across boundaries into England and the Church in it—usurping political power rightfully belonging to Crown and Parliament.

But the sum of these purifying reforms did not go so far as did the reforms on the continent of Luther, Calvin, et al. The English Church was to be the same apostolic Church that had functioned there since ancient times, including the period when it functioned under Rome’s authority: that church retained the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons; it retained a liturgy with an older, Roman, “sacramental” shape emphasizing Holy Baptism and Eucharist in a BCP too much like older Roman books of prayer; it retained the ancient creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) as setting out the substance of the ancient faith of that apostolic Church; its 39 Articles stated a doctrine for the CoE decidedly eclectic and accommodating in its studied ambiguity; it claimed its bishops continued a line of succession stretching back to the apostles. Indeed, it must have seemed the CoE deliberately set itself apart from the continental reformers while it set itself apart from Rome.

In conflict with puritans who wished to see it go further in the direction of reform, the CoE found its theological champion in Richard Hooker, whose Laws decisively articulated a defense for what the actions of the English reformers had already only tentatively accomplished. Anglicanism was to be a via media between two paths each claiming sure and certain authority. One path, that of the Roman Catholics in England, followed the authority of the pope and would achieve an independence from English political authority by following that of a foreign prince. Another, that of the puritans, followed the authority of the Bible received by the reader’s conscience, and would achieve an individualism incompatible with the unity and authority of the apostolic Church. The Pope did not have authority to make matters not justified from Scripture dogmatic; yet the Bible was not the only source of Christian belief and practice.

While the Bible contains fundamental truths, those necessary to our salvation, there is much in it that is not fundamental and which may be variously interpreted by the Church apostolic in light of reason informed by experience and Christian tradition. Hooker leaves aside aspirations to construct a system of dogmatic Christian belief, and is content to live with a measure of uncertainty and epistemic humility short of outright skepticism.

Griffiss, using Michael Ramsey, notes that Hooker founded his theology on faith in the Incarnation: “through the union of God with our humanity in the Incarnation we human beings are called into the life of God.” In particular, by means of Baptism and Communion we share in the divine life; by these “means of grace” we grow into a familial relationship with God. This sharing and growth sanctifies our “whole being,” our full personhood, including our inward human reason and conscience. These within the sacramental life are fit for the Church’s use, even if it cannot achieve infallibility with them. Thus our inward personhood with its reason, conscience, et al retains a connection with outward material things made sacred as sacraments effective for the Christian life. Hooker yields up a method to Anglicanism to come, of doing theology while both “maintaining continuity with the tradition the church has received” and accommodating “the changes new situations require,” a method in which authority rests not merely with Scripture, but Scripture interpretation is informed by tradition and human reason.

Of course this is debatable: Hooker may have yielded up a method for doing theology in our church, but (A) has it been applied? I mean have those who would claim Hooker’s mantle for their theology actually maintained continuity with the early church’s received tradition? ECUSA’s conservatives might claim accommodations have overcome continuity—Hooker’s balanced method has not actually been applied. Or (B) does Hooker have a method that retains a balance between continuity and accommodation? Perhaps there is not such a method within Anglicanism; someone might claim that herein lies our problem.

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