A developing spirit
by Fr. Kurt Messick
edited: Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003
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An academic book review
William Wolf’s book The Spirit of Anglicanism explores the diversity of theological development in the Anglican Communion by bringing together descriptions and analyses of three major Anglican thinkers—Hooker, Maurice, and Temple—to illustrate both historical development and breadth of range of what can be classified as ‘Anglican’ theology. Wolf concedes that there are many other theologians who might have been included; the Anglican Communion doesn’t have a definitive person (apart from Jesus Christ)—‘the Anglican Communion sets aside no special authoritative place for a great reforming figure such as Luther or Calvin…’ (p. 137) Wolf also states that ‘the Communion has unfortunately produced no systematic theologians of the first rank.’ (p. 137). That being said, the theological thoughts and development presented for Hooker, Maurice, and Temple illustrate the branching streams that feed Anglicanism today, a stream that continues to branch forward.
Hooker was alive and active as a theologian during a tumultuous period in the development of the Church of England as a distinct body. Politics entered into church affairs on a grand scale; the idea that church and state issues were one in the same was as strong in England in the sixteenth century as it ever was in any continental kingdom or empire. Religious tolerance was a new concept, imperfectly conceived; the idea that each kingdom must be united in religious practice was strong. Hooker was an active apologist for the Church of England, his main opponent being the Puritan factions. ‘Hooker’s magnum opus was addressed to Puritans who attacked the church of England in the name of a purer, more scriptural ecclesiastical settlement.’ (p. 9)
Key to Hooker’s understanding (in Wolf’s opinion) was the idea of participation. ‘The sacraments ware treated as means toward participation in Christ, which is salvation.’ (p. 12) The Book of Common Prayer was also strongly defended as a primary means for ensuring the participation of all in the worship and ministry of the Church. ‘Hooker’s concern for liturgy and sacraments reflects a major Anglican concern. The Prayer Book provided for many, as it did for Hooker, the liturgical experience which often—quite unconsciously—formed the basis of their theological understanding in general.’ (p. 17) Hooker saw the entire church polity as an important means, built upon the teachings of the early church, for participation in the Kingdom of God.
Another key element in Hooker’s theological understanding was the importance of reason as a theological tool. ‘An important element in the complex structure is reason which possesses authority not only in the sciences, as the Puritans allowed, but in things divine.’ (p. 2) While Hooker conceded that reason might be ‘darkened and covered with the foggy damp of original corruption’, he nonetheless held reason, as a creation of God and gift of ability to humankind, to be an important element in theological discernment. Hooker, however, acknowledged the limitations of reason: ‘in the end there is mystery, although Hooker is certain that whatever happens is in accord with God’s general will.’ (p. 28)
For Hooker, while he eschewed works righteousness, a proper theological world view would necessarily involve a reflection of right theology by right action. ‘Hooker’s social views grew out of his basic theological principles, and out of fundamental philosophical and psychological understandings.’ (p. 35) Hooker saw the participation in the Kingdom of God as the expression of the full ministry of the church, and the social welfare of the people of God in community was a primary concern. ‘For Hooker and Cranmer and others, such social action was not something apart from prayer or a mere extension of prayer; it was prayer itself.’ (p. 44)
Maurice would agree with Hooker that prayer is social action. Working in the nineteenth century, Maurice was exposed to the social ills that befell England as an imperial power in simultaneous growth and decay. The situation in society was deteriorating. ‘Maurice saw that this social breakdown was rooted in a theological breakdown.’ (p. 50) Maurice was unique in that he lived a prophetic life (and, like many prophetic persons, was often disliked for his prophecy). He made ‘Christology the starting point of all Christian theology and ethics’ and made Christ the central focus of all he said and did. (p. 49) Maurice made the Gospel the centrepoint of his educational philosophy, as well as the call not for revolution, but for regeneration of English society upon a truly Christian foundation. (pp. 64-67)
Maurice’s view of theology is, like Hooker and Temple, rooted firmly in the communal action of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘The Prayer Book becomes the key for understanding the views of the Church of England on the six signs of the Catholic Church,’ these six signs being baptism, creeds, forms of worship, eucharist, ordained ministry, and the Bible. (p. 61) This practical and tradition approach was in keeping with the general spirit of the English society. ‘Maurice expressed both English empiricism against the conceptualism of continental thinkers and the Anglican’s respect for historical institutions as points of departure for theological analysis.’ (p. 72)
Maurice often was seen as being at odds with the Tractarians. ‘If it can be said that the Tractarians rediscovered the catholic heritage, Maurice rediscovered the Reformation and reclaimed it from the contemporary evangelical deformation of it and the Tractarian contempt and ignorance of it.’ (p. 58) This being said, Maurice was no anti-catholic, however. ‘The real opposite of catholicism, in his mind, was not protestantism, but sectarianism.’ (p. 85) Maurice had an ecumenical spirit, a broad base for inclusion into the church the many different strands of thought and practice. ‘Maurice many times described his whole ministry and authorship as a search of unity.’ (p. 98)
Temple was, in the words of G.B. Shaw, ‘a realised impossibility.’ A man born and raised in the church, he rose to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and made the broad church appeal for Anglicanism that renewed its spirit for the mid-twentieth century. ‘The general tendency of his faith and theology was toward a more catholic or orthodox position. But this was always balanced by his concern for freedom in doctrine and by his generally liberal attitude of mind.’ (p. 104) Temple saw an intimate connection with God through Jesus Christ, perhaps thinking in proto-process theological terms by believing that ‘because of Jesus’ perfect union and communion with God, it can be asserted that in him God has a real experience of human life, suffering and death.’ (p. 112) For Temple, this communion and experience is worked out both individually and communally—‘the inner unity of complete personality and the outer unity of a perfected fellowship as wide as humanity.’ (p. 117)
Temple’s view of the church is also that of one held together in practice by the Book of Common Prayer, and that through this practice ‘the distinctive characteristic, vocation and responsibility of the Church of England (and Anglicanism) is that it holds together an comprehends in one communion the catholic, evangelical or protestant and liberal traditions in Christianity.’ (p. 129) Temple had a very ecumenical spirit, one that transcended the ordinary boundaries of church: ‘nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.’ (pp. 119-120)
Temple felt it important to be open to new ideas and developments modernity (perhaps a reaction to having been raised in an era with the expectation of long-term stability and subsequently living in a world turned upside-down by warfare and other social change). Temple felt that freedom of churches and freedom of individuals for inquiry and development, with the guidance of the Spirit, was more important than a rigid adherence to tradition. ‘Temple was quite open to the new truth and insights of the modern world and to the critical and constructive use of reason in Christian faith and life. this can be seen clearly in his commitment to philosophic truth.’ (p. 133) This, coupled with his call to social action by the church and the working out of Christian faith in everyday life and action, made Temple a major ecumenical figure.
The Current Spirit of Anglicanism
A key word for the current spirit of Anglicanism is comprehensiveness. Anglicanism incorporates catholics and protestants, literalists and agnostics, high church, low church, broad church, in all ways these terms can be defined. ‘The Anglican synthesis is the affirmation of a paradoxical unity, a prophetic intuition that Catholicism and Protestantism…are not ultimately irreconcilable.’ (p. 143)
However, there is quite often tension in this spirit: ‘Conventional Anglicans deprecate the extremists and the extremists deprecate each other.’ (p. 152) Ecumenical theology is important not only for inter-church relationships, but in the Anglican Communion (and indeed within the member churches of the Anglican Communion), for intra-church relationships as well. Broad church approaches from leaders such as Maurice and Temple show a commitment to dialogue and community, but there comes a point when individuals on all sides ask about the limitations of such approaches. These dialogues are continuing today, in areas such as women’s ordination, prayer book revision, homosexuality, and increasingly first-world/third-world divisions, as the growth of the Anglican Communion continues fastest in third-world countries, as the churches in the more developed countries hold steady or shrink. However, ‘the principle of comprehensiveness need not mean that “anything goes” or that Anglicans are too muddled about their hierarchies of authority to present a clear and responsible picture of Anglicanism and to further a spirit based upon that reality.’ (p. 185)
The current spirit of Anglicanism is largely based upon Scripture, tradition and reason, with definitions of these three varying a great deal. The authority of Scripture is important, but this does not mean a literalist view. The authority of tradition, best summed up by adherence to the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgical forms, is locally adaptable. Reason is used to interpret both the authority of Scripture and of tradition, but must be held in restraint by these as well. 'The spirit of Anglicanism ought in its rich resources to find the wisdom to retain its identity and yet to develop through constructive change to meet the demands of the fast-approaching world of the twenty-first century.' (p. 187)
The development of Anglicanism as a bridge between catholic and protestant worlds cannot be overstated, although Anglicans often do not understand their role in this themselves, much less to be able to articulate it with clarity to others. The twentieth-century formation of Anglican sensibilities may be looked upon in the future as a period of great fuzziness and uncertainty. Certainly, the future now looks fuzzy. But, with good intention, the Anglican world presses forward in pursuit of greater clarity of mission and gospel.