Thursday, August 10, 2006

Anglican Polity and New Knowledge

The Anglican church as it emerged at the Elizabethan Settlement had a distinctive polity, but one very different from continental (and Scottish) Protestantism on the one hand and from the Counter Reformation Roman Catholic church on the other. There was, and is, no powerful central authority, let alone an absolutist one like the Papacy. Furthermore, this polity has enabled Anglicans to recognize that new knowledge has mandatory implications for the doing of theology, the understanding of doctrinal formulations, and for patterns of behavior. It has enabled Anglicans to take account of new knowledge, but also to regard it as one of the ways in which God leads us.

Changing attitudes to Formularies - The Gorham Case

Two examples might illustrate these generalizations. The first is the way in which the emergence of new historical knowledge in the 19th century first caused an immense uproar, but ultimately came to be accepted by a broad spectrum of Anglicans, though, it must be said, not by all. Extreme Evangelicals on one wing and ultramontane Anglo-Catholics on the other, in general, stood aside from the central consensus. Much of contemporary minority dissent (and it is important to recall just what a small minority we are talking about in the face of continual propaganda) has its roots, I believe, in these 19th century "wings" of the Church of England.

A survey of the scene in the C of E in the mid 19th century is instructive. After the upheavals of the Tractarian movement in the thirties and forties, the church was convulsed by controversy quite as bitter as anything we are experiencing today.
First there was the Gorham case, which hinged on the Evangelical reluctance to ascribe certain "regeneration" to Baptism administered to infants. Beginning around 1847 the case dragged on for years, and, as often happens, the original dispute over doctrine was submerged in contentions about the authority of Parliament in church affairs, about the authority of bishops and the status of canon law. At one stage a great exodus of the Evangelicals seemed imminent; at a later date, it was the turn of the High Church party to organize petitions and talk about a mass secession to Rome.

One of the central issues that emerged was whether the XXXIX Articles 'over-rode' the Prayer Book concerning Baptismal regeneration. It is worth noting that the doctrinal issue of baptismal regeneration has been ‘resolved’ in typically Anglican comprehensiveness. That there are significant shades of the doctrine is very clear: that they can be held within a broad spectrum of belief is also clear, (or has been clear for almost a century).
Even more telling is the status of the Articles of Religion: in the mid 19th century they were a continual source of controversy, first by the Tractarians and then by the Evangelicals. In the ECUSA they are discreetly given an honorable retirement and reside in "Historical Documents". (For an excellent account of the details of the Gorham case, see Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, Part 1, pp. 250-271.)

Geology, Historical Criticism, Essays & Reviews

Perhaps a clearer example of the way in which Anglicanism has coped with new knowledge is in the areas of (a) scientific discovery and (b) historical criticism.
(a) The scientific revolution of the 19th century left all the churches in disarray, but by the turn of the century, it seems that the Anglican church as a whole was coming to some kind of rapprochement and, indeed, using new insights for a reappraisal of theological dogmas.
In the 1830s "books by Sir Charles Lyell and Dean Buckland established the geological succession of rocks and fossils, and showed the world to be much older than the accepted date for the Garden of Eden." (Alec Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution, p. 114; Penguin).

Looking at fossil evidence, Lyell disturbingly pointed out that whole species had perished, and this was almost 30 years before Darwin's book. Yet Lyell and many other scientists were not all that shaken in their theistic faith. Basil Willey writes, "Lyell himself was quite willing to profess belief in the fact of divine activity, provided that science were left free to investigate and demonstrate the mode of it. This was the formula adopted (quite rightly) by the nineteenth century of reconcilers of science and religion in general". (More Nineteenth Century Studies, New York, 1956, p. 85).

(b) Intellectual developments in Europe in the 18th century had laid the ground work for the seismic shifts of the 19th. The period of the Enlightenment had produced philosophical systems that were not all that friendly to the rigid framework of traditional Christian metaphysics, and work had begun on the biblical text as early as Jean Astruc (1684-1766) who was the first to suggest that the book of Genesis was, in fact, the product of separate traditions with different emphases, though, at this stage he merely suggested that Moses put the two together, the genie was out of the bottle.

Quite early in the 19th century, some scholars, especially some German ones, began to subject the bible to the kind of criticism that had recently been applied to other ancient texts like Homer. Not many English scholars and churchmen read German, but the few who did were either very excited by the German work or thrown into paroxysms of rage. In any case, it was not too long before translations of German works began to appear (led by George Eliot’s translation of Strauss’s Life of Jesus), and these, in Chadwick's graphic phase, began to "rock the boat of faith at its moorings".

What were some of the conclusions that critical study was suggesting? It became very clear that the Old Testament was not a unity, that Moses did not write the Law books nor David the Psalms. Moreover, there were clearly errors of fact as well as statements that conflicted entirely with the findings of geology (not biology at this stage). And it is, perhaps, here that the real source of the panic can be found.

More liberal thinkers had come to terms somewhat with these with Old Testament problems, but criticism of the New Testament raised anxiety levels to new heights. That is why Strauss's book was regarded as little short of diabolical by the conservative elements of the church (that is to say, the vast majority).

Within Anglicanism, the major impact of historical criticism was Christological; if, for example, David did not write Psalm 110, what does Jesus' remark in Mark 12 imply about the limitations of his knowledge? The uproar suggests a very lop-sided view of Jesus’ humanity, and, I suspect, that the issue lies (though deeply buried) behind a great deal of contemporary fundamentalism, - a kind of crypto-monophytism. For main-stream theologians, however, the criticism of the bible has enabled a much more open approach to Christology than was the 19th century norm (a norm that, I believe, is still the (usually unacknowledged) position of much contemporary conservative Christianity).

By the mid 19th century, a gloomy assessment of the state of religion was emerging; we find poets, philosophers and novelists bemoaning the "sea of faith" retreating like the tide going out. Then, within a year of each other two publications set the almost boiling pot to run over. The kind of invective, the hurled insults and lengthy magazine articles of the next two decades make the religious controversies of the late 20th century look like a genteel tea party. The two publications were Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species over which he had been laboring for many years, appearing in 1859, and a relatively brief book containing seven essays, six of them written by clergymen and one layman, Essays & Reviews.
In the Press, in everyday social circles and particularly within the churches (which we have to recall embraced a majority of the middle and upper classes), uproar ensued that for a while muted the response to Origins. Basil Willey describes this so well that it is worth quoting at length:

The book [Essays & Reviews] "slipped unobtrusively from the press, yet within a year of its publication the orthodox English world was convulsed with indignation and panic. The Protestant religion, as by law established, had weathered the Gunpowder Plot and the Popish Plot [reintroduction of R.C. hierarchy in Britain]; it had survived the Reform Bill [1832], the Tracts for Times [catholic revival in Oxford], the Hampden case ... [Regius professor, attacked by Newman and other ultra conservatives; censured, but later made Bishop of Hereford whereat the whole clamor began again] ... and the Gorham controversy; but here was something still more alarming - a conspiracy of clergymen to blow up the church from within. Cries of horror, grief and pain rang from the press and the pulpit; the Bishops protested; the Court of Arches and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council came into action. The authors of the book were denounced as 'Septem Contra Christum', the seven extinguishers of the seven lamps of the Apocalypse'". (Studies , 137).

The amazing thing is, that everything the essayists said is more or less accepted today, (again, of course, except among conservative Evangelicals including those within the Anglican grouping of autonomous churches). Indeed, in the light of 20th century scholarship, the essays have a decidedly conservative ring.
John Barton (Biblical Interpretation ) points out that within a few years, Frederick Temple, one of the contributors to Essays and Reviews, had been made Archbishop of Canterbury, and that within the C of E a cautious biblical criticism was coming to be accepted as compatible with a doctrine of the Incarnation. It was this, he says that "interested Anglicans. The doctrine of scripture, which seemed so important to Continental Protestants, was not even in the creed. The Bible was used in liturgy, and that was not the context in which to press awkward questions. When controversy broke out it was usually because the doctrine of the Incarnation seemed threatened, or because clergy were not expected to question doctrine". (p. 59)

A practical application

The flexibility exhibited by the C of E in the navigation of the whirlpools and rapids of the 19th century carried over into practical ethics. Perhaps a striking example of this is the issue of contraception.
The debate centers mainly on how the "ends" of marriage are understood. The classic catholic position has been and still is, that procreation is the primary end of marriage, and that, therefore, coitus is to be engaged in for the sole purpose of procreation. A view that gained influence from the late 19th century is that the sexual life of a married couple is also central to the nurturing of the relationship. The Lambeth Conference of 1930, took a first minimal step: in certain tightly circumscribed situations, the use of contraception might be permissible (Resolution 15). [It is reported that during the debate an elderly Bishop leaned his neighbor and whispered “What is contraception?”]
The Conference of 1958 was much more robust, its resolution ending: “Therefore, it is utterly wrong to say that...intercourse ought not to be engaged in except with the willing intention of children". This was a significant departure from traditional teaching about practice required of a believer, and it is a departure that the R.C. church has still failed to make. The contrast between the Anglican approach and the Roman Catholic highlights the difference in the polity of the two traditions.

After Vatican II, the Commission that Paul VI set up, with (amazingly) married lay people among its members, advised by a considerable majority that in some instances the practice be allowed. Nothing was heard for two years when, in 1968, Humanae Vitae was promulgated, totally affirming the traditional position. It emerged that a secret committee made up of Curia members and conservative clergy, chaired by Cardinal Ottaviani, had been meeting and strongly advised the Pope to ignore the findings of the Commission.
The bombshell of Humanae Vitae is as clear and startling a contrast to Anglican polity as one could hope to find. In contrast to the "process" leading up to, and the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the Anglican approach has been open, not subject to secret committees of a particular bias; it is not centralized but allows for local movement; it allows for God's continuing revealing and guiding; it depends not on a central absolute authority which gives final and binding definitions and rulings, but on shared authority (collegiality of Bishops, participation of clergy and lay people in decision making).

Is it too much to hope that the Anglican tradition of openness to new knowledge can navigate us in the 21st century as it did in the 19th ?

Simon Mein
August 10, 2006

1 comment:

rudybagel said...

I enjoyed your article. The Anglican Church has always been open to new insight and new direction. Recently a school in my area, one with Episcopal roots, experienced turmoil because of the increasing number of students who are not from Church backgrounds. Their parents complain that the children have to attend chapel services even if they are not Christians. This situation has grown over recent years, and the school administration is feeling pressure to become a totally secular place. How does such a school communicate the changing nature of the Church and the opnness you speak of to these new-age families? Is it even worth it? Is there any "new knowledge" that can make a difference in what were schools anchored in a Church tradition?