Friday, June 08, 2012

Anglicans ARE Doctrinal (but not overly so)

Bryan Owen has called attention to a trope about Episcopalians that I seemed to have missed hearing outright, in this case stated flatly by John Westerhoff in A People Called Episcopalians:

Orthodoxy for us is right worship and not right belief.

Well, hogwash. At least, back in 1976 it was hogwash, and as I am going to insist in some sort of continuity of nature, I'm going to stick by that.

But let's start from the reality that we have four big liturgical submissions to general convention this year, plus changes to remove baptism and confirmation is requirements, plus SCLM's desire to "revise" the hymnal even though it's quite clear that the laity (and especially the young) don't want it changed. Add to that Enriching Our Worship (the prayer book that is not our prayer book) and the common experience these days of going to an Episcopal church service on a Sunday morning and hearing all manner of alterations to the liturgical text, and one ought to conclude that if it is "right worship" that characterizes our orthodoxy, a lot of the people in control cannot agree that the church's designated worship is right. I will return to that thought, but for now, let us just say that "right worship" is not a unifying principle, as it stands.

Let us continue to that worship. Westerhoff claims, on the page following the above declaration, that "if anyone wishes to know what Anglicans believe about issues of faith and life, he or she needs to turn to The Book of Common Prayer and engage in the process of interpreting this document." Let me be blunt: this isn't true in the ECUSA of the present. In the first place, there is all the deviation and change I just mentioned, which testifies to degree to which the 1979 BCP does not reflect current worship. But beyond that, if one follows the various discussions it becomes clear that there are various principles floating around which the prayer book which does not state, and which are the true dogmas determining the trajectory of the church. Thus I would not look to worship nor to liturgical texts to find our beliefs; as a rule I would look first to the social and political organs to which our membership belongs.

But let us look at the actual texts on the presumption that they do have some normative content. Well, as anyone who has every read through the Eucharistic liturgies knows, the following rubric is to be found in both Rite I and in Rite II:

On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing

And what follows begins, "We believe". It is, of course, the recitation of the Nicene Creed, so following Westerhoff's principle it could be concluded that Episcopalians are supposed to believe all those doctrinal statements made in the creed. Thus saying that our orthodoxy does not include Right Belief is untrue, even if one only relies upon what the liturgy has us do. And really, if one looks to the gospels the statement is preposterous. What did Jesus teach about worship which only mouthed the words without believing them?

Historically, Anglicans have always held to some doctrines, not that it is possible to avoid doing so anyway. What was distinctive about our approach was our refusal to make every issue a matter of doctrine. The classic example is our approach to Eucharistic theology, in that we have always insisted that it is sacramental and not merely symbolic; but we did not insist on a particular theory beyond the insistence on real presence, unlike the Roman official theory of transsubstantiation. This "not right belief" theory is a plain abuse, and it is used to justify a lot of plainly abusive behavior. C.S. Lewis, who is about as inarguably Anglican as they come, caricatured the modernist Anglican cleric perfectly in The Great Divorce, but his apostate bishop is found in large numbers in the American church, mentally crossing their fingers throughout the liturgy. Bishop Shannon says that we should not persecute "those who are seeking to engage imaginatively with modernity", but perhaps he forgets that Fundamentalism itself came to existence out of that very engagement. Or perhaps he means that "engagement" signifies bowing down to the Spirit of the Age and accepting the precepts of the secular, modernist world uncritically. I insist that this engagement must include pushing back against the dogmas of modernism where they conflict with our core beliefs. So for instance, when someone doubts the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (which we've got there in the Creed, so according to our worship, one is obligated to believe it), proper engagement consists of challenging that doubt, not accepting it uncritically.

I do not think that Bishop Douglas is entirely correct when he says that "the Episcopal Church is not a church that readily thinks in terms of 'doctrine.'" It would be more accurate to say that there is a large segment of its membership, and especially of its clerisy, who readily subjugate theological thinking to secular doctrines. They do not like the notion of theological doctrine, for various reasons, but there are many points which they treat as inarguable, and insofar as these things go in a largely powerless organization, they persecute and marginalize dissenters. Saying that we don't do doctrine is really no more than a tactic in that marginalization, a justification for driving from office those who want to maintain the integrity of the institution. We DO do doctrine; what we don't do is approach its justification with any kind of intellectual integrity. Reasoning about what we do is governed by prejudices and emotions, not by deduction from scripture or our tradition. What we need to do is repent of this, and return to taking seriously the doctrinal statements we make every Sunday morning.

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