Anglican Theology: Follow the Bouncing Balls  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The jolly lad to the left is Richard Hooker. Richard lived from 1553 to 1600. He was ordained in the Church of England and later appointed by Elizabeth I as Master of the Temple, making him the chaplain of the Inns of Court, a key part of the English legal education system. After ten years he moved to a country parish near Canterbury where, in the remaining five years of his life, he managed to crank out his magnum opus, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Reading this is a tough slog, in that it comes off as Shakespeare written by a lawyer. Nonetheless, Hooker is considered the first great Anglican theologian. Even Pope Clement VIII was impressed by his work.

Hooker is widely credited with affirming that Anglican theology is based upon Scripture, Tradition and Reason, going so far as to create the analogy of a three-legged stool. Alas, this catchy image has proved to be something of an intellectual urban legend, for Hooker never said anything quite like that. See a recent post by Tobias Haller for a succinct discussion of the holy Hooker and his intellectual furniture.

Anglican theology has always struck me as more like trying to juggle three balls at once. The juggling act is complicated by the fact that, depending on the theologian, one of the balls is usually bigger than the others.

Evangelicals typically pay more attention to Scripture than to either Reason or Tradition. The Anglican Communion is on the verge of imploding in large part because some evangelicals, unable to compromise on " the authority of Scripture", are unwilling to gather around the altar with gays, lesbians, and those who support their inclusion in the church. Recently Nigerian Bishop Isaac Orama let fly with an exceptionally vicious example of where this can all lead which can be read about here.

Anglo-Catholics tend to give pride of place to Tradition, especially those aspects of it concerned with the sacraments, with liturgy, and with spirituality. As with evangelicals, there are several varieties of Anglo-Catholics, some of whom are less brain-dead than others. For some AC's, unfortunately, Tradition boils down to lace surplices, fiddleback chasubles, semi-closeted homosexuality, the Anglican Missal, and no girls allowed in the sanctuary (except for the altar guild, of course).

Liberal or broad-church Anglicans emphasize human Reason (with experience as a subset of reason) as the key factor in the interpretation of Scripture and theological Tradition. Members of this faction who've gone off the rails would include the late Bishop Pike, the present-day Bishop Spong, and those sympathetic with the work of the Jesus Seminar. Thes folks assume the validity of secular rationalism and assert that Christianity must adjust itself to post-Enlightenment worldviews or else become irrelevant. The net result, IMHO, is Unitarianism in drag.

Bearing this in mind, I am quite willing to admit that, concerning the issue of homosexuality, reason/experience trumps both Scripture and Tradition. Many Anglicans, both gay and straight, point to the existence of committed gay and lesbian monogamous relationships (usually in the face of overwhelming societal disapproval) as evidence that the anti-gay sanctions proclaimed for so long by the church must, at the very least, be rethought.

An excellent statement of this position can be found in an essay by Luke Timothy Johnson appearing in Commonweal, long one of the main house-organs for thinking Roman Catholics. Johnson is a Catholic himself, a professor at Emory University, and a former Benedictine monk. He left the monastery to marry a divorcee with six kids. They're still an item.

Johnson's essay is available here.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 6, 2007 at Thursday, September 06, 2007 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


<- Rooted in traditional Anglo-Catholicism, lace, fiddlebacks, tolerant conservatism (don't ask, don't tell, we give you your space and God forgives but we don't teach it's not a sin) and the improbabilist position on women's ordination (the larger church, Rome and the East, trumps everything else; it's not misogyny).

I get the feeling you don't like us very much. :(

'Reason' as the Greeks, the Schoolmen and classic Anglicans understood it means 'conforming yourself to reality' not 'throwing out the bits of scripture we don't like'.

I can give as good as I can take, though I try not to clobber online any more: Broad Churchmanship is upper-middle-class-wannabe snobs (real upper middles have nothing to prove so they tend not to be snobs) who like good production values in liturgy and looking down their noses at RCs and evangelicals. 'Our religion is for thinking people.' Really? The Pope became a professor in Europe in 1958. Is he 'brain-dead'? Can't think of many German professors who are. (In the Broad Church worldview Orthodox are those quaint ethnics who paint pretty pictures and are oh, so spiritual but beyond that they're not taken seriously really. 'Not our kind, you know.')

Well, we both seem to like Orthodoxy (which makes some sense as I've been a practising Russian Orthodox for 12 years but I don't claim to be an expert and my blog is not a denominational one) and we probably agree on peace issues.

We're not in communion because of Controversial Issues™ (which are on top of the heap of issues separating Protestants from the great catholic tradition) and that's only honest but if you believe the creeds (no offence - I've not read enough of your blog yet to know) then of course I acknowledge you as a Christian brother and part of the great Anglican family.

October 21, 2007 at 8:13 PM

I like the Byzantine Anglo-Catholic - all aspects I appreciate. We have an interdenominationlal list with about 390 membres, bishops, priests, religious, hermits, laity for monastic and spirituality subjects at


April 4, 2008 at 2:15 AM

As a high-and-dry central churchman, I feel left out. :)

And as you hint, the differences between the parties appear elsewhere besides theology. But I think you are a bit unfair as to the current crisis. To see why, let's go back to the ordination of women. The issue was and is couched in the civil language of rights, which has led to some peculiar theology. There is a running theme in feminist theology that we must conceive of God as female so that we can treat women as people, a thesis which in my mind leads to bizarrely sexist conclusions. But since we're talking about the laws of ecclesiastical polity, let us follow the course of ordaining women in PECUSA. First we have the Philadelphia fait accompli, which got everything off on the wrong foot not only by creating facts on the ground, but by setting the precedent that it was proper to do so. Then we had the by-one-vote approval at GC in 1976. Well, OK: so now we have a set of dioceses (which is to say, diocesan bishops) who won't ordain women. Even though this was eventually reduced to one tiny, one small, and one middling diocese, the notion that some woman, somewhere, could not get ordained without moving to a different diocese was held to be an intolerable infringement, and so while GC didn't drive the bishops in question from office, its respect for their consciences was widely felt to be lacking, including by a long line of women clergy.

So now we go around again, and the pattern is much the same. Given PECUSA polity (especially as interpreted by the current occupants of 815 2nd Ave.) it seems a safe bet that within the polity, every parish will eventually be forced to marry homosexuals. The church as a place of theological counsel (and councils) has been entirely supplanted by the church as power structure.

May 21, 2008 at 11:05 AM

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