Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Orthodox Problem

By Robin G. Jordan

This article was prompted by a comment that a reader left in response to one of my articles that was posted on Virtue Online. The reader was not happy with several observations about the current state of the Anglican Church in North America that I made in the article. In my use of the term “the Anglican Church in North America” in this article I am not referring to the most recent Anglican body to adopt that name but the entire Anglican community in North America. In referring to that body in this article I will use the acronym “ACNA.” In his comment the reader made reference to “orthodoxy.” I often read comments and articles on the Internet, which make reference to “orthodoxy,” “orthodox” Anglican churches, and “orthodox” Anglicans. These comments and articles raise this question in my mind—“Orthodox—by what standard?”

The reader who left the comment did not explain what he meant by “orthodoxy” except make further reference to “right belief.” Here again a question is raised in my mind—“Right belief—by what standard?”

The reader who left the comment apparently assumed that those who read his comment would know what he meant by “orthodoxy” and “right belief.” Once more a question is raised in my mind—“Can we assume others know what we mean when we make reference to ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘right belief’?”

One of the problems that affect the Anglican Church in North America is that North American Anglicans, even conservative Anglicans, do not agree on what constitutes “orthodoxy,” in particular Anglican “orthodoxy.” Historically the standard of orthodoxy for Anglicans has been the Articles of Religion of 1571, also known as the Thirty-Nine Articles. However, a number of liberal and conservative Anglicans have rejected this standard and substituted for it a different standard. For Episcopalians it is officially the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics follow in John Henry Newman’s footsteps and refer to a vague body of lore known as Catholic tradition. The Common Cause Partnership drew up a standard for the Common Cause Partners and incorporated that standard into the ACNA constitution. The Global Anglican Future Conference recognized that this problem does not affect only the Anglican Church in North America. GAFCON wrestled with the question of what constitutes Anglican “orthodoxy” and produced the Jerusalem Declaration as a supplemental confession of faith to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

By the standard of the ACNA Fundamental Declarations Anglicans who are “orthodox” according to the standard of the Thirty-Nine Articles and even the Jerusalem Declaration may not “orthodox.” The ACNA Fundamental Declarations incorporate a specific position on the “historic episcopate” into its standard. It is a position associated with a particular school of thought and not a position over which Anglicans are in agreement.

On the other hand, Anglicans who are “orthodox” by the ACNA Fundamental Declaration’s standard may not be “orthodox” according to the Articles’ standard or the Jerusalem Declaration’s standard. The ACNA Fundamental Declarations infer that the authority of the historic Anglican formularies like the Thirty-Nine Articles is largely historical and belongs to the past and that other standards beside these formularies exist and may be more authoritative for contemporary Anglicans. They effectively dilute the authority of the historic Anglican formularies as the standard of Anglican “orthodoxy.” For example, a minister subscribing to the Thirty-Nine Articles would be affirming the doctrine of salvation by grace alone by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone (as opposed to sacraments and good works) as the essence of Gospel teaching. A minister subscribing to the Fundamental Declarations would be free to maintain the doctrine of sacramental salvation.

In the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church are different groups of Anglicans and Episcopalians who hold widely disparate beliefs. Some have a Trinitarian view of God; others have a Unitarian view. Some believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God incarnate. Others believe that he was simply a prophet and a teacher. Some believe that we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ. Others believe that all people are saved whatever they believe.

While there is greater agreement in the ACNA and the AMiA on basic Christian doctrines like the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, there is also sharp division on a number of critical issues. At the same time folks in the ACNA and the AMiA show a tendency to gloze over significant differences. The articles that refer to “orthodox” Anglican churches in the ACNA and the AMiA are an exercise in the principle of charitable presupposition. Just as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer charitably presupposes that those for whom the Burial Service is being read were believing, faithful Christians, the writers of these articles charitably presuppose that the congregations and clergy of these churches are indeed “orthodox.”

But is it wise to presuppose that such churches are “orthodox” simply on the basis that they are ACNA or AMiA? Affiliation with these parachurch organizations is no guarantee of “orthodoxy” particular as these parachurch organizations have a standard of “orthodoxy” at odds with the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Jerusalem Declaration (the ACNA) or they have an unclear standard of “orthodoxy” (the AMiA). The Solemn Declaration of Principles of the AMiA recognizes and affirms the authority of the historic Anglican formularies. Every year the clergy of the AMiA take an oath to maintain the doctrine of these formularies. In practice, however, many of them do not really subscribe to their teaching in part due to the influence of the unreformed Catholicism of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and in part due to the influence of Wesleyan-Pentecostal theology of the charismatic movement.

At best we can say is that the churches in the ACNA and the AMiA give a more central place to the Bible in their life and teaching and retain more of what Roger T. Beckwith describes as “the ancient common heritage of Christendom” than do the liberal churches in the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church. They may in this regard be viewed as more conservative than these liberal churches.

If we apply to them the standard of the historic Anglican formularies, a number of the churches in the ACNA and the AMiA may be regarded as “orthodox” as historic Anglicanism understands “orthodoxy.” Unless we adopt a post-modern view of “orthodoxy,” we cannot view the rest as “orthodox.” They may be “orthodox” by their own estimation or in the estimation of the school of thought to which they belong. But we cannot view them as “orthodox” on this basis when they fall short of historic Anglicanism’s standard of “orthodoxy.”

This is a problem that besets both the ACNA and the AMiA. It is not going to disappear if we close our eyes and pretend that it does not exist. As time passes, the problem is going to worsen. It may lead to conflicts in these parachurch organizations like the ones in the Anglican Church in Canada and The Episcopal Church.

It also raises questions about the Anglican credentials of the ACNA and the AMiA along with the credentials of these two bodies. In the not too distant future we may witness the travesty of the global South primates credentialing the ACNA and the AMiA as “Anglican” and the Archbishop of Canterbury credentialing the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church as “Anglican” when none of these bodies in the sense of full adherence to the tenets of historic Anglicanism is by no stretch of the imagination even remotely “Anglican.”

The most obvious solution to this problem is that the churches in the ACNA and the AMiA should take the historic Anglican formularies with the seriousness that they deserve. In this way these two bodies would not only be enforcing a long-standing standard of orthodoxy for Anglicans but also they would be maintaining a recognizable continuity with the reformed Church of England and historic Anglicanism. If these bodies chose to do nothing—a strong likelihood—or pursue ineffectual solutions—also a strong likelihood, they will join the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church as two more examples of the North American drift away from authentic historic Anglicanism.

Confessional Anglicans, those who uphold the historic Anglican formularies and value the Protestant, Catholic, Reformed, and evangelical character of historic Anglicanism, need to take stock of their options. They face a prospect of being a minority group in an Anglican body that is from the perspective of the historic Anglican formularies and historic Anglicanism marginally orthodox at best. They have little hope of preserving confessional Anglicanism and transmitting it to future generations without establishing the kinds of structures that the conservative evangelicals did in the Church of England. They purchased the patronages to a number of livings and the right to nominate the incumbent and established trusts. They formed church associations and pastoral aid societies, or home missionary societies. They endowed ministry training schools and theological colleges. They planted independent evangelical churches. They wrote articles, books, and tracts, gave lectures and talks, and held conferences.

All of these approaches may not be workable in North America in the twenty-first century but some of them are. Alternative approaches tailored to conditions in North America may prove more workable. Whatever the case may be, confessional Anglicans need to take steps to ensure that those that succeed them as the future pastors of their churches and professors of their seminaries believe what they believe and teach what they teach. Confessional Anglican must not become content with maintaining a handful of congregations and clergy that share their commitment to the historic Anglican formularies and authentic historic Anglicanism but must work to establish more such congregations and clergy. They must fight against complacency and inertia. If they do not take a stand for confessional Anglicanism, no one else will. They must champion its cause or accept the blame for its demise in North America. Its future is in their hands!

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