November 23, 2005

The Anglican Triad

Anglicans are familiar with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral: the statement of four doctrinal and ecclesiological principles that chart out the boundaries for dialogue between churches wishing to join in closer common purpose and mission. The Quadrilateral thus describes the essentials, from an Anglican perspective, for church union or reunion.

I would like to suggest that alongside the familiar Quadrilateral we consider another structure that for want of a better term I will call the Anglican Triad (with apologies to those who use this term for what is often known, incorrectly, as “Hooker’s Three-Legged Stool.”) This Triad consists of three elements which are particularly characteristic of Anglicanism — not necessarily unique to to it, but together constituting a unity which I fear is at present very much under assault.

For shorthand I will call these three elements Humility, Provinciality, and Variety. They stand in the via media between Humiliation, Provincialism, and Chaos at one extreme, and Pride, Centralism and Uniformity at the other. All three are well attested in foundational documents of Anglicanism (The Articles of Religion, the Prefaces to the English and American Books of Common Prayer) and in the work of those who first focused the Anglican vision, such as Richard Hooker. I’ll limit my citations here to the Articles themselves, by number.

1. Humility: “The church... hath erred.” (19,21)

The admission that the church makes mistakes is profoundly revealing of the nature of the church as we understand it. It reflects the Pauline judgment that “our knowledge is partial”; and it asserts an attitude of faith and hope — and one hopes, love — rather than of certainty and judgment. This admission of uncertainty renders all but the most fundamental dogmatic matters to some extent provisional. It has been called by the rather high-falutin’ title “epistemic humility,” but I think that plain old humility says it just as well. Understood in this way, Humility is not a weakness, but a strength. It stands between abject humiliation and overweening pride.

This acknowledgment that the church makes mistakes is followed by a corollary: mistakes can (and should) be corrected. The church is not trapped within an immutable legal structure such as that attributed to the Medes and Persians. This is why Anglicanism can embrace and advance the development of doctrine and moral theology. This does not mean that every development will necessarily be correct — as the principle notes, the church makes mistakes. But the ability to admit to mistakes is the first step in correcting them. (Those familiar with 12-Step programs will at this point I hope recognize a resonance with the Serenity Prayer. It is very easy for the church to become addicted to the need to control, especially to control others through the claim of unassailable infallibility of judgment — to which Humility is a counterpoise and corrective.)

Humility stands as a meek (which does not mean “weak”) witness against domination by so-called consensus. As the Articles testify, since individual human beings may err, there is no guarantee that an assembly of such errant beings will not also err. (21) Humility points out that even an overwhelming consensus can be quite profoundly mistaken — Galileo can testify to that! So consensus by itself cannot form a term in an argument when a given proposition is being reexamined: this is simply a form of begging the question. Consensus, after all, means a “common mind with little or no opposition” — so the moment opposition appears, consensus ceases to exist, and the new proposal must be examined on its merits against the possible errancy of the formerly unchallenged position. (This is, by the way, why Hooker rejected tradition as an authority in and of itself.)

Anglicanism thus humbly rejects concepts of inerrancy and infallibility; even the Scripture itself is “sufficient” for the end for which it was intended: salvation (6). Human understanding, even of the Scripture, is fallible, and subject to a constant review as the church bears its responsibility as the “keeper of Holy Writ.” (19)

Humility also stands as a warning against the tendency to adopt unanimous statements for the purpose of apparent unity, in spite of serious disagreement with one or more parts of the adopted document. This sort of curate’s-eggery produces the appearance of agreement that cloaks underlying division. Better humbly to acknowledge the division, as the collect for the feast of Richard Hooker puts it, seeking comprehension for the sake of truth instead of compromise for the sake of peace. For as solutions such as Lambeth 1998.1.10 and the Primates’ Communiqué from Dromantine show us, such peace will be no peace.

2. Provinciality: “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.” (37)

Few things could be clearer than that the Church of England reasserted its ecclesiastical independence from Rome at the Reformation. It thought itself competent to do this, and believed it was returning to an ancient principle that had been more successfully preserved among the Eastern churches than it had in the West: the basic unit of the church is the national church or province. (It is sometimes suggested that the diocese is the basic unit of the church; however, a diocese cannot be self-sustaining in terms of the episcopate, and requires the participation of the bishops from other dioceses in order to maintain its existence. The diocese is an organ in the body of the province, and cannot subsist on its own.)

In Anglicanism Provinciality is expressed through provincial autonomy. Now, autonomy has gotten a bad name in some circles recently. It does not mean being able to do anything one likes. True autonomy should be understood in terms of the rights, powers and responsibilities exercised within and for a national church in terms of its ability to govern itself. It relates to the concept of subsidiarity: things should be done at the lowest level at which they can be accomplished. Thus priests are ordained by the diocese for the parishes; bishops by the province for the dioceses.

Provinciality is tempered by Humility, in that while each province asserts that it is fully the church, yet it does not assert itself as the only church. Rather than a “Branch” theory, this represents a more holographic understanding of the nature of the church’s fullness: it is complete within each province, as Christ is fully present in every eucharistic celebration, and in each fragment of the broken Bread. The external divisions between Christian churches constitute a scandal in that they impede the mission and work of Christ, and a failure to recognize that we do indeed share one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; but it is not necessary that a single world-church institutional structure take the place of a fellowship of independent and self-governing provinces. Instead of a human-instituted system of authoritative government, the provinces are called to a work of service and mission, in the recognition that the church is already “One” through its faithful response to the dominical command to baptize all nations. It is to be hoped that all Christians may one day recognize this baptismal unity, and remove the various obstacles they have set in place that prevent our sharing in the one Bread at one Table. This unity in the two dominical Sacraments forms an essential element of the Quadrilateral.

Humility and Provinciality taken together reveal the process by which development is both possible and limited within the Anglican Communion. Newman believed that development of doctrine could only take place under the watchful eye of the Bishop of Rome — and this in spite of Rome’s demonstrable errors! Anglicanism broadens the scope for the source of correctives to the whole communion, the various national churches and provinces themselves being the determiners of what and how things are to change or remain the same: each determining for itself those matters that concern it. If I can offer an analogy: the Roman Catholic Magisterium is like a boarding house where you eat what is set before you or go hungry; the Anglican approach is more like a restaurant with a finite but various menu from which to choose; and the fact that I like mushrooms and you like asparagus should not keep us from eating at the same table.

Provinciality means that changes and developments may be made within a province that have no direct effect upon the governance of any other province. One example of this was the decision of the Episcopal Church to move forward with the ordination of women to the episcopate. No other province was forced to recognize or approve this decision, and it had no impact upon the governance, rights, privileges, or responsibilities of any other province. As time passed, other provinces chose to adopt — or not adopt — this innovation: this is the process of reception, and it is not complete even now: there is at present no Anglican consensus on the rightness (or wrongness) of the ordination of women to the episcopate. In the meantime any difficulties that arise — such as the inability to license a visiting woman bishop to function as such in a province that does not ordain women to the episcopate, or to license or transfer clergy ordained by a woman bishop — are readily dealt with by the canonical provisions already in place within all of the provinces; it is a matter of record keeping that need engender no ill will or severance of communion, and the evocation of Gamaliel’s advice to the Council can avoid excessive friction.

The principle, What touches all shall be decided by all, upon which I’ve reflected elsewhere, comes to play under the rubric of Provinciality. “Touches” does not mean, “having an opinion about” or “creating a situation which might lead to difficulties with a third party.” The legal principle, as Althusius pointed out, is about rights, privileges and authorities of each province that can only be restricted by each province’s individual consent. Thus, Lambeth 1998.1.10.e would be seen as overstepping its bounds if it were worded as more than the advisory that it is, since it would place a restriction on the right of provinces to ordain and bless whom they choose — and these are rights pertaining to each province that must be explicitly foregone by each, and which cannot be takenaway even by all of the other provinces combined. All, save even one, is not all.

Provinciality thus provides a balance and a means to implement development in conjunction with Humility: it allows innovations to be tested locally before anyone considers implementing them globally. This is, of course, how the church has generally functioned through the ages. One could note, for example, that the adoption of vernacular liturgy by various national churches at the Reformation finally after several centuries had impact upon the very Roman Catholic Church that so bitterly opposed the development. Going further back in history, the emergence of the Gentile church began in isolated communities, and it took some while — even after the conference of the Apostles in Jerusalem — for the church more widely to accept this innovation. After the collapse of an old consensus due to the action of the church in one place or a few places, a significant period of reception will be necessary before a new consensus is established. Ultimately, this movement from particular to universal is reflective of the Incarnation itself.

3. Variety: “Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority.” (36)

It must be admitted that Anglicanism has always experienced tension between uniformity and variety; however as another example of the importance of Provinciality, this citation from the Articles demonstrates (and a reading of the Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer will support) that the concern is for uniformity within a national church, and permitted variety among them.

The matters currently causing distress in the communion concern rites and ceremonies: in particular ordination and marriage, neither of which “have any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God” (25), and so appear to fall within the rubric of permitted change. It will quickly be pointed out, however, that the limit on Variety in this regard is established by “God’s Word written” (20,36)— and some contend that the present innovations have crossed that boundary.

The question is, Who is to make that determination if not the national church? If the rites and ceremonies in question concern only a given province and its governance — for any other province is free to reject or refuse these rites and ceremonies, in principle or in the persons of those who take part in them — then as with all such matters the error is limited to the province which has erred. Are rites and ceremonies — even if errant — matters over which to break communion — as a number of provinces have done, not just with the individuals immediately representing the innovations, but with any who even approve of them? Are these matters over which to shun Christ’s table, as some have done? I believe not; and hope that there is yet time for them to reconsider their breach of communion.

Tobias S Haller BSG


*Christopher said...

This all seems very sensible as one who is a historian and liturgist...local development does and does not become universal practice in time, depending on reception. Humility in matters contested rather than reasserting the same old line when some portion no longer buys it. Most importantly, I liked you holographic rather than branch understanding as I think it explains more clearly my understanding of the marks of the Church from an eschatological perspective.

D. C. said...

Tobias, your thesis ties in nicely with 1 Thess. 5.19-21: "Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good." (Emphasis added.)

Tobias said...

Thanks Christopher and DC. Thessalonians was much in my mind, as I've been doing a "preaching series" on it in the weeks leading up to the Last Sunday After Pentecost. I think it is time for the real "classical Anglicans" to stand up and be counted.

J.C. Fisher said...

Another well-reasoned analysis, Tobias, except for this:

?The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.? (37)

Few things could be clearer than that the church of England separated itself from communion with Rome at the Reformation.


I would say that the Church of England (under its Royal Governor) revoked the BofR's jurisdiction therein at the (predictable) price of communion . . . but NOT that "x=y".

We will (as we always would) share the Kiss of Peace. We will not (at this time, under past/present conditions) Kiss the Ring. ;-/

Tobias said...

Dear JC,
You are quite correct; that was sloppy on my part and an instance of haste. I will correct the original document more accurately to reflect the issue of governance rather than communion.

obadiahslope said...

There is one rite, and possibly only one, that touches all provinces in the Anglican Communion and that is the seating of a bishop in their see. Thats because they meet at Lambeth. To unilaterally change the criteria for Bishops as ECUSA has done twice seems to me to violate your second principle of humility. Or to put it another way it presumes upon the humility of the rest.
If some provinces do not recognise +NH as a legitimate bishop how do you propse that we should get around this difficulty at Lambeth? You might argue there has been no difficulty over Women bishops, but that followed consultation within the communion and logically proceeded from the communion discussion concerning womens ordination in general.
In choosing to bring the question of the ordination of gays before the communion ISTM ECUSA chose possibly the worst way to proceed. For bringing the issue forward in the person of a bishop invited(?) to Lambeth is a very messy way to proceed.

J.C. Fisher said...

obadiah, my dictionary has "criteria" as (the plural of) "a standard, rule or test on which a judgment or decision can be based" . . . which in itself begs the question of who/how SETS the standards, rules or tests.

Was there (ever) an agreed-upon standard of NO non-straight/non-male bishops? Did any previous Lambeth ever lift up the cassocks to test for the required plumbing (and to test that said plumbing did react inappropriately around all the other bishop-boys?)

Have I made my point (ludicrously enough) yet? No EXPLICITLY agreed criteria, ergo no "unilaterally changed criteria".

If some provinces do not recognise +NH as a legitimate bishop how do you propse that we should get around this difficulty at Lambeth?

That's a very good question . . . but properly directed, IMO, at those having recognition problems.

However---since you asked: perhaps those who have the problem could simply abstain in their (episcopal) votes? That way, they could avoid acknowledging that +Gene's vote was equal to theirs (such a polite abstention would also be, needless to say, a dramatic witness of their humility and TRUST in God. It would then parallel the abstention that ECUSA and the AngChCanada made at the ACC this past summer).

Tobias said...

Thank you for the comment, Obadiahslope. Let me emphasize a couple of points:

1) The election of a bishop does not "touch" any other bishops than the ones who have the authority to affirm his or her election: that is, the bishops with jurisdiction of the Province, in our Episcopal governance. Even in this case his election in no way restricts the bishops who dissented from his election, or at least no more than in any other episcopal election.

2) The Lambeth meeting is not a synod or legislative body; it is, by its own terminology, a "conference" with no authority to make decisions binding upon anyone whatever.

3) Seats at Lambeth are by invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop could choose to address the concerns of those who are opposed to Bishop Robinson by not inviting him; or he could invite Bishop Robinson and let those who oppose him make their own choice.

4) How bishops who do not recognize (or approve of) Bishop Robinson choose to act is in their complete control; they are not "touched" by his election except as a matter of opinion, as his election in no way forces them to do anything.

5) In comparison with the election of women to the episcopate: While some still choose to believe that a woman cannot be a bishop, the most that can be said on the matter at hand is that a noncelibate gay or lesbian should not be a bishop; as far as I know, no one would question the validity of any ordinations performed by Bishop Robinson. Bishops seem to be able to sit in our own House of Bishops, and at Lambeth, with a number of persons whom they do not regard to be bishops at all.

In conclusion, I think the Lambeth issue is likely the least problematic matter on the table. And I believe that having a real, live person to deal with is actually the best way to address this kind of situation in the church: it is a fiction that the church does abstract "theology" prior to action; almost all theology is reflective on things that actually take place. People baptized in the name of the Trinity long before there was a settled Trinitarian doctrine; and any number of significant theological questions remain unsettled after nearly 2,000 years of reflection.

obadiahslope said...

I am perhaps a three or four point tobiasist, not a full five pointer.
In his recent visit +NH was not allowed to take part in church services in London. So your point 3. is certainly a live option, as is point 4 especially if 3 applies.
Yet a communion of episcopal churches where not everyone is agreed who is a bishop or not is a strange thing in my view. But anglicanism is never neat.
Many western evangelicals wish that the communion loosens its ties, (reinforcing your point 1) and that some of the churches currently outside be invited in.
If there is a serious schism in ECUSA (and you are much better placed to determine the likelyhood of this than I) then your point 5 of bishops sitting with those they do not regard as bishops will have reached breaking point.
A looser communion may serve the interests of both right and left but neither side will get everything they want.

Tobias said...

Thanks again, O, for the feedback. It is important to note that the recent directive to +Gene not to function in England is no different from the same directive that stands for all female bishops of the Communion. It is based on the "Clergy Ordained Abroad" measure, as I understand it, that says basically that no foreign cleric who could not be ordained in England can be licensed to function in England. Since the English rules at present disqualify "open" gay clergy (a risible situation given the rather open existence of a high percentage of gay clergy), +Gene was given the alert. It is his "fame" that brought this to public notice.

I do certainly agree that the situation we have is anomalous, and undermines the common definition of "communion" as concerning, among other things, mutual recognition of ministers and ministry. (In ecumenical talks this is often the sole serious point!) However, I'm willing to live with this in a process of reception, as the early church did with the matter of Gentile inclusion. This period of ambiguity is, I think, to be preferred to a formal schism. It is messier, but I think more in keeping with charity -- and practicality.

I do not think the Episcopal Church faces a "serious" schism. The number of dioceses that could muster enough votes within their borders to separate as a whole (probably leaving behind all real property) can be counted on one hand. In many dioceses there isn't a single parish that set on departure; in others again a few here or there. Don't get me wrong: this is a sad situation and I wish people could conform to the discipline of the church they vowed to uphold; but ultimately the American ethos of independence cuts all sorts of different ways. I still hope we may find a way to hang together, and as much as I dislike it, support plans for DEPO, and even, in some cases, retention of property by dissenting parishes. But a point does come when the communion must be more than "on the book" communion.

Thanks again,

Jared Cramer said...


Once again, I find that I agree more strongly with the classical Anglicanism in the ECUSA than the global south's innovative understanding of ecclesiology and authority. I pray that you are correct and that there will be "no serious schism."

The Anglican Scotist said...

That was a very good post; I found your discussion of provinciality especially helpful. As you seem to bring ideas into circulation here that need a much wider hearing, I think you should seriously consider working up and formally publishing this. On part III, concerning variety, you might add that we can only receive the fullness of God's perfection in a fragmented way: what is received is received in the mode of the receiver. It may well be that Anglican variety, and even disagreement, is necessary to a full imitation of Christ and reception of the Spirit. In that case, variety is something to be cherished and perhaps pursued--provided, as you might say, it is tempered with Humility and Provinciality.