9 October 2014 A.D. Anglicans Need to Start Doing Theology
Belder, Jake. “Anglicans need to start doing theology.” Jake Belder. 9 Oct 2014. http://blog.jakebelder.com/post/anglicans-need-to-start-doing-theology. Accessed 11 Oct 2014.
Oct 9, 2014
I have just finished reading The Integrity of Anglicanism, a book by the late Bishop Stephen Sykes, which is a fascinating and incisive work aimed at addressing the question of whether or not Anglicanism – and more specifically, the Church of England – has a distinct theological standpoint.
The book is in part a sustained critique of the idea of 'comprehensiveness', the notion that the Anglican Church should be a place where (in some cases, radically) different theological perspectives can exist in unity. Sykes essentially concludes that as attractive as this idea is in theory, it is simply incapable of working in practice, and undermines Anglicanism's integrity.
As popular as the idea of comprehensiveness is, Sykes ends up arguing that Anglicanism actually does have a shared theological standpoint, 'whether or not its theologians are aware of it and are prepared to think carefully and critically about it’ (74). He suggests that this standpoint is most evident in its liturgies and canon law.1 If this is true, though, Sykes wonders, why then is there no ‘genre of Anglican theological literature corresponding to Roman Catholic systematic theology’ (74)? He continues,
I can only imagine three explanations; it may be that Anglicans have special insight into why the whole enterprise of systematic theology is a waste of time… But so far from this being the case, we would more easily be able to show how pathetically grateful Anglicans are to have some writing on which to cut their theological teeth and how parasitic Anglican theological education is on the existence of such literature. Or secondly, it may be that my argument about the existence of an Anglican standpoint is fallacious. And in this case I hope it will not be long before its errors have been exposed. Or, thirdly, and I can see no further possibilities, it may be that the contemporary Anglican communion is in gross dereliction of its duty to foster the critical study of its own standpoint as a church participating in the universal Church of Christ, to its own impoverishment and to the impoverishment of its contribution to the cause of Christian unity (74-75).
These are strong words, but an important challenge. I find myself sympathetic to much of Sykes' critique of comprehensiveness and the need to articulate a distinctive Anglican theological standpoint. This is not to diminish the way in which Anglicanism has always sought to make room for theological exploration, but a recognition that this process should not result in what can end up looking a lot like relativism. When it does, it fosters a unity that is only institutional, and in many ways illusory. This, I think, is the situation we find ourselves in today. And we are left, as Sykes says, impoverished.
True unity is rooted in shared belief. To be sure, Anglicanism has never been a confessional Church in the sense of the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, and has always been characterised by a degree of diversity, largely owing to its nature as a national Church. Nor should it necessarily be. However, as Paul Avis demonstrates in his book, Anglicanism and the Christian Church, early post-Reformation Anglicanism did have greater commonality in its theological foundation, but this has eroded over time as different movements and traditions, particularly those influenced by liberalism, have become more prominent. Sykes' call, then, is to recapture a shared foundation – not that we try to recapture the 16th- and 17th-centuries as a sort of 'golden age', or that we become a confessional Church, but simply that Anglicans take up the task of doing theology, to work out and express our theological standpoint, and from there to draw all the traditions of the Church into the process of discernment and refinement so that we will come to build our unity on a common faith. Sykes is happy to affirm that Anglicanism by nature has always been a broad Church, but he also recognises that we need to draw boundaries and establish foundations if our unity is going to be real and lasting.
Sykes wrote these words in 1978, but as far as I know, his call has yet to be answered, at least within the Church of England. And certainly, with all that's going on today and the way the fractures in the Church are growing, it is more urgent than ever that we seek unity in the way Sykes calls us to – indeed, in the way Jesus calls us to.
1 There is an intriguing tension that emerges when a Church that prizes diversity of theological perspectives and traditions claims to hold a 'common' form of worship. Sykes is right to note that our liturgy embraces a particular theology, as you cannot say something that means more than one thing at the same time. This results in different traditions either attempting to interpret the liturgy to fit within their tradition's theological framework, or to simply ignore the tension, such that only keen observers will note the dichotomy between the theology professed in the liturgy and the theology articulated by the church/tradition.