IN A PREDICTABLE (and predictably unsatisfactory) statement, the Primates of the Anglican Communion, meeting in Oporto in March, have defined what they take to be the outer limits of Anglicanism:
“We believe that the unity of the Communion as a whole still rests on the Lambeth Quadrilateral: the Holy Scriptures as the rule and standard of faith; the creeds of the undivided Church; the two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself and the historic episcopate. Only a formal and public repudiation of this would place a diocese or Province outside the Anglican Communion.”
Two things need to be noted.
First, that the Primates (following, perhaps, the 1988 Lambeth Conference [Resolution IV.2 (a)]) have changed the status of the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. From being a basis for ecumenical dialogue it has been elevated into a sufficient statement of Anglican doctrine.
Second, that one would need to be deaf and blind to suppose that such ‘formal and public repudiation’ had not already taken place.
In the matter of the ‘Holy Scriptures as the rule and standard of faith’ some American bishops have been explicit. ‘The Church wrote the Bible and the Church can re-write it’ said Bishop Bennison of Massachusetts, obligingly. ‘The Episcopal Church can be said to be in dispute with Scripture,’ opined the Presiding Bishop.
But explicit as they are, such statements do not do justice to the actual condition of the American Church ‘on the ground’. The fact is that in recent developments of both doctrine and ethics there has been no open ‘dispute with Scripture’. On the contrary, the Bible has been largely an irrelevance. No one observing the American Church’s attitudes to divorce and remarriage, the ordination of women or same sex relationships could for a moment envisage that a direct biblical prohibition (and the Bible might plausibly be claimed to prohibit all three) would ever, in any way, affect the doctrinal position or personal conduct of the majority of American Anglicans. (As has often been remarked, the bishop acquitted of knowingly ordaining a practising homosexual was himself thrice married with two former partners living.)
‘The Creeds of the undivided Church’, alas, have no more importance than Scripture in the day-to-day life of the ECUSA.
In this context it is necessary (but in a sense superfluous), to cite the premeditated and unreprimanded attack on Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy mounted by Jack Spong. Superfluous because Spong stands in a long and well-documented tradition of American episcopal apostasy; and superfluous because the widely accepted postmodernist inclusivism of the present Presiding Bishop renders credal orthodoxy largely an irrelevance. In the encounter between ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’, the casualty is ‘the Truth’. The wide vocabulary of Frank Griswold’s enfolding tolerance excludes two words which are indispensable to an understanding of the nature and texture of biblical and patristic orthodoxy: ‘anathema sit’. [see, for example, I Cor 14:38]
This non-credal or a-credal posture, naturally, has interesting implications for the third side of the Quadrilateral, the dominical Sacraments.
Creeds are baptismal. Their threefold structure springs from the Church’s patient and costly obedience to the words of Matthew 28: ‘Go baptise all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. The credal and catechetical formulae of the Church in every age spring from those dominical words of institution, and are an extended expression of fidelity to them. It follows that credal distortion undermines sacramental fidelity.
Such a proposition, granted, can at first seem arid and abstract. But in the case of the American Church (and elsewhere in the Communion), we have concrete examples which make its immediate implications clear and colourful.
Baptism is now not infrequently conducted (as most recently in the Scottish Episcopal Church) in the name of persons other than those of the Sacred Trinity. Names not those of the Triune God are invoked, by the baptised, in the proclamation of the Word and in eucharistic celebrations (as, for example, on well attested occasions, in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC; Grace Cathedral San Francisco; and the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York).
Whilst it is not easy to see how sacraments embracing and employing such names can be the ‘the Sacraments ordained by Christ himself’ to which the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral refers, it is nevertheless quite clear how they relate to the a-credal inclusivism which is the prevailing dogma of the Episcopal Church.
The fourth and final side of the Quadrilateral (‘the historic episcopate’) is the most extensively and notoriously abused.
The ‘historic episcopate’ exists to express and effect the relationship of each diocese (in the person of its bishop) vertically with the Church of the ages and horizontally with the contemporary world-wide communion. It is clear that the episcopate of the American Church is, in both these respects, severely dysfunctional.
Revisionist bishops will, of course, ingeniously and disingenuously protest to the Greek kalends, their apostolic credentials; but happily the most recent statement emanating from the San Diego meeting of the American House of Bishops leaves nobody in any doubt of their intentions with regard to the contemporary church and the world-wide communion. They intend to ignore it.
“Theology is lived out in specific contexts,” said the Presiding Bishop. “Diversity will continue to express itself. I cannot imagine any diocese altering its perspective [on ordaining homosexuals in committed relationships or blessing same-sex unions] as a result of either the bishops’ or the primates’ meeting.” Elsewhere he affirmed his intention to uphold ‘this church’s tradition’ of diocesan autonomy’.
That there is no such ‘tradition’ of diocesan autonomy in matters of doctrine or morals, and that the ‘historic episcopate’ exists, very largely in order to ensure that there is not, is clearly a truth about which the Episcopal Church is in denial. Considering its insistence on the ‘historic episcopate’ as the price of unity with the much larger Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, this is richly ironical.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.