Anglican Christians without Canterbury?
- February 03, 2021
- Steve Macias
Dr. Charles Erlandson’s book, Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition (Wipf and Stock: 2020) is a well thought through effort to mark out a meaningful definition for theologically orthodox Anglicanism. (Buy on Amazon) Erlandson recognizes the increasing difficulty in defining Anglicanism and acknowledges the existence of various and often insufficient answers provided throughout the fractured global Anglican Communion. Erlandson posits his narrowed definition of orthodox Anglicanism as a response to a “naturalistic and man-centered worldview” found in the theological liberalism of the modern Episcopal Church (TEC). The challenge remains in defining an Anglican identity that is not specifically “Anglo-centric” in that many Anglicans no longer need, see, or obey Canterbury as a seat of titular significance due to the various theological and moral erosions caused by liberalism.
Erlandson’s timeline of liberalism in Anglican identity traces its influence back to, “at least the 1960’s” citing Bishop James Pike and the innovation of women’s ordination in the 1970’s. Notably, this also coincides with the beginning of the “Continuing Anglican” movement that broke from the Episcopal Church in 1976. His timeline also notes the increasing acceptance of innovative changes to the traditional Prayer Book and marginalization of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion as a mere “historical document of the Church.”
The need for a definition of orthodox Anglicanism began in earnest in 2003, as previously existing doctrinal tensions between various provinces in the Anglican Communion were tested by the consecration of Vicki Gene Robinson. Erlandson points out that the acceptance of homosexuality challenges the Episcopal Church’s understanding of authority, citing the defeat of a resolution before the House of Bishops that “directly affirmed Scripture as a standard in the TEC that could not be violated.” Thus authority is shifted from Scripture to the consensus of the current bishops, who in 2003 voted to affirm the consecration of Robinson despite his personal identification as an active homosexual. The divide between Orthodox and Liberal Anglicans is clearly seen here not because homosexuality is a particular test case for one-side or the other, but rather that it was incidental with the outcomes of one’s previous understanding of the Scripture. The toleration and acceptance of homosexuality was the outcome of the liberal worldview that broke with the traditional views of the church, while the rejection of homosexuality was based on a desire to maintain or preserve the traditional view of Scripture.
Robinson’s consecration forces the Anglican Communion to address these diverging worldviews as twenty-three of the thirty-eight national churches (also called “provinces”) within the Anglican Communion “declared themselves to either be in broken or imparired communion with TEC.” What was once held together by a common patrimony in Canterbury had broken in half with the majority of international members siding with historic theological orthodoxy. The international implications of the consecration were unlike the previous ruptures within the American Episcopal Church. The Cummins Schism of 1874, that led to the creation of the Reformed Episcopal Church, and the Congress of St. Louis in 1977, that led to the creation of the Anglican Catholic Church and other continuing bodies, had limited impact on partner provinces’ ability to continue communion with the American Episcopal Church.
In many cases although, these breakaway jurisdictions better reflected the general ethos of the historic worldwide Anglican Communion.
These various Anglican movements are indeed a reflection of “how confused Anglican identity has become and how difficult it has become to define.” Erlandson offers four ways Anglicanism is described with its characteristics outlined in ecclesial, normative, practical and historical definitions. Here we see how various allegiances are used to support one’s definition whether they be ecclesial (to be Anglican is to be in communion with Canterbury) or normative (to be Anglican is to be tied to the Anglican formularies). Especially since the realignment conflict around homosexuality posits these two definitions and historic authorities against one another. This is increasingly challenging as normative understandings within Orthodox Anglicanism are eroded by either practical diversity or general indifference to the Anglican formularies. Erlandson notes, it will become increasingly difficult to define Anglicanism by the “surrogate authority” of the Book of Common Prayer among a group of Churches that either use radically different versions or no prayer book at all.
As Erlandson rightly points out in his work, the way forward is in embracing a “globalized” identity for Anglicanism. The often touted ecclesial definitions of Anglicanism centered around communion with the Church of England have only recently become important anyway. As Anglicans look toward the stage of our own history, we ought to also be concerned about the next stage of Christendom in the post-Christian Western world. Anglican identity is of little importance if it is only to be understood as the historical claim of a religious exhibit or shrinking denomination. Rather, the value of Anglican identity stands with its remarkable ability to channel the transformative power of historic Christianity.
Sadly, too many within the Anglican communion claim the church’s historic and ecclesial authority to subsume the world within.
Erlandson’s book is a helpful mirror that helps guide our efforts toward a greater unity around the work of Christ in the world and recognizes the achievements of Anglicanism as they are related to the cause of Christ’s kingdom over our own.