THE BAD THING about the Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials is that it seems to be yet one more statement of a tired old conservatism threatening to call forth yet one more statement from a tired old liberalism. The good thing about The Challenge of Tradition is that its contributors abandon “the fruitless categories of an inappropriate alternative” (Paul Jennings’s phrase) and “discerning the future of Anglicanism” points the way forward to a new synthesis.
Mr. Jennings satirizes a conservative view of the Bible as a “tireless, non-contextual, verbally dictated book of instruction” and a liberal view of it as “a mere edifying and moralizing storybook.” Christ is God’s word, says Mr. Jennings, the Scriptures only secondarily so. The task is to discern God’s word in the human words composing Scripture. We know that we have touched the truth of Scripture when we meet in it, not ideas or doctrines or laws, but God himself in Christ, who is the word, the Gospel, the good news of God’s compassion for his creation. Stephen Reynolds amplifies this idea. The presence of the word of God in Scripture is sacramental, like the presence of the Word of God in the bread and wine of the eucharist.
Mr. Reynolds tackles another issue: is Scripture the sole judge of faith and morals and does the church stand beneath it, or is the church, whose origin predates the canon of Scripture, the authoritative interpreter of Scripture?
Christ, the living Word, constitutes the church, but Scripture is the church’s constitution, “to which the living community … can and must be held accountable.”
The constitution of Canada requires human agents to interpret and uphold it, yet those agents – parliament and the judiciary – still stand under the constitution. Similarly, Scripture, the church’s constitution, requires the church inspired by the Spirit to interpret and uphold it, yet the church remains under the authority of Scripture.
Gregory Baum is the only non-Anglican contributor to the book. He rolls his essay, Faithfulness and Change, significantly subtitled, Moments of Discontinuity in the Church’s Teaching, into the minefield of the debate about homosexuality.
He begins by reminding us of the sad history of the church’s persecution of the Jews. But responding to the faith of the Jews shown during the holocaust, the Second Vatican Council simply abandoned the debate about whether to condemn Jews for their faithlessness or to convert them to Christianity. Instead, it declared “since God does not repent of his promises, the Jews remain `most dear to God on account of their father.'” The position of homosexuals in the church, Mr. Baum argues, is exactly analogous. There is no call to either condemn or convert; instead, their faith shows that they are most dear to God. Therefore, a Christian sexual ethic can draw no line between homosexual and heterosexual, but only between “sexual happiness within the bonds of love, truth and justice” and whatever apparent happiness might seem possible outside these bonds.
There are more good things in the book. Its editor, John Simons, affirms and explores the doctrine of the Holy Trinity while contending that to restrict the church to using the description “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is to condemn it to idolatry.
Andrew Taylor argues that, while we must recognize human sin, to be obsessed with it is to weaken the possibility of compassionate action towards the whole world which is the object of God’s redeeming love. And compassionate social action is what it means to follow Christ. Bishop Terry Brown shows how the openness of Anglicanism to new expressions of faith assists world mission; and Susan Storey shows how it assists women to be fully part of the church’s life.
The book provides no consensus on any of these issues But each essay takes us a step beyond positions that have divided Anglicans for nearly a generation, shedding a cool, refreshing light on the path ahead. Greig Dunn, author of Servers and Services, is a lay Anglican living in Toronto.