Cartoon: David Anderson (www.d-andersonillustration.com)
Years ago I made my point with conviction and youthful enthusiasm to my bishop, Fred H. Wilkinson, Bishop of Toronto, when he stopped me dead in my tracks: “It’s foreign to the ethos of the Anglican Communion!” The substance of our discussion is long forgotten, but not his response, and I have found in it a good guiding principle when I consider who and what I am as an Anglican.
An ethos is described as a “characteristic spirit.” In other words it sets the “tone” or the community’s life. Historically it means that Anglicans have been a rag-tag bunch who recognize the sacrament of baptism as a unifying force in the face of many and profound differences, held in tension over the years but in a spirit of openness and respect. It might be called a ‘way’ of being Christian; inclusive, recognizing that all issues, doctrinally and ethically, belong in the providence of God, beyond the competence of any final human assessment. This doesn’t mean we should not endeavour to study and understand issues and differences, but it does mean that our “H” word should be humility rather than hubris! As has been stated by others, “The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but certainty.”
And that is why the “-isms” bother me. The prospect of something codified and named Anglicanism I find unsettling. Roman Catholicism provides an ecclesial authoritarian structure and demands subservient obedience from its adherents. Protestantism provides several forms of confessional authoritarianism, requiring subservience to refined interpretations of scripture and doctrine. Biblical Fundamentalism, of course, comes across as absolutely absolute in its biblical interpretations, that is, according to whomever the pastor or preacher may be. What is disturbing is the concept of subservience to humanly contrived authorities that seem to me to be the antithesis of the liberation and freedom that is the gospel (good news) of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ who we know as Saviour and Lord.
This is why I find proposals for an Anglican Covenant, in order to define something to be called Anglicanism, completely unpalatable. It seems to be required so that we might determine who is in and who is out. It would provide a basis for exclusion, already anticipated by some Anglican Primates and their constituencies in relation to other churches of the Communion. It would certainly be foreign to the ethos of the Anglican Communion as we have known it.
As Anglicans we already have a statement, not a confession, of what is important to our church, It is the often maligned Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, assembled in 1563, which roots our church in the scriptures and historic creeds, with Christian life centred in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion, Mass, Eucharist, Breaking of Bread). The glory of these Articles is that they were written in an age when ambiguity had been raised to a fine art. That is why interpretations of the Articles could cover the spectrum from the Protestant Griffith Thomas to the Anglo-Catholic John Henry Newman (Tract 90), and with other authors covering every shadow of meaning in between.
Perhaps Article 34 speaks to the rancour of our present Anglican condition. “It is not necessary that Tradition and Ceremonies be in all place one, and utterly alike, for at all times they have been divers(e), and may be changed, according to the countries, times and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting…”)
Any proposed Covenant will have to reveal an ambiguity the equal of the Thirty Nine Articles if the Anglican ethos is to be maintained. In the meantime I am just an Anglican, enjoying fellowship and friendship with other Anglicans, many of whom I differ with in matters of biblical and doctrinal interpretation, but who rejoice in sharing worship around the Lord’s table and who seek to serve the Lord’s purpose in the power of the Holy Spirit. May it continue to be so.
Canon Gordon Baker was editor of the Anglican Journal 1959-1968 and more recently its book review editor 2001-2004.