The Crisis of Authority in Anglicanism
By Alice C. Linsley
Special to Virtueonline
May 25, 2012
I was raised a Protestant and over many years I found my way to catholicity. My first encounters were with Anglicanism at St. Luke's Anglican Mission and the Armenian Orthodox cathedral in Isfahan, Iran. Being a Christian in that country was a serious matter. Persecution of Iranian converts was common and the Armenian Christians were isolated and understandably guarded.
The fervent commitment and humility of the English missioner priest at St. Luke's especially impressed me. When I became Anglican, I thought I was entering into the fullness of the "one holy catholic and apostolic faith." In retrospect, I believe that I had merely entered a liturgical form of Protestantism with its inherent tendency to schism. The crisis of authority in the Anglican Communion has confirmed my suspicion.
Every shade of Anglicanism has suffered in this crisis; Revisionists, Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. There have been no winners. Revisionists lose ground daily, as evidenced by their widening financial troubles and the swift decline in membership.
Evangelicals continue to divide over different visions of being Anglican, over different approaches to mission and over the question of women priests. In the New Testament the word "presbyter" is used to designate the one who presided when the body gathered for worship. This did not mean a priest was present, as only men born in the priestly lines were considered priests. Among Jesus' followers only two men are known to fit this category: Joseph of Hari-Mathea and Nicodemus. As far as we know from Scripture and Tradition, none of the Apostles were of the ruler-priest lines. So the terms presbyter and priest do not represent the same concept. The question must be raised as to whether women presbyters are priests, and if they are not priests, then they should not serve at altar.
Anglo-Catholics are equally divided. Some are on board with the gay agenda. These find themselves at odds with Anglo-Catholics who have aligned with Evangelicals against modernist innovations. Others have sought refuge under Rome's wings and may have discovered by now that the inclination to Rome does not constitute the kind of catholicity that makes for unity in faith and practice. Clergy seeking a way out of the Anglican crisis through the Personal Ordinariate may be able to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Roman Church, but the crisis of authority is likely to follow them. It seems inherent in the Anglican Tradition that they hope to take with them. Further, the Roman Catholic Church faces a similar crisis.
Is Anglicanism schismatic?
Episcopal bishop Peter Lee has famously stated, "If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided the body of Christ. Choose heresy every time."
That is a very revealing statement coming from a bishop whose work it is to protect the flock from both heresy and schism. Further, it represents a false distinction because every little heresy can potentially lead to schism.
The schismatic flavor of Anglicanism is more than a reaction to Rome and more than a product of historical events. Among innovators like John Spong and Louie Crew it is license to "change the church."
Among others, it is often motivated by denominational pride. These Anglicans would prefer to study the Articles of Religion instead of the writings of the Church Fathers. This is more common among Evangelicals, though some Anglo-Catholics uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as tradition of the second order. These Articles represent reasoned reform of customs that conflicted with Scripture and the right proclamation concerning Jesus Christ. As historical documents the Articles of Religion make sense, but they do not constitute catholicity in the same way as the received tradition concerning the Christ. Further, they do not address the crisis of authority in Anglicanism today. For example, in the 16th century none would have imagined a women priest or bishop, much less same sex ceremonies in the church.
Once I was asked to teach a class on the Articles of Religion which the priest considered an essential feature of Anglican identity. I was never very interested in making better Anglicans. I always believed the clergy had a responsibility to make better Christians. When I said that I would prefer to teach all the historical documents, I was told that the Chalcedon Doctrine on the Two Natures of Christ and the Creed of Athanasius were too difficult for the laity. What bunk. The best Anglicans are thoroughly catholic, having been grounded in the old catechism of the Book of Common Prayer and in the ecumenical councils. I think of Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis and Evelyn Underhill, to name a few.
In my experience, thoughtful Anglicans gravitate to catholicity because they sense that ultimately the Protestant approach to Scripture and church order lacks authority. It is removed from the fullness of holy tradition concerning the Trinity, the blessedness of the Mother of Christ our God, and the ecumenical councils of the Church.
St. John of Damascus wrote, "I beseech the people of God, the holy nation, to hold fast to the tradition of the Church... for the gradual erosion of what has been handed down to us will bring down the whole fabric in ruins."
In a real sense, St. John's warning has found fulfillment within Anglicanism, especially in the American and English churches. These heirs of the Enlightenment have embraced Modernism while Anglicans of the Global South have continued in the received Tradition. The accommodation of Anglicanism to contemporary western culture has made it so particular as to strip away any remnants of catholicity.
When I speak to students about how Christianity is a received tradition, they often give me a blank stare. They have little understanding of how Christianity came to the world and how it continues to survive in the face of great animosity worldwide. The more sophisticated students speak of the antecedents of Christianity in Judaism. Often these students have read rabbinic commentaries, but rarely have they read the more authoritative writings of the Church Fathers.
Many of my World Religions students think that Christianity began with Jesus and the Apostles, as if they founded a new religion. This is reinforced by the text I am required to use which portrays Jesus as a moral teacher and the founder of a world religion. Few students have the ability to see this claim as yet another heresy.
It is not possible to live as a Christian when one does not recognize who Jesus is and how God fulfills all things in Him and through Him. One might argue that any form of Christianity that does not uphold the Chalcedon understanding of Jesus Christ's two natures is not Christian at all. Father Patrick Henry Reardon makes this argument in his book The Jesus We Missed.
In my experience, many Anglicans, if they read the Bible at all, read it for devotional purposes and not to discover intended meaning. In Acts 17:11, the Bereans were called "noble" because, having heard the words of Paul and Silas, they sought to confirm those words by searching the Tradition they had received in the Hebrew Scriptures daily. They were correlating received Scripture and received Tradition to gain a better understanding. The key to right belief is received, not imagined, contrived or invented. Received Tradition holds us together. Innovations always bring schism.
Most Anglicans, if they have received any decent instruction in the relationship of Scripture and Tradition, recognize that church leaders cannot go beyond the unified voice of Scripture and Tradition. Bishops and councils have no authority to set aside any article of the apostolic faith nor can they insist that the flock believe any extra-biblical doctrines such as Dispensationalism, the Rapture, women priests, and same sex unions.
In many Anglican churches today the sermons tend toward spiritual self-improvement. Distortions come in from many directions: Gnosticism, political correctness, charismatic enthusiasm, health-wealth, and a marketing mentality to force numerical growth. Catholicity resists these by upholding the Truth of Christ against all falsehood and by correlating Scripture and Tradition. These speak with one voice and it rings true. It is the voice of authority and the sound of that voice has gone silent for many Anglicans.
Alice C. Linsley was an Episcopal priest for 13 years. She left the ministry on November 2, 2003. She now teaches Philosophy, Ethics and World Religions at a women's college in Kentucky
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