Ecumenical Overture or Anglicanism Redefined? The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
By The Venerable Dr. Christopher Brown
Special to Virtueonline
March 21, 2012
Broadway extends the length of Manhattan. It begins at the foot of the island at Battery Park. It runs straight uptown to 10th Street, where it edges left and cuts a diagonal that only straightens out at 108th Street, just short of Columbia University. In 1829, the original planners located the leftward turn at 10th street to avoid damaging the orchard garden of Henry Brevoort. Since 1846, that spot has been the site of the stately Gothic structure of Grace Church in New York, designed by Brevoort's nephew, James Renwick (who later designed St. Patrick's Cathedral).
I was on the staff of Grace Church in 1988 during the centennial observance of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, a defining statement of Anglican identity. The author of the Quadrilateral was William Reed Huntington, 6th rector of Grace Church. Huntington was one of the most prominent Episcopal clergymen of his generation. Known informally as the "First presbyter of the Church," he was key figure behind the 1892 Book of Common Prayer, and he founded the Episcopal order of deaconesses.
In 1870, while serving as rector of All Saints Church in Worcester, Massachusetts; Huntington wrote a book entitled, The Church Idea, An Essay Toward Unity. He and a local Roman Catholic priest had founded an ecumenical clergy fellowship. This experience of working closely with other clergy seems to have prompted his efforts in The Church Idea to develop "a basis on which approach may be by God's blessing, made toward Home Reunion" - and thereby to recover the unity of the Church.
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
In 1886, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Chicago and passed a resolution now known as the Chicago Quadrilateral. Based on William Reed Huntington's proposal in The Church Idea, it sought to "heal the wounds of the Body of Christ." The resolution called on "fellow-Christians of the different Communions in this land" to come together and return "to the principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church during the first ages of its existence." These four "principles of unity" were:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God. 2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith. 3. The two Sacraments-Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. 4. The Historic Episcopate.
Two years later, in 1888, the Lambeth Conference also approved these four articles as "the basis on which approach may be by God's blessing made towards Home Reunion."
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral broke new ground that significantly predated the ecumenical developments of the 20th Century. While the Quadrilateral remains an open invitation to the other Christian bodies, it has yet to achieve its stated goal of uniting the major churches and "heal[ing] the wounds of the Body of Christ." This may partly be due to the fact that while the first three articles of the Quadrilateral are non-controversial, the fourth has been an obstacle among many Protestants who do not regard the Historical Episcopate as a matter of essential concern. On the other hand, while Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox largely agree on the four principles of the Quadrilateral, they have other concerns that the Quadrilateral does not address, such as Papal Authority, or the complex issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, the Quadrilateral has born some significant fruit:
* In 1947, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Anglicans in India came together to form the Church of South India. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was the explicit basis of the new church's constitution, and from the beginning all ordinations were performed by bishops.
* In 1999, after decades of study and consultation the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America into a relationship of Full Communion. Unlike the agreement that produced the Church of the South India, these two bodies retained their distinct organizational structure, while fully recognizing the ordained ministries of each church. For this arrangement to conform to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the Lutherans embraced the Historic Episcopate, as Episcopal and Swedish Lutheran bishops took part in the consecration of American Lutheran bishops.
The Quadrilateral was an ecumenical overture to the greater church - inspired in large measure by an emerging Anglican recovery of the catholicity of the Church. But almost from the start, in its attempt to state what Anglicans regard as essential, the Quadrilateral has also come to define the shape of Anglicanism itself. These essentials, as stated in the Quadrilateral, do not have to do with doctrine so much as with common practices and sources of authority. Obviously doctrine derives from creeds and scripture, but the Quadrilateral does not address the content of creed or scripture - matters about which there is often much difference of interpretation. Hence the Quadrilateral is able to say what Anglicans have classically stressed that Anglicanism has no distinct doctrine of its own, but teaches that it has received from scriptures and the doctrines of the early Church.
Three Key Principles of Anglicanism
It is a common claim that Anglicanism is "non-confessional," that what holds us together is not a particular construal of Christian doctrine, but a common liturgy. One often hears it said, "It does not matter what you believe, so much as the fact that we gather around the table and share the Eucharistic meal." In part, such statements are simply an expression of three key Anglican principles, none of which are unique to Anglicanism, but which are all formative to the Anglican Ethos:
1. Lex orandi lex credendi ("the law of prayer is the law of belief"). Our worship gives expression to what we believe, and at the same time worship shapes and forms our belief. Hence our doctrine is manifested and displayed in the liturgy; the Eucharistic action itself is a theological statement.
2. Comprehensiveness: Anglicanism has always encompassed a range of theological opinion, Reformed, Catholic, Evangelical, Liberal, Traditionalist, etc. What has made this comprehensiveness workable and coherent is a third key principle:
3. The Distinction between Essentials and Inessentials: Since the Reformation, Anglicans have identified some theological convictions as adiaphora, or "inessentials." This does not mean that these issues don't matter, nor that all points of view are "equally valid", but only that such differences need not be church dividing. This also implies that some areas of disagreement could be church dividing, and thereby place a person outside the community of faith - such as the denial of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ.
39 Articles of Religion
Traditionally, when Anglicans wished to speak of the essentials (rather than matters about which they agreed to disagree) they have turned to the Thirty-nine Articles. The "Articles of Religion" have been the defining statement of Anglican doctrine since the time of Elizabeth I. Published in 1571, these carefully worded statements of faith outlined the essentials of Christian teaching in a form that was broad enough to allow for a range of opinion on secondary matters, and yet clear, biblical, reformed and sacramental.
As the Quadrilateral has increasingly come to define Anglican identity, it has effectively sidelined the Articles of Religion. Admittedly, the Articles are an expression of their own time (but then so is the Nicene Creed, and the Gospel of John), and by the 19th Century some thought they had outlived their usefulness - including William Reed Huntington. Huntington campaigned unsuccessfully to omit the Articles from the 1892 prayer book, of which he was otherwise the principal architect. Huntington seems to have thought that the Articles were too narrowly defined, and there is evidence that he regarded the Quadrilateral not just as an overture to other churches but also as a way of re-conceiving Anglicanism more broadly than it had been in the past.
" Nasty Dose of Orthodoxy"
My Church History professor at General Theological Seminary, Dr. J. Robert Wright, played a key role in the ecumenical discussions that led to full communion with the Lutherans. He certainly appreciates centrality of the Quadrilateral in that process. At the same time, he has been quite candid that when it comes to matters of belief the Quadrilateral is "minimalist, reductionist, and anti-confessional in intent." It offers a stripped down approach to doctrine - and a hence a rather thin account of Anglican identity.
In 1988, during the centennial of the Quadrilateral, I heard Dr. John Wolverton, church historian from Virginia Theological Seminary, argue this point from the pulpit of the Grace Church in New York. Speaking of the ambiguous legacy of the Quadrilateral and calling for reconsideration of the Articles of Religion, he quoted the Roman Catholic novelist, Flannery O' Connor, and said, "What we need is a 'nasty dose of orthodoxy'."
This is not to say that the Quadrilateral is "unorthodox." As Professor Wright has pointed out, its four points closely resemble the four-fold defense of orthodoxy by the 2nd century Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyons, in response to the challenge of Gnosticism. But in playing down the specific content of teaching and proclamation, the Quadrilateral represents a shift of direction in Anglican self-understanding.
To say, as some have suggested, that historically Anglicanism has not been interested in doctrine, but opts instead for a pragmatic emphasis of common worship, is a gross overstatement that distorts the picture of historic Anglicanism. Such a view reflects a development (by no means universal in the Anglican Communion) that has only really prevailed over the past century. It would have been rejected by Reformers, 17th Century Caroline Divines, 18th Century Anglican Evangelicals, and 19th Century Tractarians, and far more reflects the secularist influence of the Enlightenment, than the historic comprehensiveness that has always been part of the Anglican experience.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Brown is Rector of Trinity Church, Potsdam and a regular contributor to The Albany Episcopalian. This article first appeared in The Albany Episcopalian and is reprinted with permission.
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