By Robin G. Jordan
Has Anglicanism become so diverse in its beliefs and practices that we must tolerate all groups that identify themselves as “Anglican”? This is a view that I have often heard liberals propound.
On a purportedly conservative web site I ran into a variation of this view in recent days. I was criticized for making broad sweeping statements about Anglo-Catholics and Anglo-Catholicism. Those who identify themselves as “Anglo-Catholics” are quite diverse in their beliefs and practices, it was argued. What I was saying might apply to some but not to others. In making these kinds of statements I was being intolerant and uncharitable. Or so I was told.
While I understand that the element of diversity might make my statements inapplicable to some Anglo-Catholics, it did not necessarily follow that in making these statements that I was being intolerant and uncharitable. This was purely a value judgment on the part of those who criticized me for my imprecise statements.
I was also taken to task for drawing attention to the major differences in the reformed Church of England’s understanding of the gospel and the Anglo-Catholic movement’s understanding of the gospel, the modern tendency to gloze over these critical differences, and the New Testament’s affirmation of only one true gospel and its strong condemnation of even angels who preach a different gospel. The claim of wide diversity in contemporary Anglo-Catholic belief and practice was also trundled out in rebuttal. My views were again characterized as intolerant and uncharitable.
These two discussions raised a number of questions in my mind. How really diverse are the beliefs and practices those who identify themselves as “Anglo-Catholics”? What research is available to support the claim of wide diversity of belief and practice among Anglo-Catholics? Does the existence of such diversity rule out any criticism of Anglo-Catholics for their past and present espousal of the doctrines and practices historically associated with the Tractarian movement and the Anglo-Catholic movement that succeeded it.
Both discussions points to the need for solid research into what those who identify themselves as “Anglo-Catholics” believe and practice. Hard data, not anecdotal evidence, is needed to support any claim of widespread diversity among Anglo-Catholics. A number of specific doctrines and practices are historically associated with the Anglo-Catholic movement and in the past the espousal of these doctrines and practices would have been used to distinguish “Anglo-Catholics from members of other schools of thought. A slight variance in belief and practice among individual members of the school would not have disqualified as valid any criticism of the school for its particular beliefs and practices. Solid research is also needed to identify the Anglo-Catholic leanings of North American Anglicans who do not describe themselves as Anglo-Catholics and the extent of Anglo-Catholic influence upon North American Anglicans. Without research we have no way of knowing whether this claimed wide diversity in belief and practice in the Anglo-Catholic community is no more than the slight variance in belief and practice of the past, and the claim is simply being used to justify a shift in values among those making it toward greater tolerance and even acceptance of Anglo-Catholic belief and practice.
What we are observing is a modern day use or more accurately misuse of what Dyson Hague and J. C. Ryle described as “the principle of charitable supposition.” In this particular case we are invited to accept hypothetically that the gospel message that Anglo-Catholic clergy are preaching is typically no different from the gospel message that their Reformed-Evangelical brethren are preaching. Anyone like myself who does not make this supposition is viewed as uncharitable, consigning all Anglo-Catholic to damnation and hell.
The same people who willingly make this supposition about Anglo-Catholics, however, are unwilling to make it about liberals. Anglo-Catholics share their conservative social values or so it is assumed but liberals do not. Consequently the latter are not viewed as worthy of such charity. Anglo-Catholics who have liberal social values are rejected as not authentically Anglo-Catholic. Liberalism and genuine Anglo-Catholicism it is argued are incompatible.
The Scriptures use fairly strong language in condemning the practice of all forms of sexual morality and the countenancing of such practice. They use even stronger language in condemning the preaching of “a different gospel” and the tolerance or acceptance of false teachers and false teaching. Those who offer their hospitality to false teachers, the Scriptures tell us, participate in their wickedness.
While we are enjoined to not let ourselves become spotted by the world, we are not expected to withdraw from the world. Nor are we expected to shun unbelievers.
The Scriptures quite clearly outline how we should deal with believers who fall into error or sin. We have a God-given obligation to warn them of the danger in which their beliefs and practices place them. If they are members of the fellowship of believers, if they fail to repent after they have been duly warned, they are to be disciplined in the form of expulsion from the fellowship of believers.
While the fellowship of believers is enjoined to avoid normal relations with the excommunicated member, its members are also enjoined to turn back the wanderer from the truth, to turn the sinner from the error of his way, and to save a soul from death. We are not relieved from this responsibility once he is expelled from the fellowship of believers.
Nowhere in Scripture do I find any basis for the idea that we must overlook or wink at the sins and errors of fellow believers out of misplaced charity.
In the High Priestly Prayer of John 17 Jesus prays that God will make one those who believe in him through the apostles’ “word,” that is, their teaching. He does not pray for all who identify themselves as Christians—only those who upon hearing the gospel believe in him. He does not pray for unity between all self-identified Christians.
Jesus teaches that we should show love in the form of kindness, mercy, and forgiveness towards even our enemies. However, he does not teach that we should ignore their wrongdoings or look at their sins as if we are looking between the fingers of our hands. Nor does he teach that we should put up with their errors. He himself drew attention to the errors of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law not only to them but also to the apostles and to the multitude. He did not gloze over where they deviated from the teaching of God’s Word and nullified it for the sake of their tradition.
Jesus does teach that before we look for blemishes in others, we examine ourselves for faults. In making judgments about others, we can expect to be judged by the same standards. He does not prohibit us from drawing conclusions and making judgments but counsels us to exercise care in what conclusions we draw and what judgments we make.
I find no support in Jesus’ teaching or the teaching of the apostles for the view of those who, in the words of J.C. Ryle
…declare the Church a kind of Noah’s Ark, within which every kind of opinion and creed shall dwell safe and undisturbed, and the only terms of communion shall be willingness to come inside and let your neighbour alone.
In the past I would have associated this view with liberal Episcopalians. But nowadays I come across it in the comments of supposedly conservative Anglicans.
The view of the Church as some kind of Noah’s Ark does not mean that there is actually room aboard for every opinion and creed. Those who subscribe to this view have stationed a steward at the foot of the boarding ramp with a clipboard and a list of acceptable opinions and creeds. Those groups who names are not on the list are turned away.
This is true of the good ship ACNA at Dock Two as it is of the good ship TEC at Dock One. Conservative evangelicals like myself are particularly unwelcome because, we are told, we would throw too many people off the ship. This assertion is based upon our support of the Thirty-Nine Articles and our appeals to the writings of the English Reformers.
The Elizabethan Settlement has no place in the liberal settlements of TEC and the ACNA. Those wishing to board the good ship TEC must tolerate homosexuality and homosexual practice and pluralism. Those wishing to board the good ship ACNA must have conservative social values and tolerate unreformed Western Catholicism in its Anglo-Catholic and independent Catholic forms and the charismatic movement, in other words, theological inclusivism, which is only one step short of pluralism. We have it flung in our face that the GAFCON Primates accept this arrangement. Why can’t we?!
To this we must answer that the Bible and the Reformation shaped the faith of the reformed Church of England and her formularies, not a gathering of Primates in the twenty-first century. It may fall to them to come up with a definition of Anglican orthodoxy in the twenty-first century but if their definition is not grounded in the Bible and the Reformation, it cannot be regarded as truly Anglican. Such a definition would cast Anglicanism loose from its two principal anchors and leave it to drift at the mercy of wind, tide, and current.