Anglican Orthodoxy

My mother always said you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.

—Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church


Source: MyEyeSees at

I should admit from the outset that the very idea of orthodoxy makes me squirm. I do not think this is an unusual response these days. At any rate, Paul Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle—that all symbols for God, including doctrines, must be subject to replacement—is very attractive to me. I worry that any commitment to specific doctrinal content (that is to say, orthodoxy) is in fact a form of error: in intellectual terms, immature epistemology; in relational terms, unfair expectations; in spiritual terms, idolatry. At the same time, however, a church does need to be organized around something. I am beginning to see how practical it is to make that centre a set of doctrines; indeed, perhaps all organizations, religious or not, need some common convictions to function.

According to Bartlett, L. William Countryman, another author in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, argues that Anglicanism is defined by its historical community, not by its doctrine. In A Passionate Balance, Bartlett disagrees but, perhaps anticipating people like me, he also tries to show how Anglicanism can make orthodoxy a liberating, life-giving thing, not a stifling and idolatrous one.

Bartlett spends much of the chapter called “‘An Adequate Sufficiency’” explaining Anglicanism’s “profound sense of not wanting to say too much, or more than was necessary” (p 65). It’s tempting to just list Bartlett’s various quoted or original phrasings—“economy of theological expression” (64), “awe-driven modesty” (67), “not overindulging theologically” (63), “succinct to the point of emaciation” (65-66)—but I’ll try to restrain myself henceforth. The general point that he makes is that Anglicanism tries to insist on the minimum necessary orthodoxy (the Lambeth Conference of 1888’s Resolution 11 declares the Nicene Creed as “the sufficient statement of Christian faith”) and declares all else adiaphora: things indifferent, about which diversity of opinion is acceptable and which could and should not be defined in articles of faith. (Bartlett notes that C. S. Lewis’s attempt to describe a “mere Christianity” is a particularly Anglican project with particularly Anglican biases.) Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t want or try to know more or better, but historically Anglicans assume that “the knowledge they have been given is ‘sufficient’ for the purposes of salvation, if not for their entire satisfaction” (63).

Of course such an attitude isn’t unique to Anglicanism. Roman Catholicism also has an unofficial commitment to adiaphora, for instance. I don’t think all churches are so committed—the doctrinal fractures in American Baptist churches suggest that evangelical Christianity is not interested in keeping as close to the minimum as possible—but likely many are. What marks Anglicanism, perhaps, is what it calls adiaphora. For instance, among liturgical churches for which the Eucharist plays a central role (indeed, I don’t believe there is a church for which the Eucharist is more central, though there are certainly ones for which it is as central), Anglicanism is perhaps unique in that it doesn’t define what happens in that sacrament.

Bartlett spends a good amount of space describing at length why Anglicanism has preferred this theological humility. He talks about the constraint on human reason and the unknowability of God, and also a little about the hard historical lessons the Church of England learned in the religious wars and oppression of Europe: both in watching the Protestant-Catholic conflicts on the European continent and in (eventually) regretting the loss of the Methodists due to the Church’s own oppression, Anglicanism was forced to learn that the voices the Church silences are often the ones saying what the Church needs to hear. However, I suspect most readers will be familiar with these ideas, so I don’t need to outline them more. I would have preferred more discussion on the following point, which I found quite interesting:

Some Anglican apologists are more comfortable with the use of positive affirmations of faith in the context of liturgy rather than in say, a textbook, precisely because liturgy comes with a different, and less anchored, range of meanings (82).

This observation jives with my experience and intuition, that the recitation of a creed during the liturgy means differently (and possibly but not necessarily means something different) than the recitation of a creed as an individual statement of faith. I could not tell you with precision what that difference is, though. I have the beginnings of an idea, which I’ll outline in a moment, but I’d have liked to see Bartlett sketch this out further because I think this is the second half of what could be meant by a “generous orthodoxy.” Merely limiting the amount of orthodoxy isn’t enough to assuage my fears.

Let me make those fears clear. Whenever anyone talks about orthodoxy, they raise a spectre of power. They may not intend to do so, or know they do so, but the historical career of orthodoxy makes it about power employed over people in some relation to their beliefs. Indeed, orthodoxy is often a mechanism to justify that employment or to select the people against whom that power is employed. In other words, there is always a potential for violence in orthodoxy, even if that potential is not necessarily achieved and even if the person insisting on orthodoxy disapproves of that violence. Bartlett seems aware of what drives this fear, at least on some level, but never makes it explicit and therefore never addresses it.

At the very least, anyone who wants to talk about orthodoxy would do well to define what they mean by orthodoxy. It almost certainly means something more than correct belief; “2+2=4” may be a correct belief, but it would seem odd to say that this is a matter of orthodoxy. So what could be meant?

1) Orthodoxy is that set of opinions which members of a group are required to hold. The verb phrase “are required to hold” is passive, meaning that the subject is obscured. Who enforces that requirement, and how? These are non-trivial questions.

2) Orthodoxy is that set of opinions which are required for a person’s salvation. There is, of course, more than one way to understand salvation—for instance, as the ongoing liberation from the fear of death—but the combined of “resurrection after death” and “deliverance from sin” is what most Christians seem to mean when talking about requirements for salvation. This sounds like the meaning of orthodoxy in much of Anglican discourse. Often, I think, this idea of orthodoxy still contains a kind of violence in its threat of damnation, and so must still be handled carefully. Of course, even when a manipulative, emotionally abusive parent uses each street crossing as a way to control their child, moving traffic is still a real threat. While this sense of orthodoxy carries with it potential for abuse, that alone does not make it false. If, however, you are a universalist as I am, this sense of orthodoxy is less dangerous… and possibly nonsensical.

3) Orthodoxy is a set of opinions which defines membership in a particular identity. In other words, in order to be a real Anglican, you have to have orthodox Anglican beliefs. My initial response to this idea is not just that it is stupid, and not just that it is bone-deep stupid, but that it is obviously bone-deep stupid. I have a rule against thinking anything is obvious, so I need to look at that again. On the one hand, language works by extension, not intension, so it is presumptuous to the point of foolishness to say definitively who or what the word Anglican captures. On the other hand, when constrained language often acts as though it works by intension: for instance, if you are using the word Anglican to make decisions about who to include or exclude from a particular process or group, then you are likely to act as though there is something like a clear-cut, expressible definition of the word. However, once we have come to this point, we are really talking about one or more of the other definitions of orthodoxy: either this is a trivial, toothless identitarian understanding of orthodoxy, or it is a shark-toothed alternative.

4) Orthodoxy is that set of opinions which are the group’s common assumed assumptions. Whatever a person’s actual beliefs, orthodox beliefs in this sense are those which contribute to collective decision-making. As a member of a church, I may not really believe in the resurrection of the dead… but when I’m at the AGM or sitting on church committee, I am expected to act as though the resurrection of the dead is one of my assumptions. You can, in this context, assume that everyone shares certain assumptions. There is no particular punishment if I do not act in this way, although I might be asked to step down from my position; rather, there is a tacit assumption that everyone shares the creeds—if nothing else—as foundations for further action and participation.

In my personal experience of explicit discussions of orthodoxy, the fourth understanding is the least likely to be operative; however, in my personal experience of church, the fourth understanding—Orthodoxy is that set of opinions which are the group’s common assumed assumptions—is the operative one. I am grateful for this. Bartlett quotes Rowan Williams’s phrase “passionate patience” to describe Anglican evangelism and catechism, and while patience may be more apt than passionate, based on the history of orthodoxy I feel more comfortable if we err toward patience than toward passion.

So I would have liked it if Bartlett had written more about what orthodoxy means. The consequences and mechanisms of orthodoxy are always at play in any conversation about the content and scope of orthodoxy. I do not think Anglicanism, writ large, is ignorant of this fact. Indeed, the bloody history which Bartlett invokes is the perfect example of these stakes. The fear of religious violence and of the loss of wisdom that comes from religious exclusion motivates Anglicanism’s theological and ecclesial humility. But minimal orthodoxy is still orthodoxy, and any orthodoxy at all conjures the possibility of violence if orthodoxy remains undefined.

I guess, until this question—what do you mean by orthodoxy?—is settled, I will have trouble seeing any kind of orthodoxy as generous. In the meantime, I will hope for—and try for—at least as much patience as passion.

Previous post about A Passionate Balance
Index for the Widespread Hunger series


3 thoughts on “Anglican Orthodoxy

  1. Pingback: A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

  2. Pingback: Anglican Reason | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

  3. Pingback: Anglican Aesthetics | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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