Holmes: What is Anglicanism?

Written in marginally calmer times, Holmes' monograph (in print from Morehouse, used copies starting at $.01) was one volume in an international effort among Anglicans to articulate an Anglican theology, touching on Scripture, spirituality, morality and other topics. While Holmes' interpretation of Anglicanism did not represent the views of the contributors in general, and so of course he does not speak as a one-man magisterium, neither is it simply foreign to their understanding of Anglicanism. In other words, his view can claim, it seems to me, status consistent with the broader self-understanding of Anglicanism evident in the series as a whole.

Preface & Chapter One
Holmes comes right out and says to be Anglican is to

(i) use an official BCP,
and (ii) be in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A minimal account prima facie, but he seems to think--rightly in my view--(i) and (ii) are not compatible with just any Christian practice. That is, a certain content goes with (i) and (ii) obtaining, such that without that content one either would not be worshipping according to an official BCP or one would not be in communion with the Archbishop.

It follows from (i) that belonging to a provincial church is essential to being Anglican, insofar as a diocese cannot decide on its own what will count as an official BCP. That is, Holmes would end up disagreeing with Rowan Williams, who said recently that the diocese alone was sufficient unto itself as the basic unit of the church. Insofar as dioceses have contracted into relationships wherein they cannot unilaterally determine theor own BCPs, and worshipping according to an official BCP is essential to being Anglican, it seems on this account their being Anglican tethers them to the larger province. From (ii) it follows that an Episocopal Church out of communion with the Archbishop would not be Anglican--and so it seems, given the importance Holmes puts on being Anglican, that he would put great store in maintaining the province's ties with Canterbury. Whether that effort to remain in communion with Canterbury makes sense seems to depend on (a) whether there is a close connection between (ii) and the content which purportedly goes with (ii)'s obtaining, and (b) whether that content is indeed significant. In my view, for what it's worth: to (b), I think the content Holmes describes is significant enough to defend, and to (a), I'm not sure the content can only--or even best--be defended in communion with Canterbury.

Well, being Anglican to Holmes is characterized by catholicity--as we should well hope--and "freedom of a sort unsurpassed," a freedom we have to "disagree openly" rooted in "the many-formedness of human knowing." That latter bit about freedom seems to give Anglicanism its distinctive essential content in Holmes' view. Sure, you could come up with other distinctive features of Anglicanism, but that one is essential, and should stand with catholicity to mark us out as having a distinctive if "provincial" "way of looking at Christian experience."

That freedom has an outer bound: what Holmes calls reasonableness; one's position should not contradict a reflective, balanced examination of experience carried out by one believing oneself in love with God. Presumably, though I may be wrong, those believing themselves in love with God by that standard would include not just other Anglicans but also Christians of other denominations, Jews, Islamic believers, Hindus, and other monotheists far and wide.

Holmes seems to be thinking that of course they will disagree with each other, ending up holding positions at variance, but they will nevertheless be able to recognize certain positions of those with whom they disagree are reasonable, or rational, insofar as they do not contradict one's own position. Why? Reconstructing Holmes' view, it seems he means that one recognizes one's own position is formed by one's religion, what he calls in Chapter One a way of making sense of the experience of God. More: even if not formed from within some religious way of seeing, one's view of God is nevertheless formed from within some other nonreligious way of seeing; unformed ways of seeing get ruled out tout court. In effect, then, whereas an Episcopalian would say

(1) God is a Trinity,

and a Hindu would say

(2) God is not a Trinity,

these two should, Holmes implies, recognize each other's assertions as reasonable, inasmuch as each is shaped by a way of making sense of the experience of God. That is, though prima facie (1) and (2) contradict, in reality they do not. If their deep structure, say, was apparent, we could read them as saying

(1)' According to the Anglican way of making sense of the experience of God, God is a Trinity,


(2)' According to the Hindu way of experiencing God, God is not a Trinity.

(1)' and (2)' no longer contradict; inasmuch as neither takes the other as in contradiction with the faith, each can view the other's take on what faith requires as reasonable.

One problem with this emphasis on being reasonable, as Holmes recognizes, is that such a kind of translation scheme as he has in the background seems to invite relativism--even religious pluralism a la John Hick. But Holmes thinks he can have his translation scheme without relativism or pluralism.

At the end of Chapter One he notes comprehension does not imply tolerating "palatable" relativism. That is, there is a Truth (big "t", absolute) to how God is, and so we should say there are better and worse ways of experiencing God, and some ways of experiencing God may get the Truth right in part. There is no way for us of stepping outside ways experience is shaped--religious or otherwise--to get direct access to God--Holmes notes quite rightly one never experiences anything raw; experience is always already shaped. Our commitment to the rightness of the way of experiencing God disclosed to us in Jesus cannot be guaranteed by any such direct access to Truth; it can only be rooted in faith.

In particular, the revelation of Jesus in Scripture is not a means for us of getting direct access to God. Inasmuch as God is transcendent and other by nature, we cannot express what he is literally in any discourse, even religious, even scriptural; we shall have to have recourse to metaphor, approaching God in truth through the ordinary. Yet Holmes holds God can be known through metaphor; revelation is God disclosing divinity through metaphor, making certain metaphors normative for a religious community--and in an Anglican Christian saying this, one already makes a movement of faith identifying Scripture as the source of the metaphors God has chosen for self-disclosure.

Alas, the content of metaphor cannot be captured and reduced to the content of propositions. We shall be unable to give final, propositional expression to the content of faith disclosed in Scripture; it follows our understanding of God can only ever be "penultimate" and not ultimate. We can only accurately apprehend God with a certain degree of ineliminable ambiguity. For example, Holmes claims following Julian that God discloses himself as mother in Scripture, but that metaphor does not imply the proposition God is female or even God gives birth.

There is another problem, one which Holmes recognizes but does not dwell on: while religious ways of seeing are not the types of things that might contradict each other, religious ways of seeing still might be mutually exclusive. That exclusivity could create conflict; e.g. from within one's way of seeing, other ways of seeing should be declared unreasonable and not be tolerated. It is no surprise, then, that Anglican reasonableness is a fragile thing--after all, the Elizabethan Settlement did not succeed in peaceably holding Christians at variance with one another togteher. But that fragility does not make reasonableness unworthy of defense.

Cognitively speaking, God's ineffability is like "darkness"--a darkness that Holmes notes can protect us. Anglicanism's freedom to disagree is rooted in a self-conscious awareness of the darkness in which God is shrouded, of the limits of our religious discourse and cognitive capacities. That self-conscious awareness takes the shape of a distinctive sensibility with us, according to which we have, or perhaps should have, the courage to live with the fact of our ignorance rather than hiding it via spurious speculation and made-up authority. Holmes may be thinking that once we can admit to the darkness of God and our ignorance, we can be kept from suppressing or persecuting those at variance with us by the recognition that we may be wrong about the points of contention. The moderation that goes with this Anglican sensibility, Holmes may contend, is worth defending, and especially worth catholic Christians defending.

This Anglican sensibility, for Holmes, implies the freedom that gives Anglicanism its distinctive content, a content Holmes recommends as of great value. In effect, to recommend Anglicanism is to recommend taking catholicity with this distinctive sensibility.

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