Taking Council or Leaving It

My brief post (a "thought" really) seems to have struck a nerve in some circles. In part, I think it has not been well understood. Fr. Jonathan, at the Conciliar Anglican, has read far too much between the lines, and come to conclusions utterly at odds both with my intent and with what I actually said.
But he dissents courteously from the position he imagines I maintain, and all is well. For example, he says,
Communion for him equals autonomous churches (geographically oriented, presumably, though he does not say this explicitly) that share in something called “mission” and “ministry” rather than sharing in doctrine.
This is fine up through the word ministry but that "rather" completely misses my point in the whole thought — i.e., that it is precisely the shared minimalist doctrine that "goes without saying." Anglicanism classically professed not to be innovative in doctrine, but to be faithful to the biblical and ancient core of the faith. In this sense they were "catholic" — proclaiming the universal faith of the early church.

Of course, he and others disagree with, or wish further to explore, a position I actually do maintain, which is that classical Anglicanism is geared from the outset, not to a centralized conciliar form of polity, but to a distributed model in which, as it developed, the various member churches of the communion (most of them originating almost genetically) inherited certain characteristics, including the notion of strong autonomy from outside influence, even from other members of the Communion.

The group I'll call "conciliarists" hold the contrary view, that a deep conciliarity is part of the Anglican ethos. The "test" for this understanding of conciliar catholicity as engrained in classical Anglicanism is to look closely at what the classical Anglicans said to the Roman Catholic Church of their day, and how they felt themselves competent to judge the "errors" of ecumenical Councils, and reject them; and to accept the Creeds and other acts of the early Councils not on the authority of the Councils themselves, but because in their judgment the Creeds and doctrinal findings of the (first four) Ecumenical Councils were concordant with Scripture. (Note they did not go along with the disciplinary decrees of even the first four Councils, and felt themselves competent to disregard the three later Councils — again, on the basis of their own judgment.) This is all laid out in the Articles of Religion.

The point is that the classical Anglicans did not think of themselves as conciliar, but patristic or even apostolic. They were interested in "primitive Christianity" unadorned with the accretions of later traditions.

I have, of course, no objection to a discussion of the relative merits of the conciliar model, and it has many attractions, but I am finding the revisionism that wants to retroject a hankering after conciliarism onto primitive Anglicanism unhelpful. The Conciliar Anglican makes a number of claims, including this
Our notions of unfettered autonomy for individual churches are very recent and not at all tied to classical Anglicanism which balanced the doctrine of self-governing, national churches with the much more central doctrine that Holy Scripture, interpreted through the lens of the Fathers and the creeds, is our highest authority, through which the Lord governs His Church.
that does not quite pass the test of historical accuracy, or at least make sense as a complete thesis: that is, it was precisely the "unfettered autonomy" of the Church of England that allowed it to make the claims about the centrality of Holy Scripture, rather than the authority of the papacy or the councils, for establishing doctrine. The classical Anglicans did not look to the Bishop of Rome or the Councils of the Church for answers, but to Scripture.

This tendency continued, as I say, with the successive foundations that grew to become the Anglican Communion. Look deeply into the memoirs of William White concerning the founding years of the Episcopal Church, and you will find that TEC did not in fact adopt all of the doctrinal or disciplinary positions commended to it by the Church of England, and felt competent to do so. Examine the full record of the Lambeth Conferences down the years and see how various provinces have ignored its recommendations, until the things Lambeth sought to control became so common that Lambeth adopted what had been so long opposed. (I can cite birth control and reluctant toleration of polygamy as just two examples off the top of my head, but I know there are others.)

I think an accurate handle on the reality of our situation is the most helpful way to move forward. Conciliar government has its strong points -- it does not need a specious claim to historical roots in classical Anglicanism. I would find such a discussion helpful and interesting, and although I am a conservative at heart, I also am open to examining proposed revisions to old customs. This is one of the reasons I have been devoted to the Covenant Process and the discussion surrounding it, as I am not utterly opposed to the idea of improvements to the structures of contemporary Anglicanism. I just haven't seen them yet.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Update: Fr Bryan has added some thoughts to the conversation, and ends with some challenging questions:
  1. Is the fact that we argue and disagree with each other on such basic questions as "What is Anglicanism?" and "Is there a unique Anglican doctrine?" itself revelatory about the nature of Anglicanism?
  2. Is the term "Anglicanism" too monolithic and insufficiently descriptive of actual faith and practice? If so, would it be better to speak of a variety of Anglican identities (to borrow from the title of a book by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams)?
  3. Can Anglicanism be anything anybody wants it to be? If not, what are the boundaries?
  4. To quote from Fr. Tobias' initial posting, is "the idea of being a fellowship, a communion — not a 'church' or a 'federation' — of self-governing churches whose individual decisions do not bind the others, even as they cooperate in mission and ministry" a sufficient basis for stemming the tide of communion-breaking division and schism?
  5. Can unity or communion in practice ("mission and ministry") take precedence over unity or communion in belief and order?
I assayed a response as follows:

Dear Fr Bryan,Thanks for your thoughts. If I'd known what a response my short thought would generate I'd perhaps have taken greater care! Maybe with it and your musing questions we might have something challenging for the GOE.

To take a stab at your questions, they are much the ones I have. I'm still wading through all of this, but my sense is that the very delicate balance of the Anglican model was "disturbed" when Lambeth, in 1998, tried to act as a Council, "settling" a matter that was really far from settled. It is the effort to build Babel as a center of unity in se that leads to the dispersion of the people. The focus of unity ought to be in service pro alia. This is what I mean about turning the focus of unity outward: in common service to others we find out identity with Christ and each other.

The difficulty on practical terms is that no one can declare what is adiaphorous at the time of the conflict. It seems to me the genius of Anglicanism up till now has been the very graciousness to close one eye and look the other way instead of engaging in head-butting or mutual anathemata. We lose our sense of the really large deposit of the faith we hold in common when we become obsessed with those things on which we differ.

I realize that is not really in the form of an answer to your question. But it is where my musings have taken me...

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