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At the heart, worship

10 July 2015

Edward Dowler finds theological essays a strong showing

The Vocation of Anglican Theology
Ralph McMichael, editor
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £28


IN THIS excellent set of reflections on different aspects of Anglican theology, a selection of theologians contribute chapters on the Trinity, Christology, theological anthropology, the Church, practical divinity, the sacraments, and eschatology. Almost all of these are of exceptionally high quality, with an approach that is at once careful and scholarly, but also illuminating and inspiring.

It is invidious to pick out favourites, but the essays by Rowan Williams, Kathryn Tanner, and Ellen Charry would each be worth the price of the book alone for their wealth of insights, covered in comparatively short compass. After an initial essay, the author of each chapter provides an introduction to the sources, which then leads into a selection of writings from the Anglican tradition on the various topics.

Such a strong collection of essays benefits from the fact that it has clearly not been dashed off to an impossible deadline, but has been allowed several years in gestation. Indeed, two out of the eight authors (Richard Norris and Kenneth Stevenson) have now passed into God’s nearer presence, although the others are all still very active in their fields. At least one (Christopher Beeley) could be thought to represent an upcoming generation of Anglican scholars.

In the essays on more doctrinal themes, Anglicanism is primarily understood as an expression in a particular key of the biblical and Catholic faith. In others, such as those on the Church and the sacraments, which have been more contested within the history of the Church of England, the authors concentrate more specifically on the Anglican tradition itself. This leads to a degree of unevenness. For example, in a magisterial essay on Anglican ecclesiology, Mark Chapman does not adumbrate a wider understanding of the subject. By contrast, Beeley’s brilliant essay on eschatology does not say much about what is characteristically Anglican until he comes to introduce the various sources.

Two themes, in particular, emerge as distinctive of the Anglican tradition. The first is what Charry describes as "the practical bent of the English religious temperament". By contrast with a perceived Roman Catholic tendency to over-systematisation, or a sternly Lutheran insistence on justification by faith alone, the characteristic Anglican questions have been "How does this work in practice?" and "What does it mean for the way I live my life?"

This is especially evident in Charry’s illuminating exposition of Cranmer’s collects, which themselves point us to the other characteristic Anglican emphasis: that on liturgy and the sacraments: "both Cranmer and Hooker", Charry writes, "knew that worship rather than doctrinal precision shapes a holy life."

In contemporary Anglicanism, both of these emphases are currently problematic. On the one hand, practicality and the need to do whatever seems to work for the sake of "mission" has grown so strong that it often seems to overbalance theological and doctrinal considerations altogether.

In contrast, as the authors occasionally note, Anglicanism’s historically strong liturgical and sacramental emphasis is often played down or viewed as a matter of embarrassment. Williams, for example, fears that in some quarters, the eucharist has become "a speciality interest for the elderly and traditionally minded". It would have been interesting to be told what steps he took during his archiepiscopate to address this tendency.

If, as I hope, this exceptional collection goes into a second edition, it would be interesting to have a final chapter or two by authors drawn not just from Britain and the United States, as all the contributors to this book have been, but from those parts of the world where Anglicanism is currently flourishing.


The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of St John and St Luke, Clay Hill, in the diocese of London.

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