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Christian doctrine is not just about methodology

by
14 August 2020

The booklet What do Anglicans Believe? was a good idea, but it needs further work, says Andrew Davison

THE Anglican Communion Office has had the clever idea of building a course in Christian doctrine on the back of ecumenical statements. The project, What do Anglicans Believe?, has the whole global Communion in mind.

Like most of those statements, the document is freely available online, to make the project accessible where books are hard to come by. Those agreements are themselves helpfully international, hammered out be­­tween global rather than local bodies.

The resource is available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. It is offered for use in “home groups, study programmes, seminar­ies and theological colleges”.

The method in What do Anglicans Believe? is “See — Judge — Act”. First, see: observe your context and ask how a particular theological topic currently plays out there. Then, judge: turn to sources with recog­nised authority and ask how they speak into that situation. Finally, act: ask how deepened theological under­­standing might lead to at least one change of life or action.

This approach has ecumenical statements “judging” our Anglican settings. There is no harm in that, but it raises a useful question: can a programme based largely on ecumenical statements be Anglican enough for Anglicans?

Perhaps. After all, these are statements that Anglicans helped to write, and have signed up to. Moreover, Anglicans claim no particular doc­trine of their own.

None the less, there are particular Anglican points of emphasis; and particular Anglican sources: the Book of Common Prayer, for instance. What of them? Maybe all we need to say is that What do Angli­cans Believe? is useful, but it can’t be expected to do all the work for a fully balanced treatment.

 

WHEN it comes to the prospect of putting this resource to work on the ground, my main worry is the emphasis on method. For a project that sets out to help us to think about theology, there is a great deal of thinking about thinking about the­ology.

So, for instance, the document opens with a chapter on “the place of doctrine in the life of the Church”: not any particular aspect of Chris­tian belief, but how we formulate, de­­velop, agree, and disagree about Christian theology. The middle chapter turns to “the doctrines of the creeds”, but it concerns only how we might study them, not any particular aspect of belief itself, and lasts a mere three pages. Only in the third and final chapter does discussion of particular doctrines come into play, with the Church and sacraments. The bibliography addresses only methodology and the doctrine of the Church.

The absence of particular doctrines in that middle chapter leaves a hole at the centre of What do Anglicans Believe?, but intentionally so. The resource has a hole in the sense that a picture frame has a hole: it means to show something else off. But what? Compiling a compre­hen­s­ive survey of doctrine from ecu­men­ical agreements would be a tall order. They tend to concentrate on disputed areas (such as ministry and sacraments) and pass over areas of agreement warmly but swiftly (such as creation or eschatology). Fortunately, the World Council of Churches published an exposition of the Ni­­cene Creed in 1991, Confessing the One Faith, and the short middle chapter of What do Anglicans Be­­lieve? is largely concerned with commending that document for use with a “See — Judge — Act” ap­­proach.

Confessing the One Faith was an impressive achieve­ment, not least for its biblical sections, but I am not sure how well it can serve the purpose intended for it here. Although clearly written, it does not quite have the sort of bounce that helps to make doctrine accessible to new students.

Its sections on context are resolutely intellectual rather than practical: Feuerbach’s critique of religion as projection, for instance, rather than poverty. The focus on challenges and problems posed for theo­logy — so characteristic of theo­­logy 30 years ago — is cumulatively rather dispiriting.

 

THE fascination with method which I mentioned earlier turns up in the suggestion that “an engaging way of studying doctrine is to begin with analysing the place of doctrine in the life of the Church.” I disagree. Much better to jump in with something more arresting. Begin with the doc­trine of creation: with the variety, fragility, and giftedness of what’s all around us.

Or begin with sin, selfishness, and estrangement from God, and the offer and experience of grace. The hallmark of authentic Christian teach­ing, as Thomas Aquinas noted, is that it leads us to God, as our maker and truest happiness. We illus­trate that far better by beginning with creation or redemption than by beginning with a more abstract discussion of the nature of doctrine.

The idea of using ecumenical agreed statements to produce an inter­national, freely available programme for the study of doctrine is a good one. The document generously describes itself as a working draft. It invites suggestions for improvement; so here are some. Change the order. Begin with an arresting element of Christian doctrine, and leave thinking about thinking about theology to the end.

Don’t just ask ecumenical statements to bring something new, some “judgement”, to our Anglican set­ting; also do the opposite, asking what our theological tradition has to say to these ecumenical texts.

As for whether Confessing the One Faith can bear the weight that it is given here, I would like to think so, but I fear that may be the Achilles’ heel of this project. Ultimately, the theo­logical-education programme of the Anglican Communion Office may need to pub­lish a catechism of its own.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Star­­bridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

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