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Orthodox Anglican Identity: The quest for unity in a diverse religious tradition, by Charles Erlandson

by
15 January 2021

But a wider definition of orthodoxy has its perils, suggests Paul Avis

THIS study of the question of orthodoxy in contemporary Anglicanism is a brave and thoughtful analysis of some critical challenges that confront the Anglican Communion and the wider “Anglican” constituency.

Charles Erlandson provides both a mainly reliable account of the current situation worldwide and some tentative proposals for greater cohesion among those who identify with the Anglican tradition. Although Dr Erlandson has much of a searching nature to say about the Anglican Communion of Churches, he is not writing from within one of those Churches, but from within the Reformed Episcopal Church, which now forms part of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). While he speaks from within a “continuing Anglican” situation, he does not promote it as a panacea, but acknowledges that it, too, is complex and conflicted.

One of the strengths of this book is the frankness with which the author faces head-on the fact of increasing diversity of belief and practice, not only within the historic Anglican Churches of the Communion, but also within the “continuing” networks, especially GAFCON and ACNA. He realises that to separate from a historic Church on grounds of conscience and to realign, within a new structure, with those of apparently like minds brings no guarantee of unanimity or stability.

Throughout the history of the Christian Church, acts of separation have given rise to yet more acts of separation, leading to the tragedy of the fragmented Christianity which is the only form of Christianity that any of us knows. I am not aware of any great theologian who taught that what we may regard as a “scandal” in our Church justifies our forsaking it. John Calvin, whose authority might count for those in a Church that calls itself “Reformed”, taught quite the opposite.

An intriguing aspect of this work is the methodology that is proposed for the study of religious identity, which is then applied to the unfolding of Anglican identity from King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman jurisdiction in 1533 to the present day.

Erlandson specifies three key components of religious identity in general: ecclesial authority and relationships of communion; canonical, liturgical, and doctrinal norms; and practical and pastoral elements in the life of a Church. For example, the first principle, that of ecclesial authority, is reflected in Anglicanism in the requirement that membership of the Anglican Communion of Churches involves a Church’s being in communion with the see of Canterbury. No one suggests that this is the sole criterion of Anglican identity. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a Church’s membership of the Anglican Communion.

The Lambeth Conference 1930 provided a now classic definition: “The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common: a. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches; b. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and c. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.”

Dr Erlandson’s sole aim is to hold to “orthodoxy” of doctrine. “Orthodox” appears in the title, in several chapter headings and sub-headings, and throughout. He shows how those who identify with the Anglican tradition of doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality, but from outside any of the historic Churches of the Anglican Communion, pride themselves on their “orthodoxy”.

The sincere intention to be orthodox is laudable and one that every Christian should cherish. But, as Erlandson shows, it is not easy to define what the essentials of “orthodoxy” are. Definitions of orthodoxy are unavoidably contextual, orientated to the challenges and dilemmas of the time. The prevalent Anglican orthodoxy once included the divine right of kings, the everlasting punishment of unbelievers, and the pope as Antichrist. One of the author’s key identifiers of orthodoxy is a rejection of same-gender physical relationships. But this criterion for the definition of orthodoxy is a contemporary innovation, not found in the ecumenical creeds or the teaching of the great divines.

The antithesis of orthodoxy in this book is “liberalism”. Theological liberalism stands for a greater freedom in the interpretation of Christian belief than was allowed in previous ages — and all stripes of churchmanship take advantage of this latitude. There are some aggressive and intolerant forms of liberalism, but they lack the ingredient of liberality. The terms “orthodox” and “liberal”, which are plastic and subjective, cannot bear the weight that Erlandson wants to place upon them. They are distorting stereotypes, and theological discourse would be better off without them.

The author’s claim that the Church of England has departed from “orthodoxy” and has succumbed to “liberalism”, because there have been “recent moves to embrace homosexuality”, does not do justice to the Church of England’s position. The Church of England is prohibited by law from solemnising same-gender marriages. The liturgical blessing of same-gender unions in church is also prohibited. And, given that there is a growing Evangelical hegemony in the Church of England, it is implausible to suggest that it is heading down the slippery slope of “liberalism”, whatever that means. The Church of England remains orthodox in doctrine: the gospel is preached, the creeds are recited, and the scriptures are expounded, week by week.

By the end of the book, Erlandson has arrived at a rather unstable position. He has exposed the differences and tensions within the “continuing Anglican” camp that prides itself on its “orthodoxy”. He wants to be orthodox, but how? In the search for right belief and right practice, a concept of development is necessary. Development is present in the New Testament and the Early Church and has never ceased in the Church. Where is development taking us now? Dr Erlandson has produced a stimulating and sometimes provocative book, which could prove helpful, provided we have the common good of the Church at heart.

 

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, and the Editor-in-Chief of Ecclesiology.

 

Orthodox Anglican Identity: The quest for unity in a diverse religious tradition
Charles Erlandson
Pickwick Publications £22
(978-1-5326-7825-7)
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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