Archive for January, 2009

Anglicanism and the death of the Anglican Mind

January 6, 2009

This is a long one—and I didn’t write it. Go get some coffee.

A friend recently sent me a copy of a small collection of essays, published in 1996 and entitled Quo Vaditis? The State of Churches in Northern Europe. It was edited by +John Broadhurst, now the Bishop of Fulham and leader of FiF-UK.

One essay is by Fr. Samuel Edwards. Fr. Edwards was once an Episcopal priest and now serves in the Traditional Anglican Communion, a “continuing Anglican” body which has not joined the recent gathering of dissident North American Anglicans in ACNA. Though in some respects dated—a lot has happened in twelve years—it seemed to me both to be of value in itself and a useful introduction to another essay by Fr. Edwards, this time a piece evaluating the gathering this past summer of the Global Anglican Future Conference (or GAFCON) in Jerusalem. So at the end of this present essay I provide a link.

I offer these essays without comment. I have my agreements and disagreements with Fr. Edwards, but I will leave them unsaid for now. However, that should not stop any reader from expressing his or her own thoughts.

And yes, I will get around to posting some of my own writing soon—I hope. I’ve been overextended for awhile. IRNS

As a prevailing feature in the life of the Anglican churches, the Anglican mind is all but dead. This is analysis, not epitaph; a description of reality, not a prescription for despair. In fact, it may well prove that wrapped within this gloomy shroud there is reason for orthodox Anglicans to hope.

The Anglican mind fell victim to a degenerative, parasitic disorder, which itself is now in the process of dissolution, having all but consumed the institutional host which sustained it. The culprit parasite is Anglicanism.

The Anglican mind (also referred to as the Anglican Way or the Anglican ethos) was a variety within the species of the Christian mind. To be sure, there was a distinct flavour to its mixture of aesthetic, moral, and intellectual styles – a sort of golden moderation, reflecting a blend of the temperaments of the British, Celtic, and Norse cultures which were a part of the making of England, yet there was never any serious contention that such things as distinguished the Anglican mind from, say, the Roman or Gallican or Iberian or Germanic or Slavic or Greek or Syrian or African or Oriental Christian mind were indicative of a difference in kind. All these were at least implicitly considered to be local or cultural streams flowing from the great well of Christian orthodoxy, and the Anglican mind habitually enriched and renewed itself by drinking liberally from all of them.

The Anglican mind, in its highest state of development, was supple without being flaccid, liberal yet disciplined, conservative yet open. It recognised that the opposite of protestant is not catholic, but corrupt, and that the opposite of catholic is not protestant, but sectarian. Even at its most polemical, it sought more reconciliation with its opponents than triumph over them. In every generation of its life – from Hooker and Field to Taylor and Cosin to Wesley and Wilberforce to Keble and Pusey to William Temple and Michael Ramsey – it has produced pastors and theologians who exemplify these characteristics. Its ethos informed an entire family of national Churches. Now, however, though the Anglican intellectual tradition remains alive in certain individuals and groups of Anglicans, it can no longer claim to have any substantial influence on what currently passes for life in the national and international institutions of the increasingly moribund Anglican Communion.

It should be noted that the death of the Anglican mind in the institutional Anglican Churches is not an isolated phenomenon or a curious, rather sad sideshow. Rather, it is a subset of the moribundity of the Western Christian mind which lies beneath the continuing slow decay of western civilisation and thought. This, too, is the result of a parasitic infestation, in which the parasites are the various ideologies – the ‘-isms’ – which foolishly pluck up one flower from the garden of reality and seek to make it the focus of the entire garden at the expense of all the other flowers, forgetting that the separation of the plant from that in and by which it has been rooted and grounded – Reality Himself – ensures both the death of the plant and the marring of the garden.

It is necessary to spend some time considering the characteristics and consequences of -isms in general, so that at length we can see what has happened to the Anglican mind in particular at the hand of Anglicanism. An ‘-ism’, as the term is used here, is an ideology. It is an intentionally comprehensive system of belief which attempts to interpret and organise reality in accordance with a single idea or agenda. This idea or agenda it substitutes for God or religious dogma.

Please note that this definition refers to an ‘-ism’ as a system of belief, not a system of thought. This is quite deliberate, for -isms actually have the effect of inhibiting thought. Indeed, they end (and often begin) by substituting slogans for thought. This is one of the things that makes them so attractive to fallen man, who is lazy and likes nothing better than a chance to appear to be intelligent without the effort of actually exercising his intellect. Thought – logical analysis and intellectual synthesis – is the deadly enemy of -isms, and this accounts for the mania among ideologues for politically-correct ways of expression, for the purpose of these is to bind and direct thinking into channels which do not threaten the credibility (and thereby the existence) of the ideology. Since the ideologue does not believe in concrete, objective truth, he lacks the conviction of the orthodox Christian that the truth will eventually triumph (with our assistance or without it), and therefore he must exercise himself to guarantee the success of his -ism by whatever means.

It might be argued that all -isms derive from or through Nominalism, which (in consequence of its rejection both of the notion of a common nature and its focus on God as absolute Will rather than absolute Being) laid the foundation for the collapse of Christendom into the abyss of individualism, relativism, and positivism. After all, the road is open to the complete dissolution of thought once one accepts such nominalistic propositions as that which asserts that the classification of things into categories is a matter of subjective decision on the part of, and for the convenience of, the taxonomist, rather than a recognition on his part of an objective, inherent, natural commonality which existed prior to the classification.

As has been mentioned already, -isms are parasitic in nature. This is unsurprising. Error is always a parasite on the truth; were it not for the element of truth in the error, the error would have no existence at all. An -ism often behaves in much the same way as does a creature known as a rhizocephalan, or ‘roothead’. This relative of the barnacle attaches itself to a crab, pierces the crab’s shell, and injects specialised cells into the crab. These quickly subvert the crab’s immune system so that it can no longer recognise the roothead as an intruder rather than a part of itself. They then take over the crab’s internal systems, shut down those which they do not need (including, interestingly enough, the generative organs) and convert the crab into nothing more than a factory for the production and support of more rootheads. The’ net result is the destruction, if not of the crab’s life, at least of its basic purpose (the production of more crabs) in the interest of the production of more rootheads.

The ultimate result of an -ism, in the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic as well as in the biological sphere, is the destruction of the very thing upon which it centres its attention. It erects an idol, but (so to speak) it then loves it to death. Theologically speaking, -isms are forms of idolatry, for, whether explicitly or implicitly, they uniformly put something less than God in the place of God.

As the result of idolatry is always the eventual humiliation, or even the destruction, of the idolaters (and often of the larger group of which they are a part), so is the result of the -ism. Thus, on the political scene, ideological liberalism destroys liberty and after anarchy (which can never be tolerated for long) it ends in tyranny. Likewise, ideological pacifism paves the way for war; militarism destroys the military; nationalism brings down nations (and imperialism empires); feminism destroys women. Rationalism destroys reason, issuing in madness; activism overwhelms measured and purposeful activity, resulting in accidie; sentimentalism jades the affections, precipitating anaesthesia.

In the history of the Church we see the same phenomenon amply demonstrated. For example, Calvinism and Lutheranism brought about the dissolution of the Reformed and Evangelical vision of a renewed and more faithful Church, and Protestantism as a whole, by accepting the false characterisation of itself as anti- catholic, and thus paved the way for the overthrow of the Reformation by the French philosophes and the German liberals. In each case, a shift of focus within the institutional manifestations of these movements away from the original vision, of their founding figures and toward narrower aspects of that original vision led eventually to a failure of the movement to achieve its goals, and to the emergence of a new and permanent denomination existing either in truce or in competition with the parent Church – a result quite contrary to the intent of the founders to reform the existing Church.

The Anglican Church, on its face, probably had less reason to succumb to emergent denominationalism than the continental Churches, having gone out of its way to avoid claiming that It was more than part of the true Church of Jesus Christ. Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, the denominational style of self-consciousness had taken firm root in it and the erosion of the Anglican mind at the hands of Anglicanism had already begun.

It is noteworthy that the very word, ‘Anglicanism’, (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) has no recorded written instances prior to 1846. In the same way that consciousness precedes speech, phenomena tend to predate the words which designate them, but not by much. So it is safe to assume that the erosion of the Anglican Church’s concept of itself as the reformed Catholic Church in England into an assumption that it was but one of a variety of denominational options began before 1846, but not by very much. The roots of the shift are likely to be found in the situation of the Church following the Revolution of 1688, when a general weariness with religious strife found expression in a broadening tolerance for, and enfranchisement of, non-Anglican Protestants, which was eventually extended to Roman Catholics and non-Christians in the nineteenth century.

This attitude of tolerance need not have been, but nonetheless was anti-ecclesiological, which contributed substantially to the theological tepidity which characterised the following century. The association (fairly or not) of the High Church party with the Jacobite cause seriously impaired their ability to mount an effective challenge. As it was, most of the opposition to the decline in the self-concept of the Established Church was instinctive rather than reflective, which made it an easy mark for charges that it was mere Tory prejudice. The High Church party indeed vigorously opposed such reform through the 1830s, and the Oxford Movement itself was occasioned by a reform measure, but in fact (as by this time was being more clearly articulated) their opposition was not based on an undifferentiated hatred of change but on the reasoned conviction that if the Church of England was what her formularies said she was, a Parliament which now included many who had nothing in her should not be dictating reform to her.

It was the misfortune of the Oxford Movement that it arose when secularising liberalism had attained a well-nigh irresistible momentum. The nineteenth century was the first full century in the age of -isms, and the intellectual landscape of the time, both ecclesiastical and secular, was cluttered with them. The list of them would be good fodder for a Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song: Liberalism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Conservatism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Scientism, Fideism, Anglo-catholicism, Anglo-papalism, Evangelicalism, Ritualism, Ultramontanism, Unitarianism, Universalism, Humanism, Feminism, and so on almost ad infinitum and certainly ad nauseam. In such a climate of fragmentation, it is hardly surprising that the genuinely comprehensive and unifying vision of the Body of Christ toward which the Oxford Fathers (continuing in the central stream of the Anglican Way) were pointing would not have sustained success in effecting and maintaining the full interior renewal of the Anglican Churches.

Given that historical environment, it may have been practically unavoidable that the Tractarian movement would decline into Tractarianism and become just one among a variety of rarely co-operating and frequently competing ideologies within the Anglican stall of the fold. Combined with the tendency to confuse the God-given order of the Church with the humanly-constructed institutions that are meant to serve that order, the lesser heirs of the Catholic renewal (with some shining exceptions) led the movement into the status of one party among many, with interests to be balanced against those of the others (the same thing happened on the Evangelical side). For the health of the Anglican mind, this was not a good thing. The initial character of the renewal movements was prophetic, but (again with notable exceptions) they became political, and serious thought about the long-range implications of ideas and policies is not a normal component of the politician’s makeup.

As the Anglican mind was supplanted by Anglicanism, and in exact proportion to that pre-emption, the institutional Anglican Church began to be excessively concerned with questions of its identity. ‘What does it mean to be an Anglican?’ and ‘how is Anglicanism distinctive?’ became new and fashionable questions, asked in scores of different ways with scores of different answers. This sort of concern is a salient characteristic of any organisation which has been infested by an -ism. It results from the loss of a true focus on the central purpose for which the institution exists, which is a consequence of the ‘-ismatic’ substitution of internally-focused, institutional concerns. The loss of the original purpose issues in the loss of a sense of identity, and since the human person is so constructed that he cannot bear such chaos, he is likely to accept any plausible alternate purpose that is proposed.

Another key symptom of infestation by an -ism is a preoccupation on the part of the infested institution with its own survival, and this is certainly evident in the multiple reports and schemes documenting and suggesting means of combating the numerical decline of the various Anglican Churches in the First World. This concern implies the existence of an unspoken assumption that the institution is intended to continue its independent existence indefinitely. So far as the Anglican Churches are concerned, this is a clear sign of a major shift in self-understanding, since the Anglican Reformers never intended or envisioned that the institutional separation within the Church would continue indefinitely, still less that it would come to be considered an acceptable state of affairs. They would have found fatuous and bizarre in the extreme the notion that a national Church could unilaterally alter basic elements of the common ecclesiastical order without both destroying its internal relations and fatally compromising the prospects of restoring its impaired external relations. Yet such is the very attitude now firmly rooted in the centres of governance and learning in the First World Anglican Churches.

Anglicanism insinuated itself by slow degrees and with little notice on the Anglican Church, which was to become its host. Like the rhizocephalan mentioned earlier, once in place inside, it began to take over the organism, to anaesthetise its defences by undermining the Anglican mind, and to subvert its purpose from the fostering of Christians to the making of denominationalist Anglicans. At the latter task, it has proved all too effective. The capacity of the institutional Anglican Churches in the First World to accomplish their designed purpose has practically vanished on all but the parochial level (and even there it is all too rare). The prospect that the parasite will soon have destroyed its host is very real. In the judgment of some, this has already happened in principle.

Yet, for a people formed by the Resurrection, the virtual death of the Anglican mind and the dissolution of the ecclesiastical institutions commandeered by Anglicanism is not an unmitigatedly bad prospect. After all, taken both as persons and as a whole, Anglicans are not crabs. The dissolution of institutional structures may leave us naked for a while, but it will not of necessity be fatal. The Anglican mind may no longer have an effective life in the institutional Anglican Church, but that is bad news more for the institution than for its members. In what setting these dry bones may live is as yet an open question. Whether they shall live is not, and we may confidently hope that at the breath of the Holy Spirit, they shall be knit together, clothed in power, and spring up an exceedingly great host which will move resolutely forward in faith.

Fr. Edwards’ evaluation of GAFCON will be found here.