Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Keith Ward on Anglicanism

My copy of Gays and the Future of Anglicanism: Responses to the Windsor Report arrived the other day. I've just started dipping into it. I began with the essay by Keith Ward entitled Ecclesial Authority and Morality. I began with Ward because I was impressed with his work The Case for Religion. He is considered to be one of Britain's "foremost philosopher-theologians."

Although he does not reveal anything new, he does cover some familiar ground in a refreshing way. He begins by making a point that has been made numerous times, without any meaningful response that I have ever seen that sufficiently challenges it;

In Anglicanism there is a long tradition of patristic scholarship, and some theologians have held that at least the first six or seven councils of the undivided church are authoritative. It seems irrational, however, to hold that God guided the Church for the first few hundred years, but then gave up. So while Anglicans give the early councils of the church great significance, they are not bound by the decisions of councils, if those decisions do not seem in accordance with scripture and reason.
He goes on to make the point that even though the Thirty Nine Articles grant great authority to the scriptures, this is problematic when we consider that most patristic scholars agree that the doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity as developed by the early councils cannot be found in that form within scripture. Consequently, although we cannot give final authority to the early councils, we also cannot deny the authority of the church to interpret the scriptures, during the time of the great councils and today.

The example he uses to make this point further is the way the church has lived into the fourth commandment; keeping the Sabbath rules;

What most Anglicans seem to do is to ignore most Sabbath regulations in the Old Testament, change the holy day to Sunday, and keep a small section of the rules (like not working), though even then not very rigorously. What justifies selecting not working, while rejecting rules about not traveling and not lighting fires? Nothing in the New Testament does so. The only appeal can be to church tradition - that is, the decisions of a group of bishops of the early church. But since that is agreed not to be binding, we Anglicans are in fact choosing to follow some ancient traditions, presumably because we find them helpful, but dropping others, presumably because we find them too inconvenient or irrelevant. We are picking and choosing, and our ultimate reason is not what is in the bible, but what we find relevant and helpful, in our situation.
Ward concludes with a few words about moral diversity in the Church;

Anglican teaching authority, in other words, is an authority of guidance and advice, not a magisterial capacity to define what is definitively true. The church holds together because it accepts the Bible as its scriptural text, without defining how it should be interpreted. It accepts baptism and the eucharist as normative rites, without insisting on one set of detailed doctrines to explain them. And it accepts Jesus as the true image and liberating act of God, without presuming that there is just one correct way of understanding how this is so...

For the Anglican Communion is not a group of people who all agree. It is, and always has been, a fellowship of diversity, in which people of very different views are inspired by one Lord, Jesus Christ, and seek to worship God who is disclosed in Jesus, as they see him in many different ways. Such an acceptance of diversity requires an acceptance that one's own beliefs are not obviously and certainly correct. It requires tolerance and a willingness to learn from others.
I was relieved to read these words. Ward speaks of the Anglicanism that I was drawn to twenty-five years ago, and the Anglicanism I was taught at Nashotah House. It is the description of the Church I fell in love with, and remain bound to. Yes, I know she is sometimes a harlot, but for some of us, she's all we've got.

Sometimes when encountering Anglicans whose beliefs require everyone to agree on various points of doctrine and dogma, I feel like I've lost the church I so dearly love. It is reassuring to discover these words from Keith Ward, which describe her as I have known her; mysteriously veiled, beckoning me to try new steps to the dance, while calming my fears that I might stumble and fall. Maybe I will, and maybe my steps are all wrong, but I can trust that she will gracefully uphold me and guide me, until I learn the steps well. When the stranger appears in our midst, eyes wide with wonder and longing, I will offer the same graceful guidance, until we all are able to join in the dance.


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