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Unspectacular Orthodoxy, Undogmatic Protestantism

posted 17.05.2014

It is a known fact that the Anglican Church is never strong in her dogmatics or systematic theology. It has been a source of frustration for many seeking for clarity of beliefs or a grid-system to work with. Our internal divisions are many. Tolerated for centuries, these embarrassing divisions are now open before the public more than ever.

In this brief article, I would like to make a few points which can both inform and guide us to be more self-aware as we continue to navigate as convicted Anglicans.

Thomas Cranmer is a good place to start with to understand the ideas that have been embedded in Anglican attitudes from the beginning.

He had a theological vision. It was simple enough.

If Anglicans are characterised as “a church united around the Prayer Book”, it is because of the great work put in by Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP).

He set out to purify, cleanse and simplify the life of the Church based on the ideals of the original apostolic community, with it’s best representation in the early Church (the first few centuries). At the heart of it is Scripture and communal worship as the vehicle for spiritual formation.

He explained this in both the Preface to the BCP and his introductory essay, for it “Of Ceremonies.” Here he points to Scripture as central to his prayer book project, with a commitment to wholeness, integrity, accessibility and restoration. These are to be a “common edification,” as we maintain and sustain a worshipping life of unity and conformance.

Through the BCP, the Scriptures need to be read and heard as is, without too much human explication (doctrine). While leaving phrases like “eat my flesh, drink my blood” and in the same breathe, “eat this in remembrance of Christ” in the communion liturgy may seem like an accommodation to both “high” and “low”, it was simply his desire to let the Scriptures speak (John 6:53-59 and Luke 22:19) and the worshippers to explicate themselves.

He turned to the monastic world for their discipline of Scripture formation. He simplified the Monastic Breviary (Benedictine), reduced the daily readings from seven to two, simplified the feast days and simplified the schemes and reduced the number of books used so that the integrity of Scriptural reading and hearing is kept. This was the “olde” way of reading for the people, priests and monks. The “laicising” of monastic disciplines for all was one way of ordering the en-Scripturation of the Church, now made possible by the availability of the English Bible, that all may be “edified”.

There is a brief catechism in BCP, with the Creed given first as presenting the “articles of belief” for the confirmand. But the articles themselves were not explicated; rather they are the explication of “God’s call to salvation through Jesus Christ.” The Creed itself explains, in the first instance; it itself required no explanation. It is not the propositional content, since this content will follow in ad hoc discussions, not primary confession.

To be sure, Cranmer had clear Protestant-Reformed doctrinal commitments and they were real and substantive. Yet more deeply, his commitment is to the patristic notion of regula fidei as the primary theological shape. There is a “shape” and “order” to the reading of Scripture. And this “shaped reading of Scripture” both orders and comprehends the character of the Church.

For Cranmer, everything flows from this.

Recent studies of the situation in England indicate that vast numbers of catechisms were published, beyond the official church versions. Over 800 different catechisms have been identified in the 16th and 17th centuries. Millions of copies were published and distributed during this time, all witnessing to England’s “unspectacular orthodoxy” and “undogmatic Protestantism”, as one scholar has put it. This also goes to show that the BCP’s Catechism was inadequate all on its own and always in need of further explication but at the same time, these new explications were energies released from Cranmer’s initial work.

The result in England, as elsewhere, was the establishing of a kind of popular and civil discourse and understanding of the Christian faith that was widespread across all classes of society. Even as plural choices were being offered, there was a common thread of Christian vision inculcated. There has probably been no period or place where the Christian vision was so thoroughly disseminated with such a degree of detail, albeit general, within a given population.

While some may deride it as ‘BCP religion’, it is a mark of Cranmer’s greatness, not that he was a great dogmatic theologian, but that he organised, led and influenced the practical life of the Church.

As we have seen, with the rise of religious pluralism (denominations), scientific confidence and correspondingly, the rise of Protestantism’s “Promethean” progressive liberal theologies in the 19th Century, these regula fidei ideals, without further constructive work to present the claims of the Church to inquiring minds in a pluralistic society, were found wanting. Rightly so, as Stephen Sykes has pointed out, Anglicans today need to take dogmatics and systematics more seriously.

What has this to do with the life of the Anglican Church here in Singapore?

For one, we need to think more deeply about what Cranmer was trying to achieve. We need to break out of the fixation of “free versus liturgical worship” and understand better the theological vision which gave birth to the Anglican Church, if I can call it as such. Through the work of Cranmer—as he laid ancient Scripture, Creeds and Catechisms before us—we continue to repristinate the Christian life, keeping in our hearts the “first love” (Revelation 2:4) asked of us. While the forms we use today may be different, the heritage of Scripture (canonised by the 4th Century), creeds (“symbols” and parameters of our beliefs) and catechisms (on-going explications) can all guide us as we seek to pass on the faith to others. These surely need to be the starting point—and a foundation we should never depart from—even as we seek to engage modern inquiries.

I think about the direction, which Bishop Rennis is constantly urging upon the Diocese: to be immersed in the Word and pray for revival. We need to reflect on how we are worshipping as a community, even as we give thanks for developments like Anglicans gathering in homes to worship and read Scriptures during the week. Perhaps, we can say that these widespread examples of the regula fidei lived out is entrenched in the way Anglicans think and, along with the wider Body of Christ, live out their faith in homes, schools and workplaces, impacting and changing the society in Singapore in more ways than we can imagine. This is precious.

While we can be thankful for the renewal of Word and Spirit which have kept us anchored in the Christian life, in some areas we are obviously not doing well and often in danger of caving in to the changing demands of the world. We can end up being as “liberal” as those we are often happy to label as such. I think of the quiet and often unquestioned embrace of materialism, a hedonistic lifestyle or a certain view of hypergrace to fit our faith into the phenomena, pressures and pleasures (often addictive) of modern city lifestyles. The idea of suffering and self-giving discipleship do not sit well in this thriving financial and resource-filled city. Ends seems to justify almost any means and we manipulate people to church rather then convert them to Christ. Stripped of our faith tradition, we rely entirely on existential or temporal spiritual experiences which in themselves, do not sustain us in the long term. Without using and referencing to the anchors we inherited, we can be in danger of loosing our moorings.

However, equally important, we need to invest in our theological resources and systemise some of our beliefs and practices. Even if we allow for diversity, that itself has to be reasoned. Even if “post-modern”, the world today is based on a comprehensive and systematic approach to knowledge which does not put God at the centre. The Church needs to find a confident voice to speak to inquiring minds, both within and without, and to provide teaching guidance. Her regula fidei as basis should not change but provide the parameters to help the church (and thus, society) to navigate through these contemporary issues.

This is by no means a comprehensive article and I think I have raised more questions than answers. If it stirs us to begin to think deeper of why we are Anglicans and what it means for the wider Church and our society, it will achieve its aims.

I do not write this with a sense that Anglicans are the best expression of His Church. We are not self-sufficient, let alone the leaders of the pack. Sometimes, we can be an embarrassment to the cause of Christ. In humility and brokenness, we seek to serve the Church and society by being true to our calling. I end here with some words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey (1904-1988):

“While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the gospel, to the Church and to sound learning, its greater vindication lies in pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the “best type of Christianity”, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”