Doctrine and the Episcopal Church (Part 1 of 2):
(Revised and reprinted from August 2020)
Where do we find the official teaching– the doctrine – of the Episcopal Church? That is to say, where do we find the teaching of the faith to which we are committed as a community, and which provides the basis for common practice and action? Candidates for ordination promise loyalty to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church”, and also declare their belief that “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation”. What is this doctrine? What does this church understand to be the doctrinal content of these Scriptures? It’s a difficult question to answer.
In its constitution, the Episcopal Church defines itself as a church “upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”. When that statement was first adopted, the Prayer Book to which it referred was the 1928 Prayer Book, which included the explicitly doctrinal statement of the 1801 Articles of Religion, which was acknowledged as an integral part of the Prayer Book by Article X of the same Constitution. In 1979, however, a different liturgy also called the Book of Common Prayer replaced the 1928 Prayer Book, and in 1988 the reference in the canons to the Articles as an element of the Prayer Book was deleted. The Articles survive in an appendix to the 1979 Prayer Book titled “Historical Documents”, along with the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer, and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Unquestionably these are significant witnesses to the “historic Faith … as set forth in the Prayer Book”, yet they are nonetheless excluded as doctrinal authorities by the canons, which state that the Episcopal Church’s doctrine “is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer” (IV.2).
That’s a small list of doctrinal reference points, and it gets smaller when looked at more closely. The rubrics of the 1979 Catechism, for example, state that it is “a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher…”, and “a brief summary of the Church’s teaching for an inquiring stranger”. It’s hard to see how such a document could serve as an authoritative statement of doctrine. As for the Ordinal and sacramental rites, it’s not really clear what is meant by citing them as doctrinal authorities. They provide some particular teaching about ordained ministry and individual sacraments, but on other aspects of doctrine the content of their prayersis generally vague and fragmentary.
What’s lacking is any coherent doctrinal frame to make sense of those scattered references; or rather, the only frame provided is that of the two historic Creeds that the American church saw fit to retain in 1789. (The Athanasian Creed was discarded.) It’s as if all doctrinal development – that is, all progress in clarifying the meaning and implications of the Scripture’s teaching – came to a halt in 381 A. D. That rather fundamentalist position is not the view held by the ancient churches of the East and West, nor by the churches of the Reformation, all of whom sought to draw out more fully the implications of the Scripture and the ancient creeds, and build upon them in their councils and confessions. By comparison the stance of the American church resembles that of the Sadducees, that Jewish establishment sect that admitted no canonical scriptures beyond the five books of Moses, and on that basis denied the resurrection. Their position, one might note, was refuted by Jesus on the basis of the Torah itself, who told them in no uncertain terms: Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29). Episcopalians content with the denomination’s doctrinal minimalism might consider that the criticism applies to them also.
Doctrine and the Episcopal Church (Part 2 of 2):
(Reprinted from August 2020.)
Last week I argued that Episcopal Church keeps the doctrinal articulation of its faith to a minimum which even the ancient church found insufficient – essentially the Scriptures and two Creeds, meagerly supplemented by the 1979 Prayer Book’s sacra-mental rites and ordinal (presumably for the doctrine on sacraments and orders) and catechism (despite its avowed limitations as a doctrinal statement).
There are benefits to this doctrinal minimalism. It has allowed the Episcopal Church to escape the doctrinaire rigidities found in some denominations. It has permitted a degree of genuine intellectual freedom, and allowed it to accommodate a certain degree a diversity of opinions within itself. (That’s been a benefit to conservative outliers like us.) It has also, however, permitted the denomination to maintain a comfortable détente with the secular world, in an often uncritical reception of its ideas. One might describe the position of the Episcopal Church’s doctrinal minimalism as “comfortably vague”.
At the same time, though the Episcopal Church has chosen the path of doctrinal minimalism, it has never quite got to the point of jettisoning all doctrine whatsoever. Given its many departures from historic faith and worship, it might have seemed likely that the Episcopal Church would directly deny the authority of Scripture – and yet it has never quite brought itself to that point. Its position appears to be that of a dieter facing a dessert “to die for”: it is okay to have a little doctrine, but not too much. We want a little light, but not too much; a little truth, but not such as will disturb us. Christ may be the light of this dark world, but we find the twilight more congenial. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
What if it’s the case, however, that the whole point of Christianity is to live as fully in the light of the truth revealed in Christ as one can? What of those who seek a robust and coherent doctrinal frame in which to think and to seek to understand ourselves, the world, in relation to God? Who seek to be delivered from the bondage of personal taste, and conflicting opinions, into a community of shared faith and understanding? Where do they go? With Lancelot Andrewes we may look first to one Lord, two Testaments, three (not just two) Creeds, four Councils, and the five first centuries of the Church’s faith and worship; yet if we are to understand what we are as a distinctive community within the church catholic, then we have no other common and historic doctrinal standard than that provided by the Articles of Religion (in conjunction with the classical Prayer Books, Homilies, and Divines). High church, low church, broad church, liberal, evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, we may have our nits to pick with the Articles, but we have no other basis for understanding what it means to be Anglican – no other claim to speak for the Anglican tradition – than they provide. They may no longer have any legal status, but their historic and moral authority abides nonetheless. If you want to be an Anglican, you have to make the case for it in relation to the Articles. When the Episcopal Church commits itself in its constitution to be “a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, … upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”, it has morally bound itself to the Articles, even if in its canons it evades and denies that obligation. If being an Episcopalian or Anglican means anything, then you have to come to terms with the teaching of the Articles. We may well wish to engage in conversation with them (following the example of Oliver O’Donovan), pressing them on one point or another in relation to the higher authorities of Scripture and the Creeds; but our approach to them, as Robert Crouse said, “must involve an intellectual humility which is ready to listen reverently and attentively to the witness of those who have been in Christ before us”.
This essay by Fr. Dunbar was republished in St. John’s Parish Paper on Sept. 4, 2022, and Sept. 11, 2022.