What is “Episcopalian”? (II) :
Last week I began looking at the question of what we mean by the word “Episcopalian”. The name itself originates as a reference to government by bishops (“episcopoi” in Greek), but the tradition is much more than its system of church government. Another common description is “reformed and catholic”, which grounds the Episcopal tradition in the ancient tradition of Catholic Christianity (Scripture, Creeds, Ordained Ministry, Sacraments) and the sixteenth-century Reformation.
Beginning in the late 17th century and gathering strength through the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a move away from this catholic and reformed heritage. Moralism detached works from justifying faith, rationalism accentuated human reason at the expense of divine revelation; and liberalism the freedom from traditional authorities, doctrines, and practices, and even (in its most recent manifestations) from reason and nature. Over against the rise of these secularizing trends were a series of revivals that sought in different ways to affirm the divine and supernatural character of the Christian religion. The evangelical revival of the 18th century associated with Wesley and Whitfield, built on the 16th century divines; the catholic revival of the 19th century built on the old high church Anglicanism of the 17th century; and the charismatic of the 20th century, the Anglican counterpart to Pentecostalism, drew on the pietistic “enthusiasm” of the 18th century. Though reacting against liberal secularization, each in turn was further removed from the historic fabric of Anglicanism. The evangelical revival produced the
Methodist secession; the catholic revival led at its extreme to Anglo-Papalism; the charismatic revival fueled much of the more recent secessions from the Episcopal Church. By a particular irony, the conflict with evangelicals unleashed by Anglo-Catholic denial of the Reformation heritage of Anglicanism, led to liberal ascendancy, as the putative upholders of ecclesiastical peace. But such theological and liturgical diversity comes at the expense of rootless incoherence that bedevils the Anglican world today, both in the Episcopal Church, and outside it.
At this point in the history of Anglicanism, it is not possible simply to undo all these later developments. Each of them, moreover, has sometime of value to contribute – even liberalism, which has become such a loaded and pejorative term in our time. If we venture to criticize its limitations, and especially its later decadence into freedom from reason itself and even from nature, we do so from within the liberal tradition itself of freedom of thought and speech. If we criticize its destructive excesses, we do so as those who claim the freedom that is given us in the truth. Yet none of these by themselves (much less in combination) can provide a coherent Anglicanism: for that, there must be a rediscovery of the classical Anglicanism forged in the 16th and 17th centuries, and embodied in the historic formularies – the Book of Common Prayer (especially in its 1662 edition), the Articles of Religion, the official Homilies, together with the teaching of the classical divines (Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker et al). The rediscovery of classical Anglicanism’s doctrine and worship will not abolish all later developments, but will give them the foundations they need, and the coherence they are not themselves capable of.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to our Rector, Rev. Gavin Dunbar.