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"Can Classical Anglican Comprehensiveness be Reconstructed" by Chris Seitz

"Can Classical Anglican Comprehensiveness be Reconstructed?"

By Christopher R Seitz


Comprehensiveness is a term normally associated with the Anglicanism of the Church of England, or with Anglicanism as distinct from other Christian movements or bodies. Only in the latter sense, then, could the term strictly speaking apply to the Anglican Christianity of the American Episcopal Church. Alternatively, one could argue that comprehensiveness as a distinctive feature of the Church of England has found its way, by transplant, into the American context. I suspect that The Episcopal Church Foundation has chosen to use the term on the assumption that such a transplantation has occurred, though it would be interesting to test whether the term has been used, historically, as often and as readily in the American as in the British context, given the very different ecumenical environment within which this small Anglican Christian movement finds itself in the United States. The question then would be: did the transplanting take root and did it actually flourish?

It is necessary to pose the issue this way, because the ECUSA is a 2 million person denomination within a complex welter of denominated Christian groupings, vastly overshadowed by Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Evangelical churches, which might themselves be said to correspond in some rough ways to groupings internal to the comprehensiveness which is British Anglicanism. This is especially true of the evangelical wing of the Church of England which forms a major part, historically and especially presently, of this church and which makes utilisation of a term like "comprehensive" a fully rational way to describe something distinctive about it. Evangelicals travelling to America from the Church of England will find their counterparts more easily in places like Trinity Deerfield, Wheaton, Asbury, Gordon- Conwell, Westminster, or Beeson, and American evangelical Anglicans--or what is left of them--will look probably more 'Anglican' than British evangelicals, in part because the evangelical in US Anglicanism will have to have made a decision to stay and defend themselves and claim an Anglican lineage. Evangelicals in the UK may just view the Church of England as "the best boat to fish from."

Right away one can see that, over against the situation facing ECUSA, the Church of England's comprehensiveness entails its distinctive relationship to other, smaller or more marginal denominated groupings within its own shores -- historically with Puritanism and Catholicism marking districts over against which English reformed catholicism gained its identity and comprehensive outer limit. In more recent times, this would entail its more congenial ecumenical relationship with Methodist, Reformed, and other "dissenting" bodies; as well as now, with other faiths as such.

As noted, the conference is likely using the term comprehensiveness because it has been thought to be a theological distinctive of Anglicanism, even in America. But to the degree that the theological distinctive is tied to a social/ecclesial location and reality, as it surely is in Britain, it will be important to interrogate whether or not the term has worn well over time in American culture and context. I believe the case can be made, historically, for identifying a species of comprehensiveness which is continuous with the evangelical, catholic, and so-called liberal strands of English reformed catholicism. This comprehensiveness was not something consciously structured according to a theological idea, or governing principle, however, but was reflected in the internal institutional workings--not least of the theological training schools and seminaries of this country, as well as of its societies and fellowships and missionary instincts--of the Episcopal Church in America. On this latter issue, for example, one thinks of the decision in the last century to designate domestic mission as the business of General Seminary, and the foreign mission as the domain of so-called evangelical seminaries. You will doubtless bring your own historical examples to mind.

But it is also my view, and I will be making the case for this in short order, that this kind of comprehensiveness has broken down, and probably irretrievably. Moreover, this kind of comprehensiveness was not the result of design or intention--much less construction--but reflected an acknowledgement of certain institutional givens: certain more-or-less co-operative efforts to distribute chores and tolerate different distinctives--not always so congenially--within a family resemblance of theological and historical inheritances. The term "comprehensiveness" was not brought in to service and give theological justification for this, however, because, as I am arguing, comprehensiveness in the English Anglican sense is tied up with its distinctive Erastian vocation, which vocation is now threatened to a degree, but which has historically meant that Anglicanism is defined over against districts on its outer flanks. This is simply not true of American Anglican Christianity, and the kinds of slogans which once gave testimony to Anglican diversity in the US--"High and crazy, Broad and hazy, Low and lazy"--are just that: slogans, which grow up as emic and etic descriptions, meant to keep the peace within and/or describe to others outside what to them look like inconcinnities, as well they may be.

Indeed one could speculate that the qualifying term "reconstructing" is a candid admission up front that something has gone missing, and perhaps, with the right kind of conferring and getting-together, it could be retrieved.

I think one needs to be careful here about confusing a comprehensiveness which is historically continuous with, on the one hand, what once went on, or with what presently obtains in a different Anglican context (I think one can still call the present Church of England theologically and institutionally "comprehensive," and as such, in historical continuity with what it has been in the past; I think the same can also be said of certain international Anglican movements which are trans-national in character). On the other hand, one might be trying to describe a comprehensiveness of a very different kind: a kind of agreement to see whatever pluriformity exists, and bless it, and call it "comprehensiveness." That is, a decision by those in power to include those positions they have excluded, and to call this "comprehensiveness."

This would be to introduce a serious logical fallacy, however. It would mean ignoring the historical and social context in which the term has had meaning, and theological grounding, and declaring it dispensable for the purposes of non-historical analogy. But the appropriate theological force of the term entails certain historical givens which cannot be removed without destroying the meaningfulness of the term as such. An agreement to tolerate difference and accommodate it is not "comprehensiveness" and never has been. Comprehensiveness is a declaration of where fundamentals lie, and where adiaphora are just that--inessentials--and are not in conflict with these fundamentals. This declaration is made easier when alternatives can be spotted on the periphery, as in Anglicanism vis-a-vis Puritanism and Roman Catholicism, or as in Hooker's presentation of reasonable, catholic, evangelical Anglicanism. The present American Episcopal Church is theologically far closer to its mainline Liberal Protestant neighbours, and cannot find a comprehensiveness within it which serves as an analogy to the location of British Anglicanism within its context over against a small Roman Catholic church or "dissenting" Christian groups.

To help illustrate the point we can turn to the irenic volume, A Study of Anglicanism, where in the glossary we find--and its existence there is testimony to the durability of the term as an Anglican concept--"comprehension." Comprehension is "the character of the English Church prior to the reign of Charles I, whereby a refusal to narrow doctrinal boundaries" via-a-vis continental reformed and puritan Christianity on one side and Catholicism on the other "ensured that many not entirely happy with the Anglican Church nevertheless felt able to remain in it." Notice the more tentative gloss which the term seeks then to accommodate: "it is a term often used today to indicate the element of inclusiveness thought to be integral to the definition of Anglicanism" (p 445).

In its historical form, one can sense immediately how practical the term is, reflecting as it does the acknowledged givens--perhaps even grudgingly--of that curiosity which would become English reformed catholicism. A given structure was acknowledged, in a low-flying sense, in that certain outer limits were defined, as in the old map-makers' declaration, "beyond here there be dragons." At the same time, the term reflects a willingness to see certain basic fundamentals as up-and-running, and to designate as inessential (adiaphora) other matters of difference and emphasis. The 1968 Lambeth Conference concluded "Comprehensiveness demands agreement on fundamentals, while tolerating disagreement on matters in which Christians may differ without feeling the necessity of breaking communion." The definition is crucial, for the adiaphora can only be seen as such when there is an agreement on fundamentals. If this should fail, then the notion of comprehensiveness, as expressed in the 1968 statement, would be forfeit and we would have slipped into an area of confusion and the threat of broken communion -- which is of course exactly where we find ourselves today. Sykes rightly noted, a bit prophetically one might say, "there are considerable complexities hidden in the proposal that all Christians do, can or should agree on fundamentals," a sentence which could apply to our situation today when agreement on fundamentals is exactly what cannot be satisfied. People can say that agreement should be had, or that we should have conferences and dialogue sessions to achieve agreement, but immediately this should signal that the conditions within which comprehensiveness arose are now gone. The very conditions within which adiaphora can be comprehended and accepted are missing, and these are not classically there by argument or exhortation, but exist because agreement over fundamentals exists and must not be sought or restructured or reconstructed or whatever, but acknowledged.

The Present

In some ways I have jumped ahead of my assignment by stating the thesis up front: concerning the impossibility of having comprehensiveness where disagreement over essentials exists. I have hinted at but not given clear examples of where a state of institutional--and therefore theological--comprehensiveness still exists, and where sufficient agreement over fundamentals has not yet given way. It is necessary to fill this picture out a bit in order to give expression--dramatically--to how monolithic and non-comprehensive, in the social and institutional--and therefore theological--sense the ECUSA has become. As you have been patient with the more historical and definitional character of the argument this far, let me shift grounds and read a poem--lyrics, actually--to a song about Kenyon College, one of the evangelical colleges which would in time give birth to one of the historically evangelical seminaries, Bexley Hall.

The first of Kenyon's goodly race Was that great man Philander Chase He climbed a hill and said a prayer And founded Kenyon College there

He dug up stones he chopped down trees He sailed across the stormy seas He knocked at every noble's door And also that of Hannah Moore

The kings, the queens, the dukes, the earls They gave their crowns, they gave their pearls Until Philander had enough And hurried homeward with the stuff

And thus he worked with all his might For Kenyon College day and night And Kenyon's heart still holds a place Of love for old Philander Chase

Does Kenyon's heart "still hold a place of love for old Philander Chase"? Most I suspect do not know who he was, and would be untouched by the criticism that Kenyon does not now represent what he intended when he climbed a hill and said a prayer. That Bexley Hall is no longer there, has been moved to NY State, and that it is not evangelical on the terms of Chase's theology or the beneficence of wealthy English evangelicals like Hannah Moore, also likely moves no one. Time--especially in the New World--marches on, as we say.

Chase, however, tapped into an English evangelical base which for the most part has remained vital and widely representative, in ways that his own evangelicalism was once vital and powerful within the ecology of 19th century American Episcopalianism. If Chase returned today and climbed a hill and said a prayer about where his vision might have got translated, by all standards of historical comparison, he would look outside the American Episcopal Seminary system and into a broader American evangelical world, with the exception perhaps of Trinity School for Ministry -- a school which, tellingly, is a transplant of its own. It would take a more confident historian than myself to speculate whether the High Church vision of Hobart would likewise be seen by him as unrepresented in the liberal catholicism, or liturgical Unitarianism, of much of the American Episcopal Church and its seminaries. Most Episcopal seminaries have ceased describing themselves as belonging to distinct theological or historical parties to be ranged on an articulated grid of "comprehensiveness," in the classic sense of the term. One can diagnose why this has happened--the 1979 Prayer Book; cultural factors; the departure of the REC; the emergence and proliferation of continuing churches; women's ordination--but that it has happened seems incontrovertible.

That this is not simply an exercise in nostalgia or "those were the good old days" ("but they're gone, Professor Seitz") is belied by a comparison with Anglicanism in just about every region--Scotland may be an exception--of the entire Anglican Communion, that is, outside of the ECUSA.

Consider the home of "comprehensiveness," The Church of England. Seventy per cent of the seminarians attending residential training colleges in the UK choose to matriculate in one of six evangelical schools. Even as it is important to note that now over half of all ordinands read for orders or pursue some other kind of local option for training ("training by course"), by US standards this high percentage is staggering. Our grid of comprehensiveness simply goes blank here. There are also active seminaries in the catholic tradition, Wescott and St Stephens and Cuddesdon and Mirfield, though the Catholic wing has itself been split by women's ordination, different views of the authority of Scripture, practising Gay lifestyles, and the like. There are six evangelical training colleges as against the single remaining one in the US: Oak Hill, Wycliffe Hall, Ridley Hall, St John's College (Nottingham), Trinity College (Bristol), Cranmer Hall (Durham). They are themselves representative of a kind of internal evangelical comprehensiveness (Church Society and Reform, on one side, Fulcrum in the middle; and a smallish liberal evangelical movement; "Open" Evangelical, surprisingly, given US jargon, does not mean "in favour of same-sex lifestyle," but open to women in orders, certain forms of historical criticism, and the like).

I believe it is a fair conclusion that something like classical comprehensiveness still exists in the Church of England. This is not to say that there are not serious threats and fault-lines, but they are different to what one can now see in the American Episcopal Seminary system and the kinds of parties and ordained leaders they have been and will be turning out, thus marking the character of Episcopal Church life in this country now and for the coming years, if such years there are. The kind of comprehensiveness which marks the life of theological training in England has also left its mark on the Anglican Communion and especially the African churches of the Communion. There too one can see evangelical, catholic, and charismatic forms of Christian life, what one might conclude are 'inessential' distinctivenesses which can exist in a "structured comprehensiveness" because there is still agreement over fundamentals. Indeed, I would make the positive argument that the contribution the third largest Christian body in the world can make--over against the Roman, the great Orthodox Churches of the East, and Pentecostal Christian movements--is a comprehensiveness which can allow all these instincts to co-exist within its global reach because there is agreement on fundamentals in the mission of Jesus Christ.

Given the starkness of the comparison between the Anglican comprehensiveness of the Communion and the Church of England, on the one side, and the smallish and rather monolithic institutional ECUSA, on the other, what hope is there for something like "reconstructing comprehensiveness"? On the terms of the definition, historically speaking, it would require an agreement about fundamentals. It is impossible however that those seeking revision in the way the plain sense of scripture, or the catholic teaching, imprint themselves on the church will persuade others that such matters are not fundamental, but are in fact adiaphora: non-essential. Here is a sticking point which simply will not go away. Comprehensiveness, classically understood, was not a celebration, or a toleration, of diversity for its own sake. It was not the generosity of one group allowing another to exist alongside it, like the High Churchman with special gadgets, just because people ought to be able to get along. There was required a principled agreement on fundamentals. That is what is lacking. And there will be no agreement forthcoming, because what is fundamental for one is not such for another, and vice-versa.

Comprehensiveness does exist within the USA. It is not Anglican, but ecumenical, uniting Christians around fundamentals: the scriptures, the creeds, and even to a certain extent, the Great Tradition. This comprehensiveness was not restructured: it was identified, and theologically acknowledged, in something of the same way the term arose and made sense and characterised Anglican Christianity in England, and allowed those who embraced it to worship God and celebrate fundamentals held in common instead of being distracted by adiaphora and matters not essential. Where Anglican comprehensiveness exists in the Communion at large, if not in the ECUSA, within the American context it exists as an emerging and quite hopeful ecumenical reality, uniting Christians of different but increasingly non-essential historical background: Lutherans, Wesleyans, Reformed, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical-Free.

The Prospect

I believe we are witnessing something like a major epistemological shift. When the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA says that he understands that a certain position on scripture is fundamental and comprehensible in Northern Uganda, but that it may not transcend time and place and be fundamental in North America, and vice-versa of his own view of Scripture's demonstration of its sense, we are not having a debate about the plain sense of scripture alone, or chiefly. We are having a debate about whether truth is something that is actually capable of being transcendent, and eternal. This would in turn mean that there can--no must--be occasions when positions will prove to be mutually corrosive, and must by definition cancel one or the other out. It is this view of truth and reality--and of God's word in time and space--that divides us, and it is a much deeper disagreement over fundamentals and inessentials than any period in Church History has seen (perhaps rivalled by nominalist philosophical challenges prior to the Reformation). One gets a sense of this when we are told that a kind of living, a certain kind of sexual relating, has never been seen before or judged by humankind before according to some objective or transcending standard: that we are really and truly in a time without any analogy in time or space, such that our standards of judgement--for the Christian these would be one and for others these would be other things--can comprehend them.

So the question is being rightly posed: can comprehensiveness be restructured? There is a low-flying version of that question that I have sought to tease out by showing how sui generis is the American Episcopal experiment, for "experiment" is what it increasingly looks like it is.

But there is another sense in which the question could be posed. Are we able to give consent to a view that what we are encountering in time and space has no counterpart in previous era, and therefore is impatient and simply not corrigible before grids or standards of evaluation, whatever they might be? Can we take seriously the full epistemological implications of saying something like, the Bible does not know anything about this? Increasingly the charge is that the plain sense of scripture cannot comprehend, cannot extend itself to contemplate and consider, in its details and specificity, a behaviour and a kind of living never before accommodated or contemplated on the terms we are now told we must comprehend it, en route then to accommodating and indeed blessing and sanctifying it. Here is a form of comprehensiveness which, to my mind, cannot ever be "reconstructed," for on the terms of the argument, it has no known antecedent and cannot have one, if the form of sexual living is properly to be appraised for what it is. We are being asked to deal with the unprecedented, the temporally and spacially sui generis, the incomprehensible. How, philosophically, can such a view be accommodated to what must by contrast appear a rather anodyne theory of "Anglican comprehensiveness" from another age? An age which did not ask of its Anglican Christians anything like so dramatic a readjustment of its view of time and space? Here the chattel slavery analogy simply collapses as a house of sand.

At most, one could argue that this kind of comprehensiveness is so new and so crucial--and is crucial because of its ineluctable never-before-ness and novelty--that it should be constructed--not reconstructed--for the very first time. That is what we are being asked to consider: the construction of a never-before-known comprehensiveness. We should stand with complete honesty before the boldness of all this, and at least understand, as far as we are able to understand, what kind of dauntless project is now being set before us: that we are to construct for the first time, in Christian or secular time, an entirely new thing and then claim as well--something the secular "bold new world" does not require--that it is a work, one and the same, of God the Holy Spirit.

That is not a claim I can make or ever would make, nor am I aware that any other decision in time and space asked this of the Christian church. It is this hesitancy, it is this unwillingness to break out of time and space altogether, that will certainly frustrate calls for a "reconstructing of comprehensiveness," either in its low-flying, historically familiar form, or in this new, epistemologically unprecedented form. I suspect we are beginning to approach the outer limits of why a species of Anglican comprehensiveness--the one historically related to comprehensiveness in Britain--has not taken root and flourished in the New World of American Episcopalianism, but instead in an acknowledged ecumenical hopefulness and common trust. But we are also at the outer limits of my allotted time, and I thank you for your attention and patience.

Professor Christopher R Seitz is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews Reconstructing Anglican Comprehensiveness is sponsored by The Episcopal Church Foundation Conference. This lecture was delivered at the Cathedral church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama.

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