Historical Perspectives

Because Anglicanism is not, strictly speaking, a confessional tradition--the original confession of faith, the Thirty-nine Articles, is not binding on clergy or laity in many provinces of the Anglican Communion--its religious identity is only loosely tied to particular doctrines. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the breadth of belief within Anglicanism is immense. This is evident in the way in which people write about Anglicanism.

Many Anglican theorists seek to fit their views into some version of an Anglican ethos, an Anglican way of "doing theology," an Anglican conception of religion and the Church. Without an agreed system of doctrinal orthodoxy, theorists must look elsewhere for this ground of Anglican identity. One of the places they tend to look is history. History has become a battleground for Anglican authority and identity. It would not be very Anglican to say, "I don't care what Anglicanism has been, this is what it should be, and this is what I'm going to make of it." Whether defending the legitimacy of new ideas or asserting the continuing relevance of old ones, Anglican theorists often find themselves discussing ideas and approaches of figures from Anglican history.

When the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century sought to establish their "Anglo-Catholic" vision of Anglicanism, they turned to the 17th century for support. They lifted up figures such as Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, and Richard Hooker. Accentuating these figures' most Catholic aspects and downplaying their Protestantism, the Anglo-Catholics ultimately recreated these individuals in the Movement's own image. Nineteenth-century Evangelicals responded in kind, pointing chiefly to the 16th century. They claimed as their own the great English Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer, and also to the first apologist for the Church of England, John Jewel. In both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical cases, the via media looked distinctly off-center.

The battle to appropriate historic Anglicanism has never fully subsided. One still might be asked to encapsulate one's churchmanship by answering the deceptively simple question, "Jewel or Hooker?" A particular area of continuing debate is the Lord's Supper or Eucharist , often centering on the idea of Christ's Eucharistic Presence, that is, how Christ may be thought to be present in the elements of bread and wine in the sacrament. Whether seeking to emphasize or downplay the reality of the Presence, treatises on the views of 16th - and 17th -century theologians regarding Eucharistic Presence continue to engage and influence readers.

But as the rise of theological liberalism has pushed Anglican theological diversity beyond questions of Protestant and Catholic, engagement with Anglican history has also been transformed. Some scholars have appropriated the Anglican ideal of the via media, with different ideas of what borders the Anglican center--for instance, a theological middle way between liberalism and conservatism. For other scholars, the hallmark of 17th-century Anglicanism was not its doctrines or liturgy, whether Protestant or Catholic, but the liberality of its approach. Although some have criticized the notion that a method can exist that is utterly devoid of doctrinal content, early Anglicanism continues to be viewed through the lens of method. A prominent example is how some modern scholars engage with Richard Hooker, lauding him for what they see as his unique method of intertwining of scripture, tradition, and reason, and even for the fact of having used innovative theological method. To be innovative is, for some, to be Anglican.

Another approach has been to find the essence of Anglicanism in the history of Anglican theological diversity. Rather than a middle way, or a preferred side of the middle, or even a method, Anglican identity is found in its lack of a definitive theological identity. This lack was originally a political expedient under Elizabeth , and became the cause of great angst to many Anglican theologians across the centuries, but it is transformed in this perspective into the timeless virtue of Anglicanism.

There is a certain logic to this position, for the history of Anglicanism certainly is marked by vague theological pronouncements and wide disagreement. There are legitimate questions, however, regarding the sustainability of this approach. Factions within Anglicanism have downplayed, recast, or even dismissed the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Where some members of a religious group dismiss the basic tenets of the religion, while others hold fast to those tenets, the observer may be forgiven for doubting the existence of any substantive unity--it appears only the form of unity remains.

One outgrowth of liberalism has been the redefinition, in some circles, of what constitutes ethical conduct in an Anglican context. In particular, issues of sexuality have become dividing lines that are pushing Anglicans to address matters of authority in new ways. The question of the extent of scripture's authority and the way its authority relates to that of tradition, reason, and experience is prominent in Anglican controversial literature. Also, as local parishes disclaim their ties to bishops they see as apostate (having renounced the faith), and align themselves with bishops from overseas, the historical authority of the bishop within his or her diocese is placed in dispute. Even the continuing viability of the historically central position of the Archbishop of Canterbury vis-à-vis global Anglicanism is being questioned.

Study Questions:
     1.     Why is history central to Anglican identity?
     2.     What was the desired outcome of the 19th-century Oxford Movement? Was it achieved?
     3.     How has theological liberalism shaped contemporary Anglican theology?
     4.     What issues have divided the contemporary Anglican church?

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