A couple of weeks ago I posted on Alexander Schmemann's suggestion that secularism is a heresy, and the resulting implications for how the church deals with secularism. His main point was that as the Church grapples with heresy, it should lead us deeper into truth. In passing, I also noted that it was suggested to me that there is something of the spirit of Anglicanism reflected in Schmemann’s approach.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working my way through Paul Avis’ book, Anglicanism and the Christian Church, which is largely a historical survey attempting to draw out a distinctly Anglican identity. As I was finishing the book last week, I was intrigued to see Avis make an observation about the Anglican approach to doing theology, which fits with the comment posed to me earlier about the spirit of Anglicanism. Avis writes,
Anglicanism acknowledges the authority of scholarship: this qualifies its reformed catholicism as a liberal reformed catholicism. At its best this liberalism, or better, liberality, implies no casual attitude to Christian truth. It is not the same as [the] ‘liberalism’ that reduced all dogma to mere opinion. It has a strong moral dimension: Anglicanism is committed to the pursuit of truth and not to the blind defence of traditional positions. It appears to follow that no reasonable question, however disconcerting, is out of order in the church’s theological explorations.
[This posture] is consistent with the claims of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the competence of scholarship to modify tradition. Anglicanism is, and always has been hospitable to rigorous theological enquiry. It attempts the bold experiment of combining the traditional disciplines of personal piety, parish worship, and creedal orthodoxy with the most radical questioning in pursuit of truth (292).
Avis continually emphasises both that when Anglicanism makes room for theological exploration, it does so in the the pursuit of truth, with the purpose of moving towards deeper agreement, and that this exploration is with respect to non-fundamental matters. For that exploration and pursuit to flourish, he says, it must be rooted in “those areas of deep agreement that provide the parameters within which theological argument can take place” (306). When you look at Anglicans today, you sometimes wonder if this has been forgotten; claims of being a ‘broad church’ sometimes seem to be taken as a license to believe whatever you want. But as Avis clearly demonstrates in his book, historically this has never been the case with Anglicanism. There has been much discussion on what constitutes the fundamentals, yes, and the different traditions within Anglicanism have disagreed on how far-reaching the boundaries of this orthodoxy should be (for example, is it something basic like a simple, creedal orthodoxy, or more extensive, like the Thirty-Nine Articles?), but the consensus has always been that there is a fundamental orthodoxy at the root of Anglicanism.
"Theological exploration" is, in many ways, a scary and dangerous idea. Because of that, some traditions, particularly the confessional traditions emerging out of the Reformation era, have sought to be much more extensive in defining the bounds of orthodoxy, allowing less room for theological exploration. Partly because of the history and nature of Anglicanism, this uniformity in all matters of theology and practice has never been something the Anglican Church has aspired to. Instead, Anglicanism has first sought to bring Christians together in worship, and then to engage together in the pursuit of truth. To be sure, this ideal can be fraught with difficulty and no end of conflict, and can open the door to a sort of theological relativism that takes the place of seeking truth together when that endeavour becomes too difficult. At the same time, there are merits in this Anglican approach to theology, most notably the humble acknowledgement that we never have all the right answers. Schmemann, as I quoted last time, makes this point helpfully:
Heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself.
This is, of course, a difficult endeavour, and I think in some ways it is easier to belong to a more robust confessional tradition. But at the same time, there is a sense in which we should never be satisfied with the answers we have. Because Scripture is a treasure mine so vast and so deep that we can never discover all the riches it contains, so our efforts to deepen our theological understanding should never cease. And when our efforts are undergirded by the solid foundation of the gospel, by our worship, and as we prayerfully seek the guidance of the Spirit, we can have confidence that God will bless our pursuit of a deeper and fuller understanding of him and his revelation.