Friday, May 29, 2009

Diversity leads to disunity, unity proceeds from profession, profession from confession

Our hui last week was yet another occasion when our church (ACANZP) confessed its commitment to diversity. But how far can we go with our diversity and remain a church, that is a fellowship based on common purpose flowing from common belief? At what point do we need to nail down our commitment to unity and our reasons for it?

The argument was made last week that Anglicans prefer 'profession' of faith to 'confession' of faith as a way of expressing our unity in belief. That is true as far as it goes: we profess our faith together by saying the creeds, conscious that we may not all mean the same things as we say them. But there are likely to come occasions in our life together when a shared confession behind our profession is required if our fellowship is to deepen rather than to divide. One example is the Sonship of Jesus Christ. In a purely Christian society we have permitted ourselves the luxury of diverse understanding of Sonship: for some Anglicans Jesus in relation to God is barely distinguishable from what Jehovah Witnesses or Muslims believe. But (as I understand it) in a dominantly Muslim society (where much of the Western world is heading) such diversity is impossible: a Christian confesses a full Trinitarian/Incarnational orthodoxy about Jesus Christ as Son of God.

In short: if the unity of the Anglican church is our concern, we must attend not only to our profession but also to our confession of faith. I think we can do this without becoming a fully-fledged 'Confessional' church, but we cannot do it without acknowledging the role confession plays in unity. John Richardson underscores all this in an excellent post ... an excerpt is given below:

"And there is another insidious factor arising out of this. For if unity is not maintained ‘in the truth’, then it must be maintained, ultimately, by force. The denomination which tolerates an ‘anything goes’ approach to belief must, in the end, use its institutional rules, regulations and sanctions to preserve its unity despite disagreements.

We need to remind ourselves —certainly Anglicans need to remind themselves —that our denominations do, for the most part, have confessional origins. In the case of the Church of England, this produced not only the Thirty-nine Articles but also the Book of Common Prayer which expressed a theology in sharp contradistinction to what had gone before.

In short, in denominations with a confessional basis, we are entitled reassert the importance of the confessional statements in the interests of gospel unity. Anglicans should be especially glad that the GAFCON Jerusalem Statement and Declaration reassert doctrinal significance of the Thirty-nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, and those of us in the Church of England with a concern for the gospel should do all we can to align ourselves with this, because they give a clear signal both that we do not embrace unlimited theological diversity and also that we do not regard such diversity as inherently Anglican.

GAFCON, however, also reminds us that provided the boundaries of the Church have some substance and definition, you can actually work with a diversity of expressions of the faith. So, to the annoyance of many of its critics, GAFCON saw Anglo-Catholic Africans sharing the same platform as Puritan Australians.

Some saw this as a betrayal of principle. I would want to argue, rather, that it is entirely principled, provided there is a common acceptance of a shared confessional heritage. In the same way, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in this country can work together —albeit in a sometimes-limited way —provided we do so as confessionally committed Anglicans.

Unity in the truth, however, does not come automatically. It has to be deliberately sought and systematically maintained through the structural provisions of the institution, and ultimately the responsibility for it rests with those who are empowered to be the doctrinal ‘gatekeepers’."


Tim Harris said...

Hi Peter. I quite agree with you. My point in regard Anglicans being more inclined to 'profess' their faith than 'confess' is made in the narrower sense of how the faith and underlying theological convictions are articulated - for Anglicans, not so much in the form comparable to the Augsburg Confession (for example) - but no less resolute or carefully nuanced in theological consideration. Those who say 'Anglicans are not confessional and therefore have little interest in theological stances' are IMHO quite mistaken - it is just articulated more in 'professed' mode.

I would also contend that liturgy as a whole reflects the faith we hold in common, not just elements such as the Creeds - no less in the 'exhortations' that insist there must be a consistency of life to match the faith as professed. The homilies make the connection powerfully.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Tim
I quite agree with you, 'profession' is the general mode in which we operate rather than 'confession', but I wanted to support JR's case! But either way, what we profess (and, agreed, its through our liturgies as a whole) has content, deeper and thicker that many Anglicans realize.