Sunday, April 17, 2011

Consistency in Anglican Theologies (2)

Reading around the internet, noting, for instance, criticisms of Anglicans and their beliefs, perhaps from a recent Anglican who has now formally subscribed to Roman doctrine, I note that criticism of Anglican theologies re internal consistency occurs in broadly two ways. One is Anglican v Anglican along the "How can you as (say) an evangelical Anglican subscribe to X and not also to Y?" Explicitly or implicitly the associated jibe is "By contrast the liberal/catholic/other Anglicanism to which I subscribe escapes such charges; perhaps you ought to take it more seriously!" The other criticism is a "plague on all your houses" critique: "It doesn't matter what variety of Anglicanism tries to be serious about theology, it is intrinsically flawed because it lacks X, Y, or Z," with the flaws noted likely to relate to the question of 'authority'.

Of course critics from outside Anglicanism have something of an easy time finding something to criticise: we are all over the shop. Bryan Owen, in the post I noted yesterday, cites from a writer Carston T. Clark a lovely paragraph expressing our mind-boggling diversity! Those external critics - as I understand it - believe their vantage point to be one of consistency in theology.

Thus Roman Catholic theology holds itself to be consistent because nothing lies within it which has not been approved by proper authority, i.e. the Pope, and its own belief concerning this authority is that it is divine authority because the Pope is 'the Vicar of Christ'. I summarise, of course, a complex theological argument about the ongoing role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, the role of councils of bishops, and the reasons why Rome's bishop and not another is the apex of the Roman understanding of ecclesial authority. The achilles heal of the Roman system of belief lies precisely at the point of its proclaimed strength: what if the Pope is not the Vicar of Christ (e.g. because Christ did not found such a role)? Nevertheless, accept the papal claims and there is good consistency, not least because any change in doctrine (or practice), even a reversal, would always be approved by the pope and thus always consistent as a 'papally approved' teaching.

Eastern Orthodox theology holds itself to be consistent because nothing within it lies outside what has been approved by the first seven Ecumenical Councils. In one sense (providing any tensions within the set of decisions made by those councils is able to be lived with) there is no possibility of theological inconsistency because such a possibility never occurs. Theoretically it could occur, when an Eighth Ecumenical Council took place, but in practice this is not going to happen this side of the Second Coming. Whereas a strength of Roman theologising is the possibility of development being accommodated in the growing body of papally approved doctrine, a weakness of Eastern Orthodox theology is it has no mechanism for making reasonable adaptation of its theology in the light of real gains in knowledge, insight, or experience of life. (Or does it?). Acknowledged here is an attractive strength and security for Western Christians converting to Eastern Orthodoxy: the stresses and strains of theological reform and development will never again be encountered. (But a caveat emptor would be a warning about power crazed patriarchs providing a different source of stress!)

Have got to stop there for today, but I will be thinking about 'consistent' non-Anglican-but-Protestant theologies.


Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,
A point of interest about the interplay of Eastern Orthodox and Anglican theological systems. The Coptic Orthodox Church, centred in Egypt, has been willing to engage in dialogue with the Anglican church despite our differences in theology and church order. I don't claim to know the whole picture here, but it seems that our three-fold order, liturgical approach, recognising some sacraments, lack of historical disagreements (cf the Roman Catholics) and lack of numerical threat (cf other Protestant denominations) makes this possible.

However, when Gene Robison was consecrated bishop, all dialogue was immediately broken off. It was beyond the pale for the Copts to have any official dialogue with such a church, despite Bishop Mouneer's staunch opposition to that consecration. The Copts are considering resuming dialogue with the Global South Anglican movement, rather than the Communion as a whole.

Here's a nice little book by Pope Shenouda comparing Orthodox and Protestant theology, although you will notice in the foreword he exempts Anglicans from this general comparison.

Andrew Reid

Peter Carrell said...

What a lovely book, Andrew, even though it is confused about Protestantism, and somewhat unpersuasive on various matters while offering some very sound arguments on other matters.

Presumably that unpersuasiveness keeps you on the Anglican straight and narrow even as you experience the charms of Egyptian Christianity! (The one and only Orthodox service I have ever been too was a Coptic service in Beni Suef. A very interesting experience indeed).

Andrew Reid said...

Beni Suef...well, that's a bit off the beaten track. I'd be interested to know who your hosts were, and when it was, but perhaps we should take that converation offline. We have some good friends who worked there for a few years.
Yes, I wasn't convinced by everything Pope Shenouda says. There's a few other reasons I won't be heading east anytime soon...hierarchical structure, Egyptian only focus even in overseas churches, tendency to survive rather than reach out, lack of congregational participation in liturgy to the point that it almost feels like as long as the priest does it we're all ok, use of Coptic language in liturgy which I can't understand, and veneration of icons, books and relics. But they have lots of great things to teach us about remaining faithful under persecution, spiritual disciplines etc. I work with some Copts in our ministry here, and join in joyfully in some Coptic worship, especially at a retreat centre we visit.
Best wishes,
Andrew Reid