Still Very Protestant
The Great Tradition—A Great Labor
Studies in Ancient-Future Faith
Edited by Philip E. Harrold and D.H. Williams. Wipf & Stock. Pp. 124. $15
Review by Ben Jefferies
The tantalizing prompt question for the Ancient Wisdom, Anglican Futures conference in 2009 from which this collection of essays arises — “What does it mean to inhabit the ‘Great Tradition’ authentically?” — goes largely unanswered. Half of the essays do not reveal a thorough appraisal of the status quæstionis, or they are too tangential to it. This largely stems from the misequation of “the Great Tradition” with the bounds of Anglicanism in se.
With one or two notable exceptions (Edith Humphrey, George Sumner), the tack of the collection is to highlight how the esprit of a particular Protestant denomination can enrich “the Great Tradition” of Anglican practice. A greater awareness of how Anglicanism might more participate in the Great Tradition from which it derives, rather than emphasizing what novelties the wider Church may be missing out on, would have been more satisfying.
A rapid play-by-play, before some concluding thoughts:
To anyone who still buys into the Ehrman-Pagels historiographical demolition job, D.H. Williams offers good damage repair, even if his conclusions are as prosaic as they are truthful: that there is a discernible unity in historical theology, albeit messy around the edges.
Tony Clark takes Phyllis Tickle to task, but then loses himself in theories of language and knowledge (observing from outside versus “indwelling”) that do little to answer the conference question.
Humphrey — who is now Eastern Orthodox — warmly exhorts the reader to sober up before coming face-to-face with the Almighty, and so to pay attention to the given sequence of the liturgy. Simon Chan argues that Pentecostals uniquely practice taking the Holy Spirit’s work seriously, thus embodying the epiclectic talk of the Eastern Liturgies, both of which should be more thoroughly incorporated into Anglican worship.
D. Stephen Long reminds us of the essentially communal character of Christian living, with John Wesley as a paragon. Sumner’s piece — the highlight of the collection — brings episcopacy to the fore.
His thesis is the most solidly grounded answer to the conference question, being located within the Great Tradition. He also proposes an intriguing “soft” apostolate (with norming anecdotes from history: Whitby, South India) for the sake of preserving unity.
Lastly, the surprise of the collection is Dominic Erdozain. He presents with erudite panache what appears to be a history of how the evangelical church in England (c.1750-1930) has engaged with “culture,” but one has the sense that he is actually spinning a brilliant parable of warning, as informative as it is pleasing.
The dominant voice of the essays is characteristically evangelical. While the evangelical element of Anglican experience can most certainly enrich our Catholic heritage, the narrow view that accompanies it when confronting questions of catholicity is glaring; the theses of the essays slam up against the horizon of their authors. To a Catholic, the high value the essays place on dogma and doctrinal confession, as if these stood on their own outside of Church life, is peculiar and confusing. Similarly, excepting Sumner, there is a palpable absence of any mention of submissive obedience to the Church as it has historically been constituted, which I would contend is the quintessence of authenticity in an increasingly de-traditioned world — and a greater labor than these essays propose.
Ben Jefferies is a senior at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
Reprinted with permission from ‘The Living Church’ magazine.
Photo courtesy Andy Marshall