Saturday, October 20, 2007

Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath writes on the Protestant heritage of Anglican Christianity. He is responding to this article written by Gregory Cameron (who was one of the ACC Joint Statement phantom drafters in New Orleans).

Here's an excerpt:

Historians generally consider that one of the most remarkable and influential forms of Protestantism emerged in England, and has come to be known as ‘Anglicanism’. Reformers in the reign of Henry VIII did not refer to themselves as ‘Protestants’, partly because this was seen to have foreign associations at the time. (Henry VIII, it will be recalled, disliked foreigners having influence over English affairs.) Yet from the reign of Edward VI onwards, English Church leaders began to use this term to refer to themselves, and see themselves as being connected with the great reforming movements and individuals on the continent of Europe.

Of course, many Anglican writers sympathetic to the nineteenth-century High Church ‘Oxford Movement’ (often known as ‘Tractarianism’) were generally dismissive of any suggestion that Anglicanism could be considered ‘Protestant’. After all, they argued, their ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ could be traced back to developments in the early seventeenth century. They pointed to a group of writers during the reigns of James I and Charles I who, they argued, show a much more ‘catholic’ outlook than their colleagues in the reigns of Edward VI or Elizabeth I. Anglicanism was never Protestant; it retained its Catholic identity and resisted any temptations to become part of the Protestant movement.

Historians now regard this account of Anglicanism as an unfortunate aberration. It is certainly true that some significant members of the Church of England during the reigns of James I and Charles I laid greater emphasis on its sacramental life than some of their contemporaries. Some also showed themselves to be critical (at points) of the first generation of Protestant leaders in the English Reformation. Under Charles I, this group began to gain the ascendancy, with William Laud (1573- 1645) becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Neile (1562-1640) Archbishop of York.

Yet such figures cannot be thought of as ‘Catholics’, nor can their Protestant identity be denied, for that reason. In the first place, they were generally affirmative of their Protestant credentials. In the second, their sacramental and ecclesiological views can easily be accommodated within the spectrum of Protestant possibilities. Protestantism is a ‘big tent’ movement, offering a surprising variety of possibilities within its vision of Christian thought and life. Luther, it must be remembered, had a much ‘higher’ view of baptism and the eucharist than Zwingli – a fact which is reflected in modern Lutheranism at this point. Yet nobody has seriously suggested that Lutheranism is not a form of Protestantism on account of these sacramental views.

Some point to Charles I as the classic representative of this ‘Anglo-Catholicism’. Yet they too easily overlook the awkward fact that, on the evening before his execution, Charles told his thirteen-yearold daughter, Elizabeth, that he was to die for "maintaining the true Protestant religion", and urged her to read the works of Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker "to ground [her] against Popery". Others suggest that Anglicanism is a ‘middle way’ (via media) between Protestantism and Catholicism. For that reason, it is argued, it is neither Protestant nor Catholic, but combines the strengths of both. Yet historians such as Diarmaid McCulloch have rightly pointed out that the ‘middle way’ developed in England in the late sixteenth century was between Lutheranism and Calvinism – two quite distinct versions of Protestantism. The ‘middle way’ which resulted was neither Calvinist nor Lutheran – but it was certainly Protestant.

From an historical perspective, the English national Church must be regarded as a Protestant variant - the ‘Protestant Episcopal Church of England and Ireland’, as state and parliamentary documents regularly describe it. And, as many readers will recall, the body which now prefers to describe itself as ‘The Episcopal Church’ was originally entitled ‘The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.’ (Indeed, this remains the Church’s legal title).

Canon Cameron appears to belong to the revisionist school of thought which is trying to airbrush out Anglicanism’s Protestant heritage and tradition. (The same agenda can be seen in the 1977 decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America to drop the word ‘Protestant’ from its name in common usage.) It is an unwise strategy for two reasons. First, it is historically indefensible. Cameron may wish that Anglicanism was not Protestant; he cannot, however, rewrite history to suit his tastes. His form of revisionism has itself been revised, and found to be untenable. But, much more importantly, understanding Anglicanism’s history allows us to appreciate what may be about to happen within the Anglican Communion, in the face of renewed tensions over issues of sexuality. To understand this point, we need to consider the Protestant concept of a ‘denominational family’.

Read the whole thing here. It is worth remembering, especially here in Virginia - and especially as 815 and the leadership of The Episcopal Church continue to fashion a sort of "Catholic-lite" - all the liturgical and hierarchical trappings of Roman Catholicism without all the doctrinal fuss.

No comments: