Stylistic Definitions of Anglicanism

| November 23, 2011 | 4 Comments More

Richard Hooker

Stylistic Definitions of Anglicanism

In my previous two blogs I dealt with the normative and structural definitions of Anglicanism: today I’ll discuss what I call “stylistic” definitions of Anglicanism. Stylistic definitions of Anglicanism center not on structures or norms but on certain characteristics of Anglicanism that might be categorized as “stylistic,” or matters of a particularly Anglican “ethos.”  Stylistic definitions of Anglicanism stand in contrast to normative definitions not only because they focus less on substance and more on style but also because they are often used to deny or downplay normative definitions.  Stylistic definitions also usually focus on one particular aspect of Anglican identity, without offering a picture of the whole.  They’re limited, but useful in their place since all religious identities develop a particular ethos over time.

Discussions of these stylistic definitions include characteristics such as a distinctive theological methodology (as opposed to a distinctive content), an ethos of comprehension and toleration, and notions of a dispersed authority.  One common stylistic definition of Anglicanism is the “three-legged stool” (often attributed to Richard Hooker) of Scripture, tradition, and reason.  Others argue, similarly, that Anglican identity consists in a distinctive theological methodology.

A second commonly mentioned stylistic characteristic of Anglican identity is the fact that authority in Anglicanism is a dispersed authority.  As delineated by a statement of bishops to the 1948 Lambeth Conference, authority is dispersed or distributed among Scripture, tradition, creeds, the ministry of the word and sacraments, the witness of the saints, and the consensus fidelium, liturgy being the crucible in which these elements of authority are unified.  This notion of dispersed authority is important because depending on how highly these authorities are valued and how they are valued relative to one another, Anglicanism might be described in very different terms; this is especially true if Scripture is seen as only one among many dispersed authorities of equal importance and its normative authority thereby diminished.

A third and crucial stylistic definition of Anglicanism focuses on the Anglican characteristic of the “comprehension” of differing traditions or spiritualities.  Anglican comprehension is a much-debated concept, but most would agree that on some level it is indeed characteristic of Anglicanism.  Historically, this comprehension has been seen in terms of the way in which Anglicanism embraces both Catholic and Protestant or Reformational principles, although comprehension has gone through stages of evolving meaning.

Stylistic definitions of Anglicanism are probably the weakest and least useful kind of definition, especially if used apart from other kinds of definitions.  For example, founding an Anglican identity upon the use of the triad of Scripture, tradition, and reason is not as fruitful as it appears to be.  It is not clear that there is anything particularly Anglican about using Scripture as a norm that is to be interpreted by tradition and reason: virtually all Christian traditions could claim to do so.  Stylistic definitions by their very nature also tend to be vague.  For example, when the idea of comprehension is enlarged from meaning a comprehension of both Catholic and Protestant principles (a generally useful stylistic definition) to meaning the kind of comprehension or toleration in which contradictory ideas are all seen as true, then a common, clear identity becomes difficult to maintain, and clear norms are undermined.

Stylistic definitions, when understood as a characteristic ethos of a more substantial identity, may be useful in defining religious identities such as Anglicanism.  When the idea of comprehension is used to describe the limits of acceptable diversity, for example, in the variety of Anglican spiritualities comprehended within a normative Anglican identity, it may prove a great asset.  However, stylistic definitions of Anglicanism, whether based on theological method, dispersed authority, the ideal of comprehension, or some other aspect, are often used to undermine normative definitions.

While resisting stylistic definitions of Anglicanism that threaten the core Christian identity of Anglicanism, most orthodox Anglicans are implicitly accepting a definition of Anglicanism that is based on the historic ideal of the comprehension of different spiritualities and which is related to the convergence aspect of the process of realignment.  Each of the four orthodox Anglican spiritualities that now exist (Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Global) is exerting a diversifying influence on orthodox Anglican identity that necessitates an enlarged definition of Anglicanism and will help undermine past definitions.  It’s even possible that orthodox Anglican identity, as manifested by GAFCON and to a lesser degree the ACNA, may comprehend or encompass such a great degree of collective diversity that only the generous terms of the Lambeth Quadrilateral can contain such a degree of diversity.  Such an identity would allow traditional Anglicans (such as the REC, APA, and Continuing churches), Anglo-Catholics, Charismatic Evangelicals, very low church Evangelicals who use no Prayer Book, and Global Anglicans to share a common identity.  The question that few orthodox Anglicans are asking is “Will such an identity be definably Anglican?”

Other, more benign, aspects of an Anglican ethos should also be noted.  The Anglican emphasis on comprehension (rightly understood) means that Anglicanism can stand as a via media between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and the heirs of the radical Reformation.  Anglicanism’s historic focus on the consensus of the Church has created a kind of Christian charity in its attitude towards other churches.  Anglicans can dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches while at the same time refusing to unchurch their Protestant brethren.  Anglicanism has, at its best, also appreciated not only the catholic consensus of the early Church but also the need for the Church to be able to speak to contemporary culture.  There is a balance and proportionality to Anglicanism, so that, for example, it can highly value the traditions of the Church without confusing them with the authority of Scripture.  When asked to choose between emphasizing the Sacraments or the Word Anglicans gladly say, “I’ll have both!”

It’s natural, therefore, to include stylistic definitions of Anglicanism in any attempt to fully describe Anglicanism, as long as the potential weaknesses of stylistic definitions of Anglicanism are kept in mind.  Next time, I’ll look in more detail at the four orthodox spiritualities I mentioned above.


Richard Hooker – Richard Hooker entry on Wikipedia

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  1. Hardwick on Method | Anglican Rose | November 25, 2011
  1. The stylistic definition seems the salient one in ACNA. Hooker’s alleged triad gets even more sticky when “experience” is thrown into the equation. The charismatic stream especially seems an inlet for a receptionism that potentially makes heresy, or gross doctrinal error, hypothetically orthodox. I’ve encountered this with families & individuals who formerly opposed WO, but, when a call was offered to them, they reversed their position saying, ‘the holy spirit can’t be rejected’. We even had a priest from another ACNA diocese preach to us explaining WO in the same terms, as if it flowed from the Azusa Street revival.

    It very much feels ACNA requires tacit engagement with ‘three streams’ or ‘four chords’ for actual dialog to transpire. However, this is a real tight rope, and I have yet to hear a convincing account how charismatic revival fits into Reformed Catholicism since I don’t see folks who subscribe to worship as ‘subjective’ and ‘informal’ wanting the older prayer books.

    Despite this ‘fourth leg’, the stylistic definition has come in handy especially with WO, enlisting tradition to help explain scripture. I find that once you realize a person has entirely rejected the normative approach, usually the stylistic is your final thread to hang upon. That’s when you really need to argue for proper methodology. Without proper method, there’s no chance two persons who are without a shared profession of belief are going to draw agreement. This has been the approach of the continuing church(es), invoking tradition when scriptural proofs fall short, especially with something like the female diaconate. It also is the method Arthur Middleton recommends in his book, Restoring the Anglican Mind. My rector has been promoting Middleton’s book. Do you think it sound advice, but can it cope against the fourth leg, “experience”?

    • Charles says:

      Hi, Charles.

      Yes, experience has now been added as a fourth leg, and it often seems to dominate, especially among the charismatics who remain orthodox with regards to the Creeds. In fact, reason and experience both represent man-centered approaches, representing 2 aspects of the Enlightenment (or possibly the Enlightenment and the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment). Stylistic definitions are, ultimately, existential and relativistic ones without firm norms and a clear authority to articulate and defend those norms.

      I like Middleton’s book. I do believe that Anglicanism is at its best when it tries to understand Scripture as interpreted by the whole Church. This takes work, of course, but I think it’s the wisest and safest way forward.

  2. Maybe one route would be unearthing some of the differences between the old Wesleyan-Holiness movement vs. Pentecostalism?

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