Anglicans Are Testing the Limits of TraditionDoes the Church teach that something is morally wrong because it is in fact wrong, or is something wrong because the Church says so?
An important conference concluded in Ottawa on September 1st that might reconfigure the shape of the Anglican Church in Canada. Though closed to the media, it is no secret that the 700 gathered delegates asked whether they have a future in a communion which shares less and less in common. The participants in the Anglican "Essentials" conference believe that in choosing to bless homosexual relationships, their Church has abandoned the ancient faith.
Tradition … is the wisdom of centuries of saints, received and applied to the new things of today.
Canadian Anglicans are wrestling with competing ideas of morality, authority and tradition. The issues engaged are of interest far beyond the Anglican Church.
"Essentials" is a movement of Canadian Anglicans whose declared "vision is to be the theological and spiritual rallying point for historic Christian orthodoxy in the Anglican Church of Canada." The members of Essentials believe that the Anglican general synod's decision in June to affirm "the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships" does not square with historic Christian orthodoxy.
On this there can be little dispute. Teaching that what was heretofore considered a serious sin is now something holy, is a reversal, plain and simple—something which is conceded even by supporters of the change.
Can a Church do that? It depends on how morality is understood. Does the Church teach that something is morally wrong because it is in fact wrong, or is something wrong because the Church says so? Doctrinal innovators would argue the latter, the Essentials group would argue the former. The division goes to the heart of what a Church is. Is it a body of believers who seek to give witness to the truth, or is it a body of like-minded members who organize themselves in pursuit of shared goals?
Again, the Essentials group would opt for the former.
That position is articulated often by Catholics when faced with demands that the moral teaching on this or that issue be reversed. The Church often responds that it has the authority to teach, but it does not have the authority to teach whatever it likes. That teaching authority applies, but does not create, the moral law. It is reported that during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proposed that the section on the papal office should say that the pope is accountable to no one—highlighting his supreme governance. That formulation was rejected because while the pope has no earthly superiors, he is in fact accountable to the truth, the Scriptures, the Christian tradition and the witness of the saints and martyrs.
It is ironic that in the current Anglican disputes, the general synod takes a view of authority that is much farther reaching. The Anglican synod acts as a body which is the master of truth, Scripture and tradition, able to reject or amend it as it wishes. The more modest approach to authority advocated by the Essentials group—or the Catholic Church for that matter—places today's authority in the context of a tradition which develops over time, but never repudiates itself.
Tradition, according to Christian orthodoxy, is not an artificial constraint from the past. Rather it is the wisdom of centuries of saints, received and applied to the new things of today. Tradition is supposed to be a humbling force, checking the temptation to impose recent innovations or contemporary fashions on the faith of the ages. It requires a measure of historical arrogance to assume that late-20th century preoccupations ought to be normative for a tradition that has endured for two millennia.
Delegates at the Anglican Essentials conference contend that the Anglican leadership in Canada has placed itself outside of that tradition. The leadership understands itself to have changed the tradition, according to its own authority.
Are there limits to how far that tradition can be changed before it will break? The Anglican Church has always cultivated a certain sensibility, rather than defined itself wholly in doctrinal terms. Part of that sensibility has produced the justly celebrated liturgical and biblical texts that have elevated and ennobled the English language. Another part of that sensibility was a willingness to remain in communion with each other, leaving ambiguous points of doctrinal disagreement if necessary. But it is difficult to maintain that communion when parties disagree whether one and the same thing is to be considered sinful or holy.
On the question of Anglicanism, I have to admit my bias. While the sundering of England from Rome by Henry VIII was a tragic wounding of the Church to be deeply regretted, Anglicanism went on to become a harbour of fine liturgy, cultural gentility and a certain conviviality.
It is to be lamented that we are in danger of losing that.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain of Newman House, the Roman Catholic chaplaincy at Queen's University in Kingston.
Originally published in the National Post, September 1, 1004.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2004 Christianity.ca.