The Three-Legged Stool of Anglicanism

The image of a three-legged stool enjoys a wide variety of applications today, including retirement planning, various business strategies, and even ‘classical’ Reaganism! The image is especially useful for those who wish to present certain ideas or principles as essential to the integrity of the whole. Many voices in our tradition have adopted the three-legged stool as a convenient way to explain the nature of Anglicanism, especially in relation to other churches. It is commonly said that Anglicanism looks to three inter-dependent sources of authority—Scripture, reason, and tradition—and that these three sources “uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way.” This view of Anglicanism was perhaps made most-popular in recent times by Urban T. Holmes in his book What Is Anglicanism?

The classic expression of the Anglican understanding of authority comes from Richard Hooker (d. 1600), favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and ardent preacher against the Puritans, whose masterful work Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity has been perhaps the authoritative voice of classic Anglicanism. In Book 5 he writes on the nature of authority in the Church, where we find what is probably his most famous passage:

“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other [i.e. doctrine vs. church practice], what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” (V.8.2)

When I read this, I don’t see a ‘three-legged stool’ but a careful and helpful explanation of how we best interact with Scripture in trying to understand what is best for the life of the Church in our time. The ‘plain’ words of Scripture, that is, those parts that are more or less straightforward and clear, have first claim on our trust and obedience. And as Bishop John Bauerschmidt has recently explained, for Hooker ‘reason’ comes in as the comprehending and ordering ability of the human mind, trying to discern those aspects of our faith that are unchangeable doctrine, or teaching, and those things which are practices the church has adopted as convenient for a particular time and/or place. And in order to help ‘reason’ in its work, the tradition of the church comes alongside to help reason along.

Various images come to my mind in trying to illustrate this relationship between the Scriptures, reason, and tradition; the image that comes to mind currently is that of an apprentice learning a trade under the supervision of a master craftsman. My first job as an assistant priest was at an historic parish; it was a real treat to get to know some of the skilled tradesmen that came to work on our building, including a master plasterer and his apprentice. There was no getting around the rules of the trade. The plaster was what it was, and there were certain ways of applying it that worked, and others that didn’t. For the apprentice, applying the plaster in a certain repair required both knowledge of the medium and the skilled guidance of his master in the best application for that particular patch. For Hooker, we all are apprentices in the Christian life, and in order to apply our knowledge of the Scriptures rightly we need the accumulated wisdom and experienced guidance of those who have mastered the craft before us.

Need we be exactly like our forebears in the Christian faith? Hooker’s answer is a qualified ‘no.’ Yet he wisely knew there’s no getting around the truth of the ‘plaster’, i.e. the plain teaching of the Scripture being what it is; and there’s no getting around the fact that some methods of applying that ‘plaster’ work much better than others. The ‘reasonable’ reader of Scripture isn’t a reckless and revolutionary apprentice aiming at an aggressive deconstruction and critique of the text, but rather the one who is truly ‘reasonable’ will enjoy the guidance of the church and appreciate it as an aid and check to our own understanding and application of the truths of our faith within the life of the church in our own time. The former produces a sloppy and unsuitable result. The latter results in a portion of work that blends in and harmonizes with the overall beauty of the original craftsmanship, to the point of hardly being able to notice a repair had even been made. The satisfaction lies in knowing that a glorious and precious work has been preserved intact for the next generation to enjoy.

The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Bergstrom is the Canon of Vocations for the diocese

 

Theology Matters: Why do we live apart from God and Out of Harmony with Creation?

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Life apart from the Creator, and life out of harmony with his creation, are phenomena by nature connected to one another, in much the same way that you couldn’t know much that’s worth knowing about Picasso if you had never seen any of his paintings.

The urbanization of the West, which began in earnest in the 12th century, and has reached a crescendo in our own day, has much to do with our disconnection from the primary realities of creation. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that more people lived in cities in the American South than lived in the countryside. This aggregation of people in cities is speeding up and intensifying and becoming universal (as of 2016, China has sixty-one cities with populations over one million), and it is of the essence of the phenomenon called “globalization.” Research indicates a temporal correlation between urbanization and the decline of religious faith in American culture. Correlation does not imply causation, granted, yet religious faith wanes in our nation as our population has centralized in cities.

Economic liberalism (otherwise known as market capitalism), and its handmaiden, rapid technological advancement, have been important drivers of this demographic shift. Genetically modified seeds and other automated equipment have made it possible to grow and harvest food much more efficiently than was ever possible before – on much less land, with much less human input. There is simply not much for people to do outside of cities anymore.

Social liberalism too, the bedrock of western societies, has meant a drive toward the maximizing of individual autonomy, an atomistic conception of “freedom” that construes selfhood as a function of choice, and no longer something “given.” And nature, the primary realities of creation, is an impediment to such autonomy. Thanks to free markets and cheap energy, it is now possible to eat tropical fruit year-round in New Hampshire. Thanks to central heat and air conditioning, I can now be cold in summer and warm in winter. Thanks to hormone therapy and surgical interventions, I can now live my life as a woman if I so choose. Thanks to ready access to safe abortions and other “reproductive technologies,” my sexuality is now an instrument of my freedom, no longer yoked to biological realities and related responsibilities. Mariners no longer navigate by the stars.

In the foregoing, I have not made any value judgments – which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t, nor that I oughtn’t. These realities are simply facts of our time and place. We are isolating ourselves from nature ever more and more, seeing it as an impediment to our individual autonomy.

Like any relationship, our communion with God must be cultivated. Couples that never see or speak with each other naturally drift apart. And nature is God’s most primordial word to us, what medieval theologians called the “analogia entis,” the “analogy of being.” The witness of scripture and the Church fathers is unequivocal. Job says, “…ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you,” (Job 12:7-8).

And there are the immortal opening words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handy-work…. There is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them. Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words into the ends of the world.”

Saint Paul even says that the Gentiles have no excuse for turning away from God: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made,” (Romans 1:19-20).

Saint Augustine writes movingly in Book 10 of his Confessions about the witness born by nature. “I questioned the earth… I questioned the sea and the depths, and the creeping things which have life… I questioned the blowing winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants… I questioned the heavens, the sun, moon, stars…. And they cried out with a loud voice, ‘He made us!’”

Less and less in our time and place do we hear this most primordial of God’s words. Less and less are we able to speak the language of creation’s primary realities. I was hoping recently to watch the Perseid meteor shower, but when I went into my front yard, the city lights obscured the stars.

Posted by The Rev. Will Brown with

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.