THE ESSENCE OF EPISCOPALIANISM – THEOLOGICAL TOLERANCE.
Why describe the SEC as a theologically tolerant Church? Why not call it broad or liberal? Either would describe the variety of viewpoints expressed by its members and its openness surely? Well, both terms have honourable places in 19th & 20th century Church History, but to use either might tinge our perception of what it is like today. Also, historically the SEC wasn’t terribly broad or particularly liberal. In some ways it still isn’t. But in the last 40 years or so it has become markedly tolerant in a way it never was before.
Historically, the SEC was neither Broad nor Low: it was generally High Church. Reacting in part to the general dominance of the Presbyterian Establishment, it stood for a ‘catholic’ 3 fold ministry, preferred Patristic Theology to that of Calvin and avoided both the Evangelical and Moderate theologies that vied for supremacy in the Scottish churches in the 18th century. When the Oxford Movement burst onto the scene, the SEC was widely seen as having held that theology long before Newman, Keble and Pusey came along. Indeed, when Newman was debating his future in the Anglican fold after the publication of Tract 90, Pusey tried to persuade him to join the SEC if the Oxford college heads condemned it, rather than become a Roman Catholic. The only Church honour John Keble ever received was an honorary Canonry of the Cathedral of the Isles, Millport. Whilst there were congregations which were evangelical, they often preferred to seek the care of an English (Low Church) bishop rather than align themselves with the High Church SEC. In an essay on the History of Christian Worship in Scotland, Professor Duncan Forrester notes that until recently the Piskies were seen as “narrow and spiky”. Breadth and tolerance were not our most instantly visible characteristics to other denominations. Heck, we couldn’t even give communion to Presbyterians who hadn’t been confirmed by a Bishop until the 1970’s.
Two little examples from my own experience may help to show this. When I was training at Coates Hall, there was a student who came from St Paul & St Georges and who had grown up in the Brethren. She and I were on the same Worship Team in our 1st year. One week, we were assigned to do sacristy duty together and she asked me “Why do we wear all those different coloured robes?” This led to a bit of a teaching session by me on vestments, ritual and the significance thereof. I expressed some surprise that she hadn’t been told about this as part of her confirmation classes. The congregation of P & G’s I discovered were not the sort of Anglicans who did that sort of thing! But our conversations revealed that she certainly didn’t feel part of the SEC ethos at Coates Hall. I said that it wasn’t a High Church College like St Stephen’s House Oxford or Mirfield: it was “non party”. She replied that it unconsciously assumed unstated norms which were from the High end of the spectrum: daily office, Eucharist, vestments and a generally catholic version of Anglicanism. There was little understanding of, never mind sympathy for, the Evangelical approach. And on reflection, she was right: the College reflected the general practice and ethos most SEC congregations. You were OK if you shared that and could be as radical or conservative as you liked. But you were liable to feel excluded if you didn’t. Not quite as broad a Church as you might fondly imagine.
The other example of the historic lack of liberality in the SEC concerns an elderly woman in the Church where I was curate. She was lovely, but terribly against many changes in the Church, like the Blue Book and Women Priests. She could be quite vituperative on those subjects. She had been divorced in the 1950’s. She had been told by her Bishop that she could only continue to receive communion if she did not remarry. She never had. She was terribly hurt and angry that today people were “allowed to do what they want” and still be part of the Church. She found it difficult to accept that the SEC had become more humane and tolerant of human weakness in her lifetime – but too late for her to benefit. The SEC was not exactly an “anything goes” sort of Church 50 years ago.
The SEC today is a very different beast. Perhaps the growth of Evangelical congregations has meant we have had to be, but there has also been recognition that you can be faithful to God and hold radically different views from what was acceptable when it was that “narrow, spiky” wee Church. Some quite traditional views are still around but they co-exist with those who grew up with the “Honest to God” debate. Fans of Bishop Spong are able to take communion and adherents of Feminist Theology are not excluded from the table. Priests who do not agree with the idea of women bishops can be and are appointed to posts in this diocese, as are divorced clergy. And gays. And Evangelicals.
What is the glue here? What holds us together in at least reasonable amity and fellowship? And are there any boundaries? Partly, it has been a learnt tolerance. Traumas, both at national and local levels, have taught us that it is a good way to be. The advent of new liturgies, the ordination of women and the re-ordering of much loved local buildings in line with modern liturgical practice meant that we have had to learn how to disagree and still live together. Observing other parts of the Anglican family coping (or not) with similar questions has led us to deal with them very differently. We have discovered that toleration, rather than legislation works and that an essentially pastoral rather than a judicial or political approach preserves unity and enables diversity.
Underpinning this, is an understanding that whatever our differences, we are still “members together of the body of Christ”. That understanding has arguably been partly created by our strong Eucharistic life and, whilst there is something to be regretted in the demise of Matins as a Sunday service, we can be profoundly thankful that the experience of the Eucharist which we share together at least weekly has created a corporate understanding of congregational life as opposed to thinking of the congregation as a gathering of individual worshippers. There has also been a very subtle change in the make up of the membership of the SEC as a whole. We have a larger proportion of members than in years past who were not brought up in the SEC. Many, of course, moved up from England and, whilst not being evangelicals in theology, they certainly have broadened the variety of viewpoints held by members than once was the case. That diversity in itself has gently edged us away from the old ‘hardcore Pisky’ mindset.
More interesting, in many ways, is the number of Episcopalians who have joined the Church from other denominations. There is now a significant proportion of our membership which has chosen us over and against their “cradle church”. Some have come from the Reformed Churches because they have found our participative style of worship more fulfilling or because they are not comfortable with the growth of a more conservative approach to Scripture often found in Kirk pulpits today. Others have come in from the RC church, drawn by a style of worship which is similar and familiar but not tinged with sectarian tribalism over “mixed marriages” or because they are divorced or married to a divorcee and can receive communion with us which they cannot do in the Church of their baptism. This has had a significant influence on our openness to different outlooks and viewpoints.
There has also been a growth in what you could call theological awareness within the SEC. Theology is no longer (if it ever was) the exclusive preserve of the clergy. Courses and teaching have extended out into the congregations and ordinary members are now more aware of theological change and debate than they were prior to 1960. A bishop having slightly radical views on scripture and God today doesn’t get the front page publicity that John Robinson got when he published “Honest to God” in 1963. Post Richard Holloway, we’re rather used to that! We are better informed and therefore better equipped to discuss and disagree about theological issues as a Church than we once were. Whilst some have found this disquieting, many have found this freedom liberating and indeed it is one of our strengths when it comes to drawing in new members. It appeals to people out there.
All this doesn’t mean that we are an “anything goes” Church. There are boundaries and they are defined, rather imprecisely, by liturgy, formularies and scripture in part and by a sense that the Anglican theological tradition of a balance between scripture, tradition and reason requires a tolerance of those who place different emphases on the weighting of that balance. Individualism in theological perspective is restrained by the liturgy’s continual positioning of the breadth of the canonical Scriptures before us to inform our thinking. The regular emphasis on the Creed as a statement of the Faith we profess publically and share collectively holds the individuals theological interpretation up to the mirror of the agreed and ecumenically recognised historic standard of the world wide Church. Our sense of being a historically rooted community of faith and a witness to and proclamation of the incarnate love of God in Jesus Christ means that any attempt to tie us exclusively to the latest fad or fashion in belief will be met with informed critique pointing us back to our roots and sources in Faith history.
Conversely, this sense of history means that we also seek to draw out from tradition and scripture an applied faith that meets the challenges of the age in which we live. We are less hidebound by tradition than might be thought, because we seek often to rediscover forgotten elements of tradition which can offer fresh insight to the Church of today. And, whilst we value the impact of reasoned thinking, it is done invariably within the context of a praying and worshipping community of diverse believers. The fact that our thinking is generally done by the Church within the context of prayer and worship shapes our theology in a way that doesn’t particularly lend itself to the disembodied and essentially theoretical radicalism which marks a lot of radical theology as the product of individual reflection in a study surrounded by books on the failings of the institutional church in a post-modern and anti-authoritarian age. Its content may be radical, but it is couched in terms which connect with the worship experience of a diverse community of believers. It may sound very traditional, but its implications are profoundly modern. It is a ‘stealth radicalism’ which, by retaining its scriptural and worship earthed connections, can be inclusive of traditional and evangelical Anglicans, thus making it a more tolerant theology and the Church itself more theologically tolerant and less divided.