Thursday, August 31, 2006

Revisionism – how widespread is it?

A starter to aid reflection by serious Anglicans

The awkward noun “revisionism” has been much used within the membership of the American Anglican Council (ACC) and the Anglican Communion Network (ACN) in the last few years. Its use has not been that of pointing inwards but of pointing outwards, especially to the progressive leadership of The Episcopal Church.

Obviously in the context of church affairs, this word refers to a definite changing and revising of religious doctrine (or worship, morality and discipline) by a denomination or by groups within a denomination. As used by the ACC & CAN it apparently refers in the first place to the changing of teaching on human sexuality and sexual relations; and, in particular, to the new doctrine that covenanted relations between persons of the same sex/gender can be holy if they are faithful, and, when faithful, should be blessed by the church, just as the union of a man and woman is blessed. Secondly, the circle may be widened to include the changed doctrines of Scripture, of Jesus Christ, of sin and salvation usually held by progressives.

However, those who use this expression of liberal progressives in The Episcopal Church have to be careful because it can be quickly turned against them by skilful apologists for the “revised religion.” If the talk about sexual relations goes very far, the subject of divorce and remarriage soon surfaces and here there seems to be little difference between those who speak against revisionism and those who defend the new religion. In both camps the teaching of Jesus and the historic doctrine and discipline of the Church have, practically speaking, been abandoned in favor a pragmatic and utilitarian approach. Both “the orthodox” and the “progressives” are practicing revisionism just by following the canon law and pastoral practice of The Episcopal Church since 1973!

Looking over the history of the Anglican Churches one can find many examples of “revisionism” made effective and practiced both by the progressives (liberals, latitudinarians etc.) and the traditionalists (orthodox, conservative).

Certainly, one can say that Reformers like Archbishops Cranmer and Parker of the sixteenth century were revisionists! They revised (reformed) medieval religion on a big scale and this included most aspects of worship and teaching; but they did leave intact the basic dogmatic core of the classic doctrines of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ, together with the articles of the Creeds, with the Bible as the Word of God written.

Certainly also one can say that the Tractarians as they became Anglo-Catholics in the nineteenth century were revisionists. They were not satisfied with the Reformed Catholic worship and standards of the Church of England. They sought to make it look more like, and be in doctrine more like, what they imagined to be true Catholic religion (which meant practically like aspects of Roman Catholicism in Europe).

Further, one can say that the liturgists of the 1960s and 1970s who pushed strongly for new forms of service (and for new doctrine within these services) were revisionists. Nowhere is this clearer than in The Episcopal Church which in the late 1970s replaced its inherited, classic Book of Common Prayer (edition of 1928) by a new “Book of Varied Services with varied doctrines” (created by its Standing Liturgical Commission), to which it attached the old title in order to make it appear that it was merely a new edition of the old book! This was revision indeed!

Then, one can say that those who in the 1970s pushed for and obtained the change in the ordained Ministry of the Church, were also revisionists (certainly the Pope and the Orthodox Patriarchs see them as such). To introduce women into all three Orders of the Threefold Ministry was revolutionary for a religion whose traditional, biblical morality includes the headship of the male in the family and church.

And one could go on to supply other illustrations.

The problem is that within the confused state of the Anglican or Episcopal Way in North America right now [2006] the use of the noun “revisionism” or “revisionist” is not helpful at all. The CAN, for example, stands firmly for the innovation (revision) of the Ministry allowing women as presbyters and bishops and most of its members happily use the “revisionist” prayer book of 1979! Though claiming the title and description of “the orthodox” the CAN is in practice revisionist in significant areas – unless, that is, we regard the Episcopal Church of say 1990 with its canon law and formularies as thy were then as “orthodox” (thereby making what is orthodox in 1960 very different from what is orthodox in 1990 and not having any continuity in orthodoxy!).

Before we use the word “revisionism” (or related words) we need to have an agreement as to what precisely is in place before any revision takes place, so that what we say is rational and logical. For example, if we confine the use of the word to sexuality and sexual relations, then when did the revision begin and by whom? Did it start…

In 1930 when the Lambeth Conference and PECUSA Bishops recommended artificial birth control for family planning?

In 1960 when the pill became generally available and its use was commended by Episcopal Bishops?

In 1973 when the canon law on marriage was drastically changed to take account of the increasing number of divorced and remarried Episcopalians?

In 1977 when ordination of women gave the role of “headship” to women in the church?

In 1979 when the new marriage service accommodated to changes in the vocation of marriage in western society?

In 2003 when Gene Robinson was elected bishop?

Or some other time?

My own view is that for most of the twentieth century it could be said that The Episcopal Church was publicly revising the received doctrine and vocation of marriage and of sexual relations. Thus, it would appear, only those who resisted all the way are not guilty of revisionism!

[See further Peter Toon, Episcopal Innovations 1960-2004, available from or by calling 1-800-727-1928]

The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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