“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them …” These familiar words belong to the Collect which Archbishop Thomas Cranmer composed for The Second Sunday in Advent. Taken from the Scriptures, in this case Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the prayer captures an entire pattern of theological understanding that is at once formative and foundational for Anglican doctrine and devotion. Diarmaid MacCulloch, commenting on Gerlach Flicke’s 1545 portrait of Cranmer, which depicts him holding The Epistles of Paul but also with Augustine’s book De Fide et Operibus (“Of Faith and Works”), suggests that this signals Cranmer’s theological enterprise, namely, the recovery of the Scriptures understood through the best of the Fathers, principally Augustine.
The creedal or doctrinal understanding of the Scriptures is a distinctive feature of the Anglican Common Prayer tradition. The rich interplay of Scripture and Creed(s), for example, shapes the worship and liturgy of the Church. The Articles of Religion and the ordination vows of the clergy testify to the centrality of the Scriptures for the teaching and praying life of the Church and express a remarkably sophisticated approach to the reading of the Scriptures in the life of the Church. We place ourselves under the authority of God’s Word Written. But that means that we have to think the Scriptures. “What do the Scriptures say?” (Romans 10.8). Or, as Christ asks, “how do you read?” (Lk.10.26). There is a necessary engagement between God and our humanity through the witness of the Scriptures. Revelation is mediation and requires the fullest engagement of our minds with what the Scriptures proclaim.
The reformed principle of sola scriptura, “scripture alone”, admits of a range of applications but its most basic sense for Anglicans is the primacy of Scripture in determining doctrine, devotion and discipline. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proven thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith,” as Article VI puts it. The same idea is required of the teaching of the clergy. What are the things necessary to salvation? Those things which belong to the articles of the Faith; in short, the Creeds, which are the distillation of the Scriptures, and which speak to the nature of our spiritual identity with God in his self-relation as Trinity and in his relation to us as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Creedal and doctrinal principles exercise more than a merely formal role; they exercise a formative role in the life of the Church. They should have a definitive voice in the debates and issues of the day.
How? Do creedal and doctrinal principles as derived from Scripture have anything to say on matters of morality and polity? And, if so, in what way and to what extent? To begin to consider those questions will necessarily mean becoming more aware of the essentials of the Faith and the ways in which those principles are brought to bear upon our lives and the life of the Church. At issue in the present controversies is whether the principles of the Faith have an integrity which should direct our thinking or whether they can be changed and altered; in short, whether they are subject to our thinking.
Some see everything - God, humanity, the Church - as endlessly negotiable and celebrate the secular culture as providing the context that determines the content of the Faith. In this view, the principle is our human experience which determines all else and seeks the re-imaging of God, humanity and Church in our own image. But who is it that claims to speak on behalf of our human experience and what happens when such claims collide with principles of doctrine? For Anglicans, synodical consensus does not extend to matters of doctrine and worship; in fact, such things are intentionally precluded by the self-limiting nature of The Solemn Declaration of 1893 which commits the Anglican Church of Canada to being “an integral portion” of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, hold[ing] the One Faith revealed in Holy Writ, and defined in the Creeds” by being “in full communion with the Church of England throughout the world.” Some things, the Archbishop of Canterbury, remarks, with respect to the scene in North America, cannot be negotiated. We are not simply our own independent agents. We are part of the body of Christ.
To walk apart from the Anglican Communion would be to forsake the catholicity and apostolicity of the Church and to become merely another sect in the sea of sectarian confusions belonging to the landscape of North American religion.
The appeal to the Scripture is not to an arbitrary authority but to the principles which the Scriptures present, the principles which govern and measure human lives and human activity. At issue, in the present controversy, is the place of the sexual in the understanding of our humanity and moral behaviour. What is homosexuality? Neither a category of creation nor of biology, it is, properly speaking and on its own terms, a social and psychological construct. There are many, many different social constructs ranging from biker gangs to the red hat ladies, from hobby groups to sex clubs. It doesn’t mean that special liturgies should be created for each and every social construct or that each and every social construct is something that should be celebrated as morally consistent with Christian doctrine. What is the relation of the sociological to the theological?
From the standpoint of Christian morality, the theological determinants of social and moral order are the revealed doctrines of creation, redemption and sanctification seen in engagement with the order of nature rationally understood. Scripture does not speak of sexual orientation as something ontologically given or created. Christian Marriage, too, is not understood simply as a social construct – something invented by us – but rather as divinely “instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency,” recalling the order of creation, “an honourable estate, signifying unto us the mystical union betwixt Christ and his Church,” recalling the order of redemption, “an holy estate … adorned and beautified” by Christ “with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought,” recalling the order of sanctification. We are not our own and marriage is one way in which we live to and for Christ in the life of his body, the Church.
One way. Not the only way. Friendship in all of its varied and many forms is a significant part of our life in Faith. We belong to a fellowship of faithful believers who, whether married or single, are committed to one another in the body, in the Church. Friendship is not the same thing as marriage, however, and excludes the sexual. This is the sticking-point for our contemporary technologically fixated culture. In condoms we trust, too much, I fear, and are the victims of our own technological idolatry which wreaks such havoc upon all our lives.
We began with a reference to an Advent prayer. We end with a prayer of the Epiphany. Both are seasons of teaching, each of which engages contemporary culture in different ways. Advent looks to the light of God in Christ coming into our world and day, a light that is judgment from above. Epiphany celebrates the light of God in Christ in our midst, engaging the cultures of the world from within the world. A light from above and a light from within “that we may both perceive and know what things we ought to do, also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same.” The doctrine of revelation offers healing and health, salvation and grace, to a world that is weary and worn. The question is whether we will “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” what the Scriptures are saying to us in the integrity of their doctrinal and creedal understanding.
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church, Windsor, NS