Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Anglicanism for Dummies

As I typed that title, I realized that there is probably already a book with that title, or a title very similar. Or maybe an Idiot's Guide to the Anglican Communion. For anyone not familiar with the "Idiot's Guide to--" and the "for Dummies" series of books, they both capitalize on the peoples' desire for an unintimidating introduction to a topic they admittedly know *nothing* about. If you pick up a book with a title like that, you can trust that you will be introduced to the topic, whatever it is, without any assumption on the writer's part that you know *anything* about the subject at hand.

I would need an Idiot's Guide to Understanding How Football Games Work, for example. That is, if I was interested in learning, that is, which I'm not. But then, I don't *pretend* to know how football games work, or how poker is played, or whatever--while insisting on debating those topics with people and expecting my views to be seen as just as valid as the so-called "experts".

That's just me, though. But as far as I can tell, there are plenty of people out there who don't think knowledge of a subject is a prerequisite for pontificating about it. Some of them have talk shows. And many of those who don't have talk shows can be heard repeating the talking points of those who do. Anyway, if you pick up the sort of book I mentioned above, one is displaying two laudable characteristics: willingness to admit you don't know something, and the willingness to learn.

I knew very little about the Episcopal Church (or the Anglican Communion of which it is a part) before I started attending one a few years ago. I knew that it *appeared* very similar to the Catholic church in which I was raised, so I was a little surprised when I started asking "What are the rules about--?" or "What does the Church teach about--?" and found that the answers weren't as definative as in the church of my youth.

A lot of people have never had reason to explore the history and teachings of the Anglican tradition, but when the church is in the news, as it has been recently, the issues can be better understood if you understand a few basics. This April 17 article from the New Yorker covers a lot of ground, and is worth a read, but for now I'll just highlight this part:

Anglicanism’s founding event was a sixteenth-century political fix, engineered by Elizabeth I as a means of avoiding the Reformation-era wars tearing at Europe. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, for reasons of dynastic and connubial ambition, had broken with the Medici Pope Clement VII and declared himself the “Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.” Elizabeth’s half sister and predecessor, Bloody Mary, imposed a Roman Catholic restoration upon the kingdom, in the process dispatching some three hundred Protestants to the stake. When Elizabeth ascended to the throne as a Protestant, the realm faced a third religious about-face in a dozen years, and the prospect of civil war was real. Elizabeth’s elegant solution allowed her subjects to believe whatever they wished but insisted upon a uniform worship service.

The vehicle for this "middle way," as Anglicanism came to be known, was the Book of Common Prayer, which gracefully blended Roman Catholic liturgy with Protestant principles. The prayer book allowed for the coexistence within one institution of distinctly different interpretations of Christianity, with the unofficial designations of High Church (those parishes inclined toward a more Roman Catholic orientation), Low Church (evangelicals), and Broad Church (those Anglicans tolerant of wide doctrinal interpretations). The Anglican way proved remarkably resilient, absorbing the shocks of the English civil war and the Enlightenment, and ultimately planting itself worldwide in the footsteps of the British Empire. In the United States, the Church of England became the Episcopal Church.
Later in the article, there is a line that sums up Elizabeth's notion as "Believe what you want, just use this book."

That is probably a bit of an oversimplification, but not as much of one as that bumper sticker I've seen that reads "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" And, of course, when people say "God said it", they are talking about what they've read in a book that's undergone more revisions and translations than the Book of Common Prayer.

Once I started learning more about the Episcopal Church, the phrase "3-legged stool" would come up from time to time, referring to scripture, tradition, and reason.

Anglicans are held together by the characteristic way in which they use Scripture, tradition and reason in discerning afresh the mind of Christ for the Church in each generation. This was well described in the Report of the Pastoral and Dogmatic Concerns section of Lambeth 1988.
Click here to read the rest.

I have only covered a few basics about the Anglican Communion, but I feel they are helpful things to know about when reading about the Archbishop of Canterbury's "reflections" about a plan that would make some of us "second class" members of the Communion.

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