A reference book published at the beginning of the twentieth century has this to say about "the Christian religion as expressed in the Prayer Book": "It is comprehensive. Substantial and not perfect agreement in belief and practice is required from worshippers." On certain points, to be sure, the church has spoken clearly; but "outside this central zone" its formularies are "noticeably guarded and restrained in expression, and seem drawn so as to include as many as possible." Moreover, clergy and laity alike have taken what the article calls a "large liberty of interpretation" not only on matters that have not been defined but on matters that have. Not surprisingly, the concluding assessment is that although Anglican comprehensiveness includes weaknesses as well as strengths, it has been, on the whole, a good thing.
All this belongs to the received wisdom of Anglicanism, its self-identifying folklore, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It has always, perhaps, been an aspiration or an ideal as much as a sober judgment. Be that as it may, what is becoming more and more obvious is that comprehensiveness such as Anglicans could commend themselves for a hundred years ago has been strained to the breaking-point, if not beyond. For one thing, "the Prayer Book" no longer exists, in the sense of a single, stable text; and meanwhile, for another, it seems to many that the "central zone" of normative doctrine and discipline has been invaded and violated. Is comprehensiveness still a goal worth aspiring to? Insofar as its structures are unsound, can it be reconstructed for a new century?
Such were the questions addressed, thoughtfully and powerfully, at the third colloquium of the Episcopal Church Foundation's Fellows Forum, held at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, in February 2004. The roster of speakers embodied the colloquium's theme, for the range of positions represented was wide and the arguments advanced cut deep. This issue presents a number of the papers that were delivered and discussed. No one who reads them through is likely to come away unchallenged.
Several of the authors approach the notion of comprehensiveness directly. George Sumner asks whether it turns out, upon examination, that what a comprehensive Anglicanism is supposed to comprehend has been different at different times--so different as to make the term more elastic than useful. To speak of reconstructing it suggests that comprehensiveness was constructed in the first place, but Christopher Seitz argues that at its origins comprehension was not a construction at all. It was the effect of historically specific institutional realities, not a celebration of de facto diversity, and it presupposed agreement on basic truths that is more apt to be found today between denominations than within their boundaries. Robert Hughes identifies the truths--the dogmas--on which agreement is arguably essential, precisely because those dogmas open a space of freedom from law and for gospel, and make it possible to adopt a perspective in which not every battle is Armageddon. Flora Keshgegian takes her stand, in good Anglican fashion, on a central dogma, the Incarnation, to draw out both a metaphor for comprehension and some of the forms it would take in practice. Historian Gene Lowe recalls the founding of an independent American Anglicanism and draws it together with recent events to argue for what might, in another context, appear to be a coincidence of opposites. Those events are a focus of the paper with which Paul Zahl, a most gracious host to those who attended the colloquium in person, opened its proceedings, calling for attention to the theological dimensions of the concrete issue that is putting comprehensiveness to the test. Two biblical scholars, Carolyn Sharp and William Countryman, consider the reading of Scripture--which they agree, from different viewpoints, is by no means a simple thing to do--in its bearing on what there is to be comprehended, and why.
There was a good deal of plain speaking at the colloquium, as the papers testify, and in their written form they echo and interact with each other in unexpected ways. Not everything could be included, and what could has been arranged here in the alphabetical order of the authors' names. The ensemble is framed, however, by the sermons that Joseph Britton and Judith Newman preached. For, however sharp the disagreements may have been, they were expressed in a setting surrounded by corporate prayer: a hopeful fact, which it seems good to symbolize here.
For its sponsorship of the Fellows Forum, thanks are due to the Episcopal Church Foundation and, in particular, to William Andersen, its president, and Donn Mitchell, who coordinates the colloquium and other Fellows activities. Cynthia Kittredge chaired and chairs the planning committee. There is further information about the colloquium, as well as the Foundation's wide-ranging work at www.episcopalfoundation.org.
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