Ecclesiology Narrowed

Review by Colin Podmore

The crises that have battered the Anglican Communion in the last 40 years have been complicated, if not caused, by differences of ecclesiology — generally unrecognized or unacknowledged — between and within its churches. Anglicans and Episcopalians talk past each other, mistakenly assuming they share a common framework for discussion of controverted issues. Conversations about sex and sexuality will bring no resolution without the conversations about ecclesiology that books such as these should stimulate.

Stephen Pickard’s Seeking the Church inhabits the world of academic theological discourse. He shows little interest in (and occasional hostility towards) the institutional Church, criticizing “over-emphasis on Christology” that gives “undue weight to official Church structure and ministries via excessive claims for historical links to the past” (p. 19). Seldom quoting what the Church says about itself (for example, in Vatican II, liturgy and canons, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission), he relies largely on individual theologians — most frequently Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Hans Küng, Colin Gunton, Daniel Hardy, Nicholas Healy, and Robert Jenson.

Seeking the Church
An Introduction to Ecclesiology
By Stephen Pickard.
SCM Press. Pp. viii + 256. £25

The Anglican Understanding
of the Church

An Introduction
Second edition
By Paul Avis.
SPCK. Pp. viii + 112. £9.99

Those seeking an “introduction to ecclesiology” may be disappointed. Key topics such as priesthood, episcopacy, and tradition are absent from the index. Non-theologians will find some passages difficult; others require prior knowledge of ecclesiology. The misleading subtitle does a disservice to an extended theological reflection that discusses the Church from first principles in fresh and often stimulating ways.

Pickard’s survey of images and models of the Church and their significance and implications is helpful, but he approves of his editor Natalie Watson’s project “to subvert ‘the gendered symbolism that has structured ecclesiological discourse in the past’” (p. 52). Alister McGrath’s definition of heresy as “a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it” (p. 56) seems apposite.

Application of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s four “natural heresies” to the Church is illuminating. “Docetism with a whiff of Manicheism” engenders “sacred inflation of the Church,” “a strong system of authority and ministry,” and a sharp dichotomy between Church and world (p. 66). The Ebionitic opposite is “the disappearing church” — the Church viewed as “a human work” in which “it is no longer clear how the Spirit is present or active,” resulting in “assimilation of the Church to the world” and “deeply Pelagian” practices (pp. 72-73).

Pickard seems more hostile to the former, which he attacks at greater length, but acknowledges the latter’s prevalence in the West. His all-too-brief analysis (pp. 76-77) of a Pelagian ethos “embedded in management and therapeutic models of ministry and leadership,” “focused on strategic planning,” with “heavy emphasis on rationalizing resources,” the “constant experience” being “dissipation of energy, loss of coherence and fleeting ‘success,’” paints a horribly familiar picture. His comment that “ministry appears more democratic and the discourse may be collaborative, but it often masks a new form of control via bottom up management” is telling.

Pickard proposes a “dynamic, future-orientated ecclesiology” (p. 114), characterized by “movement, renewable energy, and elastic structures” (p. 233), which understands the Church as “renewed sociality” (p. 89) and “an unfinished eschatological mystery.” He envisions a Church without boundaries, in which “it can never be a question of ‘who is in’ or ‘who is out,’” the Eucharist is “a genuine instance of what society might become as the Church expands through its own inner dynamism in the Spirit” (p. 115), and “an open-ended anticipatory catholicity” is defined as “actively seeking to follow and embody God’s loving reach into the world” (p. 144).

Though Pickard often seems to envisage the Church as a body without ligaments, he rehabilitates hierarchy, following Brian Horne (pp. 162-64), and cautions against a “retreat to a truncated catholicity” with “some of the hallmarks of a schismatic spirit” — exemplified by the Anglican Communion “where, increasingly, final responsibility to determine controverted matters is occurring at the local level, in this case the Province” and “the proper tension and interdependence between the provinces … is too quickly forfeited” (p. 149).

Pickard speaks approvingly of monasticism, “whose tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor” (p. 218), yet leaves unmentioned the stability and immersion in tradition that makes this possible. Anglicans who rejoice in dynamic tradition should join him in rejecting the stasis of a “steady-state Church” (passim) but be wary of the rootlessness of a “travelling ecclesiology” (p. 54) that has yet to find the Church. Pickard’s ecclesiology nevertheless offers much food for reflection.

Paul Avis’s The Anglican Understanding of the Church inhabits more familiar territory. This second edition, including “some second thoughts,” focuses less on the Church of England.

Brevity, ready intelligibility, simplicity (without being simplistic), and coverage all justify the subtitle “An Introduction,” but in this case the title is problematic. Paul Avis’s liberal Protestantism modified by ecumenical dialogue is certainly an Anglican understanding but, as “there has been no single dominant Anglican ecclesiology” (p. 23), it cannot be “the Anglican understanding.”

Avis welcomes the fact that Anglicanism “adapts its beliefs and practices” to insights from secular disciplines, such as “the Christian feminist critique of sexism, androcentrism and patriarchalism in the Bible and the tradition” (pp. 57-58), but does this reflect the classical Anglican approach to Scripture? Even where some positions are largely uncontested, indicating their relative novelty would aid perspective: affirmation of non-episcopal ministries is a fruit of modern ecumenical dialogue; eucharistic hospitality dates only from 1973. Elsewhere, the account is partial: discussing ordination without mentioning ARCIC’s affirmation that the ministry of the ordained “is not an extension of the common Christian priesthood” distorts the picture.

On the key issue of episcopal ordination, Avis’s belief that no polity is of divine institution results in a misleading account. The Anglican consensus that episcopacy is of divine institution was established in the early 17th century, not in 1662. Before the Civil War episcopal ordination was universal, a handful of foreign ministers representing an exception about which the relevant bishops were generally uneasy. The 1662 requirement of episcopal ordination was necessary in order to restore the status quo ante bellum, yet Avis presents it as marking “an important shift in the centre of gravity of the Church of England” (p. 35). Avis presents 1662 as leading inexorably to the Tractarian “no bishop, no church,” but the classical Anglican position is to require episcopal ordination for the integrity of our own church without thereby unchurching others. Avis is free to disagree with one side of that balance (as Anglo-Catholics are to disagree with the other), but is an introduction to “the Anglican understanding of the Church” the place to do so?

Avis often writes with wisdom. He offers a suitably sober, realistic, and balanced assessment of the Anglican churches’ current situation and makes important points — for example, about the interpretation of Article 19 (in which “congregation” cannot primarily mean “the local worshipping congregation”) and about the visibility of the Church.

Sadly, however, the book is marred by Avis’s hostility to Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism, which too often generates an un-irenic and anti-ecumenical tone. Anglo-Catholic beliefs are derided as having “failed,” displaying “theological inadequacy” and being “ecumenically sterile” (pp. 37-38), the Tractarians as guilty of “unhistorical assumptions,” “crude comparisons,” and ignorance (p. 54). Repeated potshots at Roman Catholicism, however individually justified, add nothing: a positive account of Anglicanism can be given without attacking other churches. Given the ecclesiological crises besetting the Anglican Communion, motes and beams come to mind. The absence of any criticism of Continental Protestantism or English nonconformity (Anglican ecclesiology has far less in common with both), or of Anglican evangelicalism or liberalism, leaves an impression of bias.

Stimulating as they are, these books leave room for an introduction to Anglican ecclesiology that firmly locates it within the Catholic tradition, giving primacy to Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers and Councils, yet acknowledges its development and breadth and rejoices in its diversity; that interrogates its law and liturgy, its ecclesiological and ecumenical texts; that draws on the best historical scholarship; that breathes the spirit of liberal generosity to which the best Anglicanism aspires. Who will write it?

Colin Podmore is the director of Forward in Faith (UK). He was previously clerk to the General Synod of the Church of England and director of ecumenical relations.


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