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On the Way to the Quadrilateral: William Reed Huntington

By Bryan Owen

Among Anglican contributions to the cause of Christian unity, the work of William Reed Huntington (1838-1909) stands out. The fruit of centuries of Christian thought about the essentials necessary for the Christian Church find practical culmination in his writings. In honor of Huntington’s work for the causes of reconciliation, ecumenism, and catholicity, and in recognition of his commemoration today in the Episcopal Church, I offer the following reflections on his contribution to Anglicanism’s generous orthodoxy in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

While Huntington was the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, he published The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (originally published in 1870). In this book Huntington laid the groundwork for the formulation of the Quadrilateral adopted by the House of Bishops at the General Convention of 1886 and then modified by the Lambeth Conference of 1888.

Huntington begins The Church-Idea by lamenting the divisions that separate Christians. He writes that “union is God’s work, and separation devil’s work” (The Church-Idea, p. 2). Huntington explains the meaning of the Church-Idea as a foundation on which to propose a practical plan for Christian unity when he writes that it

is this, that the Son of God came down from heaven to be the Saviour not only of men, but of man; to bring “good tidings of great joy” not only to every separate soul, but also to all souls collectively. He died, not only to save the scattered sheep, but to gather them that they might be scattered sheep no longer.

“The Gospel” ought to be regarded as the entire blessing resulting to the world from birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this aggregate of blessing, the interests both of the one and the many have a place. (Ibid. pp. 3-4)

Huntington understands the gospel as universal and comprehensive in scope, i.e., catholic. The community called together by this gospel must, therefore, embody the intention of the gospel to save “all souls collectively.” And this means that the Church on earth must embody visible unity.

In order to realize this catholic intention of the Gospel, Huntington proposes an “Anglican basis for an ecumenical ‘Church of the Reconciliation’ in America” (An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, ed. by Don. S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum [Church Publishing, 1999], p. 256).

Huntington claims that this proposal provides an answer to the question of “what Anglicanism pure and simple is“ (The Church-Idea, p. 124).

According to Huntington, “the absolutely essential features of the Anglican position” on the Church of the Reconciliation include the following four points:

The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God.
The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith.
The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself.
The Episcopate as the key-stone of Governmental Unity. (Ibid. pp. 125-26)

Huntington leaves the nature of the Bible’s inspiration open to interpretation, preferring instead to affirm that “Holy Scripture … is the treasure-house of God’s revealed truth” (p. 127).

The primitive creeds, by which Huntington means the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, are necessary for rightly reading and interpreting Holy Scripture. “It is simply a trifling with words to say that the Scriptures are in themselves an all-sufficient creed” because, Huntington argues, they are such “a vast field of research” and “as inexhaustible as Nature” (pp. 127, 128). And so the primitive creeds serve as the rule of faith for rightly reading the essentials in Scripture.

Like his predecessors in the Anglican tradition, Huntington regards baptism and Eucharist as the two necessary sacraments of the Church. In contrast to other possible contenders for the title of sacrament, baptism and Eucharist have uncontested roots in the apostolic age and in Scripture. They conform to the principle of antiquity. Consensus on this matter, Huntington maintains, makes baptism and Eucharist the sacramental basis for Christian unity. In addition, these sacraments embody the fundamental character of the Christian life. Huntington writes:

The Two Sacraments of Christ’s appointment image forth to the eye his two all-comprehensive sayings, “Come unto Me,” “Abide in Me.” The one is the Sacrament of Approach, the other the Sacrament of Continuance. Baptism answers to the grafting of the branch; Holy Communion to the influx of the nourishing juices that keep the graft alive. (pp. 142-43)

Huntington notes that these two sacraments provide an essential and “constant safeguard” against reducing the Christian faith to speculative theologizing by serving as reminders that Christians live “in the body and on the earth,” and that the Christian faith must take visible, material shape (p. 143).

Huntington argues that the episcopate as the keystone of governmental unity provides “an essential condition of oneness in the Church” (p. 152). As a warrant for this claim, Huntington appeals to the principle of headship discernible in the orders of creation. From the constitution of families to nation-states to churches, headship provides the organizing principle. “Headship is God’s law,” Huntington argues, for “Double and triple-headed creatures are monsters that exist only in fiction, or, if born, are only born to die” (Ibid.). “From its fountain in the bosom of the Holy Trinity,” the principle of headship “flows downward through all the ranges of created life” (pp. 152-53). Grounded in the Trinitarian life of God, the principle of headship provides theological justification for hierarchical social organization because this principle is inscribed in the very orders of creation. Based on this reasoning, every social institution requires embodiment in a central figurehead.

In addition to purported laws of nature, Huntington also defends the necessity of the episcopate by appealing to antiquity. Since the apostolic age, the principle of headship has taken form in the episcopate. This gives the episcopate “a strong historical presumption in its favor” (p. 156). Huntington believes that this presumption is so central that “Anglicanism stands or falls” by it (p. 157). Huntington hammers this point home in strong language:

Indeed, … if the Episcopate have no more claim on our regard than any other form of ecclesiastical polity, then the sooner Anglicans in America shut their church-doors and burn their prayer-books, the better; for they are only adding, upon insufficient grounds, one more to the sectarian divisions under which the land groans. But if they have in the Episcopate that which links them by an actual historical connection to the Church of the primitive times, then ought they to thank God and take courage, and do all they can by the removal of misapprehension and disabilities and needless partition walls of prejudice, to make their inheritance available for the enrichment of the whole scattered flock of Christ. (pp. 157-58)

Huntington’s four-fold explication of the Church-Idea was included in a report of the Commission on Christian Unity and adopted by the House of Bishops at the 35th General Convention meeting in Chicago in 1886. In its formulation of the Chicago Quadrilateral, the House of Bishops altered the language used by Huntington. Instead of “The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God,” the Chicago Quadrilateral reads: “The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God” (Episcopal Dictionary, p. 226). With regard to the creeds, the Chicago Quadrilateral replaces Huntington’s “The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith” with “The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.” The House of Bishops also specifically named baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the two indispensable sacraments. And finally, the House of Bishops replaced Huntington’s description of the episcopate as “the key-stone of Governmental Unity” with the language of the “Historic Episcopate” with the recognition that it must be “locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.”

Here’s the version approved as Resolution 11 by the Lambeth Conference of 1888:

That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.

(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

The formulation of the Quadrilateral by the 1888 Lambeth Conference changes the language of the first two articles while retaining the language of the Chicago formulation in articles 3 and 4. Commenting on this fact, J. Robert Wright notes that Huntington’s contribution to the Chicago and Lambeth formulations of the Quadrilateral was “deepened and developed” such that “whatever he had intended, was superseded by what the bishops voted” (J. Robert Wright, “Heritage and Vision: The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” in Quadrilateral at One Hundred: Essays on the Centenary of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral 1886/88-1986/88, ed. by J. Robert Wright [Forward Movement Publications, 1988], p. 14).

It’s true that Huntington’s contributions were “deepened and developed,” but in my reading of The Church-Idea, I don’t draw the conclusion that Huntington would have found the 1886 or 1888 formulations of his ideas so far off the mark from his original intentions as to supersede them.

Holy Scripture, the classical creeds, the dominical sacraments, and the historic episcopate: these are the four cornerstones of the Christian Church. It’s worth emphasizing that Huntington’s proposal for this four-fold basis for Church reunion — a proposal which also, I believe, embodies Huntington’s understanding of the minimal conditions necessary for the fullness of the Church as the Body of Christ — is not something he came up with off the top of his head. On the contrary, the four points of what eventually became the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral lie deep within the Christian tradition. We find these points emphasized (in different ways from Huntington, to be sure, but with significant overlap) by Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, by the 16th-century English Reformers John Jewel and Richard Hooker, and by 19th-century Anglicans such as Frederick Denison Maurice and Thomas H. Vail.

Here are some closing thoughts from The Church-Idea:

If our whole ambition as Anglicans in America be to continue a small, but eminently respectable body of Christians, and to offer a refuge for people of refinement and sensibility, who are shocked by the irreverences they are apt to encounter elsewhere; in a word, if we care to be only a counter check and not a force in society; then let us say as much in plain terms, and frankly renounce any and all claim to Catholicity. We have only, in such a case, to wrap the robe of our dignity about us, and walk quietly along in a seclusion no one will take much trouble to disturb. Thus may we be a Church in name, and a sect in deed.

But if we aim at something nobler than this, if we would have our Communion become national in very truth, — in other words, if we would bring the Church of Christ into the closest possible sympathy with the throbbing, sorrowing, sinning, repenting, aspiring heart of this great people, — then let us press our reasonable claims to be the reconciler of a divided household, not in a spirit of arrogance (which ill befits those whose best possessions have come to them by inheritance), but with affectionate earnestness and an intelligent zeal. (quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, ed. by J. Robert Wright [Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993], p. 138)

William Reed Huntington’s Church-Idea, 148 years after its publication, remains an outstanding American contribution to Anglican thought on ecclesiology and ecumenism. May Huntington’s example and his writings continue to inspire Anglicans to strive for the noble aim of serving as a “reconciler of a divided household” while maintaining the essentials that comprise the fullness of the Church as the body of Christ.



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