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The unashamed Anglican: Stephen Sykes, 1939–2014

Do Anglicans have doctrines? Or is Anglicanism an empty container, into which one can pour whatever one likes?

In this past week, after the death of Bishop Stephen Sykes, I’ve found myself thinking about these questions a little more than usual, especially from my location in Cambridge. Sykes was Bishop of Ely (1990–99), the diocese in which I live and in which I am in discernment for Holy Orders, and he was Regius Professor of Divinity (1985–90) at the University of Cambridge, where I study. The diocese has released a statement regarding his death, a local paper has reported it, the College where he was Dean has mentioned it. But I find myself hoping the University or, at least, the Faculty of Divinity will do so as well.

Sykes was hardly an uncontroversial figure. He was famous, among other things, for his contention that Anglicans do in fact have doctrines, that these doctrines are relatively easy to identify, and that they are actually agreed to by every member of the clergy upon ordination. He also insisted that claims for Anglican “comprehensiveness” were generally used as an excuse for intellectual laziness and for avoiding conflict: “[T]he failure to be frank about the issues between the parties in the Church of England has led to an ultimately illusory self-projection as a Church without any specific doctrinal or confessional position” (The Integrity of Anglicanism, p. 19).

His contributions were notable as well and not unrelated to the controversies. You simply can’t avoid reckoning with the challenges in The Integrity of Anglicanism and still hope to remain a credible Anglican voice. And I’ve yet to meet the person who wasn’t informed by the collection he edited with John Booty and Jonathan Knight, The Study of Anglicanism (1988, 1998). These, of course, are only the most public aspects of his legacy. The clergy and people of his diocese, the students whom he tutored and supervised, could add far more.

We would do Sykes a disservice if we forgot the advances that his work made possible. Indeed, we would do him a disservice if we failed to carry on what he started. For better or for worse — and I think for better — he is one of those few writers who have made Anglicans really look at themselves hard in the mirror, to challenge them to examine their history without self-congratulation and yet also to understand their tradition with appreciation. He also gave life and vibrancy to a debate that continues today. What is Anglicanism? What do we believe and practice? Who are we?

Some would want to define what we believe and practice quite positively and clearly. I am inclined to include myself in that category to some degree, agreeing with Ben Guyer, for instance, that you can’t imagine a Dissenter in the 18th or 19th century saying that Anglicans didn’t have doctrines. On the contrary, disavowing the 39 Articles (at least at the wrong point in your life) could have all sorts of repercussions in the past. It hasn’t all been Honest to God since the time of Henry Tudor. Similarly, as Mark Chapman has pointed out recently in The Fantasy of Reunion: Anglicans, Catholics, and Ecumenism, 1833–1882 (2014), even the Tractarians and many of their heirs recognized that the Church of England had to stand by the Articles to some degree, though they were admittedly interested in exploring and defining them in a catholic manner. The Articles are where things were at. This is not to insist that they still have or ought to have the place they once did, but it is to admit that we must, as Oliver O’Donovan has argued, reckon with them in some way, as generative sources of doctrine.

But I would agree even more wholeheartedly with Sykes that, as Anglicans, our doctrine is to be found primarily in our liturgy (Unashamed Anglicanism, p. 217) and, perhaps even more, to riff on Martin Thornton, in the overall pattern of life to which Anglicanism ought to commit us, insisting on the necessity of a life involving the public reading of Scripture in the Office, the regular celebration of the Eucharist, and the life of personal devotion and faith. In that sense, I am more than a little committed to lex orandi, lex credendi (“the rule of prayer is the rule of belief”), at least when properly understood; though I have come to understand that more and more as lex vivendi, lex credendi, to reverse the order of an occasional addition to that Anglican axiom that variously infuriates and delights so many. Through “our ordered lives,” we may engage ever more in the proper act of our faith, the continual channeling of our efforts and desires towards the love of God in Jesus Christ, in which and in whom all things are completed and summed up: indeed, that love that more fully completes and sums up Bishop Sykes even now.

May we ourselves be so caught up in the love of God in this life that we finish our own course well, finding peace at the last. And let us pray, in the words of that beautiful hymn, for some measure of quietness and rest in God’s love:

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.

—John G. Whittier


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