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Filtering by Tag: Rowan Williams

What's a Reformed Anglo-Catholic?

Read more of Ed's writing in the St. Hilda's Winter Quarterly.

Recently, when people have asked me what kind of Christian I am, I've answered by saying that I'm a Reformed Anglo-Catholic.  This has often been met with a raised eyebrow or two, then a question regarding whether or not that could possibly make sense.  With a view to exploring whether or not this is actually a coherent thing to say, I figured it'd be worth writing a post on what this might actually mean.  (I have been partly prompted to do so by my friend (and sometime-nemesis) Alec Siantonas' recent piece for the Oriel Theology blog on High Anglicanism and analytic philosophy.  Alec's post is of a different character to this, but I think it should certainly be credited/blamed and it is well worth reading.)

I'm going to focus on each of the separate aspects of the title 'Reformed Anglo-Catholic', then look at the kind of picture they might present as a whole.  This is the type of theology that I'm least qualified to write on, so I apologise for any factual errors, glaring omissions, statements of the obvious, blatant repetitions of things other people have said better elsewhere, or plain nonsense.  There are times where, for brevity's sake, I do not make direct reference to those who have written similar things.  I also apologise if the writing is pretty convoluted, and for the narrow approach taken in some areas: this post is already quite long as it is, so I tried to keep things relatively focussed.


Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness... 

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness... 


First things first, let's start with 'Reformed'. Now, this designation might seem either superfluous or contradictory here: on the one hand, the Anglican Church is a reformation church, whilst on the other to be Reformed has often (in my experience) been understood as being not-Catholic.  As far as I can see, however, the description 'Reformed' does add something to our understanding of what it is to be Anglican, whilst simply being Reformed does not in and of itself necessitate one's not being either Catholic, catholic, or even Roman Catholic.  

I believe that being Reformed means that our Christianity is fundamentally impacted by two crucial (and complementary) theological insights of the continental Reformation.  The first of these is the insight that grace alone is absolutely necessary for human salvation.  The second of these is that this grace cannot be bought, no matter what currency we seek to use. In my mind, the first insight emphasises the both importance of the doctrine of the Fall and the inherent finitude of creation alongside (not in contradiction of) the goodness of creation as it stands.  The second insight emphasises the fact that a) human works are in and of themselves powerless to attain salvation, and b) that grace is not the possession of the Church to sell or claim as a subject over which it can claim authority.  

Now, neither of these insights intrinsically contradict the possibility of Roman Catholicism, let alone a significant/substantive account of catholicity in general, whether with a big or a little 'C'.  Even given this, however, they do have serious implications for our understanding of the reason for good works and the role of the Church.  In the light of the first insight, for example, we can affirm the importance of love, faith, kindness, mercy, charity, contemplation, theology, dogmatics, and all the rest: we cannot, however, claim that these aspects of Christian living derive their importance from a capacity to ensure or guarantee grace.  Rather, we claim that they derive their importance from the prior fact of grace, which is given in the person, command, and promise of Jesus Christ (this includes faith: it seems to me that 'faith alone' only makes sense in the context of the prior statement 'grace first', a thought which seems to me to be consistent with the character of Luther's writings).  

In the light of the second insight, meanwhile, it seems to me that our ecclesiology cannot assume that the church is able to claim sacramental authority for itself.  This is not to say that the church cannot minister the sacraments to others, nor is it to say that the church is not a place within which grace is encountered: it is to say that neither the forms by which a particular church bestows the sacraments nor the hierarchies within that particular church have the character of absolute necessity when it comes to whether or not that church is a member of the body of Christ (and so a sacramental entity).  If these things are important (which I think they are), then they are important for a different reason.   

To be Reformed in this sense also has significant implications for our religious epistemology: among other things, it will impact how we understand the fact of Christian belief and the place of Scripture in the Church.  I am not going to go into a full analysis of what these implications might be here, but I will say that I think a full account of the characteristic philosophical presuppositions implicit within much Reformed thought, especially in terms of how they sometimes differ from the characteristic philosophical presuppositions of Roman Catholic thought, could be a helpful tool in ecumenical dialogue.


Next: Anglican.  To be Anglican can mean many things, but I'm going to pick up on two particular aspects of Anglican identity.  The first of these is this: that to be an Anglican is to be a member of a church which self-evidently needs to believe in both the necessity and the power of grace for redemption, in virtue of its history.  The second is that to be an Anglican is to centre one's Christian life around prayer, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Broaching the first point first, and restating it word for word: how is the Anglican Church a church which unquestionably needs to believe in both the necessity and the power of grace for redemption, in virtue of its history?  Well, it's probably uncontroversial to say that all churches need to hold to the power of redemption, in at least some sense: when it comes to the Anglican Church, however, I think it might be a little more obvious than in some cases.  

I am not thinking here primarily in terms of the lives of individual Anglicans, but in terms of its institutional history.  First off, the Anglican Church is not a Church founded on high ideals: it was not built on the principled stands of a Luther, a Knox, or a Calvin, nor did it come into existence out of a sense of greater obedience to Christ.  It was instead the product of one man's desperation to ensure the consolidation of Tudor power in Britain.  Its spread across the world, meanwhile, was both made possible by and served the purposes of the British Empire: in this, the Anglican Communion is first and foremost a product of a colonialism and imperialism. Both its existence and its success, then, came about in part as a direct result of a sinful impulse to power and oppression. 

My intention in writing this is not to try and impute a sense of general guilt upon Anglicans, collectively or individually.  Nor is it to say that the Anglican Church should be deemed less of a Church than others in virtue of its history.  My intention is instead to claim that it is very hard to be Anglican without being at least a little Reformed in the above sense: it is hard, possibly dishonest, to be an Anglican and not to believe in the absolute necessity of grace for redemption.  After all, if a church ever stood in need of historical redemption it is one built upon the foundation of British colonial power.  It is much harder, moreover, to be an Anglican and not to believe in the sole efficacy of grace: for if grace were not efficacious, it is hard to see what kind of hope there could be for a church with such a fallen history, which has been complicit in so much oppressive harm.  

This history, moreover, has not been left behind, and nor should it be: it is not as if it were an aspect of Anglican existence which we could now ignore or forget.  It is still present and constitutive of the Anglican Church's identity as characterised by its hierarchies, its liturgies, and the character of its congregations across the world.  This history is still and will always be the beginning and middle of the Anglican story.  The history of British oppression can still be seen in the present day reality of the Anglican Church; as such, it seems to me that those of us who count ourselves Anglicans really do need to believe that grace is a real and effective power of redemption in this world if we're to have any hope of our Church serving God.  

(To lay all of my cards on the table, this reading of Anglican history is paralleled by my reading of my own history.  Quite apart from the more general privileges I possess in virtue of my gender, sexual-orientation, skin-colour, education, and socio-economic background, I personally have a concrete history of not insignificant cruelty, arrogance, and oppressiveness.  This should not be overdramatised, and I hope I am not being too dramatic: all the same, when I look back on some of the things I have done and many of the ways I have treated people, when I consider the path which actually brought me to where I am, I am conscious of the fact that if it weren't for the grace given to me, both materially and spiritually, I would be lost.  If I am able to follow God's command today, meanwhile, I believe that this is because God is capable of redeeming broken people; that it is because God is capable of inspiring love in the hearts of the loveless.  As a very British kind of sinner, then, my reading of Anglican history is informed by my reading of my own history, both of which I hope can point towards the necessity and efficacy of unmerited grace.)

Onto the second point: the centrality of prayer.  This need to acknowledge the power of grace is, I think, mirrored in the centrality of prayer in Anglicanism.  Consistent with a tradition running through from Augustine to Karl Barth, as well as many others, all theology, all worship, all dogmatics, all endeavour in Anglicanism eventually returns to a place of prayer.  In virtue of this, I think it characteristic of Anglicanism in general (though not necessarily in particular, and not absolutely) that all action eventually leads to surrender; to the surrendering of ourselves to God (n.b. surrender here does should not be conflated with self-abrogation, either ethical or mystical: we must actually have and be loved selves in order to surrender those selves to God).  This is in part because prayer is a concept reliant upon grace, insofar as it is thought of as a point of encounter with God.  

How might this be?  Well, I am not going to try and define prayer here (indeed, I think such an exercise would be self-contradictory): I will, however, say something of how it has existed in my life as part of a Christian community run out of an Anglo-Catholic parish (with no claim to originality, I should add!).  Specifically: prayer has manifested itself as a point of encounter within the silences which are folded into the words of the prayer book.  It has manifested itself as the point where words have ceased to be primarily tools for effective communication, and have instead become a space for listening in and through the process of silent speech.  For there is silence in speech: there is a point at which words cease to reach beyond themselves, where they receive meaning instead of conveying it, where they come up against their natural and internal limits and are transfigured from assertion into prayer.  For example, it is not a performative contradiction to say 'for God alone my soul in silence waits': it is instead a recognition that no matter what we might be able to say, there comes a point where our words must surrender themselves precisely as they are uttered (no matter what the words in particular might be).   Even as we pray aloud, we can still be waiting for God in silence: and the fact of this waiting can itself be a form of reliance upon grace.  (I hope this echoes Rowan Williams' writing on silence in The Edge of Words, though it might well not.)

To reiterate: it is precisely at the point of spoken silence within prayer that I believe the Anglican tradition is best placed to remember its reliance upon and its affirmation of the reality of grace.  The fact that we pray together, meanwhile, the fact that it is the Book of Common Prayer which binds Anglican Worship together, means that we are consistently brought back to prayer with each other; that we are brought back to God as a church, and so brought back to our reliance on God's grace given for the Church.  

I think that this idea is further supported by the fact that, as far as I can see, the actual words of the BCP neither try to say too much- as if our words themselves had the power to grasp mystery- nor do they try to reduce worship to total silence- as if silent speech could be replaced by a more visible silence, attempting speak all the more powerfully of mystery.  For in this they not only reflect the insight that the words of Anglican prayer do not of themselves capture or convey the essence of grace: they also reflect the fact that this is not because we are saying the wrong words, but because no words ever could.


From the Easter Vigil at Christ Church, New Haven.  A scene of very (C)catholic joy.

From the Easter Vigil at Christ Church, New Haven.  A scene of very (C)catholic joy.

The question now arises, however, why do we say these particular words?  If no words can capture or convey the essence of grace, then why does it matter what words we say?  Why bother codifying them in prayers, in creeds, in tradition?  And the answer for this stems from my understanding of and brings us to the third of our terms, which can be properly rendered in two forms: catholic and Catholic.  The first of these, 'catholic', I understand as applying to churches visible; the second, 'Catholic', I understand as applying to the Church invisible.  Both of them relate to the unity of the church, since each in their own way (the first in virtue of the second) speaks to the fact that the Church is one body in Christ.  

How might these notions of catholicity relate to the words of the Book of Common Prayer?  Here is how: language is one of the great unifiers.  This is a fact which has a strong shadow side (the eradication/suppression of local languages is, after all, an effective strategy for colonial invaders), but this shadow side should not blind us to the relative importance of being bound together as a church by the words we speak.  We are united by these words: they remind us that we pray as a church, not just as individuals; as a body, not just as bodies.  And insofar as we are reminded that we pray as part of a church, we can be reminded that prayer is not fundamentally a moment of isolation (and so alienation), but a point around which we can then go on to be brought together into communion with God and neighbour.  In virtue of this, we can emphasise the corporate unity of the liturgy of the prayer book across time, as well as in the present day.  We can also take especial care in preserving something of beauty and reverence within the liturgy as well, since a focus on these aspects can remind us that we are not just dealing with words on a page, but seeking to worship the divine.

This, in turn, can remind us that language does not exist in a vacuum.  Meaning is never what it is apart from context, and we cannot create significance ex nihilo.  Words receive their meanings in virtue of the temporal practises they both accompany and engender, whether this be the practise of ritual or the practise of relationship.  This includes the practise of the Eucharist, the sacramental character of which suffuses prayer with divine significance.  It includes the practises of love, without which the words of prayer can lack the integrity of belief (which is not to say that prayer lacking in integrity is no longer prayer).  This basic fact of language fleshes out the role of the BCP: it illuminates the fact that words we share point us towards the form of life that we as a church are called to live.  

More than this, however, and most importantly: precisely insofar as the words of the prayer can call us to this life, they must point us towards the one who calls us in the first place.  Specifically, these words point towards the person of Jesus Christ, the one foundation of the practises which give the words sense, the one foundation of the communities they unite.

And here is where catholicity can point to Catholicity: that is to say, here is where the visible qualities which unify a visible church can receive their relative value.  They receive this relative value because they can help us to find communion with the one point of absolute value, the one who brings us into a unity which exists over and above any visible or substantive qualities.  I do not say that the catholicity embodied by the words of the prayer book, the drama of the liturgy, the hierarchy of the church, or the practises of love and charity has its own absolute value: I do say that this catholicity has a relative value insofar as Jesus Christ, the one absolute feature of Catholic unity, finds us within these things, in virtue of which they are blessed to receive their sacramental character (I further say that this relative value is still very much value; that to say this is not to denigrate, but to recognise, the value of the words, rituals, and practises which bind us together across centuries).  

Finally, I would suggest that this Catholic unity is nothing more nor less than fellowship and communion with Jesus Christ, who is Himself the fact of grace incarnate.  This fellowship and this communion are indeed the unity of a Church, made visible in the unity of churches: all the same, these churches receive their sacramental character not because their specific forms possess absolute value, but because in their particular characters they can direct our eyes and souls toward the source of grace. 


This piece has come full circle.  It began by describing the insight of the Reformation as the emphasis of two particular insights: a) that we absolutely need grace, then b) that this grace can never be bought by us.  It then described the Anglican Church as a church whose questionable historical character should not be considered an insurmountable problem, but a constant reminder of the pertinence of both these Reformation insights.  It described the most distinctive feature of Anglicanism as its constant return to prayer, a return consistent with all that had gone before.  Next it claimed that the importance of this prayer being codified in the prayer book derived from the importance of visible catholicity.  Finally, it has claimed that the importance of this visible catholicity is a relative importance derived from the fact that it can help to point us as a church towards the head of the Church invisible, the source of Catholicity, the incarnate fact of grace, Jesus Christ.  Thus, just as we began with confessing both the necessity and the freedom of grace, so we have ended by confessing that grace's reality.  

Within this I have sought to affirm wholly and truly the importance of catholicity as binding Anglican worship together.  But I hope that I have described catholicity as important precisely and only insofar as it helps to point us towards Catholicity: I hope I have said that the unity of a church visible is important precisely and only insofar as points us towards Christ, whose grace binds us together as the Church in a unity which cannot compromised by difference, however radical or substantive that difference might be.  I hope that this account can do justice to the spirit and the truth of Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic thought, each of which seeks to point in the same direction, but each of which is often (I think) confused by the fact that the others are pointing from different locations.


I hope I have given some account of what it might mean to be a Reformed Anglo-Catholic.  Summing up, I think I can say this: I believe it is characteristic of a Reformed Anglo-Catholic to a) identify as a member of the Anglican tradition in terms of both its history and its emphasis on corporate prayer, and b) to seek to affirm in one gesture both the insights of the Reformation, by emphasising the necessity and freedom of grace, and the importance of Catholicity, by emphasising the effective reality of grace as a force which can bring us as a church into communion with Christ.  This is likely not that unusual or controversial a thing, but I hope it has been worth reading all the same.

I hardly need to say that there is much more to be said here, so glaring are many of the gaps.  Even assuming that it has a modicum of validity, the above account leaves an enormous amount of doctrinal work to be done: work on the nature of the Trinity, on the fact of the Incarnation, on the movement of the Holy Spirit, on the role of Scripture, on the character of creation and the consequences of its Fall, on the character of revelation, and on the shapes which Christian living might take in virtue of such considerations.  There is philosophical work to be done by analysing the natural presuppositions which might inform the specific characters of various doctrinal presuppositions, as well as the particular natures of their linguistic and practical expressions.  There is historical work to be done, where the theologians who have written on these themes before are given their due credit and in which further parallels are unearthed; where the developments of the Anglican tradition are explored side by side with its Reformed, Catholic, and Orthodox counterparts.

In spite of all the work which is left undone, though, and in spite of the brevity of what I've said here, I hope that the above makes enough sense to not be summarily dismissed as total nonsense.  Indeed, I hope it is true to the character of the piece that it can be read as a very particular form of prayer: the prayer of an amateur thinker with an interest in philosophical theology and Christian dogmatics, seeking to figure out who and what he is in relation to Christ. 

Beyond Theory: Discernment in Times of Mild Existential Crisis

Two masters of modern-day Anglican theology, both of whom have now written key texts on discernment.

Two masters of modern-day Anglican theology, both of whom have now written key texts on discernment.

Read more of Will's writing in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’ve lived in a religious intentional community for the past two years, or that millennials in general are searching for something deeper, but two words that seem to pop up on a weekly, if not daily, basis are discernment and vocation.  Well, what do these words really mean?  Rowan Williams says vocation is the “residue” that is left after we stop playing games with ourselves.  Some see it as a calling to our true place in life, but before you can get to this great achievement, you have to discern it.  Some describe discernment as the process of listening to God and ourselves, truly listening, and making a decision.  It is incredibly easy to simply define words like these and believe that you have them figured out; but it requires a more mindful approach to learn not just the definition of discernment, but how to live it out in our own lives. 

We all want to be like the prophet Isaiah.  We all want to hear God call out for us in the night, and without a second thought respond, “Here I am Lord. Send me!”  For me at least, I’ve never had such a clear cut call and response decision-making process, at least for things that matter most.  It is important to me to take time, and listen to what God is saying, to listen to what I myself am thinking, and also to all the really important people in my life who know me just as much as I know myself.  I had an opportunity recently for some honest discernment, and the result was something I did not expect.  

The downside of one year programs like Saint Hilda’s House is the fact that you have to start making plans for the next year so early.  Last weekend I had the chance to look into one such opportunity.  I was invited to take part in the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) discernment weekend at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York.   YASC is similar to the ESC in the sense that it sends young Episcopalians to places to live out our mission to serve with those in need.  It is different from ESC because it sends young adults to places abroad, while ESC focuses on service in the US.  After applying and being invited to the discernment weekend, I was unbelievably excited to see what a year abroad would offer me.   I met some great people, had a lot of relaxation time, and was able to do some honest-to-God discerning.  After three days at the monastery, I had my decision.   

While we were there one of the Brothers talked to us about discernment, and emphasized the fact that it was mostly about listening; that it was about listening to God, to ourselves, and to others who care about us.   And while I cannot really put into words what I heard from God, I felt that God was guiding my thoughts to a future that didn’t include a year abroad.  I listened to myself and found that I've given more of myself over the past two years than I imagined possible; that I might need a bit of time to process everything I've done.  Being on the frontlines of education reform in one of the nation’s worst public school systems, as well as being in the trenches of food justice issues in one of the hungriest cities in America, might be all the mission work I can handle for the time being, recognizing that the work of service is never limited to these kinds of opportunities.  Despite never having left the country, I do in fact count what I’ve done over the past two years as mission work, and I would be willing to have a conversation to anyone who thinks otherwise.  I then realized that I could not put my heart and soul into another service year 100%, and it wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved if I proceeded with the program without that confidence.  I think I had been focusing on how great of an opportunity a year abroad would be, and not whether God was truly calling me to do so.  I had been thinking about how many “Likes” on Facebook a status about me going abroad would get, and not on what I would be devoting myself to for a year.  Minimal family contact, a long distance relationship with my girlfriend, and not to mention the actual work I would be doing abroad.  It was not a pretty realization, but no one ever said discernment is a pretty process.  After the weekend was over I spent the next week talking to those I care about most, and those who care about me.  Generally speaking, popular opinion is not always the best route to take, but in a case like this where I was getting almost unanimous affirmation in my decision, I am feeling pretty good about the discernment I went through.

All that being said, I still haven’t really stated what discernment or vocation is.   I don’t have any concrete answers for myself, so I wouldn’t try to pawn off any of my own experiences onto someone else’s life.  I think the best advice that I can give about these topics is that you won’t know whether you’ve made the right discerned decision until it’s been made, and you won’t know your vocation until you’re living into it.  Until then, these words by Thomas Merton continue to be a gigantic help to me in times of existential crisis.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude


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