2nd Sunday in Advent – December 10, 2017
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is Bible Sunday, as it has been in every Book of Common Prayer published from 1549 until 1979.
For some reason, in that Prayer Book, the Collect for this Sunday was demoted to Proper 28, “the Sunday closest to November 16,” and paired with lessons which seem to have nothing to do with the Scriptures.
Whatever the reason for this change, Bible Sunday reminds us the Anglican Church was a child of the Reformation.
As vital as it is, in terms of Sacramental validity, our status as a true and living part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” and as much as it pains some of my Anglo-Catholic brethren to have to admit it, we cannot simply ignore our Protestant heritage and remain Anglican.
One of the touchstones of that Protestant heritage is the primacy of Holy Scripture in the discernment of Spiritual Truth.
In this, all parts of the Body of Christ which make claim to orthodoxy would agree.
Indeed, article VI “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation” of the 39 Articles expresses the Anglican ethos, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”
This same ethos is reflected in the Solemn Declaration, to which, as Bob can tell you, every Anglican Clergyman must swear adherence, “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Anglican Province of America.”
This immediately raises the awful specter of literally tens of thousands of Christian sects each holding and teaching divergent, often mutually exclusive, doctrines, yet each claiming Biblical support for their particular positions.
All orthodox Christians of hold the Holy Scriptures to be “inspired,” literally “breathed” by the Holy Ghost, and thus literally the “Word of God.”
The only way to begin to understand this awful state of affairs is to examine the question, “the Word of God, indeed, but the Word of God as interpreted by whom?”
Each of the thousands of different sects doubtless have their own answer to this question, usually involving the special insights of their founder, whether Luther, or Calvin, or Zwingli, or Joseph Smith, or Pastor Joe, or whoever.
For Traditional Anglicans, the answer to this question is, and always has been, the “Scriptures, as interpreted in the light of Tradition and Reason.”
I hasten to add these three things are not equal, at least for Traditional Anglicans; there is a definite hierarchy, first Scripture, second Tradition, and only then Reason.
If the product of unaided human reason contradicts the Tradition, reason has erred, or if either contradicts Scripture, the lesser must give way to the greater.
Submitting our personal interpretation of Scripture to the Holy Tradition of the Church is sensible and necessary in light of the Scriptures themselves, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (II Peter 1:20)
One source of misunderstanding of the Anglican position is a misunderstanding of Tradition.
Tradition must never be confused with traditionalism.
The difference has been well expressed by the epigram, “Tradition is the living Faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
The Holy Tradition is the whole Faith of the Undivided Church in so far as it is knowable to us.
It includes the Holy Scriptures, of course, but also the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, and the Liturgy, prayers, and practices of the Church of the First Ten Centuries.
It has been said “Anglicans read the Scriptures over the shoulders of the Fathers.”
Our emphasis on the Faith of the Undivided Church is simple enough; the same Holy Ghost who inspired the writing of the Scriptures continues to lead the Church as She interprets and applies those same Scriptures.
This is consistent with our Lord’s most sure promise: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13)
Our Lord’s work of revelation was not completed during his earthly lifetime, but He promised the gift of the Holy Ghost to continue to lead the Church into the fuller understating of His teaching.
But we realize not every word spoken by those who would set themselves up as Spirit-led teachers is indeed of the Holy Ghost, otherwise the seemingly endless proliferation of sects could never have happened; the Holy Ghost is not a spirit of confusion.
When there was but one visible Church to whom all belonged, there was the natural corrective of universality; if a teaching or practice failed to achieve universal acceptance, it was suppressed or more usually, simply fell away.
Once the visible unity of the Church was lost, in 1054 as between East and West, and in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries, and accelerating ever since, in the West, this corrective has been lost.
Since there is no longer anything like universality in the Church itself, who can possibly know what is and is not of the Holy Ghost in the teachings of the various parts of the Church since the Great Schism?
Who am I to say the Roman Catholics are right or wrong about this thing, or the Baptist right or wrong about another? How can I know?
What we can do is to use reason to discern whether a teaching or practice is consistent with the universal faith and practice of the undivided Church, or not.
If it is, it can rightly be considered as reflecting the leading of the Holy Ghost, and thus binding.
It if clearly contradicts the teaching and practice of the undivided Church, it must be rejected as false.
These are “essentials.”
This leaves vast number of doctrines and practices stemming from the time after the Great Schism, particularly in the West.
Many of these concern issues which the undivided Church never considered, or some cases even dreamed of, and many more about which there was never anything like a settled consensus.
Given our method of interpretation of Scripture, which is to say, in the light of the Holy Tradition and Reason, we really can’t make any absolute judgments on these matters.
They cannot, from our Anglican perspective, be said to be proven by Holy Scripture, lacking consensus; they must be treated as “doubtful things.”
Good Christian men and women can and do look at the arguments about those doubtful things and come to different conclusions, without the adherents of either side ceasing to be good Christians.
Where we can and do draw the line is when any individual or group tries to assert its own conclusions on those doubtful things on others as being necessary to salvation.
The Western church, after the Great Schism, propounded many dogmas and practices as being necessary to salvation, and indeed, the remnant of the Western Church after the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church, still does so today, or at least asserts its authority to do so.
Some of these post-Schism teachings and practices were among the very catalysts for the Reformation.
Ideally, as Anglicans, we ought not to have anything to do with this sort of thing.
The ideal is for Anglicanism never to treat any doctrine or practice which is uniquely Anglican as being necessary to salvation.
The Faith we should require of men should be nothing more and nothing less than that found in the Holy Scriptures as understood in the teaching of the Undivided Church.
As with every other part of the Body of Christ, it is fine for us to have our own Anglican customs and canon laws and ways of expressing that universal faith, so long as we do not try to demand others conform to our ways, as being necessary to salvation.
I wish I could tell you we have always been 100% faithful to that ideal.
At times, one party or the other within Anglicanism has gained ascendancy and tried to cram its peculiar doctrines and practices which go beyond those of the Undivided church down the throats of the other party.
This is very wrong, and has led at times to persecution, judicial murder, and even schism within Anglicanism itself.
To be fair, there are some things which demand schism, of course.
If there is a rejection of any part of the universal faith by one part of the Church, there must be a parting of the ways.
But, excepting such tragic extremes, the proper course for us, as Anglicans, is to accept the freedom of other Anglicans to believe and do as they see fit on those things which are not part of the Faith and Practice of the universal Church.
If the people in one parish love Stations of the Cross, they ought to be free to enjoy them; those parishes which do not should never despise those who do, but rather rejoice their brethren have found something which brings the closer to Christ.
But, by the same token, those parishes who do have stations of the cross ought never despise those parishes which do not.
These same things are true of individuals within parishes, of course.
If one man believes the Blessed Virgin Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven, great, so long as he doesn’t say you must also believe it to be saved; by the same token, if you don’t believe it, great, so long as you don’t say your brother who does is going to Hell.
In closing, I can summarize all have been trying to say by quoting Augustine (and many others), “In essentials unity, in doubtful things liberty, but in all things charity.”