Christian Books

Friday, January 7, 2011

What is Anglicanism? by Urban T. Holmes

What is Anglicanism?
Urban T. Holmes III
Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow Co., Inc., 1982
95 pages

Rating: 6 out of 10

Quick Summary: Urban Holmes, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, wrote this interesting and accessible introduction to the Anglican Church generally, and the Episcopal Church specifically.  He succinctly covers the major principles of Anglican theology and practice.  His ability to present complex ideas with great simplicity makes this book well worth reading.  Unfortunately, it was written in 1981 and does not directly address current issues in the Episcopal Church, but for someone desiring a general introduction to Anglican thought, theology, and practice, it is a well-written, concise introduction.
Evangelical Assessment: As an Evangelical, there are issues with his presentation of the Anglican and Episcopal Church.  The primary concern is the view of Scripture that it presents.  Concerning Scripture, he says, “The canon of Scripture… is the canon not because of any intrinsic quality of those books, but because the church says it is the canon.”  While the Scriptures do belong to the church, evangelicals believe that Scripture is intrinsically self-attesting in terms of its inspiration and acceptance.  The authority of Scripture is not based upon a Christian community, but upon the doctrine of revelation and inspiration.  With this view of the canon, he later comments, “Pietism teaches the absolute authority of Scriptures and the necessity for a personal experience of salvation.”  He clearly minimizes the authority of Scripture even though he states that Anglicans believe in the authority of it.  In addition, he denies the importance of another Evangelical principle, the principle of personal conversion. Evangelicals strongly emphasize the need for more than a theoretical faith.  We need to personally commit ourselves to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Who might this book interest? This book would interest anyone desiring a brief introduction to the Anglican tradition, especially as it is found in the Episcopal Church.

Author’s bio: Urban T. Holmes III (1930-1981) was an Episcopal priest and Dean of the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.  He was the author of many books and spent the last year of his life writing this one.  He completed it, approximately 3 months before he died.  As a cradle Episcopalian, priest, scholar, and seminary professor, who had taught and written on many topics relating to Anglicanism, Holmes is knowledgeable of the history, theology, and people of Anglicanism generally, and the Episcopal Church specifically.

Contents: Urban Holmes attempts to fill a need for Anglicans to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an Anglican?”  He says of the book, “It describes frankly my understanding of what it means to be an Anglican.”  He admits that this is a very personal work and reflects his own learned understanding of the answer.  He defines “Anglican” as “those Christians who worship according to some authorized edition of the Book of Common Prayer and who are in communion with the see of Canterbury”.  His definition excludes the many splinter groups who currently use the name “Anglican.”
            Chapter 1 begins developing his topic by discussing “The Anglican Consciousness.”  He says, “Anglicanism is a mode of making sense of the experience of God.”  This Anglican consciousness is “the product of a montage of geographical, social, political, economic and racial forces that have created a peculiar historical memory.”  I appreciate this definition because it recognizes that our Christian faith is mediated through our historical, cultural, and socio-political situations.  In each chapter, Holmes uses an Anglican person to serve as an example of his main concepts.  In this chapter, he uses Julian of Norwich to speak of Anglican “sensibility,” finding God in the ordinary, and God as mother.  These concepts are important because Holmes refers to them repeatedly throughout the book.  Sensibility means accepting into consciousness all of our experience, “even when the meaning of that experience is ambiguous, incongruous and obscure.”  By God as mother, he speaks of the Anglican consciousness being feminine.  He means the comprehensiveness of an Anglican dialectic, which speaks of a “community of thought” as opposed to a “well-defined, definitive position” like in the more confessional churches.  
            In discussing this, he presents another important concept.  He speaks of right-handed and left-handed thinking.  The right is the analytical and logical, while the left is intuitive, analogical, metaphorical, and symbolic.  He goes on to say that the Anglican consciousness tends toward the left-handed.
            Chapter 2 continues by addressing “Authority in the Church” by using Richard Hooker to illustrate his concepts.  As distinguished from other Christian traditions, he says, “Our authority is the association of Scripture, tradition, and reason.”  He seems to be unaware that the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition uses a similar understanding of authority, but with a higher view of Scripture and the addition of experience, although he seems to incorporate experience into reason.   Concerning reason, he says, “… the created order reflects the mind of God, which is discernable to human reason.”  Concerning Scripture, he says, “The canon of Scripture… is the canon not because of any intrinsic quality of those books, but because the church says it is the canon.”  As a basic principle of Evangelicalism, we would disagree with this statement.  Lastly, he says that Scripture must be read with acknowledgement of one’s tradition.  He continues by saying that God’s revelation continues “in a manner that enlarges upon what is found in the Bible and in a way that is consistent with the church’s understanding.”  While I do not have an inherent problem with this statement or his explanation, I have to wonder if this continuing revelation has resulted in the Episcopal Church's contradicting Scripture with regards to the issue of homosexuality.
            Chapter 3 expands Holmes consideration of the Anglican view of Scripture.  He begins the chapter with the inspiring story of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, who sought to give the Chinese people the Bible in their major languages and became bishop of China.  Unfortunately, the chapter does not end there.  He makes several valid observations of Scripture.  Scripture is culturally conditioned by its original context.  There is no perfect text of the Bible, but it still retains its authority.  The Bible is made up of various literary genres.  It should be read as a whole.  We have to understand grammar, authorial intent, and ourselves.  We need to bring our interpretation into the larger Christian community. 
Unfortunately, this chapter does not end there.  My misgivings with this chapter involve his making Scripture into more of a human book than a divine book.  He indicates that biblical accounts contradict each other or that have we four different Jesus’ in the presentations of the four Gospels rather than four different emphases based one person.  Within the left-handed (as he presents it) Anglican context, this seems acceptable to him.  He denies verbal inspiration, but affirms the plenary.  He does not seem aware that there exists a difference between the dictation theory and the verbal plenary theory of inspiration, which is surprising.  
Lastly, I find his use of the cultural argument to dismiss some passages’ teachings to be problematic.  It is amazing to me that at the end of the chapter he states, “It is clear that in the Anglican tradition that the authority of the Bible is without question, but that hearing what the Bible says is not a simple matter.”  It may be simpler at times that Holmes allows.
            Chapter 4 deals with the doctrine that Holmes considers “a central doctrine to Anglicanism.”  He uses William Porcher DuBose as his Anglican example.  He makes several points concerning the Incarnation.  First, he points out that the incarnation points to the doctrine of creation.  I welcome his warning against the pantheism of Whitehead and de Chardin.  Second, he states that “the Incarnation means that sin cannot be explained by identifying it with matter or the physical world” and warns against the heresy of Manicheanism which taught that matter is evil.  He provides an adequate explanation and definition of sin as rebellion against God and violation of the law, which all commit.  Lastly, “the Incarnation embraces the totality of life.”  In the Incarnation, Christ comes to transform culture.  This is a very good chapter.
            Chapter 5 uses Alexander Mackonochie to discuss the “Church and Sacraments.” He was the leader of the second movement of the Catholic revival in the Anglican Church.  Holmes notes, “The Anglican understanding of church and sacraments logically follows from the Incarnation.”  Based upon this, he says, “The church is the primordial sacrament of Christ.”  Christ is present in a special way through the church.  He continues, “The sacraments are the living out of the sacramentality of the church.”  Therefore, Christ’s presence in the church is expressed at its “deepest level our reality” through the sacraments.  The Book of Common Prayer does not state that the sacraments must have explicit scriptural warrant or that the grace experienced in the sacraments is ours no matter what we do.  His first statement again highlights the difference between an Evangelical understanding and his Anglican understanding.  Evangelicals typically do believe that sacraments or ordinances have scriptural warrant.  In the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, we participate in the Passion of Christ.  As there are differing views of these among Evangelicals, the Anglican tradition contains differing views as well.
            Chapter 6 uses William Palmer Ladd to discuss “The Liturgy.”  Its worship seems to define Anglicanism more than any other aspect of it.  Passed in 1559, Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity made Sunday worship according to the Book of Common Prayer the standard among Anglicans.  Holmes defends the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer.  He says, “Each age has to appropriate the prayer book for itself.”  He sees the Anglican liturgy as a “living liturgy” which changes, such as including more congregational participation, but that also includes unchangeable elements such as the Eucharist.  In speaking of Anglican preaching, Holmes distinguishes between it and the revivalistic preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield.  He says, “Pietism teaches the absolute authority of Scriptures and the necessity for a personal experience of salvation.”  Evangelicals, who are in part descended from Wesley and Whitefield, agree with this statement.  He admits to the presence of Evangelicals within the Anglican Church, and says that where they exist, “… there is not the awareness of liturgy as the heart of our Christian life.”  In my limited experience, I think that this criticism may not be as true among Evangelicals as it once was.
            Chapter 7 uses John Henry Hobart to discuss “The Episcopacy.”  While acknowledging some Anglicans emphasis on apostolic succession or a three-branch theory of the true church, Holmes does not argue for either, instead he says, “The bishop for us is the embodiment, the real symbol, of the universality of the church.”  He connects this to the church as the primordial sacrament by saying, “The church is a historical incarnation of the eternal Lord in all times and places.  This truth is symbolized in the office of bishop.”
            Among Evangelicals, there is a variety of views on the church and church government.  Since he does not argue for apostolic succession or the three-branch theory, there is little here to disagree with concerning bishops.  But once again, he recognizes the historical over the scriptural in the Anglican form of church government and feels no need to make a biblical case for it.  Another issue that he addresses in this chapter, which was hotly debated during his time, is the ordination of women.  Once again, Evangelicals differ on this issue as well. 
            Chapter 8 uses Deaconess Margaret Dudley Binns to speak of “Pastoral Care.”  He gives several principles of Anglican pastoral care.  First, it is motivated by the Gospel and grounded in theology.  Through repentance, we share in the Gospel, which brings together God and people, and in authentic love to bring people to wholeness.  Second, it is sacramental, especially in regards to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Unction.  These sacraments focus on Christ, who is the expression of God’s love toward us.  Some Evangelicals may disagree with considering Reconciliation and Unction sacraments, but often, the dynamic equivalence of these can be found in their ministry.  
            Lastly, it is “the church is an abiding, sacrificial presence to its people.”  The priest enters into the daily life of people by visiting them where they are and allowing people to “discover their own holiness in the broken and fallible witness of his or her own life.”  This “requires faith and sacrifice.”  It cares for people “from birth to death.”  This is a tremendous view of pastoral care and an ideal in any tradition.
            Chapter 9 uses Evelyn Underhill to address the topic of Anglican spirituality.  Holmes identifies two types of “enthusiasm,” which is an older word that covers both Pietism and Mysticism.  Here, as he does throughout the book, he disdains Pietism, which is one of the major branches of Evangelicalism, but of course, he endorses mysticism.  Mysticism “sees the union with God as the end of an ascent, requiring discipline, purgation, study, emptying and patience.”  Some Evangelicals affirm a distinctively Christian mysticism that arises from the biblical text but have a serious mistrust of much that may be called “Christian mysticism.”
            Holmes finds gives four principles of a distinctively Anglican spirituality.  It is earthy, grows out of liturgical prayer, draws on biblical imagery, and is collaborative.  My one concern with these is the first of them.  By earthy, he seems to mean as opposite to other-worldly.  We can know and experience God through the physical world and real life, but not to the point pantheism or panentheism.  I found myself wishing that he had further explained this point. 
            Chapter 10 employs the story of the great Anglican missionary, John Coleridge Patteson, to speak to the Anglican “Mission.”  He discusses the origin and development of modern missions in the Anglican and Episcopal Church.  There are three propositions of Anglican missions.  First, it is the activity of the church.  I appreciate his emphasis on making the missionary church indigenous as quickly as possible.  Second, it is by “identification and participation.”  By this, he means that the missionary incarnates the Christ who transcends culture to the people that he is trying to reach.  Lastly, it is an educational mission.  It is to teach them truth which leads to Jesus Christ who is The Truth.
            Chapter 11 utilizes the story of Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was martyred by Idi Amin, to discuss the relationship between “Church and State.”  Anglicans believe “that government is an instrument of God’s purpose, imperfect as it undoubtedly is.”  Accordingly, Christians should be involved in the political process and government by “speaking on behalf of the Gospel to the government” and with civil disobedience if necessary.  I appreciate the Anglican view which does not separate church and state, which makes religion a private matter. 
            Lastly, Chapter 12 draws on the life of John Hines to illustrate the “Prophetic Witness” of the Anglican Church.  He moved the Episcopal Church toward social action on behalf of the poor and powerless, especially the causes of racial justice and urban crisis.  How do we respond to Gospel proclamation?  We should change “now and forever and the issue is how shall we change.”  All Christians should affirm the value, dignity, and rights of all people because they are created in the image of God.  Unfortunately in our day, the Episcopal Church has allowed their prophetic witness lead to ordaining practicing homosexuals as bishops, which is in direct contradiction to the scriptural teaching concerning homosexuality.

Theology: Although I feel that I need to read more works by him to obtain a fuller picture of his theological perspective, I would consider Urban T. Holmes III a very thoughtful moderate.  There are many theological points that I find are compatible with Evangelical theology, but he is clearly not Evangelical, especially concerning the issue of Scripture.  Also, Holmes criticizes Evangelicals in various places throughout his book. 
My main concern as an Evangelical is in the area of Scripture.  His work does not compare well to our evangelical statement of faith.  While the Scriptures do belong to the church, evangelicals believe that Scripture is intrinsically self-attesting in regards to its inspiration and authority.  He clearly minimizes the inspiration of Scripture, which logically affects the authority as well.  While the community of faith is important in interpreting Scripture, the clear teachings of Scripture are binding on believers regardless what the community of faith may teach. 
Holmes does not have a problems believing that there are errors and contradictions in Scripture.  Within his presentation of the Anglican ethos, it seems acceptable to affirm this as well as affirm the plenary inspiration and authority of Scripture.  I find this to be problematic for the Evangelical, and it leaves serious doubts about this argument in his work.
Another quote which is intended to distinguish Anglicanism from Evangelical Anglicanism states, “Pietism teaches the absolute authority of Scriptures and the necessity for a personal experience of salvation.”  While I have already addressed the scriptural issue, he also disagrees with another important Evangelical principle.  Evangelicals believe in the need for personal conversion.  In the context of his statement, I believe that he may be referring to a specific type of personal conversion, “The Damascus Road” type.  While some Evangelicals make this the standard, others recognize that personal conversion is a growth process without the dramatic experience.  Either way, Evangelicals believe that a personal conversion experience is required for salvation.
Other than the issue of Scripture, there are many theological points that I find are compatible with Evangelical theology.    

Research: The author knows the Anglican tradition and draws on this knowledge to write this book.  This work is meant to be a thoughtful, popular level book, and I believe for this reason that the author does credible research.
The positives are that he has previously written scholarly, historical works on Christian spirituality and Anglican ministry, which he clearly draws from throughout this work, but the negative is that he does seem to allow for the diversity within Anglicanism that includes other groups that clearly exist within it such as: Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. 
Possibly, because at the time of his writing, he is writing to the Episcopal Church in the United States, so he does not discuss these groups?  Yet, I suspect that, even as the Anglican Evangelicals are a growing segment in the United States today, they were a part of the Episcopal Church then.

Writing: Holmes is a very good writer and his ideas are clearly expressed.  I appreciate his approach of using an Anglican person as an example of the concepts that he is discussing in that particular chapter.  He certainly has an extensive knowledge of Anglican personalities and theology.  His writing is very personal and interesting.  I did not have any problems with staying interested in this book.

I think that this book would appeal to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of Anglicanism.  Once again, it is a well-written, clear explanation of Anglicanism.

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