The Problem of Authority

David Virtue david at
Wed Dec 24 16:29:46 EST 2014

The Problem of Authority

By Peter Robinson
December 20, 2014

One of the frustrating things about Anglicanism in America today is that
no-one seems to be too sure what we actually stand for in terms of
theology. Terms like 'catholic-lite' and 'reformed Catholic' are bandied
about but there seems to be a failure to engage with the actual Anglican
theological position as summarized in the Prayer Book, the Articles of
Religion, and the Book of Homilies. This is a symptom of the crisis of
theological authority which led to the apostasy of the Episcopal Church
in the 1970s. However, this crisis was a long time a-coming; not the
sudden crisis that many lay folks seem to take it to have been.

Unlike the original 'independent Anglicans' of the Scottish Episcopal
Church, many of those who founded the Episcopal Church had their roots
firmly planted in the soil of eighteenth century Latitudinarian(1)
theology. The original 1785 revision of the Book of Common Prayer was
sufficiently liberal (2) that it was rejected by the Archbishop of
Canterbury. Needing to secure the Historic Episcopate from the Church of
England, White and his supporters produced a second, more orthodox
revision of the BCP, and this was accepted by the Church of England.
That said, the 1787 PECUSA Constitution and 1789 Book of Common Prayer
both vaguely promise to 'not to depart from the Church of England in any
essential point of doctrine, discipline, and worship; or further local
circumstances require.' (3) However, at the same time, the General
Convention loosen the terms of subscription to a promise to abide by the
Bible, the two (not three!) Creeds, and by the doctrine, discipline and
worship of this Church. All this was in line with Latitudinarian
thinking, and was subject to some fairly vigorous opposition from Bishop
Seabury and the handful of High Churchmen in the House of Deputies.
However, Latitudinarianism was on its last legs, and in 1801, the
Protestant Episcopal Church to further committed itself by adopting its
own version of the Articles of Religion, which had been the primary
declaration of the Anglican position since 1563. The American version
omits any reference to the Athanasian Creed, withdraws Article XXI - Of
General Councils, and modifies the status of the two Books of Homilies.

Why this delay? Well, it has to be said that the last quarter of the
eighteenth century was a somewhat untheological age, and most Anglican
Divines were content with the theology of their fathers or their
grandfathers. The standard theologians of the time were men like Joseph
Butler, Warburton, Burnett, and Tenison - all of whom were inclined to
take a broad and rational view of Christianity; what Archbishop
Cornwallis, the uncle of the British General who surrendered at Yorktown
described as 'a benign of comfortable air of liberty and toleration.'
Thus most American Churchmen were of the old Low Church school -
theologically a bit vague; liturgically a bit dull; and inclined to
prefer the discussion of morals to exposition of theology in the Sunday
sermon. However, the moralism and sedentary ways of the eighteenth
century were rapidly swept away.

The revival of the Church came from the two ends of the theological
spectrum. The diocese of New York replaced the Low Church Samuel
Provost, Bishop 1787-1801; first with Benjamin Moore (1801-1816); and
then with John Henry Hobart. Moore was a clergyman with a good deal of
moral earnestness, and refused to give Alexander Hamilton communion on
his deathbed until he had repented of the sin of duelling. Hobart was an
energetic and nervous personality, who gave new vigour to tradition High
Church ideas. As a result, as the population of the state of New York
spread northwards and westwards along the Hudson River and the Erie
Canal, the church expanded with the shifting population. Meanwhile in
Philadelphia and Baltimore, Evangelical Episcopalians preaching the
doctrines of Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, were attracting new
people into the Anglican fold. In this period, both side appealed to the
Bible, the Prayer Book and the Articles of Religion, but the High
Churchmen emphasized the sacramental, the Evangelicals the Protestant
side of the Episcopal inheritance. The establishment of General Seminary
in 1822, which tended to be High Church, and Virginia Seminary in 1823,
which tended to be Low Church Evangelical, tended to reinforce the party
differences, and hereafter, the Church in the South would tend to be
Broad to Low Church in outlook, but in the North, with the exception of
Massachusetts, it would lean in a Broad to High Church direction

Looking back from the 2010s, the Episcopal Church of 200 years ago looks
to have a great deal of theological cohesiveness. Both High Churchmen
and Evangelicals believed that the Bible was the sole source of
Christian dogma, and that tradition and reason (common sense) were
useful tools in understanding the sacred deposit of Scripture. The
difference were minor, so much so that Pritchard, in his 1987 book, 'A
History of the Episcopal Church' describes the two parties as being
Evangelical Catholics, and Catholic Evangelicals, pointing out that
although party feeling sometimes ran high, there was an underlying unity
based on an understanding of the Episcopal Church as an Episcopal and
Liturgical Church whose theology was derived from Scripture interpreted
in the light of tradition and reason.

So where did it all go wrong?

The major corrosive influence on Anglican orthodoxy in the USA was
initially Anglo-Catholicism, which tried to play down the Protestant
side of Protestant Episcopal. However, Anglo-Catholicism, at least
initially, had more shock value than anything else, and the High Church
Movement remained dominated by those who looked not to the Rome, but the
Non-Jurors and the Caroline Divines for inspiration. A far more
dangerous foe was Higher Criticism of the Bible, which began in Germany
in the 1820s, and the Liberal Protestantism that stemmed from it.

Not surprisingly, the Evangelicals were the first to be hit by this new
theology. The old Evangelical certainties - an infallible Bible, the
five solas of the Reformation (5), and the Substitutionary theory of the
Atonement - were all assailed by the new theology which increasingly saw
the Bible as 'just another ancient text' and moved away from the hard
edged theology of traditional Evangelicalism. In the Episcopal Church,
this produced two different movements - liberal Evangelicalism, which
was predominant at Virginia Seminary; and Liberal Low Churchmanship,
which became the received position at the other traditionally
Evangelical seminaries. Conservative Evangelicalism all but disappeared
from the Episcopal Church by 1914.

High Churchmen and Anglo-Catholics were less affected by Higher
Criticism of the Bible, but it did tend to lead them to exalt tradition
- especially in the form of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and the Early
Fathers - to bolster the authority of Christian dogma. The Bible was
downgraded from the sole source of dogma, to merely the foundation of
Catholic Tradition. By the 1930s, Anglo-Catholic theology depended more
on 'consensus catholicism' than on the Biblicism of previous generations
of Anglicans. This approach may be fairly represented by Fr. Hall's
multivolume 'Dogmatic Theology' which was used as a standard text book
at General Seminary, Seabury-Western, and Nashotah for several

Even though the Episcopal Church was drifting into Liberalism, certain
clergymen found themselves under censure for going too far too fast.
Williams Rainsford, Rector of St George's, NYC, was assailed for
describing the Creeds as 'poetic, not literal truth' in 1906. The Rt.
Rev. Montgomery Brown was deposed as Bishop of Arkansas, as he
increasingly embraced Marxism and recast Jesus as a sort of
proto-communist. The Depression and World War II tend to suppress this
sort of dissent, but there was still an underlying liberal bias within
the Episcopal Church that manifested itself in often liberal stances on
the Bible and Social Issues.

By the 1920s Low Churchmen were increasingly promoting a liberal version
of Christianity, which tended to minimize the miraculous and the
mystical; and play up social concern. High Churchmen emphasized
tradition, the priesthood, and the sacraments to compensate for their
liberal views on the Bible. With the old threefold authority of
Scripture interpreted in the light of tradition and reason shot to
threads, the unity of the Episcopal Church increasingly depended on the
conservative culture of mid-twentieth century America, and the Book of
Common Prayer. When both of these began to breakdown in the 1960s, an
already stressed Episcopal Church fell apart completely. As women
priests, homosexual priests, divorce and remarriage, and abortion became
socially acceptable, so the pressure mounted for the Church to either
accept or legalized these innovations. The result of these rising
tensions was that many conservative and orthodox Episcopalians became
disenchanted, so that my 1965 small groups of 'continuing' or
'traditional' Anglicans were beginning to form congregations outside
ECUSA. (6)

However, adhering to 'the revolution before last' did not solve the
problem of authority, and the new Continuing Churches were theologically
aware enough to realize that this would come back and bite them if they
did not do something about it. As a result, a number of Continuing
Anglican groups adopted 'Solemn Declarations' which echoed those of the
Church of Ireland, and the Church of England in Canada in summarizing
their basic principles without an awful lot of elaboration. In general,
these documents emphasized a conservative approach to the Bible;
acceptance of the Creeds; a male threefold ministry; the traditional
understanding of marriage as a life-long indissoluble union between a
man and a woman; and condemning abortion whilst at the same time
retaining the 1928 BCP and giving a nod to the Article of Religion.
However, there was an influential group who wanted to go further than
that and remodel Anglicanism. When the 'Affirmation of St Louis' was
promulgated in 1977 did not only preserve the traditional Episcopalian
tradition, but tweaked a good deal in the direction of Rome, or Eastern
Orthodoxy by explicitly describing the Eucharist as a sacrifice,
accepting seven sacraments (a common teaching tool, not a dogma in
Anglicanism), and making the doctrinal basis of the Church the Seven
Ecumenical Councils of the 'Undivided' Church. This produced further
tensions between conservative Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics, which
led to further divisions among traditional Episcopalians.

It seems to me that the United Episcopal Church has chosen a very wise
course in refusing to modify its formularies. Like the clergy of the
Church of England (and uniquely in the USA), the clergy of the UECNA
give their assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. The UECNA
also rejects those innovations in the doctrine, discipline, and worship
that have taken place since 1958. As a result we can safely say that the
United Episcopal Church remains what Anglicanism has always been - a
Catholic and Apostolic; reformed and protestant Church, whose doctrine
derives from the Bible interpreted in the light of Tradition and reason,
is Episcopal in governance, and liturgical in worship. Having returned
to the authentic traditions of the Anglican Church, let us go forward in
declaring to men the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ alone.

[Peter D. Robinson] The Rt. Rev. Peter D. Robinson is the Presiding
Bishop of the United Episcopal Church of North America, Bishop Ordinary
of the Missionary Diocese of the West, and rector of St. Paul's Anglican
Church, Prescott, Arizona, which is part of the Continuing Anglican

(1) Latitudinarian or Latitude Men were inclined to minimize the
differences between Anglicans and other orthodox protestants, and were
the dominant influence in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern States.
(2) For example it omitted both the Athanasian and the Nicene Creed, and
also the clause 'He descended into Hell' from the Apostles' Creed.
(3) The Book of Common Prayer p. vi
(4) Ibid pp. 603-611.
(5) Scripture alone; Christ alone; Grace alone; Faith alone; to God
alone be the Glory.
(6) The corporate name of the Episcopal Church is 'The Domestic and
Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church.' Over the
years it has operated under a number of "DBAs" - Protestant Episcopal
Church of the United States of America (1783-1979); The Episcopal
Church, USA (1979-2006); and current as 'The Episcopal Church.'

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