I was recently given a copy of Samuel Wells’ excellent book What Anglicans Believe: An Introduction. It’s well worth a read for a number of reasons, and I think it’ll be on my list to recommend to others in future. One particularly refreshing aspect is Wells’ deliberate choice to begin from doctrine, and only end up at history. For historical, ecclesiological and even apologetic reasons, accounts of Anglicanism often begin with history and lead round to doctrine – or even only define doctrine in terms of it historically-explained differences from other churches.
What Anglicans Believe helpfully moves through sections entitled “The Faith”, “The Sources of the Faith”, “The Order of the Faith”, and “The Character oof the Faith”. The subsections of the latter are entitled “Incarnation”, “English Legacies”, “American Dreams” and “Global Dimensions”, which gives a glimpse at the way it balances the topic. Beginning with “The Faith” assumes less knowledge, perhaps, on the part of the reader, and allows the book to be helpful to those new to Anglicanism, those studying their own church more deeply and those on the outskirts of an Anglican denomination.
At best this means that the book can function as both an explication, and an example of what Anglicans believe. I think this is valuable: often an explanation of a religious tradition is less illuminating than simply listening to someone expounding a topic using that tradition’s resources. The characteristic sympathies, connections, movements of mind and handling of sources, can be difficult to explain in the abstract but audible once inside the process. There is also less of a temptation to explain all the inner workings via social or historical contingencies, I think.
This does leave Wells with a slight complication, as he mentions at one point – there is a tension in accounting for Anglican belief in this way. Should one explain what all Anglicans share, what most Anglicans tend to think, what the “best” (in whatever sense) Anglican thinkers state, what has not been found controversial in the tradition, what has been found controversial and then ruled upon… Or indeed what the author thinks, offering themselves as an example. He navigates this quite effectively, mentioning that the first chapters “are more earnest prescription than neutral observation” and that “I portray the faith to which I trust all Christians in the Anglican Communion subscribe” whilst knowing that “the reality is much more diverse than the way I present it” and “for most of that diversity I give genuine thanks”.
To my eye the book has its own slants in its presentation of what it trusts all Anglican Christians would subscribe to. The combination of strong Protestant doctrinal commitments, a careful delineation of dominical institution of limited sacraments, a rich appreciation of the Incarnation as a central theme, and a willingness to cite the Thirty-Nine Articles brings out an Episcopalian flavour. That’s not a criticism, but a recognition that, as Wells suggests, Anglicanism feels different in different places. There are historical and social explanations for those differences from my parish context, I think, but to advance them would be to miss much of Wells’ point – and to insulate myself against the challenge of those differences.
There are two particular passages which really struck me, and which I’d like to cite here. Both came in the discussion of mission – a sensitive subject for the Anglican churches for a number of reasons. In describing the variety of vocations, Wells writes this:
Vocation is a place in the soul of the believer where creation and redemption meet; that is to say, it is a place where the manner and urgency and grace with which God redeems the world in Christ through the Holy Spirit resonates with the character and disposition and qualities of the created person.
I appreciated this idea for several reasons. It is new to me, and it manages to tie doctrinal themes into practical experience in a meaningful way – surely one of the jobs of theological and ecclesiological writing. This is such an essential task, and is so easy to do sloppily or lazily, especially on one’s own favourite subjects. I’m guilty of this myself, and have often noted examples in Christian writing or preaching. A specific social project being advanced, for example, because it is “Incarnational” to care for others, or a particular view of the natural world being aligned with “Creation”. Both of which can be true, of course, but they can also be ways of throwing a doctrinal-sounding gloss over an already-determined agenda. This passage, however, made a persuasive connection between the doctrines involved. (Perhaps, again, this was made more possible by the order of the sections in the book.)
It also draws out connections between the idea of individual vocation, and our understanding of the life and work of Christs. The intersection of creation and redemption is surely a decent verbal sketch of what older theologians might call the “Christ-event”. Without making the connection explicit, this doctrinal account of vocation allows us to develop allusions to other doctrinal topics.
Though this may be merely a rhetorical aspect, it also phrases vocation’s relationship to God as dynamic. The language of creation and redemption meeting and the term “resonates” suggest a vision of vocation which is inherently active. This moves away from two other phrasings which I’ve personal found difficult. One is the use of “created for” – we were “made for relationship” or “made for our task”. Whilst meaningful, this does rather undercut the language of “creativity” which should come with “creation”, and offers us a rather static image of trying to live up to (or live towards) a pre-set pattern. The other image is of vocation as a past calling into a niche or role, which (once found) may leave us wondering what to do with that role. Or we feel that the “vocation” is the fuel, but the actual activity takes power from it. The idea of vocation as a space of meeting between creation and redemption presented me with a more imaginatively and intellectually satisfying model.
In the same section, Wells made another suggestion which I found arresting. In his accounts of mission, he declares that mission into the past is essential to the Christian community:
There is also in relation to the past, the important work of memory. There is so much to be cherished and tenderly unearthed, so much wisdom to be celebrated, witness to be admired, sacrifice to the honoured and example to be imitated. This is perhaps especially significant in relation to those whose lives were, at the time, considered of little or no account, who because of their gender, race, class, disability, youth or other social circumstances were not given in their day the honour due – and yet can now be seen or discovered to have left a legacy that speaks of goodness, truth and beauty. This is indeed the work of mission, to search for lost coins in the household of history, coins that, gathered together, may furnish the present and future with limitless gold.
It’s possible that I was partly so impressed by this passage because – like some other Anglicans – I love the past and sometimes feel a bit scolded to get out of it and go and do some actual good…! But Wells’ account here is persuasive to me, again because of its active presentation of a potentially static idea. It offers a useful corrective to notions of the past on both the conservative and progressive side On the one hand, it emphasizes the activity that engaging with the past involves, pushing back against a conservative idea that the past is just here (or was a week ago) and simply needs protecting and continuing. On the other hand, it highlights the value to be brought out of the past, resisting a progressive assumption that were thankfully escaped from the past and need to expunge its influences. Wells then goes on:
At the same time memory is not just about cherishing. It is often about challenging. Many wrongs have been done: some well-known, others never told; some in Christ’s name, other ones whose fruits are felt to the present moment; others still whose injustice is perpetuated, practised and even inflated today. Wrongs of the past cannot be erased but they should not be ignored or denied. The work of mission includes the commission to translate evil – he pervasive, insidious disease of sin that passes itself off as good – into individual sins that can be named, truthfully narrated, repented of, forgiven and in due course healed. This process is of tremendous significance even when the perpetrators and victims themselves are long gone, for the recalling of history, its nurturing in bitterness and resentment, its transformation through truth-telling and repentance, and its healing through long struggle and profound grace, is at the heart of the gospel.
Here, too, I think he gives a useful balance between writing off the past as an undifferentiated swamp of sin, and venerating it as a general authority. His emphasis on the meticulous work of naming also seems to warn against a third sweeping gesture, in declaring that much was bad, but no-one knew at the time. I was particularly struck by his distinction between evil and sins, and he ways in which distinguishing individual narratives could prepare them for redemption in the present.
I think, based on Wells’ own accounts here, that I might take his theme even further, and emphasize the challenge of carrying out these actions. The “unearthing” of wisdom and good example from the past, as well as the narration of wrongs, might require quite a lot of struggle, not least in discerning which is which. The “challenge” involved may not only challenge the past upon which present circumstances are built, but challenge the principles in the present by which we identify wisdom or lament injustice in the past.
So it’s a book I really enjoyed, and I think its choice to move from doctrine to history had some valuable effects. It has certainly got me thinking about the way we imagine mission and vocation in a Church which needs to focus on both at the moment.