Guyer’s Weblog

December 11, 2008

One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic: A Response to Alister McGrath’s “Anglicanism and Protestantism”

Filed under: Communio Anglicana,Meta-Category,Theologoumena — guyer @ 7:44 pm

In a recent op-ed published in the Church of Ireland Gazette, Alister McGrath asserts that Gregory Cameron, Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, has “publicly distanced Anglicanism from Protestantism.”[1] In an article pertaining to Anglican ecumenical relations with Protestants, Old Catholics, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and the Mar Thoma Church of India, Cameron had written that “episcopacy is the clearest outstanding issue in dialogue with the Protestant traditions.”[2] McGrath interprets this as a denial of Anglicanism as a protesting ecclesial body, and uses it as an opportunity to rehash some rather old and tiresome debates pertaining to 19th century Anglo-Catholic historiography. McGrath then writes that Cameron “appears to belong to the revisionist school of thought which is trying to airbrush out Anglicanism’s Protestant heritage and tradition.” The real irony of all of this is that despite McGrath’s own credentials, his accusations against Cameron have nothing to do with Cameron’s own words in the aforementioned article, but McGrath’s own inability – or, perhaps, refusal – to think beyond a rather simple definition of Protestantism that cannot countenance Anglican particularity.

McGrath rightly notes that Laudian “sacramental and ecclesiological views can easily be accommodated within the spectrum of Protestant possibilities.” Such an observation is hardly the result of serious research, for anything can be accommodated within the Protestant spectrum, save the doctrine of the papacy. One can argue for nationalist conciliarism, humanist scholarship, not giving the Bible to the laity, and the near-deification of the monarch to being a “little GOD to sit on his Throne”[3] as all being compatible with Protestantism. In fact, all of these points were fundamental to the earliest phases of Anglican identity, as McGrath himself well knows (and, for that matter, has published on over the years, in excellent books such as The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible, and Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification). It is also the case that conformist English Protestantism was quite adamant that it had restored Catholic faith and maintained Catholic order in its turning Protestant – a concept that seems strangely foreign to us, and which McGrath, for reasons unknown, never brings up in his attack on Cameron’s brief remark. To take the history of Anglican identity seriously, one must not reduce Anglicanism to modern conceptions of either ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ but allow for the fascinating complexities of ecclesiastical history, especially the period from the mid-16th through mid-17th century in which the former (Catholicism) was seen as capable of being preserved only by way of the latter (Protestantism).

At this point in history, however, to make “Protestant heritage” a cause célèbre is strange. Like the Trojan horse, it may look grand when it is outside the castle, but a question must be asked before it is internalized: what assumptions are being brought to bear upon Anglican identity when a word as nebulous as ‘Protestant’ becomes the primary descriptor of our tradition? The frustration felt by many with this term has far less to do with a belief that Roman Catholicism has gotten things correct, and far more to do with the recognition that nearly 500 years after the fact of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the word ‘Catholic’ signifies a particular level of Creedal, Sacramental and Liturgical consistency that the word ‘Protestant’ quite simply does not. Undoubtedly in Anglicanism this impression has something to do with the Ritualist movement of the late-19th century and the subsequent century of Anglo-Catholic dominance within the Communion, but to reduce this to some sort of anti-Protestant “revisionist school of thought” is too simplistic. All historiography is flawed, and some of it quite deeply. McGrath’s own historiography, as set forth in the article in question, is just as much an oversimplification of the facts as the anti-Protestant historiography he attacks.

We do well to recall Archbishop Williams’s statement that “the Reformation debate was not one between self-designated Catholics and Protestants; it was a debate about where the Catholic Church was to be found.”[4]The later stratification of Catholic vs. Protestant was not something that the earliest reformers – especially in the Church of England – would have envisioned. However curious it may seem to us, their own brand of Protestantism – complete with its affiliations with Swiss Protestantism – was believed by them to be fundamentally Catholic! Indeed, Anglicans are Protestant only insofar as they are Catholic – a strange perspective, perhaps, in light of the history of the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, but one well worth keeping in mind. It is the creative tension generated by both these ideas that has produced, over several centuries, some of the finest theology, hymnody and poetry that the Christian world has seen.

Gregory Cameron’s statement about Anglican dialogue with [other] Protestants has been erroneously taken by McGrath to imply a series of assumptions on Cameron’s own part that are not spelled out by him at any point in the aforementioned article. Contra McGrath, the only thing “remarkable” about Cameron’s article pertaining to our contemporary ecumenical horizons is its brevity; a passing comment about “Protestant traditions” is nothing more than that, and to turn it into an opportunity for advocating a historically thin, lopsided view of Anglican self-understanding is both surprising and disappointing, especially when it comes from a scholar of McGrath’s stature. Anglicanism will be a transformer of cultures only if it stays true to its own heritage – a heritage which is not its own, but which belongs to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” and which has been safeguarded not through historical oversimplifications, but through occasional and indeed necessary periods of protest against theological and historical errors of all kinds.

[1] McGrath, Alister (2007). “Anglicanism and Protestantism.” http://www.gazette.ireland.anglican.org/2007/191007/focus191007.htm. Accessed 10/23/2007.
[2]Cameron, Gregory. “Ecumenical spring is already here.” http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=37426. 2007. Accessed 10/23/2007.
[3] King James I (1599). Basilicon Doron. In Political Writings, 12. Edited by J. Sommerville (1994). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
[4] Williams, Rowan (2005). Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, 63. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
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