Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

1 Peter 5:8

Over the last year I have been in the process of discernment for Priesthood within the Church of England. This is been an intense period of self-reflection for myself and an examination into the nature of the Church that I was born into. Despite this it is also an institution I have always felt something of an outsider in. Maybe this is because I’ve always been told I view the world in very black and white terms and I think this has chafed with the infamous aversion my church has to coming down on any equivocal point of doctrine. I’ve always been drawn to the more equivocal, earnest, and what some Anglican Churchmen might disparage and dismiss as the ‘enthusiastic’ end of things.

Throughout the discernment process, the major obstacle I have encountered is the fact that I do not accept Women’s Ordination. I will not get into the weeds of this but only stress that the provision for conservatives who are hold-outs on this, whilst it exists, to me seems relatively tokenistic and does not seem sufficiently episcopal for a church that upholds this model of polity. I’ve had to reflect a lot on this and can’t help but feel that even participating in the provisions for traditionalists is, in a way, a tacit acceptance of the status quo. A piece that has haunted me on this, nipping at my heels, is Richard John Neuhaus’s “The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy” over on First Things. In this piece Neuhaus outlines what he calls his law:

I’ll presume to call it Neuhaus’s Law, or at least one of his several laws: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.

The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy, Richard John Neuhaus

Orthodoxy, as a term, in the piece is used in different ways but with each of them the general principle is that orthodoxy, if it is really believed, cannot be optional. It will not tolerate competing claims by virtue of merely asserting itself, if it doesn’t assert itself it can’t really be an issue of orthodoxy. Yet the balancing of competing orthodoxies, or claims, is something the Church of England is famous, or infamous for. Are we Protestants? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Do we believe in the localised presence of Christ in the elements during communion? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Do we pray to saints and worship images? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Should women be ordained? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. What should clergy wear in services? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Should the Church conduct or bless same-sex marriages? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Is Christ the only name by which men are saved? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. The result is a sort of all-pervasive entropic relativism that prevents any sort of equivocal claims being made and individualism run rampant. This makes me ask myself, why should I care what any of these people think? They aren’t even of one mind amongst themselves. It encourages a sort of superficiality, an absence of sobriety.

By contrast, I was challenged by a recent video interviewing a man who worked to integrate those leaving Prison who are caught up in Gang culture in the US who talked about his experiences both taking retreats in both Monasteries and Anabaptist communities. You can watch the video below:

Now the occupants of Monasteries and Anabaptist communities believe radically different things and yet this man saw a relationship between the two. In both he is struck by the distinctness of their way of life and intentionality but in the latter it is a sustainable community that was marked by all the good this man saw in Monasteries but with the addition of much more singing, children, and families. He adds:

There’s no pretence, there’s no robes, there’s no high church liturgies, and yet there’s a sense that these folks take the Way of Jesus so seriously. And they don’t want to be cloistered and they want to share the DNA of this love and this life and living out this Sermon on the Mount and sharing their possessions. And offering this life as a model to the world, I’ve just been blown away.

Now some might think this man a fool. That this isn’t to say something like a high-church liturgy is bad in itself, nor robes etc. but one doesn’t have to be an Anabaptist to realise that there is a quiet confidence in what they’re doing that leaves them feeling they have no need of pretence, robes, high-church liturgies etc. This brings us back to Neuhaus’s article who goes on to quote Cardinal Manning on the Anglo-Catholic movement that remained in the wake of Newman’s apostasy from the Church of England:

Reed, an Episcopalian who teaches at the University of North Carolina, sums up the irony of Anglo-Catholicism: “A movement that originally championed orthodoxy had come to defend freedom; begun in opposition to religious liberalism, the movement now appealed to liberal values for its survival. Cardinal Manning, once an Anglo-Catholic clergyman himself, saw the irony, and maintained that ‘Ritualism is private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colors.’ He declared that ‘every fringe in an elaborate cope worn without authority is only a distinct and separate act of private judgment; the more elaborate, the less Catholic; the nearer the imitation, the further from the submission of faith.’” Reed adds, “Although some denied it, Manning had a point.”

The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy, Richard John Neuhaus

The implication from this is that ‘gorgeous raiment’ of Anglicanism now stands instead of confessional consistency and uniformity. That in order for Anglo-Catholicism to survive it had to participate and uphold the thing it initially decried. Cannot the same be said of traditionalists on the issue of Women’s Ordination? That by accepting provisions carved out for them one upholds and helps religious liberalism continue writ large in the Church of England? That actually if they do ‘mutually flourish’ doesn’t this actually strip away barriers for the issues pertaining to same-sex marriage that are lurking by the way? To allow the entropy to develop further?

I find all this really difficult, I don’t have any trouble admitting that, I am a Black Sheep when it comes to Anglicanism but whilst I am very Evangelical in conduct am actually pretty High Church when it comes to ecclesiology I think deep down. The issue is this leaves me feeling, as a product of discernment, not just that it is unwise to pursue ordination in the Church of England but actually to even consider myself a member in the medium or long term.

The fact that I am a parent also plays a massive part in this, I want somewhere that will help catechise my son in the faith such that, in a society increasingly hostile to it, he will not just survive but thrive. I still agree with TS Eliot’s insistence that we should work to build a society in which it is as easy possible to be a Christian. That my son would have a church that would empower him to feel confident in his faith and winsome in drawing others to it. I myself do not even feel that about the Church of England today. Now I am not an Anabaptist but I find a strong appeal and pull to movements like it that are high-expectation, high-growth, and high-retention. The reason for this is that they generally possess what Arnold Snyder calls a: “A more communal understanding of life, the cosmos, and salvation.” and a “A linking of spiritual charisma to moral purity.” that highlights the degree to which the Radical Reformation did not share the Magisterial Reformation’s condemnation of Medieval piety and asceticism but rather cultivated a much higher expectation of the behaviour traditionally associated with Monasticism to be embraced by the Laity. 

Examples of this aren’t just limited to forms of Protestantism, there was a recent expose on the Roman Catholic schismatic group the “Society of St. Pius X” that retains incredibly conservative Roman Catholic practices and yet is flourishing perhaps precisely because of the expectations it places before its adherents. It too is high-expectation, high-growth, and high-retention.

Wyclif Giving ‘The Poor Priests’ His Translation of the Bible, William Frederick Yeames

For myself, I see this in proto-Protestant movements like John Wycliffe and his followers who took the moral and devotional excellence, communal life, and general earnestness associated with Christian asceticism and extended it to everyman:

And thus each man in the three states ought to live, to save himself, and to help others; and thus should good life, rest, peace, and love, be among Christian men, and they be saved, and heathen men soon converted, and God magnified greatly in all nations and sects that now despise him and his law, for the false living of wicked Christian men.

John Wycliffe, A Short Rule of Life For Each Man

Wycliffe balanced the sacramental life with the evangelical impulse. He seems to straddle the line between the Magisterial and Radical Reformers of later centuries tying together Piety and the Public Sphere quite well and avoids the Erastian impulses that found their way into institutions like the Church of England. The only person I see remotely coming close to this, later on, is someone like the short-lived Radical-Magisterial Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier. The origins of the latter’s Re-Baptising impulse, whilst we might disagree with the practice, having its roots in earlier Erasmian beliefs linked to the priority of catechism in advance of baptism:

In his 2008 doctoral thesis, Jason Graffagnino traced the antecedents of Hubmaier’s catechism to Erasmus’s rediscovery of the role of prebaptism catechization in the early church and how this prebaptism catechization might find expression in the sixteenth-century church. Erasmus argued for a “rebaptism” of children after receiving catechetical instruction rather than confirmation, but Erasmus’s views were rejected by Catholic scholars at the Sorbonne in 1526.

Balthasar Hubmaier and the Clarity of Scripture: A Critical Reformation Issue by Graeme R. Chatfield

Now I think the scholars were right to reject Erasmus’s idea of rebaptism. Yet, the emphasis on catechism in advance of baptism being something which, long-time readers will know, I do in fact agree with and believe myself. That whilst I do not think we should rebaptise those already done we should place catechism in advance of baptism as a normative practice. At a loss and finding myself increasingly adrift in the Church of England, I find myself drawn to this tripartite theological influence of my Anglican heritage, John Wycliffe, and Balthasar Hubmaier to orientate and ground myself. In the face of such inconsistency, any pretence of institutional authority has been eroded for me. Yet the question remains, so what? I’m still working that out but, short of a miracle, I think it is safe to say I have reached a conclusion in the discernment process. I agree with Neuhaus on this, orthodoxy cannot be optional. What happens next? Well, that is something I’m still trying to discern.

8 thoughts on “Superficiality or Sobriety

  1. I sympathize with where you are. I’ve ultimately given up on any hope or future of Anglicanism as a distinctive ‘thing’ in as much as it has always been (and still to a degree, is) caught up with the idea of a national church. But, as Figgis knew from his Anglo-Catholic perch, such wasn’t even true at the time of Hooker where such sentiments were first fully formed and articulated. Comprehensiveness as a modus vivendi has worked as long as the Church was about England, and then more so just the Tories, but now the contradictions have reached a new climax. Yet Figgis was dealing with arguments that the COE was more properly English than Christian in any narrow or doctrinaire sense. I don’t know if Figgis has any real solution though, considering his liberal-catholicism (in the sense of Acton and others who balked at Vatican I) was a minority in the COE and had a pretty tendentious hold on what the COE was or would be.

    I think Manning was right about Anglo-Catholicism: it’s basically LARPing. But that’s the danger for many kinds of “high” aesthetics which place no demand on communal life. I don’t think the Magisterial Reformers, in the main, rejected a focus on communal life, but they prioritized defining communal life in terms coextensive with a nation or state (whether city-state or kingdom). It was this focus that doomed most of them in the long-run, and the adaptation of a free-church stance saved what remained of them. This is not necessarily a product of the Anabaptists or Independency, but it’s a similar mechanism (I think the Non-Jurors came to similar conclusions). However, one ought to tread carefully because the social dynamics of community and discipline are natural phenomena, pursuable by any group whatsoever, and yet the Christian claims more than simply a natural dimension for the church’s vitality.

    Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to be a Christian in, say, the 3rd century than be one today. Hostile and/or indifferent cultures don’t necessarily contribute to the communal framework where one grows into something. But it can also produce highly insular and disturbed modes of living. At the end of the day, the distinctive Christian feature is the eternal Word who continues to speak in the words he gave.

    food for thought,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Cal, Sorry for the late reply.

      I agree that I think in some ways it’d be easier to be a Christian in the 3rd century. The struggles would be different but in many ways I think it’d be simpler.

      I think you are right with the conflation of communal life with national life. For the magisterial reformers I think this took on a rather prescriptive dimension which left the implementation to the domain of the magistrate with mixed results. The radical reformers had it as a more descriptive dimension which placed the onus on the individual which, I think, is in many ways more honest. The latter drew more heavily on medieval ascetic traditions but seemed inevitably or by design to be a minority movement with few exceptions (someone like Hubmaier could be considered an exception).

      In regards to Anglicanism being a distinctive ‘thing’ I think the earlier Reformed practices we see outlined by someone like Bucer give a blueprint for some kind of Reformed Episcopal Church. I think in practice, however, the Church of England and Anglicanism seem rudderless and are defined in part by various traditions within it being tied together by a communion which seems increasingly under strain. I think the trajectory is arguably entropic, out of this might emerge more sustainable and confessional offspring but these will inevitably be different to what preceded them and their birth might well kill the parent.

      At a loss I think this is what I find appealing about aspects of Wycliffe’s writings, whilst not perfect, depicting a Church that stood independently of Magisterial authority whilst at the same time appealing to a cross-section of society and was potentially capable of embracing it wholesale. Wherein Magisterial Reformed Theology attempted a top-down reorganising of society, Wycliffe depicts a bottom-up fertilisation that is indicative of an approach which, I believe, is conducive to the long term internal coherency of the tradition in practice.


      1. I recently gave an “interview” on this kind of definition for the Church of England, and I think that’s the most historically honest one. The Church of England (as a distinct thing, in its Edwardian Protestant sense) was a Reformed episcopal church, and it remained a Reformed church. I would even argue Laud and late 17th/early 18th c. High Churchmen still are within the Reformed fold (e.g. spiritualist eucharist, covenantal theology, Augustinian soteriology, a semi-Erastian, or perhaps better put royalist, ecclesiology). Historiography has, for so many years, butchered this whole chronology, misreading many debates. Most missed rhetorical flourish, boundary disputes, and vitriol and took it all as literal description. This misreading (and then misremembering) allowed the legend of Anglo-Catholicism, of a Church of England that was half-Catholic. But then, as Schaff and Nevin in the US made clear enough, the early Reformed (like Bucer, Bullinger, even Calvin to a degree) would have been confused as half-Catholics as well.

        If you’re interested, here’s the link (also my comments). I’d be curious for your thoughts:

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I did listen to the interview and found it really interesting. It did leave me wondering what background you come from yourself?


  2. In the 3rd century you would probably have met women priests! It’s about God calling women. God is the protagonist not this individual. He might know better than God but has he seen how God is working through women? Is he prepared to get to know women and learn about their call and discernment alongside his own.


    1. Hi Meg, if you’ve been reading for awhile you’ll know I was raised as an Egalitarian in the Church of England, which does ordain women. So yes I have done those things and have several posts on the subject over the years which track my wrestling on the subject. The ordination process I’m involved with does involve women, the majority of individuals I know discerning ordination currently are women, as is my Director of Diocesan Ordinations.

      I think your take on Women Priest’s in the 3rd century would require some buttressing. I used to think that but as someone who reads material from the early church fairly frequently, I can think of several texts off the top of my head which denounce the idea of female priests. That is not to say God does not call Women, we see that in scripture repeatedly, the question is how. I think it is a mistake to assume Men and Women are called to equivalent vocations unilaterally, this much seems clear from scripture and it is only recently we seem to now have an issue with it. If I am wrong it is because I am wrong alongside the consensus of the overwhelming majority of the Church for the last two millennia.


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