Doing Anglican Theology

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The crises that Anglicanism faces today can usually be traced to the different ways in which different sides approach the task of doing theology. The questions which arise are not new: how do we interpret Scripture? what authority do we give to Scripture? how much respect do we pay to the way in which Scripture has been interpreted in the past? how seriously do we take the creedal statements and traditions which have shaped the identity of the Church? how much reliance we put on critical reason informed by experience, culture and context?

A Proposal

Since Richard Hooker's foundational thinking Anglicanism has always looked to the three-fold relationship between Scripture, Tradition and Reason as the framework within which faith can find meaningful expression[1]; although it is worthy of note that Hooker always referred to Scripture, Reason and Tradition in that order, placing Reason next to Scripture as the more important handmaid of its interpretation. I suggest in this article that we need to re-explore this dynamic relationship and extend it somewhat to put Christ at the centre, to whom all three bear witness and who is the focus of our faith. I want to propose that, following Richard Hooker, and others such as Karl Barth[2], doing theology should be always christological, and that Christ is the hub around which everything else revolves. This is already the case for the testimony of Scripture, but it should also be true for Tradition and Reason, which means that they are valid in so far as they are faithful to Christ. The analysis will be applied to the way we conduct the contemporary debate about human sexuality.

Scripture, Tradition and Reason

Imagine the three points of a triangle by which Scripture, Tradition and Reason represent the three reference points of faith. We may indicate the priority of Scripture by representing it at the apex of the triangle. Grounded in Scripture, we nevertheless recognise that our faith is a thinking faith, engaging our minds as well as our hearts. Anglicanism has a tradition of open-minded debate and critical thinking, so faith needs Reason to find truth as it reads Scripture[3]. But faith also locates itself in the story of the Church and identifies itself with the Traditions that the Church has recognised as embodying Orthodoxy. By faith we take our place in the history of God's people, we join in with the Communion of Saints, and we accept their Traditions as belonging to us. These Traditions have sought to formulate the Church's understanding of Scripture so that faith is built up by its corporate identity embodied in the Tradition. So faith needs all three points of the triangle, even though we recognise that Scripture has an authority as the "norm of faith and the norm by which all other norms are judged"[4].

Some will want to draw the triangle in different ways. Some will make it very tall and thin, so that Scripture stands head and shoulders above the other two and diminishes their relative importance. They will insist that Scripture as our final authority can never allow Tradition and Reason to relativise its absolute priority. Tradition and Reason can be wrong, whereas Scripture has intrinsic Truth by virtue of its God-breathed inspiration. Others will go to the other extreme of making Tradition and Reason predominate, so that the triangle is flattened and much shorter in height, in which case Scripture is given less significance as a historical and human document. Now Scripture has to take its place in the flow of history as a product of human experience, one witness to God amongst many. Faith becomes Schleiermacher's "feeling of absolute dependence", which need have no relation to Scripture for its validity. Some will argue that Anglicanism gives equal weight to all three points, making the relation between them an equilateral triangle, and thereby giving equal weight to the three respectively. This view argues that while Scripture must be allowed a logical priority and final authority, it needs relationships with Tradition and Reason in equal measure if it is ever to be meaningful to Faith. However we look at it, the important thing about the triangle is the relationships between the three points and the relative importance we attach to the lines which join them together. So this is where we will turn our attention.


The three lines of the triangle which represent the relationships between the three points, help us to locate the place of hermeneutics, doctrine and worship respectively in the way we do theology. Let us explore these three relationships (Fig 3).

...between Scripture and Reason

Hermeneutics is done through the engagement of the relationship between Scripture and Reason, and can therefore be attributed to the line which joins them. Interpretation is the application of Reason, and all the resources which our minds and imaginations bring, to the understanding of Scripture as words which have a human context. Of course it is much more than purely an intellectual exercise. We are always reliant on the Holy Spirit to "lead us into all truth" (John 16:13). But there should be no dichotomy between the mind and the Spirit. We cannot interpret Scripture without the apprehension of Reason, albeit a Reason governed by the Spirit. Even when the meaning of the text seems to us to be clear and unambiguous, the very necessity of reading it, translating it and absorbing it requires the mind to process it from the page to our consciousness. But we must also recognise that Reason exercised by an individual in isolation may not be sufficient. All human reason is distorted by sin, and therefore we need to listen to the Reason of others, who may help us to qualify our understanding of the text. In that case even what may seem to be an obvious interpretation to us needs to be held with a humility which recognises the provisionality of all our interpretations. This is a characteristic Anglican approach to reading Scripture[5]. Hermeneutics is therefore a corporate exercise of the Church and submits itself to reasoned debate and the critical examination of other perspectives.

...between Scripture and Tradition

Doctrine emerges from out of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and is therefore characteristic of the line connecting them. It seeks to formulate what we believe to be the truth of Scripture by presenting it as statements, creeds, articles of faith and the pronouncements of the Church which have been generally recognised as faithful to how God has revealed Himself. In other words traditions that have the corporate recognition of the Church as being faithful to Scripture become doctrine, or foundational truths, that are regarded as expressing the orthodoxy by which the Church defines its identity. But once again the provisional nature of doctrine as human formulation needs to be acknowledged. Anglicanism does not invest in any doctrinal statements, be they creeds, confessions or systematic theologies, the hallowed weight of infallibility[6]. Thus orthodoxy is held by faith as a confessional recognition of truth, and once again it is corporately acknowledged as the Belief of the Church.

...between Tradition and Reason

That corporateness comes into its own thirdly in the relationship between Tradition and Reason, within which worship takes its place as the Church's expression of faith. There is an integral relationship between worship and belief, expressed in the Anglican formulation: lex orandi, lex credendi; the law of praying is the law of believing[7]. So worship looks back to the traditions and the doctrines they embody, and seeks to transform them as living expressions of praise to God. But worship also needs the resources of Reason to formulate its liturgies in such as way as they make sense to us in our own contexts. Writing liturgy is a very human exercise, a struggle to find appropriate words to express faith, and it will involve a considerable amount of debate! But in worship we are taking our place in traditions that reach back sometimes to the very origins of the Church. However, as with interpretation and doctrine, liturgies are never infallible, nor should they be regarded as unchangeable. Cranmer could never have imagined that his liturgies, embodied in the Prayer Books of the mid-sixteenth century, would remain unchanged for 300 years. Indeed they went through several stages of change over the hundred years after Cranmer's first attempt in 1549, and 1662 was declared to be open to change[8]. Worship, as with doctrine, must be a living expression of faith.

The triangular analogy can only be suggestive of certain dynamic relationships, since theology is much more complex than a simple diagram implies. For example, hermeneutics also looks across the triangle to Tradition for inspiration, and how texts have been interpreted in the past is a major component of the corporateness of the Church's understanding of Scripture. Doctrine can hardly do without Reason to help it to systematise its thoughts. And Anglican worship is soaked in Scripture, both directly and indirectly referenced. But the relational nature of the mutually enriching interplay between these points of reference leads us to see hermeneutics, doctrine and worship as living, evolving and transforming aspects of the very human search for the living God; which leads us to humbly accept their provisionality.


If all theological interpretations, doctrines and liturgies are provisional[9], this makes them creative exercises, since the three kinds of relationship outlined above are dynamic and open in their outcomes. Any attempt to fossilise a doctrine, sanctify an interpretation or idolise a liturgy only condemns them to an irrelevance which is a kind of death, an absence of life. There is even a danger of a bibliolatry which so reverences the text itself as to close off debate and to make any tradition of interpretation irrelevant[10]. In this case the triangle becomes a straight line, or maybe there is not even a line left, but only the single immoveable point! But the only single immoveable point of faith and unchanging absolute is God Himself, to whom Scripture itself bears witness. Scripture is true because it reflects truth about God, and although the Canon is a final and definitive witness, its truth is in what it says about God. God speaks to us through its words, and he breathes into those words truth about himself. That truth has to be comprehended and received so that we might know God. So Scripture is not an end in itself. It must not be worshipped for itself, since only God himself should receive our worship and be glorified. But also Scripture is not self-evidently true - first it requires the Holy Spirit to lead us into its truth, second it requires faith to bring its truth alive to us, and third it requires reason to help us apply our minds to understand it. In discussing Richard Hooker, Rowan Williams comments: "...knowing is ineradicably a matter of contingent, conversational, perspectival and narrative development."[11]


For Hooker the foundations of orthodoxy, or the 'principal thing which is believed' is quite simply Jesus Christ, his person and work[12]. Thus any schema which represents how we do theology the Anglican way must put Christ at the centre. To extend the triangular analogy, this means placing a Christ-shaped circle in the middle of our triangle which touches each of the three sides. What implications does this have for these three relational sides? Or, in what ways does Christ influence the three themes of hermeneutics, doctrine and worship?

First, Anglican hermeneutics must always be done christologically. There is a strong tradition of reading the Old Testament in the light of Christ as its fulfilment and interpreter, and the New Testament is the outworking of Christ's life, death and resurrection. This does not deny the OT its own integrity, indeed it is important to acknowledge that its literature has its own context and history within which its texts must be understood. There is always a distinction to be made between what God reveals of His will in specific contexts and what he reveals that transcends contexts and takes its place in his abiding will for his people in every generation. Nevertheless it can be said as a generalisation that only through Christ can we put the OT in its proper place as revelation of God's unfolding purposes. This has been extensively argued elsewhere[13]. Similarly the New Testament owes its integrity to the Christ to whom it witnesses, the written word leading us to the Living Word. Scripture is therefore given to us by God as the way by which we come to know Christ. But Christ also has a relationship to Reason since we receive as Christians 'the mind of Christ' (1 Corinthians 2:16). His teaching appeals to our minds, it asks questions of us, it obliges us to think, it leads us into self-evaluation, it is aimed at the transformation of our thinking (Romans 12:2). So in his dual relation to Scripture and Reason Christ enables us to fulfil the task of interpretation in such as way as we can remain faithful to Him. That means, amongst other things, that our interpretations and theological explorations will be compassionate, free of legalism, life-affirming, and kingdom-seeking. These will be some of the characteristics of the Anglican approach.

Secondly doctrine must also have Christology at its heart and expound the highest possible view of Christ. The Early Church struggled to express what they believed about the divine-human nature of Christ before they settled on how to put their belief about the Trinity into words. It is important that Anglicans respect the orthodoxy of the creeds, but especially so in what they express about the divine-human Christ. The doctrinal traditions of the Church found a corporate consensus on what to say about Christ, which is not infallible, but which has faithful continuity with the Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of the first disciples. This is one reason why the 'Myth of God Incarnate' project, and what it has spawned since, has been so profoundly unchristian in its cavalier dismissal of Early Church Christology[14]. Anglican doctrine will always therefore give Christ his proper place, and not seek to relative him or empty him of his uniqueness. Just as St Paul sought to give the Colossian Christians such a sense of the sovereignty and totality of Christ in their pluralistic context (Colossians 1:15-20), so Anglican doctrine today will remain faithful to this Tradition in the face of competing ideologies and speculative theologies.

Thirdly, worship, as it seeks to bring Tradition alive in a contemporary context, will always be focussed on Christ. Hooker takes us back to Christology at the heart of worship, and brings the full humanity of Christ into the understanding of the sacraments[15]. The Christological passages of Paul's writings probably began their life in the context of worship as the earliest hymns. These are such profound expressions of truth which contrast markedly with some modern manifestations of a superficial Jesus theology. Anglican worship will always value the songs and liturgies of the past which have captured truth about Christ in a special way, while at the same time it will seek creative gifts of mind and heart to make those truth live to contemporary ears. This focus on Christ as the expression of true worship also brings into question 'multi-faith' worship which makes no mention of Christ. But Anglicans will always be willing to join in worship with others who confess Christ, from whatever tradition they come or whatever lifestyle they have chosen to live. These considerations and preferences will always be secondary to the common experience of those who are 'in Christ', however imperfect their discipleship and ours.

Christ is encountered through Scripture, expounded through Tradition and explained through Reason. We understand him as we interpret the texts of Scripture, as we listen to the historic debates and their formulations, and as we grapple with the contemporary questions about him with open minds. These three processes are concurrent of course, and not mutually exclusive, hence the relational nature of the dynamic and creative interaction of the three. Anglican theology therefore is done within the framework of these relationships, never either to the undue exaltation or the undue detriment of Scripture, Tradition or Reason, but always with Christ at the Centre.

A Contemporary Example; Human Sexuality

How does all this apply to the way in which Anglicans approach the questions of sexuality which are threatening to divide the Communion?

In the first place, in relation to hermeneutics, we have to take what Scripture says about God's will for the use of our bodies seriously and approach it with due reverence for its authority. But in our attempts to interpret texts we will always be willing to ask questions, explore contexts, examine root meanings of words, and bring all the resources of the mind to the task. We will not be content with what seems to us to be the 'plain meaning' of the text, unless that has been arrived at through rigorous thinking. Even then we will be willing to keep our interpretations provisional and open to other perspectives. Above all we will strive to be faithful to Christ in his approach to those whose lives raise difficult issues of sexuality. This means, amongst other things, pointing people beyond their immediate issues (eg John 4:7-26); combining forgiveness and compassion with discipline (eg John 8.1-11); taking us back to God's creation ordinances as the framework for all our relationships (eg Matthew 19:3-9); and acknowledging our human limitations when it comes to living God's ideals (eg Matthew 19:9-12).

Secondly, in relation to doctrine, whatever we say about sexuality will give due respect to what has been orthodox teaching and whatever consensus the Church has reached in previous generations. This does not mean that we cannot explore a contemporary understanding of these traditional standpoints and fresh ways of expressing them. Neither does it close off discussion about what orthodoxies might need to be added to or qualified in the light of today's questions. Whenever we formulate doctrinal statements or policy documents we will always recognise their provisionality. But faithfulness to Christ will recognise that he did not abolish the law, but he did give it fresh meaning in the light of his coming and sought to change attitudes rather than lay down laws (eg Matt 5.17ff). Discipleship thus becomes first a matter of the heart and secondarily a matter of obedience to certain precepts. Thus in teaching on sexuality Anglicans will always strive to avoid legalism or a strictly prescriptive approach.

Thirdly, in relation to worship, Anglicans will recognise that in the light of Christ all our differences are relativised. Whatever labels or human identities we carry with us do not prevent us from recognising our unity in Christ (Gal 3.28), whatever imperfections we may perceive in each other. Anglicans come together as sinners round the Lord's Table. We acknowledge that we are obliged to remove the log from our own eye before we try to take the speck from our brother or sister ( Matt 7.5). We will recognise also however that worship carries with it a discipline which Christ taught his disciples, so that standards of holiness do matter in his presence and all are open to the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit as we come before Him in worship. Tradition will help us to formulate policies of discipline at the level of the Church.

There is the question of how central sexuality is to our understanding of the gospel. The Scriptures put it into the wider context of holiness in relationships, so that issues of justice, respect, mutual love, attitude to possessions and money, are all important. The gospel is first of all about the totality of our human predicament, so sexuality must be seen in that perspective. In relation to Tradition, again it has its place, but it is never prominent in doctrinal formulations or discussions. In relation to Reason, we might argue for a holistic understanding of our humanity which once again avoids the twin errors of ignoring the need for sexual wholeness on the one hand, and on the other hand affording it too much prominence and in so doing following the contemporary cultural obsession with sexual issues which becomes dehumanising. In relation to Christ's teaching we have to admit that sexual morality was not a major focus of his teaching, and was generally formulated in response to questions. All this points to the need to get things in perspective, without ignoring what the Bible or Christ actually do say that we cannot afford to ignore.

If we follow these principles in the way we do theology we will be faithful to the Anglican way and by so doing hopefully avoid catastrophic divisions. Indeed that is the 'genius' of Anglicanism - it's ability to hold together perspectives and polarities in a creative tension which is holistic and which finds its resolution in our common identity 'in Christ'. Resolution of course is an eschatological hope, which is why we need the "theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience" which Archbishop Rowan has been pleading for[16]. It is this that makes room for the 'contemplative pragmatism' with which Williams characterises Anglicanism. It is a 'sapiential theology' which is rooted both in revelation (and is therefore contemplative) and reality (and is therefore pragmatic), and which invites us into a creative engagement with life which is an on-going exploration of God's purposes. Anglican theology is therefore as much an approach, a way of doing things, rather than the formulation of water-tight doctrinal statements, and the key is relationships - the relationships between Scripture, Tradition and Reason and more significant still the relationship of the Church to Christ who is its Head.

John Corrie is Lecturer in Mission Studies in Trinity College Bristol. As an ordained minister he served for nine years in two parishes in Kendal and Nottingham before leaving with his wife and family for Peru where he served for five years as a Chaplain for the English-speaking church in Lima. On his return he taught theology of mission, ethics, ecclesiology and Latin American Studies at All Nations Christian College for eleven years and was their MA Course Director. He moved to Birmingham to lead a Centre for Anglican Communion Studies, after which he worked for the Archbishop of Canterbury until April this year. His commitment is to work for the integration of missiology and theology, and he writes and speaks about the holistic mission of the Church as a sign and instrument of the Kingdom.

End Notes

The notes in the text are hyperlinked into the end notes; to return to the text, click on the end note number

[1] Hooker is well summarised by Percy: "Reason is applied to Scripture in the humility that sees Scripture as primary. At the same time, reason is freshly formed out of our gracious life within a Church which, again in humility, looks to its tradition as authoritative. It is all rather mysterious, very much about harmony, very Trinitarian. This music is the true tenor of Anglicanism", Percy, M, Introducing Richard Hooker and the laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1999)

See also the Virginia Report which expresses it as follows: "Anglicans are held together by the characteristic way in which they use Scripture, tradition and reason in discerning afresh the mind of Christ for the Church in each generation", The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference 1998, (Harrisburg, PA, Morehouse Publishing, 1999), p32

[2] "Dogmatics presupposes that, as God in Jesus Christ is the essence of the Church, having promised Himself to it, so He is the truth, not merely in Himself, but also for us as we know Him solely by faith in Jesus Christ", Barth, K, Church Dogmatics, Vol I 1 (Edinburgh, T and T Clark, 1975, p12) See also Vogel, A A, Theology in Anglicanism (Conneticut, Morehouse-Barlow, 1984), Chapter 3

[3] "Anglicanism has always been hospitable to rigorous theological enquiry. It attempt the bold experiment of combining the traditional disciplines of personal devotion, liturgical worship and credal orthodoxy with the most radical questioning in pursuit of the truth". Anglicanism is committed to what Jeremy Taylor called 'the liberty of prophesying'; see Avis, P, Anglicanism and the Christian Church (Edinburgh, T and T Clark, Rev Ed, 2002), p337

[4] Fuller, R in Sykes, S et al (eds), The Study of Anglicanism (SPCK/Fortress Press, Rev Ed, 1998), p91

[5] Let Hooker again be our guide: "Hooker defended public or corporate reason - the collective wisdom of the whole body of the Church - as against the judgment of individuals" McGrade, A S in Sykes, op. cit., p117

[6] "... 'infallibility', for all its formal precision, has no verifiable, empirical connotation that can establish its truth. Thus, even with its attendant difficulties, a Church in via should not expect more than indefectibility", Vogel, op cit, p156

[7] For an excellent exposition of this principle see Stevenson, W.T in Sykes, op cit, pp187-201

[8] "It is but reasonable that, upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein as to those that are in place of Authority should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient" (The Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer)

[9] George Carey has defended an open-ended kind of evangelical Anglicanism; "We are a Communion which has internalised disagreement and lives with it gladly most of the time. If you like we are content to live with blurred edges and with some degree of provisionality" Carey, G, 19th Annual Lecture (St. George's House, Windsor, 1996), p12

[10]"Hooker would surely have affirmed the later Caroline attacks on 'bibliolatry', such as those penned by Samuel Fisher: 'the reduction of biblical writers to stenographers of the Spirit makes them no better than Balaam's ass'", Percy, M, op cit, p23

[11] Williams, R, Anglican Identities, (London, DLT, 2004), p44

[12] "This 'precious doctrine', this 'inestimable treasure' is the 'rock' that forms the foundation of the Church", Avis, P, op cit, p37

[13] See, for example, Wenham, J W, Christ and the Bible (London, Tyndale Press, 1972)

[14] Hick, J (ed), The Myth of God Incarnate (SCM, 1977)

[15] For reference to this see Graham Kings' review article of Williams' Anglican Identities entitled "Passionate Patience" on the Fulcrum website

[16] Williams, op cit, p7

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