Recently, I’ve been reading several Anglican theologians for a couple of book projects I’m working on: J. B. Lightfoot and R. C. Moberly on the ministerial priesthood; and F. D. Maurice, B. F. Westcott, and John Mbiti on the theology of religions. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot from engaging with these great thinkers as they turn their attention to important theological issues. Which raises a question for me:
Why is it that reading Anglican theologians writing on specific ideas and issues is such an interesting, edifying and energizing experience and reading Anglican writers discuss the nature of Anglicanism such a boring and/or diminishing experience?
I mean this as a genuine question. I used to think the fact that my eyes glaze over whenever people start discussing the nature of Anglicanism meant that I must be a bad Anglican. But then why is it that I find reading Anglican theologians so exciting?
Let me explain.
When I hear that Rowan Williams or John Milbank have written new books I can’t wait to read them. And, as I mentioned above, if I am researching a juicy topic and I get to read some classic Anglican thinkers, I am thrilled. But if you tell me that someone has written an important new book on the history of Anglicanism or Anglican identity, I think to myself “Good Lord deliver me.”
To be fair, I’ve read a number of good/competent books on Anglicanism by good/competent scholars like Stephen Sykes, Mark Chapman, and Paul Avis. But I must also confess that I find them rather boring and usually end up asking myself “so what?” But I have also read a good many essays and articles on Anglicanism by lesser thinkers that are small-minded and divisive. More and more I find that many discussions of Anglicanism are really about an attempt to say what people, ideas, practices and churches are actually un-Anglican in an attempt to shut them down.
Perhaps it has always been so. And perhaps I should just stick to reading classic Anglican writers and leave off reading the nonsense.
I have, however, been rereading Maurice’s Kingdom of Christ and came across this passage from the “Preface to the 1838 Edition” that I thought was pretty great. The historical context is that there were three church parties (which in the Church of England of the time basically corresponded to High Church, Anglo Catholics, Broad Church Modernists and Low Church Evangelicals) who were attacking each other and tearing apart the church. Maurice, in The Kingdom of Christ, claims he is trying to find a better way forward. He writes,
“What seems to me most necessary, for the circumstances of our time, and the wants of our minds, is, that we should be taught how to profit by the writings of men who have seen certain sides of truth very strongly; how we may be prevented from rejecting what they rejected. At present, most of our books are written against some prevailing notion; Papists write against Protestants, Protestants against Popery; the supporters of the Via Media against both. It is impossible for men holding one view to read the words written on the opposite hypothesis, except for the purpose of finding fault with them. It is impossible for those who adopt none of the views to gain quiet and comfortable instruction from the writers who have defended them. Thus three-fourths of our time for reading is spent in finding out what we may abuse; and numbers seem ready to abandon reading altogether, because they find so little with which they may agree. Surely this state of feeling is most mischievous; surely there must be that in the writings of all three classes which I have described, from which we might derive a blessing; and there may be a blessing in each one, which the other cannot give. What we want, is to be brought into a point of view, in which the fair and illuminated side of each doctrine, and not its dark side, may be presented to us.”
I don’t know if I am becoming more or less Anglican. I do know that I am eager to reread Maurice and to learn more from him.