Sunday, December 21, 2008

Generous Orthodoxy

I recently posted these reflections over at my blog. I thought I'd also share them with the readers of "The Anglican Centrist" in the conviction that a Generous Orthodoxy is one of the Anglican tradition's gifts to the world (and what better time of the year to give gifts than now?). In comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what Generous Orthodoxy looks like and why it's important to you.



GENEROUS ORTHODOXY


by Bryan Owen

The term “Generous Orthodoxy” is sometimes slighted by Christians as though it’s an oxymoron or (if the critics in question happen to be Episcopalians/Anglicans) an instance of “Anglican fudge.” The way I've seen the term disparaged on conservative blogs, critics seem to think that proponents of Generous Orthodoxy are too wishy-washy to take a clear stand on any biblical, theological, or moral principles. It's as though they are equating the term "generous," not merely with "liberal," but with "relativism." And clearly, relativism and orthodoxy mix about as well as oil and water.

Speaking as a proponent for an Anglican form of Generous Orthodoxy, I think this critique is a caricature. Here are just a few sketchy thoughts as to why I think so.

Borrowing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, I am committed to:

  1. The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two Dominical Sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

I believe that a commitment to these four aspects of the "sacred deposit" of the Church makes one orthodox (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

Some might object to the minimalism of this Anglican understanding of orthodoxy (I'm thinking in particular of friends speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions). But I believe that this minimalism is a strength, not a weakness. Luke Timothy Johnson's take on the "blessed simplicity of profession" offered by the historic creeds may also be applied to the orthodoxy outlined above. He writes:

"As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4)" [The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 320].

At the same time, a willingness to sympathetically engage a wide range of secular and theological views, trying to understand those views before deciding whether or not to reject or learn from them, makes one generous. (I'm borrowing language here from a nice piece in the December 30 issue of The Christian Century on the death of William Placher.)

It's this generous spirit that allows Anglicanism to take seriously rather than shun the findings of the natural and social sciences; to engage other Christian denominations in ecumenical dialogue and to seek closer relationships with them in worship and ministry; to listen to and learn from other religious traditions without sacrificing the dogmatic core of the Church's faith; to take the concerns and the convictions of conservatives, centrists, and progressives seriously without kowtowing to their ideological agendas; and to regard predecessors as diverse as the Church Fathers and Mothers, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Karl Barth, William Stringfellow, and Paul Tillich (among many others) as theologians from whom we have important things to learn.

Does The Episcopal Church always do these things perfectly? Of course not. We often fall short. Sometimes we fail miserably. But our failures only underscore the fact that these ideals of the generous spirit of Anglicanism are ones we aspire to faithfully live out in our mission and ministry.

The late James E. Griffiss succinctly sums up the core of Generous Orthodoxy in his book The Anglican Vision (Cowley Publications, 1997) when he writes:

"I believe … that our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” (p. 101).

This via media between continuity and change, and between the Monolithic Church type and the Over-Personalized Church type, is not always an easy one to walk. But it's central to who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition.

Generous Orthodoxy.

It's not an oxymoron.

It's not Anglican fudge.

Quite the contrary, Generous Orthodoxy is Anglicanism at its best.

5 comments:

The Godfather said...

Thanks Bryan. We needed that.

One way of thinking about this is that if "It says in the scriptures . . ." is intended to START a discussion, rather than END one, that's generous orthodoxy.

Bryan Owen said...

Very good point, Godfather.

Peter Carey said...

Bryan,

Excellent post - very interesting and helpful.

I am trying to remember the origin of the term "generous orthodoxy"...wasn't it an Anglican theologian/bishop...? (Temple?)

Peter Carey+
http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com

fatherjones.com said...

I believe the origin of the term comes from Hans Frei, late bible scholar of Yale.

Bryan Owen said...

That's my understanding as well, Greg.