This week, I was reading the script of a play called “The Christians,” by Lucas Hnath, which is scheduled to be performed this month at the Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville. The action of the play is set in motion by an Evangelical pastor’s announcement that he no longer believes in hell, and the conflict that follows. The play is not intended to be a theological treatise on either side, but really a study of characters dealing with a rupture in their worldview.
One of the things that struck me most, though, was what the pastor said at the end of his announcement: “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.” In other words, the pastor is the one who defines the faith of the congregation, and if the pastor has discerned something that causes him to change his mind, then the congregation is expected to follow suit.
I told Andrew, the Director at A.R.T., that I could not imagine an Episcopal priest or bishop standing in front of a congregation an announcing that “We are no longer a church that believes X” – not because our understandings and beliefs don’t evolve, but because our pastors don’t have that sort of authority to define the faith of the faithful. Revolutionary thinkers and theologians in our tradition have been more likely to announce, “I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer believe X.” At its best, then, the church has weighed and sifted that assertion and come to a consensus, or at least a willingness to live with differing interpretations of X.
This kind of communal discernment has led some to question whether the Episcopal Church actually believes anything, or expects its members to believe anything. I have even heard well-intentioned Episcopalians say that one of the things they like most about our church is that you can believe whatever you want (at which point the Rector flinches involuntarily).
It’s true that the Episcopal Church does not have a pope and magisterium to define and guard doctrine. Nor do we have a formal confession of faith like many Lutheran and Reformed churches do.
John Hooker, one of the earliest systematic Anglican theologians, writes that the sources of authority in our church are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, later oversimplified in the metaphor of a three-legged stool which collapses if any of the three legs fails. In fact, Hooker saw Scripture as the primary source of authority, interpreted in terms of the other two, but the fact that all three are subject to human interpretation seems like a problem if we are looking for a concise statement of “what Episcopalians believe” (although one must admit that even the Reformed Confessions are subject to interpretation).
In the back of your Prayer Book, on pages 867-876 in the section called “Historical Documents,” one can find the Articles of Religion, first published in 1571. This document is sort of the letters of incorporation of the new Church of England, taking care to differentiate it from both the Roman Catholic and radical Reformed churches. While the attention to specific timely controversies (like whether it is proper for a Christian to swear an oath before a judge) seem quaint to us now, at least the first twenty-eight articles are a statement of orthodox Protestant teaching. But in fact this document is considered by many Episcopalians to be a historical artifact, not a statement of essential doctrine for the church today.
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 on pages 876-877 is closer to us in time as well as in spirit. It states that, in the interest of Christian unity, the Episcopal Church is willing to compromise on preferences and customs, but that the essential marks of the Christian church are 1) The Holy Scriptures, understood to be the revealed Word of God; 2) The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of Christian faith; 3) The two dominical sacraments of baptism and communion; and 4) “The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted.” Whether or not one accepts these items as essential (number four does not seem as obvious to many other Christian denominations as it does to us!), they represent a bare minimum of what the Episcopal Church considers necessary to be the church.
The Catechism on pages 845-862 is an outline for instruction in the faith, newly composed for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but the prologue clearly states that it “is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher.” In fact, many of the statements in the catechism are so open-ended and pre-suppose such knowledge of Christianity that they are of little use in defining a distinctively Episcopal faith.
When challenged to describe “what Episcopalians believe,” a popular answer has been to quote the motto Lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This is an acknowledgement that the Anglican tradition is not defined by agreement on doctrine or dogma, but on a shared way of praying and worshipping; furthermore, our habitual common prayer defines and shapes our faith rather than affirmation of any particular propositions. This can be caricatured as rote repetition without theological understanding, but at best is a recognition that human beings are more than intellectual animals, and that in prayer, song, body posture and sacrament the Holy Spirit can reach parts of our created selves inaccessible to rational discourse. This understanding makes the design and practice of liturgy and worship even more critical, as they are not only habit, but the way that Christians are formed.
None of these, of course, is the same as a fifteen-point statement of faith to which we can choose to subscribe or not. But neither is the lack of such a bulleted list an indication that Episcopalians believe nothing or everything. Rather, when we stand and hear the Gospel proclaimed, when we recite the Creeds, when we celebrate the sacraments, we may not be narrowly defining what each means, but we are affirming that we are members of a church that believes that these things are important and true. We are able to have a conversation about hell or heaven or bishops or health care or climate change, or whether it is acceptable for a Christian to swear an oath, secure in the knowledge that we may disagree and not be asked to leave the church. No single person nor any single document can tell us what we must believe, and yet over the last five centuries we have somehow managed to hold together this dynamic consensus about what it means to be faithful.