One of the most vexing questions an Anglican can be asked is “What is your theology?” or “How do Anglicans decide what they believe?” I have heard many answers to these questions, and given many myself, but this recent article over at The Catholic Anglican is incredibly helpful. It begins:
At some point any serious, committed Anglican — particularly someone who understands, or has been told, that Anglican spirituality is actually thoroughly Catholic, though distinct from Roman, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Oriental Catholic — is likely going to confront a simple but serious question: What is the nature of Anglican theology?
The blog continues by invoking former Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher:
Many Anglicans know, and all should, that Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (d. 1972) famously said about Anglicanism, “We have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and these creeds we hold without addition or diminution. We stand firm on that rock.” These words ought plaster the top of every formation handout given to Anglican in parish formation classes. ++Fisher’s statement is profound, scriptural, patristic, and humble. Its truth guides our tradition.
The article then goes on to draw a very helpful (to my mind) distinction between doctrine and theology. Doctrine is what is believed. Anglican doctrine is Catholic doctrine… as believed everywhere, always, and by all. Theology is faith (belief) seeking understanding. Because there are various Catholic schools within the historic Church, it follows that there are various Catholic theologies. So what is Anglican theology? “What is our school of Catholic theology, born of our spirituality?”
I would propose that Fr Martin Thornton has given Anglicanism a permanent gift, which is his book, English Spirituality. This book is already well-loved and appreciated in Anglicanism, certainly in the United States. It is the go-to book to discuss ascetical theology and is a resource for pastoral theology. But I would argue that neither application exhausts the book’s gift. No, its true significance is more profound: it is nothing less than a thorough map of Anglican theology in its historical lineage. That is to say, from Thornton, we have a clear sense of what the core curriculum is, and should be, for Anglican historical theology. His might be the very first instance that the contours of our school of theology have been thoroughly and concisely articulated. For this, we must give all thanks to Triune God.
To be fair, I’m not certain that Thornton himself grasped this — he very well may have! — although I would highly doubt he would disagree strongly with this application of his work. But perhaps as my study of Thornton deepens (I’m doing my master’s thesis on his corpus), I would revise that speculation. In any event, all are advised to purchase the book immediately if it does not grace your collection. And if it does, pull it out and give it serious attention in this new light. I will not rehearse here the extended argument that Thornton makes, because it is nuanced and does require participation in Anglican liturgical and sacramental life to fully appreciate (as any school would require).
Having now introduced us to Thornton, we get a basic outline of our “root stock”
These are the thinkers, prayers, writers, and (importantly) theologians that we as Anglicans owe our method, spirituality, and spiritual practices to. It seems we would all do well to become friends with them, and perhaps to go ahead and purchase a copy of English Spirituality. I wonder how many of our priests and Bishops in America are friends with these great Anglican teachers? I wonder how many seminarians are reading Augustine, Aquinas, and the Desert Fathers. I wonder how many of our vestry members have ever prayerfully read The Rule of Benedict? I suspect it is precious few on all counts. I wonder if reacquainting ourselves with our fore-bearers in the faith might help us find our way forward… might lead us to a much longed for renewal.