So what do we actually believe?
Most Christians are taught specific things to believe. We find them in our prayers and creeds. We find them preached on Sunday and revealed in Bible studies on Wednesdays.
And when we try to fit into a group, we want to find out what they believe. All that stuff is part of theology. And for many, the question isn’t Do you believe? but Which system informs what you believe?
Not “which” as in which faith. In the West, we take it for granted that everybody’s Christian.
No, we’re wanting to know which theological framework do we use.
When I asked him So what do we believe? I was asking that latter question: Which one?
The answer surprised me.
For many seminarians, the most dreaded class we’re required to take is systematic theology. It’s hard, heady stuff. I liked it. But I’m a masochist. And I think existentialism is fun.
With systematic theology, we survey Christian theology from those first believers trying to make sense of who Jesus really is to the complex theories of Karl Barth. The curriculum is designed to help us develop our own theology that is systematic or complete. The sort of system which could adapt and make sense in a variety of circumstances. That we could handle whatever issues were raised and say “there’s GOD!”
And as we learned about all these German theologians and the challenging ways Christians have wrestled throughout history and into the 2oth Century, into Modernism and then with its successor, I had to ask.
Where is the Anglican theology? What do we believe?
And the simple response given is appropriately shocking:
There isn’t any.
That response is too simple. But sort of accurate.
For Anglicans (as Episcopalians are), our biggest recent names barely have household cachet: C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Paul Tillich, Rowan Williams. And one of the biggest contributions to Christian Theology came from an ancient Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm. These are Anglican theologians.
But there is no “Anglican Theology” per se.
1) We aren’t confessional
Many churches have a specific statement of belief; a way of saying This is what we all believe. To be a member of that church is to “confess” that you believe that statement to be true. Anglicans don’t do that. On purpose.
2) We don’t impose theology
The Anglican approach is based on a big tent way of approaching theology. This means that for over four centuries we have tried to avoid telling people what to believe so that we can allow more diversity in belief. This has traditionally been understood as creating a safe space for both Catholics and Protestants; where both can come to worship and say They worship like me!
3) Blending personal and corporate theologies
Having such a big tent theology has often meant that the church allows diversity in personal theological approaches. This also means the tradition needs to blend these theologies: not only in the individual hearts of each Anglican, but also into a more cohesive incorporated whole. In other words, we live with the tension of maintaining space for multiple theologies in a greater institutional structure which often expects the whole to adhere to singular ideas. That it might speak with one voice as other Christian groups do. That our voice on Sunday might sound as one, multi-layered; like a four-part harmony.
4) Fluid theology
This means that our theology has tended to be more fluid and adaptive than other theological approaches. Whereas this may often be expressed in ways that are wishy-washy or indecisive, the better character of the theology is precisely in its lack of prescriptive behavior. This allows us to make sense of circumstances which change the rules of the game, without having to rewrite everything. Such as when we came to realize that maybe slavery was not really something that made GOD all that happy. Our approach to theology allows us to learn, evolve, adapt. This is not to suggest we always adapt so easily, however…
5) We adopt theologies
Our theology is formed through the adoption and working with existing theologies. Rather than reinvent the wheel as other reformers were doing, the English reformers were naturally taking from various other sources and piecing together, over the course of a few generations, the basis for a both/and approach to reforming theology: the famous via media. We continue this same approach as we learn not only from Catholic and Protestant theologians, but Orthodox, Charismatic, Celtic, and Patristic sources as well.
And yet, as I was learning about this beautiful and affirming approach to theology, it bothered me that we didn’t seem to have our own specific theology. Like our ancestors of old, demanding a king like all the other nations have, I selfishly wanted a true Anglican theology to call our own. One which our people could cite or from which we could find easy answers.
But I believe I was wrong. Anglicans do have a theology.
Anglican Theology is liturgical first
One of the mistakes we make in defining belief is that we mistake creed or confession as the natural and quintessential product of theology. That we might say Upon this paper is the summation of our belief. And This is who we believe GOD is.
And yet the act of belief is experiential and decisive in a way of living. It is poorly defined by any words put to page.
But for many Americans, we treat faith as purely a personal experience. And an intellectual one at that. Something easily defined and codified. Same with theology, which is often an entirely heady pursuit.
That tremendous decision by our ancestors to be both Catholic and Protestant wasn’t merely born out of indecision or raw politics. It comes from a deep source of desire to be together, all together. Catholic in its truest sense rather than the hierarchical or liturgical sense.
The primary assumption is that we would worship all together as one. This is a deeply theological supposition.
- This is the same desire of the apostles huddled in the upper room
- And the group fishing by the shore
- And the feeding of the multitudes
- And the last supper: the Passover feast.
We eat together and work together. Like the apostles and the first proto-Christians. All together at the table. Protestant and Catholic. Like Jew and Gentile. Like saint and sinner. Like Pharisee and tax collector.
That we embody our faith in gathering and manifest a sense of a truly open table. Even when we struggle to make sense of this intellectually. Even when we want to run kicking and screaming from the hard work of living out the liturgical theology we embrace. Even when we’d rather transform the experiential into an intellectual debate.
Separating. Us and them. Inside and out. Baptized and _____ what? What are the unbaptized to us?
This is how Anglicans do theology. We make it as we live it.
This is why it is wrong to say that we don’t have an Anglican Theology. We do. It just doesn’t look like we expect theology to look. It has a different priority. It starts from a different place seeking a different result.
Our theology isn’t about having a ready answer to a question. It is not a list printed and memorized. It is not expected that we will all come to the same conclusion. Instead, it is to be honest to the human wrestling with how to respond to a question. And it is the beliefs, and the variety of experiences found in our communities of faith.
More than answers, we seek responses.
We don’t intend to keep our theology secret. It’s just that we’re taught not only to think, but to experience our faith in worship, study, and service. To embody a life that is theology. That is what Anglicans offer to theology.