National Affairs Rory Leishman

In a statement on June 27, the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, presented a plan for expelling the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States from constituent membership in the worldwide Anglican communion. Specifically, Williams suggested that any Anglican church that unilaterally flouts Anglican doctrine should be reduced to the status of an “associate” member of the Anglican Communion that would “have no direct part in the decision making of the ‘constituent’ churches.”

While the immediate cause of this impending schism is a dispute over the blessing of same-sex unions and the morality of homosexual sexual behaviour, the underlying reasons for the fracture go to the heart of the Christian doctrine on the supreme authority of Scripture.

In an official statement on contraception, the Church of England suggests that the Anglican and Catholic churches have “different ways of approaching questions of moral theology. Roman Catholics have tended to look to the ‘magisterium,’ the official teaching of the church, typically articulated by the Pope, as the source of authority on moral, as in doctrinal, questions. Anglicans have tended to call on ‘Scripture, tradition and reason.’”

This statement is incorrect. Unlike liberal bishops of the Anglican church, the Pope always undertakes in his doctrinal statements to uphold tradition and reason in conformity with the supreme authority of Scripture.

In 2002, a group of distinguished theologians associated with the consortium Evangelicals and Catholics Together issued a joint statement entitled “Your Word of Truth,” in which they explained that both Catholics and evangelicals affirm “that Scripture is the divinely inspired and uniquely authoritative written revelation of God; as such it is normative for the teaching and life of the church. We also affirm that tradition, rightly understood as the proper reflection of biblical teaching, is the faithful transmission of the truth of the Gospel from generation to generation through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In contrast, many Anglican bishops typically pay only lip service to Scripture, tradition and reason. As the statement of the Church of England on contraception acknowledges: “Increasingly these approaches are being supplemented by appeals to ‘human experience.’”

It was appeals to human experience that prompted the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops to condone contraception. In doing so, the Anglican bishops broke with the hitherto-uninterrupted tradition of the Christian church. And within a few decades, virtually every Protestant denomination followed this Anglican lead.

To the manifest dismay of many liberal Catholic bishops, priests and laity, the Catholic church has stood firm. It continues to uphold the viewpoint expressed by the 1908 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, in a resolution declaring that it “records with alarm the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.”

In the meantime, a similar division has developed within many Christian churches over the traditional ban on abortion. While liberal Anglicans and Protestants now condone abortion under at least some conditions, evangelicals and Catholics continue to invoke Scripture, tradition and reason as authority for their view that the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” applies no less to babies in the womb than to all other innocent human beings.

Today, these same divisions are compounded by disagreement over homosexuality. While theologically orthodox Christians affirm the clear and unequivocal passages of the Bible against homosexual sexual activity, some liberal clerics attempt to explain away these same biblical passages, while others contend that the Bible was wrong about homosexuality and that Jesus would recognize, in the light of recent human experience with homosexual behaviour, that he, too, was wrong to oppose all forms of sexual intercourse outside the bond of marriage between a man and a woman.

In the face of such far-reaching theological disagreement within the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Williams is surely right: a church so divided against itself cannot stand. And given the collapse in membership of all the liberal Anglican and Protestant churches, it’s also evident that no church can long survive that fails to uphold the primacy of Scripture in conjunction with tradition and reason on all questions of faith and morality.