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Paul Avis


Doctrine in the Church of England

A mediating theology

Anglicans throughout the world think of their tradition as an expression of the Church that is both catholic and reformed (but not uniquely so, of course). While all Anglicans recognise that Anglicanism has been significantly shaped by the Reformation, they also point to the elements of continuity with the pre-Reformation Western church, going back to the arrival of Christianity on the shores of Britain and Ireland. They stress the gradual recovery of catholic emphases, especially in sacramental theology and in the value placed on episcopacy, between the mid-17 th and the late 19th centuries. Anglican theology is, therefore, almost by definition, a kind of mediating theology, a theology that tries to bridge the di-vide between the historic Roman Catholic and Protestant positions. Anglican theology does not want to choose between them. It owes a debt to both and draws substantially from both. It wants to have the best of both. Some Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians may dismiss this ›both-and‹ approach as wishful thinking, in-sisting that it is necessary to choose – for them it must be ›either-or‹. If they are right, I have been suffering from a delusion for many years and my writings on Anglicanism are seriously – perhaps even fatally – flawed!

The both-and attitude of Anglican theology

is made possible by several additional factors.

First, although of course Anglicans confess the apostolic faith be-fore the world, Anglicanism is not a ›confessional‹ tradition. The official corpus of doctrine stemming from the 16th century controversies is small. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion are regarded by the Church of England as one of its ›historic formularies‹, alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal (both in their 1662 definitive form). They are placed in a subservient position to the Scriptures and the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds. For Anglicans, the Scriptures do not prescribe for every situation, but have the role of showing the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. In the area of Church order, including ministry, wor-ship and organisation, the Church can be guided by tradition and reason and by what is appropriate in the circumstances, provided that it is not contrary to Scripture. The faith of the Church needs to be ›proclaimed afresh in each generation‹ (Canon C 15 of the Church of England).

Second, the Anglican theological tradition has tended to look not only to the Western Church, including the Reformation tradition, but also to Eastern Christianity. Appeal to the East has had polemical uses, in offering an episcopal, liturgical tradition that was not Roman, but it has also genuinely enriched Anglican the­-ology, giving it a mystical and holistic feel at times. Anglican theologians from Lancelot Andrewes (early 17th century) to Charles Gore (d. 1932) to Rowan Williams (b. 1950) have felt the pull of the Greek or Russian Orthodox traditions and have been shaped by it.

Third, like other traditions, Anglicanism has been deeply in-volved­ in the ecumenical movement from the earliest days. Gore took part in the Edinburgh 1910 International Missionary Conference (the young William Temple was an usher there) and in the Malines Conversations in the 1920s. Temple steered the formation of the World Council of Churches. Oliver Tomkins followed him and Patrick Roger and later Mary Tanner followed Tomkins. With-in the ecumenical movement, Anglicans have tended to be more committed to the Faith and Order movement/Commission than to social, liberation or development initiatives. At their best, Anglicans are committed to doing their theology ecumenically in the face of the Church Catholic. The Anglican Communion is ›in communion‹ with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht and with the Mar Thoma of South India, both highly sacramental traditions. Various Anglican Churches are also ›in communion‹ with various Lutheran Churches, in North America and in Northern Europe.

Related to this is the fact that, unlike large parts of Roman Catholic or Protestant Europe, the university study of theology in England (and Britain generally) is not confessionally segregated. Although the Church of England’s theological colleges (seminaries) and regional ordination training courses are normally linked to universities and have university accreditation, the study of theology in the university is almost entirely non-confessional; it is ecumenical. In many university departments in Britain the confes-sional element is further weakened by the assimilation of theology to religious studies.

The result of these factors, combined together, is that many theologians who are practising Anglicans do not come across in their writings as self-consciously Anglican. You can read some Anglican theologians and not know that they are Anglican. It follows that it is not easy to identify particular theological issues that are distinctively Anglican – unless, that is, we look at ecclesiology. Both ecumenical dialogue and the current tensions in the Anglican Communion have generated theological work on the nature of the Church, on its unity and its ministry and mission, including questions of authority, the foundations of communion and the scope of diversity. Here we would be looking at the writings of S. W. Sykes, from The Integrity of Anglicanism (Mowbray, 1978), through The Identity of Christianity (SPCK, 1984) and the collection Unashamed Anglicanism (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995) to Power and Chris-tian Theology (Continuum, 2006). We would also, I trust, wish to look at some of the present writer’s work, especially Anglicanism and the Christian Church (2nd edition 2002), Beyond the Reformation? Authority, Primacy and Unity in the Conciliar Tradition (2006) and The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (2008– all T & T Clark).1

It is obviously impossible to cover global Anglican theology in one essay and it is doubtful if any one person would have the knowledge to do it. In this article I am going to have to confine myself to Anglican theology in England, and even then I am going to have to be highly selective. While we do not have many distinctively Anglican issues in doctrinal theology, we do have identifiable schools of thought. So I will illustrate the current state of Anglican theology in England by surveying some of these. I will include a few case studies in a little more detail. I will have to exclude the impressive biblical theology being done by a number of Anglicans in England and I will not be able to include several younger theologians among the rising talents. 2 But first we must ask the basic question whether Anglicanism has in fact tackled doctrinal theology in any substantial way – whether there is an Anglican doctrinal tradition.

Is there an Anglican doctrinal tradition?

It could be argued that there is no Anglican corpus of strictly doctrinal (or dogmatic) theology. Although in the 17th century Anglican scholarship was said to be the wonder of the world, Anglicans have not undertaken multi-volume systematic theologies on the Protestant, particularly German model (there is no Anglican Barth or Pannenberg). Nor has it attempted summae on the mediaeval model. Systematic theology is not an Anglican strong point. Anglicanism’s primary theological focus has been pastoral and liturgical. Its theological impetus has often tended to be ecclesiological and has particularly stemmed from the need to defend the Anglican position against Roman Catholic claims to universal jurisdiction and infallibility (from J. Jewel, d. 1571, to J. H. Newman, Anglican until 1845) and against Puritan demands that polity and worship should conform to the model of the Swiss Reformed Churches (this was the main target of R. Hooker, d. 1600). Modern Anglicanism has tended to be stronger in historical studies and in philosophical theology than in doctrine. Its historical bias has taken the form of ecclesiastical history (from, e. g., M. Creighton, d.1901, to O. and H. Chadwick) and the historical-critical study of the Bible and Patristic theology combined (J. B. Lightfoot, d. 1889; C. Gore, d. 1932; G. W. H. Lampe, d. 1980). The philosophical tendency has expressed itself in the Anglican tradition of moral and pastoral theology (founders W. Perkins, d. 1602, R. Sanderson, d. 1663, J. Taylor, d. 1667) and in philosophical apologetics (J. Butler, d. 1752, W. Paley, d. 1805, A. E. Taylor, d. 1945, and recently B. Mitchell, R. Swinburne, B. Hebblethwaite).

However, the greatest works of Anglican theology have tran-scended these disciplinary limitations. In the late 16th century Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity – an ostensibly ecclesiological work – went back to the first principles of the doc-trine of God, of nature and grace, and to basic legal axioms. Hooker achieved a synthesis of apologetic, pastoral, doxological and polem-ical themes. Christology was the paradigm for his sacramental theology. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Anglican theology ap-proached the dogmatic form, especially in ecclesiology, in the writ-ings of W. Palmer (d. 1885), F. D. Maurice (d. 1872), Gore and A. M. Ramsey (d. 1988). Doctrinal or dogmatic theology also manifested itself in Christology in the writings of R. Wilberforce (d. 1857), H. P. Liddon (d. 1890), Gore, H. Rashdall (d. 1924), W. Temple (d. 1944) and L. Thornton CR (d. 1960). In the later twentieth century, E. L. Mascall wrote on Christology, ecclesiology and theological anthropology and mediated Roman Catholic philosophical theology (especially neo-Thomism) to Anglicans. J. Macquarrie restated a wide range of doctrinal themes, initially employing a Heideggerian existentialist perspective ( Principles of Christian Theology, SCM, 1977). Macquarrie’s work was recognisably Anglican, but it did not have a confessional axe to grind.

The ecclesiological tendency can also be seen in the fact that Anglican theology in the dogmatic mode has taken the form of commentaries on the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the nearest Anglicans have to a Reformation confession: from G. Burnet in 1699 to O. O’Donovan in 1986. The dogmatic impulse in Anglicanism has also taken the form of commentaries on the Apostles’ Creed: from J.Pearson in the mid-17th century to O. C. Quick and J. Burnaby in the mid-20th century.

The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England has pro-duced a series of reports, in a dogmatic mode, but intended for a fairly general audience. The first and greatest of these is Doctrine in the Church of England (1938), which was steered by W. Temple when Archbishop of York.3 Although it has some glaring omissions and its sacramental theology is swollen out of proportion by pre-war controversies, it was the work of a remarkably broad commission. In his foreword, Temple confessed that the kind of theology with which he had grown up – a theology influenced by Personal Ide­-alism and that was drawn to an immanent synthesis between revelation and reason in order to explain the world – could not rise to the challenge of the late 1930s. A more transcendent theology, with themes of revelation and judgement (he did not call it dialectical theology) was needed. In the 1970s the Doctrine Commission was revived and produced a series of reports including in We Believe in the Holy Spirit and The Mystery of Salvation (1995). Stephen Sykes, David Brown and Sarah Coakley, as well as the present writer, were some of the theologians involved in this work. The most recent report is Being Human: Power, Money, Sex and Time (2003; all Church House Publishing).

The ›dialectical‹ theme in Anglican theology can be detected in other writers before, during and after the Second World War. Gore, the most influential Anglo-Catholic theologian of the first quarter of the 20th century and a pioneer of the acceptance of philosophical idealism (as an approach to divine immanence), Darwinian evolution and historical criticism of the Bible, had never lost the eschat-ological cutting edge, the motif of judgement, though he had little understanding of the Reformation. Gore was a profound influence on Temple and Ramsey. In The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Longmans, 1936) Ramsey took one of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses (›The true treasure of the Church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God‹) as his motto and proclaimed that the Christian Church must always stand before the church door at Wittenberg to read the truth by which it is created and by which it will be judged. E. C. Hoskyns, the translator into English of the 2nd edition of Karl Barth’s Römerbrief, carried what he had learned from Barth into The Riddle of the New Testament, then into his commentary on The Fourth Gospel (both Faber & Faber), his Cambridge Sermons and his posthumous Crucifixion-Resurrection (F. N. Davey being his collaborator in many enterprises – both published by SPCK).

Radical Orthodoxy

Perhaps the most distinctive tendency in contemporary Anglican theology is the movement styled by its proponents ›radical orthodoxy‹ (RO). This is not a purely Anglican phenomenon and has now taken off in an ecumenical direction. But its first advocates were Anglican and its leading writers remain Anglican ones: J. Milbank, G. Ward and C. Pickstock. The first sound of the radical orthodoxy trumpet was J. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1990; 2nd edn. 2006). Milbank re-asserted the integrity – indeed the sovereignty – of Christian theology. He want-ed to reclaim the Christian mythos, the unique narrative of divine revelation. Theology should not have to take its cue from non-theological disciplines. The social sciences should not be allowed to dictate what could and could not be said by Christian theologians. These sciences were, in any case, shaped by unacknowledged Chris-tian theological traditions. Theology had its own subject matter (divine revelation) and its own methods (biblical and patristic exegesis). Milbank also engaged closely with Augustine and Aquinas. While modernity promised freedom, the Christian tradition spoke primarily of peace (Milbank’s later work explored the notion of reconciliation). Drawing on the more dualistic elements in Augus-tine, Milbank seemed to oppose revelation and reason, the Church and the world and to suggest that theology could say to the social sciences, ›I have no need of you.‹ It was not only the social sciences that Milbank made redundant: theology would take over the role of metaphysics too (he could not claim Aquinas’ support for that) and there was no engagement with the physical sciences or the philosophy of science. Milbank's position looked like a kind of Barthianism with Catholic sacramental theology tacked on. It was subversive, inconoclastic and provocative. What would the content of Christian theology look like if it closed itself off from other disciplines? This did not sound like Anglican theology, which has often been regard-ed as open-minded, hospitable and generous.

This aggressive stance was slightly modified in the symposium Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (Routledge, 1999), which signalled the arrival of an identifiable movement. It claimed that RO could fill the vacuum created by the implosion of secularisation and the ›soulless, aggressive, nonchalant and nihilistic‹ effect of modern materialism (1). It professed that the direction of the book was not other-worldly, but an attempt ›to reclaim the world‹by giving it theological meaning. ›Orthodoxy‹ referred to credal Christianity and its patristic matrix (2). The tradition started to go wrong with Duns Scotus, the father of nominalism, and got worse at the Reformation. However, on the patristic and mediaeval realist foundation, theology could indeed engage with other sources of knowledge. The Barthians made the mistake of refusing all mediation through other disci-plines and thereby allowed non-theological knowledge to emerge as a separate, autonomous authority, with a unique validity in its own sphere. RO would be ›more mediating, but less accommodating‹ (2). Managing to sound both patronising and smug, the editors assert: ›Where Barthianism can tend to the ploddingly exegetical, radical orthodoxy mingles exegesis, cultural reformation and philosophy in a complex but coherently executed collage‹ (2).

›Radical‹ referred to a return to mediaeval and patristic roots, but also to the critique of society and the need to rethink tradition (2). Compared to modern theology, RO aimed to ›articulate a more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialised, even »more Platonic« Christianity‹ (3). Participation, as developed by Plato and re-conceived by Christianity here emerges as a key concept. Post-liberal theology has the capacity to challenge the autonomous authority of philosophy, which modern theology tended to collude with, and to articulate a purely theological account of reality (22). (What does ›purely theological‹ mean– or is it meaningless?)

In 2003 Pickstock summarised the aims of RO.4 It had three main ingredients: doctrinal orthodoxy (drawing on pre-modern theology), political socialistic radicalism and post-modern philosophy, though used with caution. Against the fragmentation of postmod-ernism, Pickstock insists that differences are basic, but exist in ultimate harmony in God’s creation. The creation participates in the divine. Things exist as a shadowy reflection of their Creator. Participation is ›the watchword‹ of RO. Christianity takes the material world very seriously; it is not dualistic. Human creativity is a participation in the divine creativity. RO does not oppose faith and reason and to that extent is authentically Anglican. In this apologia for RO, the via affirmativa is prominent.

Some further toning down of the initial stridency can be detect-ed in Milbank’s essay in the symposium Radical Orthodoxy: A Catholic Enquiry (Ashgate, 2000). He positions RO as a movement of mediation, as a via media (33). Milbank’s writing since Theology and Social Theory has revolved around the concept of participation, of a community of being between the human and the divine, as we see in the collection The Word Made Strange (Blackwell, 1997), in Milbank and Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (Routledge, 2001) and in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (Routledge, 2003). There is a warmer cultural hospitality in Milbank, Ward and E. Wychogrod Theo-logical Perspectives on Beauty (Trinity Press International, 2003). But Milbank’s writing remains dense, allusive and un­compromising: he does not meet the reader halfway and does not take host-ages.

Catherine Pickstock is our first ›case study‹. Her one big book so far, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1998) attempts three things: a sweeping reinterpretation of the western tradition of philosophy and theology; a deva-stating critique of modern and post-modern culture equally; and a new direction for theology in harness with a renewal of liturgy and prayer. Its target is the complex of identifiably rationalist and secularist ideas and practices that began to emerge in the late medieval period, were reinforced by the Reformation, acquired momentum in 17th century empiricism, and received ideological form in the instrumentalism of aspects of the Enlightenment. These ideas­ are dominant in technological modernity and finally run into the sand in the fragmentation and nihilism of post-modernism. Pickstock believes that our increasingly information-based culture represents the nemesis of the domination of the alienated analytical intellect, in which an original whole and integrated vision of the world is chopped up into discrete data, spread out and moved around, commodified, packaged and manipulated (for which the author employs the terms ›spatialisation‹ and ›pure immanence‹). The tyranny of the media-induced sound bite mirrors the totalitar-ian pretensions of state-owned political power which began to absorb all areas of life within its control in the early modern period, and so parodied the medieval wholeness of communal life that was permeated by the sacramental structure – thus forcing religion into the private sphere of interior subjectivity.

This culture, in which we late modern people have our being, is marked by a series of destructive dualisms: the supremacy of writ­ing over conversation, the dominance of space over time, and the triumph of subjectivity over objectivity. Where Derrida believes that it is writing that reveals the nature of language (and therefore the nature of what is real), Pickstock appeals to the examples of Socrates and Jesus to claim that speech is closer than writing to real-ity because it is expended in passing time, invites an immediate response and is rooted in physical embodiment and the particular-ity of circumstances. The supreme instance of speech rising into transcendence and therefore putting all that is importantly immanent in its rightful place, is liturgy. In the doxology of the liturgy we receive reality as a gift, sanctify it through prayer, and offer it back as a sacrifice. Only in total self-giving to God, as a living sacrifice, does the worshipper unwittingly receive back self, life and the world. Liturgical action bestows meaning on the world and only in liturgy does language ultimately make sense.

Pickstock identifies her saving paradigm historically with the early Middle Ages, when liturgical action was embedded in a sacramental world and in a ritualised culture. The liturgy was instan-tiated in the Roman Rite of the Mass, which ensured an appropriate spiritual discipline by allowing for the reality of the physical and contingent, and for the hesitancy and inarticulateness of the wor-shippers, but then led them to the point at which they could receive a true, integrated, yet fragile identity as grace. Modern revisions of the liturgy have been premised inadvertently on the debased view of language and knowledge of the modern secular order. The ›liturgical stammer‹ of the Roman Rite, in contrast, by allowing distance from God, actually provides for nearness to God.

After Writing advocates a sophisticated symbolic realism. Symbolism is crucial to its epistemology. Sign and figure are constitutive of truth. ›The liturgical city ... is avowedly semiotic. Its lineaments, temporal duration, and spatial extension are entirely and constitutively articulated through the signs of speech, gesture, art, music, figures, vestment, colour, fire, water, smoke, bread, wine, and relationality‹ (169). But Pickstock is not advocating retreat into an intra-narratival fideism, where the semiotic code is an irrefutable given. Hers is a symbolic realism – linguistic, sacramental, and ecclesial. We are closest to reality in worship, for here language fulfils its intended purpose and makes its best sense. But liturgy remains an ›impossible possibility‹ for fallen creatures and becomes possible only through Christ: his incarnation, sacrifice on the cross, resurrection and exaltation and his inspiration of the Church through the Holy Spirit.

It is ironic that, in a book that challenges dualistic thinking, some of its own dichotomies need to be challenged. Why privilege speech above writing? Both can be abused, both can be vehicles of revelation. Though neither Jesus nor Socrates committed their teaching to writing, the Evangelists and Plato did. The style is allusive, compressed, cryptic and often awkward. Crystaline insights are juxtaposed with slippery rhetoric. Pickstock seems to have contracted some bad literary habits from the postmodernistic authors whom she demolishes. ›Spatialisation‹ seems an unhelpful term for the manipulative knowledge calculus that Pickstock, with others, has identified in the superficiality of modern culture. The lack of depth is a failure of authenticity which, on any incarnational prem-ise, must characterise the integrated realm of space-time. This book is looking for the overcoming of dualism in a synthesis or integration without losing vital distinctions, but it does not develop a conceptuality to enable it to handle this. The notion of polarity could have been explored. There is no reference to the greatest Anglican lay theologian, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who advocated learning to distinguish without dividing, and cried, ›When I worship, let me unify.‹

Graham Ward has been one of the three RO protagonists from the beginning, but stands apart from Milbank and Pickstock as a theologian who seems to draw his energy from the momentum of culture. Ward skates along the margins of post-modern culture, fascinated by it, fencing with it. Ward explains this as ›reading the signs of the times through the grammar of the Christian faith‹, an enterprise in which metaphors have to be treated as ›material artefacts‹ and in which ›gendered bodies‹ are a key interpretative tool. 5 Ward ranges widely, and engages with a broad span of cultural and theological thinkers, including among the latter, Karl Barth.6 While­ his reading is impressive and his dialectical skills second to none, to my mind there is question whether the voice of the Chris-tian gospel can be heard through the plethora of conflicting cultural voices that Ward deploys, or whether it is drowned by them. It is hard to discern much doctrine in Ward’s output.

As theologians who set out to reclaim the legacy of patristic and mediaeval theology, it must be particularly galling for the exponents of RO to be attacked by Roman Catholic scholars. In Radical Orthodoxy: A Catholic Enquiry (Ashgate, 2000) L. P. Hemming warns that one should not ›mistake gymnastic feats for truth‹ (5); F. Kerr points out that RO largely ignores the Reformation and deplores most of what has happened in theology since the Enlightenment‹ (50); J. Hanvey SJ believes that RO’s method of assertion, of meeting claim with counter-claim is ›in danger of generating a huge rhetorical edifice‹ (155). Hanvey claims that Milbank’s charge against Barth, that he was captive to Kantian epistemology, is a superficial reading of Barth (155). Hanvey alleges that RO’s use of texts is a ›naive, strongly ahistorical and decontextualised‹ (163), and finally that RO builds on modernity’s nihilism without overcoming it (167). Protestant scholars (and more historically minded Anglicans) are also concerned about the way that RO manages to ignore the Reformation, pretending that even in ecclesiology, it can be treated as largely irrelevant.

Reformation orthodoxy

It is now quite rare to find a theologian, in the Church of England, who sees his or her own work as firmly within the tradition of Prot-estant theology. Such is Alister E. McGrath, a leader of the rising evangelical tendency within the Church of England. Prolific in both academic and popular writings, as well as in editing scholarly works of reference, McGrath devours libraries (as well as producing them!) and tears through whole scholarly trajectories. McGrath made his academic reputation with his two volume study Iustitia Dei (Cambridge University Press, 1986), at a time when this could give impetus to the ecumenical rapprochement on justification that resulted in the Anglican-Roman Catholic report Salvation and the Church (1987) and would lead to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church (1999). McGrath has written on Calvin and on Reformation theology against its mediaeval back­ground.7 His Bampton Lectures The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticism (Blackwell, 1990) was an eval-uation of tradition that took as its starting point the statement that ›the critical reappropriation of the doctrinal heritage of the Christian tradition is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks confronting contemporary theology‹ (vii). There can be little doubt that McGrath has helped many evangelical Anglicans, who tend to assume that nothing of any significance happened in the Church after the death of St Paul, to have a better appreciation of the past and of the riches of the tradition. Yet McGrath is himself a little selective in his own appreciation of the past. He attacks the Enlightenment for rubbishing tradition, overlooking the fact that Christians were prominent in aspects of the Enlightenment and that even the ›secular‹ dimension of that diverse movement of thought appealed to tradition – the tradition of classical antiquity, before the rise of Christianity.

McGrath has written extensively on theology and the philosophy of science (he is the biographer of the late T. F. Torrance) and is a leading apologist who has defended Christianity against the crude caricatures of Richard Dawkins. However, McGrath has excelled mainly in historical theology, rather than in restating Christian doctrine for our times.

John Webster, who exchanged an Oxford chair for one in Aberdeen a few years ago, is a self-styled Protestant theologian and perhaps the one true systematician among British Anglicans. Webster has written several books on Barth and Jüngel and quotes Calvin more than any other pre-modern theologian. With regard to the Church, Webster perhaps leans more to Lutheran ecclesiology than to Anglican. He is now producing a series of ›Essays in Christian Dogmatics‹ and I expect him to publish a substantial systematic theology before very long. 8 Like Barth himself, Webster is committed to a Church dogmatics. ›Theology is an office in the Church of Jesus Christ. It is properly undertaken in the sphere of the Church ... Theology is not free thought or speech ... but holy speech. It is set apart for and bound to its object – that is the gospel – and to the fellowship of the saints in which the gospel is heard ... that is, the Church.‹9 Webster identifies two principal tasks of theology: biblical exegesis and dogmatics. His own writings are not particularly concerned with exegesis; generally speaking, they are not enriched by detailed engagement with the biblical text. While Webster has something to say about hermeneut-ics, the ›text‹ that he expounds is the gospel, the revelation of God in Christ, to which the Scriptures witness.10 For him, theology is bound to its object and must honour that ›givenness‹; but unlike Torrance, Webster is not particularly interested in developing parallels with the philosophy of science. His method is to bring out the logical entailment of basic dogma, ›the positum of Christian theology – proximately the Credo of the Church, ultimately the Word of God‹.11 Webster’s exposition feels deductive and has a touch of the apriori. There is ample acknowledgement of mystery, but little wrestling and struggle. But Webster writes with a passionate coolness and has an engag-ing style: the words and constructions feel just right. In spite of the assumption of certitude that not all his readers will share, Webster is one of the most edifying theologians around.

Ordinary orthodoxy

Some Anglican theologians find it possible to be fully ›orthodox‹ without claiming to set up their own school of thought. B. Hebblethwaite (b. 1939) is perhaps more of a philosophical than a doctrinal theologian, but doctrinal orthodoxy is at the heart of his endeavour. Hebblethwaite has kept up a forthright, even combative apologia for Christian theology for several decades, but has not been identified with radical orthodoxy. His work has included The Incarnation (Cambridge University Press, 1987), The Essence of Christianity (SPCK, 1996), In Defence of Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2005), and Philosophical Theology and Christian Doctrine (Blackwell, 2005).

D. W. Hardy (d. 2007) was a churchman and a scholar who brought theology into dialogue with other disciplines, especially the social and physical sciences and their philosophical metasci-ences, and did not find that it compromised his essential orthodoxy: God was always at the centre. Hardy’s books emerged from papers and articles. In discussion he was unnervingly cool and courteous, but also uncompromising. He tended, in both writing and speech, to lay down the law. I regard him as a theologian’s theologian, working at theological method or metatheology. His work was a permanent enquiry into the truth of the Christian revelation. His first collection God’s Ways with the World (T & T Clark, 1996), an interdisciplinary engagement, was followed by Finding the Church (SCM, 2001), which included direct engagement with Anglican Communion issues (surprisingly unusual for an Anglican theologian).

Hardy and his son-in-law David Ford, Regius Professor of Divin-ity in the University of Cambridge, formed a theological community, though their personalities were very different. Ford is warm, encouraging, enthusiastic, a great enabler and collaborator. He ranges far in search of his sources and draws his energy from dia-logue, but he is not free-floating and his discursive theological reflection draws extensively on biblical exposition. His principal solo publications so far have been Self and Salvation (1999) and Christian Wisdom (2007; both Cambridge University Press). Ford’s themes are personal wholeness, the renewal of community, the path of wisdom, and the mutual understanding of world religions. To read him attentively is to be taken on a spiritual journey, through which we may be changed.

David Brown (b. 1948) has ploughed his own furrow, though he has collaborated extensively with Ann Loades and others. Brown is incredibly widely read and his large corpus of writing consists largely of a critical conversation with other authors. He is both a high churchman sacramentally and a theologian who resonates with the broad church tradition of appeal to reason. His style is unusual: informal, conversational, laconic, a bit slangy. He cannot be pigeon-holed. In his career he has moved steadily north: Oxford, Durham, St Andrews. Brown first made his mark with The Divine Trinity (Duck-worth, 1985). In this work he traverses religious experience, the na-ture of revelation and the place of reason before eventually reaching the question of the identity of the Trinity. Continental Philosophy and Modern Theology followed in 1987 (Blackwell), which discusses as­pects of modern theology in conjunction with the movements of continental philosophy that often underlie them. But then it seems strange to treat the theologians first and the philosophers second and it is disappointing that Brown does not draw out the overall patterns of relationship between the one and the other. The range of the phil-osophers that he deals with prefigures his later studies of various cult­ural phenomena and his theologians, although mostly 20 th century, also include Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher (though with regard to the last, Brown uncritically deploys Karl Barth’s tendentious interpretation). This work – discursive, eclectic, dialogical – sets the trend for his recent trilogy of substantial works that have a central focus in the imagination: Tradition and Imagination (1999), Disciple­ship and Imagination (2000) and God and the Enchantment of Place (2004, all Oxford University Press).

Another prolific independent theologian is Tim Gorringe, who holds a chair at Exeter, but has been indelibly influenced by radical socialism and by some years teaching at Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in India – both, I suppose, communitarian experiences. In his life and his theology, Gorringe works for community and for the common good. Like Brown, he tackles big themes on the frontier of theological engagement with modern culture and society and, also like him, his writings are peppered with the names and works of a huge range of other authors. Gorringe’s first books were Redeeming Time (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986), Discerning Spirit: A Theology of Revelation (SCM, 1990) and God’s Theatre: A Theology of Provi-dence (SCM, 1991). Inevitably, in the last book he begins by positioning himself in relation to Aquinas, Calvin and Barth on the sovereignty of God and ends with questions concerning theodicy. As well as many shorter books on theological/ethical/social/political themes, Gorringe has produced a re-assessment of Barth, Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (Oxford University Press, 1999) and a major ecological study A Theology of the Built Environment (Cambridge University Press, 2002). His latest publication at the time of writing is Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture (Ashgate, 2004). For Gorringe the socialist and reformer, ›culture‹ is a way of talking about what human beings have made of their world materially, as well as intellectually and spiritually (105) and it must be interrogated for ideological interests and distortions.

No account of Anglican theology in England would be complete unless it included Oliver O'Donovan, even though, after many years in Oxford, O’Donovan has recently moved to Edinburgh. He still does faith and order work for the Church of England. O’Donovan is not a systematic theologian, but a moral and political theologian – though his work is infused with doctrinal theology. I have already mentioned his study of the Thirty-nine Articles. The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge University Press, 1996) made O’Dono-van’s reputation as a highly intelligent, subtle, allusive, difficult and formidable protagonist, who could not be by-passed. The book needs to be wrestled with because, by the end, one is still not quite sure what O’Donovan believes about the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. The divergent interpretations that the book has generated suggest that its argument is not unambiguously clear. The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans, 2005) is the promised sequel, which applies the principles articulated in The Desire of the Nations in a forthright commentary on concrete ethical and political questions. In place of political correctness and getting on the latest cultural bandwagon, O'Donovan offers a wrestling with the serious complexities of the Christian tradition. With Joan Lockwood O’Donovan he edited the major an-thology of texts From Irenaeus to Grotius (Eerdmans, 1999) and has written Bonds of Imperfection (Eerdmans, 2004), a collection of their studies in the Christian tradition of political theology.

Feminist theology

Where are the Anglican feminist theologians? There are plenty in America (Episcopalians), but few in England, except for a number of talented women biblical scholars. I have already mentioned Ann Loades and if I were covering social theology and praxis I would need to include Elaine Graham at Manchester. In systematic theol-ogy Sarah Coakley is outstanding, but although she has now taken a Cambridge chair, she was based at Harvard for many years. She worked on her forthcoming multi-volume systematic theology (God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ›On the Trinity‹: Cambridge University Press, 2008) in England and America, making it a transatlantic dogmatics. Coakley’s work is profound, searching and related to the spiritual journey into God and the connection between sexuality and spirituality. Her work on sexuality and gender questions marks her as a feminist theologian,12 but as a priest in the Church of England she is hardly a typical one. Orthodox and trinitarian, she draws from patristic theology, but has equally engaged with Troeltsch in questions of christology and historical rela-tivism.13

Comparative theology

An interesting variant of systematic theology – ›comparative theol-ogy‹ – was developed during the 1990s by Keith Ward in the four volumes: Religion and Revelation [RR], Religion and Creation , Religion and Human Nature, and Religion and Community [RC] (all Clarendon Press). This project takes a philosophical, ethical and comparative religion path to doctrine. Ward is not unduly influenced by the great dogmatic traditions of Christianity, though he does strike sparks off some of them. The ethos of Ward’s theology could be seen as the antithesis of all that radical orthodoxy stands for.

Ward, an Anglican priest, held chairs in moral and social theology and in the history and philosophy of religion before becoming the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. His numer-ous publications go back thirty years and include works on Kant, Christian ethics, the concept of God, divine creativity, religious traditions, and apologetics in the face of scientific naturalism. Ward’s comparative theology is our second case study.

It is a remarkable achievement. I reviewed the first three volum-es together under the title ›An Anglican Magnum Opus14. Although he expounds the beliefs of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as of Christianity, Ward is not doing ›compa-rative religion‹. And while he takes seriously religions as social constructs, his main focus is on the theology, religious ideas. His approach is clearly Christian and recognisably Anglican, while taking full account of non-Christian religious traditions. He pulls together a consensus, as far as that is possible, and clarifies the intractable differences where it is not. However, the dogmatic voice in Ward’s comparative theology is muted, modest and tentative.

Comparative theology, as Ward expounds it, is discursive in its approach, rounding up many sources of reflection and insight, global in its scope and interdisciplinary in its method. Its aim is not merely descriptive, but cognitive: to formulate propositions that can be tested in argument and so to reach conclusions about what can be believed in the realm of faith. The apologetic motive is never far away in Ward’s work. Comparative theology seeks to discern divine revelation; revelation, not human reason, is its source. Theology is defined as ›the rational articulation of the beliefs which are either contained in or implied by a divine revelation‹ (RR, 36). Ward’s approach to revelation is marked by four factors.

First, revelation is universal, even though it is at its most full and clear in the Judeao-Christian biblical tradition. What Ward does not really tackle is how to reconcile the apparent incommensurability of some religious beliefs with an affirmation of the universality of revelation.

Second, revelation does not exist in a discrete, separate form, but is immersed in social structures. It needs to be drawn out by a sort of social exegesis. All human institutions, including the churches, are fragile, fallible and liable to corruption.

Third, claims to divine revelation need to be approached critically by being compared to other claims and subjected to ethical and rational scrutiny. But the theologian does not sit in judgement on everything except him- or herself. Radical self-criticism is needed.

Fourth, because revelation is not made up of clear and distinct propositions, but is ›piecemeal, ambiguous and discontinuous‹ (RR, 83), there is much that we cannot know; what we think we know we cannot be certain about. Revelation is not such that theology can be a purely theoretical discipline; it is carried on through praxis. Theology is reflection on mystery within the practice of a community of faith (RR, 35 f.). Ward’s main interest is in the ethical, rather than the metaphysical vision that lies at the heart of religions.

A word more on Ward’s ecclesiology. Religion and Community includes substantial discussions of Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth and Tillich. Regarding the doctrinal authority of the Church Ward comes clean as a ›liberal Protestant‹ (RC, 148). The Church of the New Testament was not the guardian of unchanging formulae. The Church must be open to new insights, led by the Spirit. Tradition is not a firm foundation: it is diverse, opaque and often perplexing. The Church is always a community that is seek-ing the truth. Its search will be guided by ›the originative, normative, but only partially understood revelation of God’s nature and purpose in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth‹ (RC, 158). The apophatic dimension is well taken, but what I missed here was affirmation of what is concretely given in the apostolic faith and a discussion of the limits of diversity.

For Ward, the true unity of the Church is one of love and moral purpose. Strong institutional unity, under a single head, governed by a hierarchy, has never worked. Most religions do not impose structures designed to maintain unity, but are content with a core faith and a set of sacred texts that may be interpreted fairly freely. The Church of the future, Ward suggests, will not be monolithic and authoritarian but pluralistic, exploratory and responsive.

Finally, some reflections on the project of comparative theology. Because this is being undertaken from a Christian viewpoint and by an Anglican clergyman, the result is ›a positive Christian theology‹. But it is a Christian theology of a particular kind. Ward’s values come out unmistakeably: they are those of contemplative wisdom, compassion, detachment, tolerance, reasoned discussion, tranquil-ity. They are, in the best sense of the word, academic values. One has a creeping sense that Ward assimilates even the heroic, militant virtues that we find in the Jewish and Islamic traditions to this slightly quietist, rather urbane model.

Comparative theology, even in its Christian form, does not proceed by the exposition of Scripture. If it did, it could not evade the thrust of the gospel texts that speak of division and conflict, the sword that Jesus came to bring and the fire that he came to cast upon the earth. In his chapter on meaning in history Ward skips too lightly over the eschatological tension of the New Testament. It is not his cup of tea. The issue is not so much the discerning of a divine purpose woven into the texture of history at every point, but the coming of the Kingdom with power. Ward’s achievement is impressive, his argument persuasive. It speaks powerfully into certain contexts that need to be countered: triumphalism, fundamentalism, intolerance, obscurantism. However, I think a stronger medicine is needed for contexts like that of the West where the holy trinity of diversity, pluralism and tolerance is already enthroned. Then we begin to ask: What else is there?

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams is in a class of his own. He has affinities to Radical Orthodoxy, but could not be confined to that school. Many of the theologians mentioned in this article acknowledge him as a dia-logue partner. Although his thoughts and words are the most publicly available and the most publicly scrutinised of any living theologian except Pope Benedict XVI, Rowan Williams is the dark horse among Anglican theologians. Williams’ theological trajec-tory up to the age of fifty was such that, if he had not become Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, it is difficult to predict where his immense learning and creativity would have taken him. It is equally difficult to know what the path of this theological meteor will be once he steps down from the throne of St Augustine of Canterbury. Fresh streams of theological reflection will be released and he will be able to speak more freely.

Williams is at home in most of the theological enclaves of the multiform Christian tradition. His attraction to the Counter-Reformation Spanish mystics St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila does not mean that the Protestant Reformers do not resonate with him. It does not follow from the fact that his doctoral research was on the Russian Orthodox theologian in exile Vladimir Lossky that he could not make his academic reputation with a work on the Arian controversy. He has delved deeply into the Anglican theolog-ical tradition and Anglican spirituality .15 Even as Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams has published a handful of smallish books, focusing on devotion or cultural and ethical critique (such as Lost Icons: Continuum, 2003) and has managed to complete his forth-coming study of Dostoevsky (Continuum, 2008). But his most serious theological legacy so far is found in the collection On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000).

Williams believes that three dimensions of theological discourse can be discerned: the celebratory, the communicative and the critical. Theology takes its rise from the (celebratory) ›attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used ... the intention is less to argue than to evoke a fullness of vision.‹ The danger with this mode is that the language of faith can become inward looking, ›sealed in on itself‹. This tendency can be counteracted when theology moves into the communicative mode – ›to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment‹. But here too there can come a point where ›the passage through unfamiliar media of thought provokes a degree of crisis: is what is emerging actually identical or at least continuous with what has been [previously] believed and articulated?‹ Critical theology asks questions of integ-rity, of coherence and of continuity. The three modes are not necessarily in sequence and certainly not in a hierarchy. Theology has a ›mobility‹ that ›points to an essential restlessness in the enterprise of Christian utterance that reflects the eschatological impulse at its heart, the acknowledgement that the events of Jesus’ life and death open up schisms in any kind of language, any attempt to picture the world as immanently ordered or finished‹. 16

That constant turning back to God and to the Scriptures in repentant rethinking, submitting to judgement, is the hall-mark of William’s theology. Its internal critique is not corrosive of faith and is not sardonic, but gently and insistently reappraises what has gone before. Williams’ fertility and fluency are such that his arguments seem to unfurl in spirals. His fertility of words and images, his constant minting of them in a cliché-free style, can give the impression of a love of the game, a sheer enjoyment of the dance, of intellectual and imaginative exuberance. Williams is ceaselessly thinking, speaking, writing. His constant impromptu homilies and speeches always contain something arresting or profound and are seldom lacking in a touch of freshness. But the exploration of the unfathomable, the tentative probing, the thinking out loud are not easy for an Archbishop to get away with. Williams has been attacked for obscurity and for intellectual elitism. He can certainly be simple in a pastoral way without ceasing to be profound, but he will never talk down to people. Among his more than two million written words there is much that is more convoluted than the nature of the task requires. Mike Higton’s semi-popular but perceptive account of his thought is entitled The Difficult Gospel – but it is so entitled not merely because Williams is difficult to understand, but because his message – a message of the free, full and unfailing love and acceptance of God for the unworthy – is hard for human nature to accept.17 It has been said of the Gospel according to St Mark that it presents a Jesus who is impossibly difficult to understand and extremely hard to follow. Enough said!


The article is a selective survey of contemporary doctrinal theology in the Church of England, set against the background of the Anglican theological tradition. Anglicanism sees itself as both catholic and reformed; it therefore aspires to be a mediating theology bet-w-een two major traditions of the Church that exist in tension. The Anglican theological consciousness is not confessional, but ecu-menical. Anglican theological distinctiveness is most apparent in ecclesiology (Sykes, Avis). Although Anglicanism lacks a tradition of summae or multi-volume systematic theologies, it has a doctrinal intention and a doctrinal tradition that continues today. Many writers of the past two centuries approached the doctrinal form, even if their starting point was elsewhere (Maurice, Gore, Temple, Ramsey). Others stood obliquely to the Anglican tradition, but shaped its doctrinal temper in different ways (Mascall, Macquarrie). Gore, Ramsey and Hoskyns, with their themes of transcendence and judgement, had affinities with dialectical theology. Doctrinal theology emerging from the Church of England is not marked by particular issues, but falls into several schools of thought: Radical Orthodoxy (Milbank, Pickstock, G. Ward), Reformation orthodoxy (McGrath, Webster), ›ordinary‹ orthodoxy (Hardy, Ford, Brown, Gorringe, not forgetting O’Donovan), orthodoxy shaped by feminism (Coakley), and comparative theology (K. Ward) – and then there is Rowan Williams, who is unique.


1) Cf. also P. Avis, God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Religion and Theology (Routledge, 1999); A Church Drawing Near: Spir-ituality and Mission in a Post-Christian Culture (2003); A Ministry Shaped by Mission (2005, both T & T Clark).
2) See also S. W. Sykes, ›Anglican Thought‹ in A. Hastings (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (OUP, 2000, 18–21). For a discussion of modern studies of Anglican ecclesiology see P. Avis, Anglicanism and the Christian Church (2nd edn. T & T Clark, 2002), ch. 16.
3) Reprinted as Doctrine in the Church of England: The 1938 Report with a new introduction by G. W. H. Lampe (SPCK, 1982).
4) J. Morris, ed., Faith and Freedom: Exploring Radical Orthodoxy (Affirm-ing Catholicism, 2003).
5) G. Ward, Cities of God (Routledge, 2000), 5,14. Cf. his introduction to the collection of texts The Postmodern God (Blackwell, 1997).
6) G. Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
7) E. g. A. E. McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Blackwell, 1987).
8) J. Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (T & T Clark, 2001); Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (T & T Clark, 2005); Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
9) J. Webster, Holiness (SCM, 2003), 1–2.
10) J. Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
11) J. Webster, Word and Church, 58.
12) S. Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002).
13) S. Coakley, Christ Without Absolutes: A Study of the Christology of Ernst Troeltsch (Clarendon Press, 1988). See further J. Byassee, ›Closer than Kissing: Sarah Coakley’s Early Work‹, Anglican Theological Review XC:1 (2008), 139–155.
14) Anglican Theological Review LXXXII: 1 (2000), 181–189.
15) R. Williams, Anglican Identities (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004). G. Rowell, K. Stevenson, R. Williams (eds), Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001).
16) R. Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000), xiii–xvi.
17) M. Higton, The Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (SCM, 2004), 5: ›William’s writings are difficult in two distinct ways. Much of his writ-ing exhibits real academic difficulty – difficulty of style, of range, of reference, of argument. Nevertheless, this academically difficult writing serves a simple message: all of it, that is, tries to proclaim the good news of God’s utterly gracious, utterly gratuitous love and raises the question of what difference that love makes to us. And that simple message is the most difficult one we can ever hear, in a rather different sense of difficult: it is difficult not because it will demand our most painstaking intellectual skills but because it will demand everything.‹