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Mark Chapman. Anglican Theology (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark: London, 2012).
Book Review by John Frederick for http://www.truthstatic.com

In Anglican Theology, author Mark Chapman (Vice-Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, and Reader in Modern Theology at the University of Oxford) presents a thoroughly enjoyable digest and interpretation of the history of Anglican theological thought. It is rare indeed that a book on historical theology and church history can be described as enjoyable or entertaining. Typically, the adjectives chosen to describe such works are “tedious,” “boring,” and “unending,” even if (as is usually the case in my experience) the knowledge gained from them is priceless. Chapman’s book however succeeds in presenting the history of Anglican theology in a format that is at once concise yet profoundly deep, exercising an economy of words indicative of the best of literary form and academic breadth, and contributing his own hermeneutical eye to the commonplace stories and events of Anglican history which provide new insights into the theological development of the various traditions of the Anglican Communion.

Chapters 1-7 of Anglican Theology trek through the historical development and exercise of the multi-faceted movements and streams of Anglican theological thought since its Reformation inception. The book’s relative brevity, coming in at only 269 pages total (inclusive of footnotes and index) causes these chapters to have momentum. They are somehow able to convey historical points, and substantial critique and theological commentary on these points, while coming across stylistically, not in a didactic, textbook fashion, but in the style of the telling of a great, and (as the author notes on p. 210), “infuriating and exciting” story. While it would take us beyond the scope of a brief book review to investigate all of the various elements presented in these chapters, suffice it to say that the historical and theological presentation is exemplary and interesting. Having read numerous other (typically longer) works on Anglican history and theology, I would recommend Chapman’s Anglican Theology as a new standard starting point for both those within the Anglican world, and those from without who are seeking to acquire a well-rounded understanding of the theological history and trajectories of the Anglican tradition. Where I desire to devote some extended comment, however, is on Chapter 8 of the book which is entitled “Theology and the Anglican Communion.”

In Chapter 8, Chapman switches gears and begins to discuss the current variegated state of theological discourse in the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the nature of the Anglican Communion itself. The contents of the chapter are particularly pertinent to the current situation in the United States in which there are now two rival “Anglican” provinces, namely the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America. Here Chapman surveys the background to more current global crises in the Communion, by laying out the implicit historical contrast between comprehensive views of Anglicanism and more doctrinally-focused views of Anglicanism. The view of F.D. Maurice, for example, is a helpful predecessor to the theologically-diverse state of global Anglican contemporary theology in that it seems to precipitate the anti-systematic tendency which is, in my view both the genius and disease of Anglicanism. On page 178 Chapman explains:

“Maurice resisted systems precisely because he saw them as reducing Christianity to a controllable and bounded structure that was focused on itself, rather than pointing beyond itself to God, who simply could not be contained by any system.”

And, then again on page 179, explicating Maurice’s view of Anglicanism as not governed by a systematic theology:

“The church was bigger than any one expression. Indeed, the church did not ‘comprehend’ all existing systems but instead criticized them all.”

Similarly, Rowen Williams is presented as one who shares the ethos of this sentiment, desiring to avoid the “ideological bondage” of theological systems (p. 180). In the same way, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey’s views articulate this aversion to systems of theology in expressing the belief that no one group or church should be able to make a claim on orthodoxy.

While I find myself agreeing with these statements in one sense, I also find them deeply problematic, and actually indicative and causative of the problems of disunity, fragmentation, and confusion in global Anglicanism. It is indeed true that there is a distinction between the Gospel and those systems of theology which are derived from it, and which seek to explicate the Gospel and expand upon its implications and the teachings of Holy Scripture in cohesive ways. Yet the frequent ‘lowest common theological denominator’ attitude and weak response of global Anglican leaders, evident in such documents as the Lambeth Quadrilateral and the Anglican Covenant has proved largely insufficient and unsuccessful. Likewise, in a Church teetering on irrelevance, suffering from decline, and aimless in its mission in England, America, and many other parts of the world — Can we really blame the Global South for not wanting to participate in another long, ineffective, esoteric, listening process such as that demonstrated at the 2008 Lambeth Conference by Rowen Williams?

Yet, Chapman interprets and describes the Lambeth style of catholicity as a “non-coercive” approach which centers on “mutually shared authority” (p. 209) while he casts those in more conservative provinces, including the reform movement in the Anglican Communion known as the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, as clamoring for “dogmatic and moral fixity to Anglicanism” (p. 209) who want to define Anglicanism by a “more rigidly and prescriptively” set of “doctrinal and theological propositions” (p. 207).

We must ask: Is this a fair portrayal of the position of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, the Global South, and the contents of the Jerusalem Declaration? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide. I would reject the claim that the Jerusalem Declaration constitutes a dogmatic theology or a systematic theology of any sort. In my view, the Declaration is simply a list of basic principles. One could operate under a number of theological systems (Calvinism, Arminanism, Anglo-Catholicism, Barthianism), or none, and still affirm the principles set forth within the documents. In that sense, it operates more like the Statement of Faith to the National Association of Evangelicals in that it seeks not to communicate a systematic theology, but rather a few essential building blocks without which Christianity ceases to be such, and becomes something else entirely. It represents, “mere Anglicanism,” which is essentially the basics of a “mere Christianity” combined with a few elements (such as the Episcopate and the Sacraments) which make a Church “Anglican.”

That said, no doubt, there is much that could be improved in the document, particularly in its exposition of hermeneutical principles and the nature and extent of the 39 Articles of Religion. I would agree with the reservations concerning Article II of the Jerusalem Declaration which states that the Bible “is to be ‘translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading’ [my emphases]. This statement betrays the authors’ naiveté concerning the lack of understanding that there is a need by every reader to interpret all texts. Texts, after all, do not come to us directly as blank slates. Our interpretations of the ‘plain’ meaning of a text is never itself beyond the hermeneutical circle. The statement and wording of the Declaration could, and does, seem to imply that a pre-interpretive, objective apprehension of the text is available in some objective way to the reader, a reading which is conceived of as plain and obvious. But who on earth is the arbiter of such a “plain” reading of the Bible? Does not the manifold interpretive schools, denominations, and theologies in existence today testify to the fact that, even if one holds to the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, there still remain many elements of the Bible and the faith that are open to several possible “plain” meanings on the basis of a responsible grammatical-historical exegesis? The leaders of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans need to develop explanatory materials for each article of the Jerusalem Statement. Only then will these issues move forward in the larger communion. I suspect that a good deal of the apprehension to accept the Jerusalem Declaration, or to even acknowledge or interact with it, lies not only in the fact that it is viewed as operating outside of normal channels of Anglican polity and provincial jurisdiction (this is, however a major problem for many Anglicans), but that it is unclear, and potentially dangerously simplistic and naive on this primary point of Scriptural hermeneutics.

Likewise, when in Article IV of the Jerusalem Declaration, the authors write: “We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today,” this too is worrisome, vague, and confusing for many Anglicans. The Anglican Church in North America, a member of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, and a subscriber to the Jerusalem Declaration, uses language which is clearer in their theological statement on the 39 Articles of Religion. The ACNA writes: “We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing the fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief” (my emphases). This statement too needs more detail — What level of authority and epistemological weight does a fundamental principle have? Are they infallible or subject to change upon a better ‘plain’ reading of the text? Are these Articles on the same level as the Creeds of the Church? If so why, if not, why not? The ACNA’s expansion of the Declaration’s stance on the 39 Articles is a good “first step” in the right direction which needs to be implemented more broadly and globally if the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans wish to be taken seriously and perceived as more than a group of frustrated conservatives engaged in an aggressive listing of propositions to be accepted.

Chapman’s Anglican Theology deals only briefly with these movements in Chapter 8, but nevertheless, his book is thorough and rich. It not only conveys information but contributes substantially to the conversation. It is crucial, in this time of global friction, soul searching, structural change and post-colonial provincial identity formation, that Anglicans engage in weighty and broad theological discourse such as that demonstrated by Chapman in order to preserve the freedom and breadth of the Anglican Way, while also identifying those elements which make it unique and authentically-Anglican in a manner that goes beyond minimalist anti-doctrinal efforts like the Lambeth Quadrilateral, and, on the other hand, in ways that transcend simplistic propositional lists which can appear vague, constricting and fundamentalist to those who are focused on preserving a more theologically-comprehensive Anglican Communion. It is books like this which keep the conversation going, which situate the conversation in a historically-responsible and historically-rooted context, and which contribute to the global effort to keep the Communion from falling into one lane, on the far right or left, or worse, into the ditch of total schism and irrelevance.

—John Frederick

Download this review as a pdf— Anglican Theology_Book Review.

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1 comment

  1. Thanks for this book review. Right now I’m looking into Anglicanism and trying to get good information. I just ordered a copy of Mark Chapman’s “Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction.” Depending on how that goes I may get “Anglican Theology” someday too.

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