Perhaps you read my first three posts and and you thought to yourself “This sounds very different from how my rector described Anglicanism to me!” “I thought we were a big tent?” “What about the via media?” You may even have had a t-shirt that encouraged people to join The Episcopal Church because “no matter what you believe, there’s someone else in The Episcopal Church who believes it too!” You may feel this way especially if you entered Anglicanism in North America. I would wager that many Episcopal or Anglican confirmation classes would define Anglicanism as a sort of compromise position. In the 1840’s, this compromise position was termed the ‘via media,’ the middle way. More recently, this compromise position has been termed “Three Streams Anglicanism.” This is the idea that in Anglicanism the three streams of catholic identity, evangelical truth, and charismatic experience come together. Those who identify Anglicanism in either of these ways would have a hard time with the sort of picture I’m painting here of different camps that have vastly different theological foundations. For them, Anglicanism doesn’t devolve into silly arguments over churchmanship or theology. We are a big tent! There is room for all here!
In the midst of the great debates we’ve spoken of in our previous posts, some arose who saw doctrinal arguments as divisive and harmful to the church, giving rise to the Latitudinarians. Originally, this term referred to Low Churchmen, Evangelicals, or Reformation Anglicans who thought the Established Church should be more tolerant of Puritan views and practices. They saw the Church of England as not being broad enough by excluding the Puritans for different views on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, a resistance to the Book of Common Prayer, or church government. Over time, however, the term latitudinarian began to be identified more and more what we refer to today as Broad Churchmanship.
In the 18th Century, the C of E became practically, though not officially Latitudinarian due to the monarchy’s indifference to settling religious controversies. The Church was then seen as an instrument of society that existed to promote good morals and maintain stability. In America, many today may have been reared in a church that emphasized the latitudinarian, or broad church, elements of our history almost exclusively. The reason for this is simple. Much of American Anglicanism (i.e. The Episcopal Church) was formed under this de facto Latitudinarian church. As a result, many in the American church and in Western churches generally believe that any emphasis on doctrine is essentially and unnecessarily divisive. “Doctrine divides,” they say.
There is something in Anglicanism’s many identities that tends towards this breadth and charity towards across the larger church. This may be due to Anglicanism’s Erastian roots (i.e. that it was a state church). As a church for the people of England, it couldn’t narrowly define itself unless it was willing to exclude a majority of its citizens. It may be due to the ongoing effect of the broadness of the 39 Articles and their use historically in the church. While its protestant pedigree is unmistakable, the Articles are much less precise and strict than its historical counterparts. It may be due to the tendency to center doctrinal identity to a greater extent over Common Prayer than our confessional formularies. Whatever its reasons it is both one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses. The latitudinarian bend of Anglicanism is one of our strengths when it is moored in a particular doctrinal system because it has led us to work across denominations towards greater Christian unity. Reformation Anglicans and Evangelical Anglicans tend to be more generous than their protestant counterparts and open to a broader theological spectrum than, say, conservative Presbyterians or Lutherans. Many protestant scholars would say the actual ‘via-media’ of Anglicanism exists not between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Lutheranism and Calvinism. Anglo-Catholics also have historically viewed catholicity more openly than either Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. This was a central tenet of the Anglo-Catholic movement that the Catholic (i.e. universal church) encompassed Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglo-Catholicism. They said this during a time when Rome and the East were largely closed to one another. In fact, in both camps, evangelical and catholic, Anglicanism has long led the charge in ecumenical efforts.
There is something commendable amongst latitudinarians in their charity and goodwill towards those with whom they disagree. They tend to uphold Christian unity much better than those of us who are more passionate about our theology. I would, however, like to level a critique towards the modern idea that “doctrine divides”. First, I would like to suggest that doctrine unites as much as it divides. It is around doctrine that we are united. While I may not have much in common with a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox on justification, we have tons in common over the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Even the thought that doctrine divides is itself a doctrine. This doctrine unites people around the idea that doctrine divides and that unity is more important than doctrine even while it divides them from those who don’t agree with that thesis. For this, when latitudinarianism is upheld as the guiding principle of the church it has disastrous consequences.
When latitudinarianism, or broad churchmanship, stands alone it can easily be blinded by its inclusive desire to those whom it excludes. For example, in the 1700’s when the church was dominated by a latitudinarian impulse, Anglican Evangelicals were regularly excluded from church because their emphasis on doctrine was seen as divisive and their desire to see people’s lives changed by the gospel was “dangerously enthusiastic.” For this reason, George Whitfield, the Wesley brothers, and the other leaders of the Methodist movement were excluded from the life of the church. While the founders of Methodism did not leave the Church of England, their successors found it impossible to remain. Of course, the great irony here is that holding up church unity as their one essential dogma, they create an atmosphere that is ripe for schism. At the danger of overpoliticising this series, I must say this was the experience of many of us in The Episcopal Church. We found it to be an inclusive church unless you disagreed with its vision of inclusion. I would contend that this exclusionary impulse is not necessarily endemic to latitudinarians alone. Every doctrine unites some and excludes others. What I would say is that when churches use latitudinarianism as the governing principle they become blind to those whom they exclude and because of that blindness they cannot repent of sins that they cannot see.
n.b. While modern-day latitudinarians can appeal to history to justify their existence in Anglicanism, I would argue that this history has more to do with the Church of England’s heritage as an established church than an actual doctrinal commitment to latitudinarianism. Even during the 18th and 19th Centuries when latitudinarianism was at its strongest, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons had to sign allegiance to the 39 Articles in order to get ordained. If they did so with their fingers crossed, that says more about who they are than what Anglicanism is.