Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly

The Center Holds

by Sydney Nicole Thomas

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold . .  .” —Yeats

I came to love the Anglican way through the kind of education that led me to see properly the relationship of faith to reason. I visited a small brick parish in the Virginia countryside, the Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands. The simple order and beauty of the liturgy, the well-wrought homily that brought together education in the liberal arts and the knowledge necessary to hold the faith in spirit and in truth—these were a rest, of sorts, for one who was harried by modernity.

The liberal arts education had led me to Church of Our Saviour in a roundabout way, through The Iliad, through The Repbulic, through Descartes, Locke, Nietszche, and back again, to follow Dante and Virgil up the slopes of Mount Purgatory, that winding ascent which straightens souls the world has made crooked. Education in the classics had been just this to me, a rectifying of the soul; but that is its own story, and one shared by many others. Suffice it to say that it was partly because of classical education that I visited Church of Our Saviour, and that I first discovered the dignity, reverence, and theological strength contained within the historic Book of Common Prayer.

I have practiced as an Anglican for nearly two years, despite the prevailing attitude among Anglicans to put aside discussions which might broadly be called philosophical, avoiding theology related to sexuality, human nature, and personhood, as if these cannot or should not be articulated within the Anglican Communion. These topics are poorly discussed because of competing claims as to what constitutes the Anglican tradition, claims which came about largely in the last two centuries as party politics obscured the classical Anglican teachings. Many other young people, who also discovered the historical Christian faith through a classical education, have swum the Tiber because of this confusion. They see Anglicanism as a church which doubts its own inheritance and which praises the ‘broad tent’ instead of the narrow way of the Gospel. They think that Anglicans do not know who they are; and of course, who wants to join a church filled with lost sheep, where are “Such fables from the pulpits dinned . . . that the silly sheep, all unaware, Come home from pasture fed on emptiness; No harm they see, no less of guilt they bear”?1

Perhaps all along the sheep have yearned to be fed, on something more than the empty and changing winds of doctrine. I was fed on the Book of Common Prayer, and it was there that I discovered an inheritance worth guarding; the common life, doctrines, and sacraments of the early Church, put into praying words refined over the centuries, preserved unchanged in their very essentials.

When introduced to the Book of Common Prayer, I could see how the reformed and catholic Church in sixteenth century England had a truly common worship by which to live the faith. It aimed to “cleave to antiquity; that is to say, to follow the primitive Church and ancient Fathers,” becoming learned in the history and doctrines of Christianity; for, as John Jewel notes in his Apology, consulting sacred Scriptures and the primitive Church is how the truth of the Church’s teachings may be discerned.2 Such a body was equipped to transmit the essential truths of Christianity to future generations.

These truths have been obscured today, because of the pluralistic conditions shaping our society, and because of the noticeable absence of reason in the public square. Theological discourse has become unlearned and unintelligible, as Duke theologian Reinhard Hütter notes in his work Suffering Divine Things. Hütter suggests that modern theology often has begun to understand itself as an autonomous ‘construction’ of the religious subject, rather than continuing to orient itself around an older conception of rationality that is rooted within a historical framework.3 Those who claim that Anglicanism has no central doctrine, no center because all truth claims are equally valid, implicitly hold that the individual ‘discovers theology for himself.’ They have accepted the autonomous construction of the self, and have denied the place of reason.

Yet I would question, is such a practice good for the soul, much less a means by which to preserve the Church, if it is detached from a community of saints both living and dead, if it presumes that it is a matter of indifference whether or not we are alienated in our theology and in our worship from the multitude of the saints, from the teachings of classical Anglicanism which sustained those saints and built up the Church in the first place?

Our doctrines and sacraments shared with the apostolic Church ought to provide wonderful resources, and a unity in faith that spans both space and time. However, when the Church loses unified prayer and belief, what Hütter describes as its “public character,” it moves toward a private religious association in which there is little left that is ‘common.’4 We have seen this within the Anglican Communion, as liturgical practices have been imported from other traditions, and as revisions of the Book of Common Prayer have emptied the prayers of their meaning, leaving the content of faith open to the subjective and untutored judgment of the worshipper. The loss of the public character of the Church, the loss of a center to Anglicanism, is but one effect of the nihilism that undergirds this idea of the ‘big tent.’

Without a central teaching united in worship, a Church is incoherent; and however can an incoherent Church hope to carry out its mission in this divided, post-metaphysical world? These challenges to common worship are faced by all churches, not least the Roman Catholic, as it too needs to negotiate intelligently various theological debates which are produced by the culture. But they are particularly troubling for Anglicans, who lack the institutional and legal authority of a Roman magisterium and who rely upon formularies, and upon an educated clergy and laity, to hand down sacred truths. In such straits, it seems of utmost importance that Anglicans rediscover the theological tradition of classical Anglicanism contained within the historic Book of Common Prayer.

It would be a great pity, indeed, if the Anglican Church were to squander its jewels for a mess of potage, or so it seems to a young person who went looking for those jewels. An education in historical philosophy and theology led me to a Church where there yet remained an echo of the greatness of the Anglican past. Such Churches must not be allowed to pass away, their Center must not be overgrown and hidden, because then the capacity of the Anglican Church to be a missionary unto the young would be sadly compromised.

  1. Dante, Paradiso, XXIX, 103, 106-8.
  2. Bishop John Jewel, The Apology for the Church of England and a Treatise of the Holy Scriptures, trans. William R. Whittingham, (New York: Onderdonk & Co.), 120. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes similarly outlines, “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period—the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”
  3. Reinhard Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice, trans. Doug Stott, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000) 6-14.
  4. Hütter, Suffering Divine Things, 28.