When Invoking “the Holy Spirit” Will Justify Just About Anything

May 1999By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

Anglicans and Tradition and the Ordination of Women.  By H.R. McAdoo. Canterbury Press (St. Mary’s Works, St. Mary’s Plain, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 3BH, United Kingdom). 138 pages. £11.99..



Henry McAdoo was Anglican Archbishop of Dublin (Church of Ireland) from 1977 to 1985, and served as the Anglican co-chairman of the first series of sessions of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, or ARCIC I, which met from 1969 to 1981. In such books as The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology (1949), The Spirit of Anglicanism (1965), The Unity of Anglicanism: Catholic and Reformed (1983), and Anglican Heritage: Theology and Spirituality (1991), he interpreted the thought and principles of Anglican divines of the 17th century in such a way as to assert their foundational status for contemporary Anglican thought and practice. In the new work reviewed here, the retired Archbishop (who died on Dec. 10, 1998) seeks to defend the ordination of women by Anglican Churches against those who contend that such an innovation constitutes a violation of historical orthodoxy.

This is a bad but instructive book. It shows how far a learned divine is willing to go in “reinventing” Anglicanism in order to make a case for an innovation that is thoroughly incompatible with tradition. And thereby it makes clearer the religious “ecological niche” that the Anglican Churches of the English-speaking world are coming to occupy at the end of our millennium.

The book unintentionally serves as supporting evidence for this twofold thesis of mine: (1) Anglican Churches in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the British Isles are now occupying the “niche” that Unitarianism occupied from the late 18th to the mid-19th century in New England — that is, they have become religious bodies promoting a radical transformation and secularization of Christianity to make it over in a way more agreeable to the elites of society; and (2) Anglicanism, when uninfluenced for the good by more robust strains of Christianity (e.g., Calvinism in the 16th and early 17th centuries; certain aspects of Greek Patristic thought in the 17th century; evangelical pietism in the latter half of the 18th century; the Oxford Movement and its Anglo-Catholicism drawing on Roman Catholic belief and practice in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries) — Anglicanism, when bereft of such influences, finds its natural state in a thoroughgoing Erastianism for which the most suitable biblical prototype is Bethel, of which we may read at Amos 7:12-13 (“And Amaziah said unto Amos, ‘O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there. But prophesy not again any more at Bethel, for it is the king’s chapel and the king’s court’”).

Let us first discuss some terms, “Unitarianism” and then “Erastianism.” Unitarians, insofar as they are in any sense Christians, reject the fundamental assertion of Christian orthodoxy that God is a Trinity of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sharing the one divine essence, and instead assert that God is one (person), that Jesus is either a created divine being analogous to the angels who became incarnate to save mankind (this was their original position) or else simply an exemplary human being, greater perhaps than any prophet, in whom we are able to discern a pattern for living that we should follow as best we can. The “Holy Spirit” they regard as a synonym for God’s presence and activity.

Unitarian ideas were disseminated during the early Reformation by various individuals of a rationalistic and scholarly bent, most of them followers of Erasmus rather than of the leading Protestant reformers. Persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike, Unitarians found refuge in Poland (for a time) and Transylvania, where a small body of them still exists among the Hungarian minority in that region of Romania. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Unitarian ideas flourished in the English Presbyterian Church (not to be confused with the firmly Calvinist Scottish Presbyterians of the day), which by the end of the 18th century had become a Unitarian body.

In America, Unitarian ideas began to be held in the last third of the 18th century by many of the ministers and laity of the established Congregational Church of Massachusetts, especially at Harvard and by Harvard-trained clergy. Shortly after 1800 the simultaneous appointment at Harvard of both a President and a Professor of Theology holding Unitarian views aroused the opposition of their Trinitarian counterparts, and over the succeeding two decades Massachusetts Congregationalism was riven by disputes and lawsuits, which resulted in most of the churches in the eastern third of the state espousing Unitarianism.

Down to perhaps the 1870s the Unitarians remained (according to their own lights) a Christian body, believing in the inspiration and authority of the Bible and confessing Christ as (in some sense) Savior of mankind. But the influence, again through Harvard, of German “liberal higher criticism” of the Bible led by the end of the century to Jesus being regarded as but one of a constellation of religious leaders (and perhaps not the most significant among them). In recent decades belief in God, or for that matter any deity, has become optional. As Unitarianism jettisoned its Christian dogmatic content it began to seem religiously a bit disreputable, and so numbers of its more traditionalist adherents became Episcopalians or Congregationalists. But Unitarianism continued to function — as it does today — as a place where adherents of all manner of fashionably eccentric thinking can feel pleasantly and painlessly spiritual, without the inconvenience of having to reconcile their views with an authoritative dogmatic tradition or live their lives in accordance with an objective moral code.

It all sounds like the Episcopal Church of today, doesn’t it? Of course, two hundred years make a lot of difference. The early Unitarians of New England were serious folk — high-minded, moralistic devotees of Enlightenment rationality studying theology in an America where republican virtue and individual self-discipline were standard ideals. By contrast, today we live in a sentimental, self-seeking, and image-conscious America in which “rationality,” insofar as it exists at all in such an inimical milieu, often serves as a pretense to “tart up” subjective preferences or willful choices. Virtue? Self-discipline? Don’t be absurd! We fashion and refashion ourselves, customizing our lives to our taste. The recipe? A bit of sexual indulgence here, a pinch of moralism there (prohibiting tobacco, insisting on “inclusive” language, or scolding those who are “judgmental” about marital infidelity, serial polygamy, exotic sexual preferences, illegitimacy, and the like), a dollop of volunteer service to the Little League or Planned Parenthood, and a large measure of looking out for number one and making big bucks. For seasoning, we chastise ourselves for being insensitive to the environment and for being overweight, even while we insist that the essential ingredient of the good life is feeling good about ourselves.

And one of the things it is good to feel good about is our religion. Since the Unitarians have abandoned even the semblance of religion, the Episcopal Church has taken over their market niche as the feel-good denomination, offering a range of religious goods and services, available on a “help yourself” basis and with no obligation beyond paying the membership fees, certainly no constraining doctrinal or moral norms or attendance requirements. Episcopalian strategists assiduously reinforce the existing values of their clients and potential customers: You want a church wedding but you’ve been married seven times before? No problem! Active homosexual and want to be ordained? No problem! You like pews and hymns but don’t like dogma and morals? No problem!

The second term that needs discussion here is “Erastianism,” named for Thomas Erastus (1524-1583), a physician in Heidelberg, then the capital of the Rhenish Palatinate of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1561 the Palatinate’s ruler embraced Reformed Christianity (or “Calvinism”) and established it in his dominion. This was a daring move, since the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed territorial princes and cities to choose between only two versions of Christianity, Catholicism and Lutheranism. Unlike Lutheranism, the Reformed version of Protestantism laid stress on social and moral discipline and upon the church and its pastors as the agents thereof. But within Reformed Christianity there were two lines of thought on the relative roles of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the exercise of this discipline. One came from Zurich, the original center of Reformed Christianity in which Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531) and his successor Heinrich Bullinger (d. 1575) had labored. This version advocated a virtually complete integration of church and state under the rule of the civil authorities, and it was this theory that dominated the Swiss heartland of the movement.

The home of the other school of thought was Geneva, where the leading religious figure was John Calvin (d. 1564), who systematized Reformed teaching into a compelling synthesis. Some of Calvin’s views were actually closer to those of Luther than of Zwingli and Bullinger, and it has been claimed that his thinking on the role and relative autonomy of the church vis-à-vis the state places him closer to Catholicism than to other Reformation leaders. Be that as it may, in 1549 Calvin and Bullinger reached an accord that religiously united Geneva and Zurich in the Reformed camp. In Geneva, although in theory the civil authorities had ultimate control over the institutions of the church, in practice the church and its pastors dominated the city’s religious life and moral discipline, and it was the Geneva pattern that Reformed Christians strove to erect in Scotland, the Netherlands, and the parts of France which they dominated, with varied and indifferent success.

In the Palatinate there was considerable controversy over the matter. Doctor Erastus of Heidelberg became the leading advocate of the view that the “lay magistrate” ought to control the church, and he advanced his opinions in a thoroughgoing manner, claiming that even the sacramental discipline of the church — the determination of who should be allowed to receive communion and who barred from it — should be determined by the civil authorities. Erastianism thus became a byword for the view that the state should control the church. In the course of time, Erastianism prevailed to a greater or lesser extent in all realms where Protestantism was the established religion, and in regions like Scandinavia the state churches are still, in practice, governed by the state. Witness modern Sweden, where government pressure forced the Lutheran state church to adopt the ordination of women despite the initial opposition of all 13 of its bishops when the issue arose in 1957-58.

But what has this to do with the current Anglican scene? Certainly, neither the Episcopal Church in the U.S. nor any other Anglican church outside of England is an established church. However, in America and elsewhere a certain practical or social Erastianism marks official Anglicanism. By this I mean that these churches do not make decisions about doctrine and practice on the basis of the Bible as interpreted by their own tradition — much less the Tradition (with a capital T) that the Catholic and Orthodox churches regard as authoritative. They certainly do not act on the basis of any magisterial episcopal authority. They simply reflect the attitudes and beliefs generally held in those socially elite circles from which their membership so largely comes or to which it so eagerly aspires.

A good instance of this is Episcopal priestess Katherine Hancock Ragsdale’s testimony, before a Congressional committee, that she has assisted many female minors to obtain abortions without the knowledge of their parents. In the contemptible category of “kept clergy” she is a lineal descendant of Amos’s foe Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. No doubt whatever “magisterial” authority she may claim for her position derives from sources such as Planned Parenthood and the Population Council. It would be hard to find a practical Erastianism more thoroughgoing than that. It is from analogous secular sources that the Episcopal bishops who “ordained” the first priestesses, and those who acquitted Bishop Righter in his trial for ordaining an active homosexual, have fetched their inspiration.

McAdoo’s book does not state my twofold thesis given above, but it appears to premise something similar, for the argument advanced by McAdoo gives the advantage to proponents of any doctrinal or moral innovation espoused by the circumambient society. McAdoo requires only that the innovators make a case, however bogus, that the Bible (properly interpreted, of course, and we shall see what this means for McAdoo) does not rule it out and that “reason” (another key term in his bag of verbal tricks) requires it.

The book consists of ten chapters. The first chapter, “The Spirit, Continuity and Change,” establishes the aggressive imprecision that characterizes the argument from beginning to end. McAdoo appropriates from Eastern Orthodox thought the notion of the Spirit abiding in the Church but severs it from its Orthodox context of the identification of “the Church” with the Orthodox Church and from the central Orthodox concept of Tradition as constituting the totality of dogma and life in the Spirit. He then goes on to attack what he seems to regard as the ecclesiastical determinism of Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Finally he announces what amounts to a sort of Darwinian evolutionary concept of doctrine and practice, one saved, in appearance at least, from the sheer blind irrationality and purposelessness of its biological original only by McAdoo’s gratuitous invocation, here, there, and everywhere, of the “abiding presence of the Spirit.”

Chapters Two through Six discuss the role that “the Anglican Tradition” has allocated to tradition. Tradition, says McAdoo, is important, but is subordinate to Scripture (and is authoritative even in this subordinate sense only in “essential” matters and not in “non-fundamental” ones, which leaves open a wide field for tactical maneuvering). In naming expositors of his concept of Anglican tradition, McAdoo is stringently selective. On his approved list are two 16th-century divines, John Jewel and Richard Hooker, the first of whom attacked the Catholic view of tradition and the second of whom may well stand as the father of the rationalistic and selectively traditional temperament of so much of later Anglicanism; several 17th-century divines of a strongly rationalistic temperament, Jeremy Taylor, Benjamin Whichcote, Nathaniel Culverwell, Henry More (the last three are the “Cambridge Platonists”), Henry Hammond, Robert Boyle (whose views seem an anticipation of the Deism of the Enlightenment philosophes rather than in any sense meaningfully Christian), and the latitudinarians Edward Stillingfleet, John Tillotson, and Thomas Tenison; two 18th-century figures, William Wake and Daniel Waterland; among 20th-century figures, the Irish Anglican bishop R.P.C. Hanson (who in his later life came to question the Trinitarian foundations of the Christian doctrine of God), contemporary liberal English Anglican theologians like Paul Avis and Stephen Sykes, an evangelical supporter of women’s ordination like R.T. France, the Anglo-Catholic A.M. Allchin who has “accommodated” himself to the innovation and would have others do likewise, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who, being a decade dead, cannot respond to the invocation of his name in such a cause.

McAdoo’s selectivity in effect proscribes from genuine Anglicanism the conservative evangelical party, who have a good claim to be possessors of the title deeds, if you will, of Anglicanism, given that they dominated the thinking of the Church of England from its origins at the Elizabethan Settlement until well into the 17th century. Also proscribed are the orthodox Anglo-Catholic heirs of 19th-century Tractarianism. However, having thus reinvented an “Anglican Canon” to suit his purposes, McAdoo displays a willingness to invoke in support of it such Roman Catholic names as Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff, and Sister Lavinia Byrne, all of them notorious dissenters from Magisterial teaching in regard to Church authority, contraception, and (surprise, surprise) the ordination of women. He also names two Orthodox theologians, Olivier Clement and Christos Yannaras, who might be amazed to find themselves in such company.

As a result of the crooked historical path of the English Reformation, tradition came to play an important yet ambivalent role in Anglicanism, not least as a shield to be held up against Catholic attacks upon Anglicanism as too Protestant, but tradition is of lesser authority than Scripture. By the end of McAdoo’s discussion, however, it appears that in practice Scripture itself is governed by Reason, for Reason “sets us free from fundamentalism, traditionalism and theological idiosyncrasy,”writes McAdoo. (A skeptic might reasonably observe that theological idiosyncrasy is rather a hallmark of contemporary Anglicanism.) McAdoo’s view is that “the main threat within to a credible authority in the Church comes from unreasoning biblicism and unreasoning traditionalism.”

The next three chapters treat the relationship of Scripture and Reason in Anglicanism, a relationship that may be likened to that of the Monarch and her Prime Minster in contemporary Great Britain, where the Queen reigns but does not rule and the Prime Minister, although governing in her name, exercises executive authority and controls such of her actions as bear on anything of importance. An understanding of what McAdoo means by Reason thus appears to be fundamental for an assessment of his whole enterprise, not least because he states that “the appeal to reason is deeply embedded in the Anglican psyche.”

The task would be considerably easier if we could attribute to McAdoo these words from the Foreword (written by the current Bishop of Portsmouth in the Church of England, Kenneth Stevenson) on Scripture and Tradition: “Each needs the other, and both need Reason — in its imaginative rather than cerebral form….” Is this a case of poor McAdoo being betrayed with a kiss? At one point in his own text McAdoo says that Reason “is the capacity to ask for the evidence for a doctrine either in Scripture or in Tradition,” but elsewhere he calls Reason “an openness to the present and to the guidance of the Spirit.” The second definition is in fact the dominant one in the book, and in practice, writes McAdoo, Reason means deferring to “what is reasonable in the surrounding culture” and speaking “a language that the world can understand.”

But why should reasonableness limit itself to approving of women’s ordination? Issues of sexual morality are also susceptible of swift resolution by ascertaining the world’s understanding and simply christening it. In principle there is no hurdle so high that this horse could not leap it. The perennial problem for Christian converts in polygamous societies — the problem of paring their wives down to one — is also susceptible of easy resolution thereby. And should real polygamy (as opposed to its serial version) come back into vogue among society’s elites in the post-Christian West, the Anglican Churches could easily reason their way into approving it. (On a sexually egalitarian basis, of course: polyandry for the ladies, polygyny for the men, and polypartnership for those preferring to match rather than mix.)

The book’s final chapter, which focuses directly on the ordination of women, abounds with invocations of the Holy Spirit “abiding in the Church, inspiring, guiding, and enlightening.” These amount to vacuous rhetorical varnishings, intended to clothe the Erastian Reason at work in this book in a garb of piety. The book concludes with (further) criticism of the Catholic Church’s stance against the ordination of women and with additional praise of McAdoo’s selective Anglican tradition, the place of Reason within it, and the connection with it of “the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit,” of which the reader has heard so much talk and seen so little evidence.

Reading McAdoo, one recalls the preacher who wrote at certain points in his notes for his sermon: “Argument weak, talk louder.” McAdoo’s constant invocations of the Holy Spirit fulfill the same function in this book as that preacher’s increases in volume did in his sermon — and to as little effect.

The only interesting thing about McAdoo’s enterprise is that he is simply one of the latest of a whole series of Amaziahs who have been reshaping Anglicanism to the liking of their earthly masters.



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