Throwing Cranmer out at Constantinople

It seems the agreed statement of the Anglican–Oriental Orthodox International Commission last month has barely been noticed. (The story is here, the picture above is the official photo of the statement’s signing, and the statement – PDF – is here.) Possibly this is because it only talked about revising the creed, rather than about sex. However, since it cites as accepted theological agreement previous statements which likewise sunk without trace, perhaps it too is seeking to become doctrine by stealth.

Now, that’s a tendentious way to put it, but – apart from previous statements read only by the cognoscenti – it rides on the back of little more than a Lambeth Conference motion (Lambeth Conference 1978 Resolution 35.3) which requested

that all member Churches of the Anglican Communion should consider omitting the Filioque from the Nicene Creed, and that the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission through the Anglican Consultative Council should assist them in presenting the theological issues to their appropriate synodical bodies.

(I should explain: this means dropping the phrase “and the Son” from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as a late Western addition to the original, so that it says “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” This appears as a Common Worship resource which “may be used on suitable ecumenical occasions“.)

This Lambeth motion was itself a fairly timid response to a 1976 agreed statement of an Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue. And, to the best of my admittedly sketchy knowledge, it has largely been ignored outside of a relatively small subset of ecumaniacs. Anglicans broadly understand what dialogue, for example, with Roman Catholics means, and have a hazy grasp of its importance. They are the Christians who worship just down the road, in ways that are recognizably similar if a bit exotic at times. But for most English Anglicans the Oriental Orthodox are almost unknown, and if the image conjures anything for the person in the pew, it is a group of beardy-weirdies in black with funny hats, who (we’re sure) are perfectly nice people if a bit foreign.

When you add to the presumed strangeness of the Oriental Orthodox that the Dublin statement concerns the doctrine of God, you also have to take into account several generations of vaguely dismissive Anglican comment on the nightmare of preaching on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. One’s parish church is an unlikely place to learn of the ways in which the essential (God in Godself) and economic (God in his acts of and in creation) Trinity relate to one another, far less why it might be a matter of some importance to anyone outside the Groves of Academe, or indeed fourth century Cappadocia.

Any Anglican-Orthodox statement on the doctrine of the Trinity is thus esotericism squared, and the first thing a good practical down-to-earth pew-filling Anglican will do with such angelic pin-dancing is ignore it.

I do not share these views, but they make it very hard for me to imagine how the Church of England (whose General Synod is not exactly noted for theological acumen) might even begin to have a serious conversation about the Filioque. It concerns arguments about authority in the church, the Father as the source of Godhead safeguarding the divine unity against accusations of tritheism, and how the revelatory story of Jesus and philosophical monism might mutually relate. To name but three.

However, to come finally to the point, the essential fig-leaf worn by the House of Bishops in these denuding times of rapid change, has been that Anglican doctrine is still fundamentally to be found in the Book of Common Prayer, whose creed admits to no variants for suitable ecumenical occasions, but as a liturgy of the Western Church, incorporates the Filioque with no hint of controversy, and repeats it equally bluntly in the fifth of its articles of religion.

This agreed statement from the Anglican–Oriental Orthodox International Commission effectively says the BCP (and the fifth article) are wrong, and must therefore be changed in the name of theological integrity and ecumenical charity.

And no-one seems even to have noticed.

10 Replies to “Throwing Cranmer out at Constantinople”

    1. Sounds as though they’re no more interested in doctrinal niceties than English ones. What’s different is that as the established Church, the C of E accords the BCP a normative and legal status as a doctrinal standard – even if that is a status more honoured in the breach than the observance!

        1. In fairness, it’s worth mentioning that the BAS explicitly references the Lambeth 1978 statement, and goes on to note that “General Synod meeting in Peterborough in 1980 stated that the omission of the filioque does not imply a change of doctrine or belief on the part of the Anglican Church.” (176), available at https://c2892002f453b41e8581-48246336d122ce2b0bccb7a98e224e96.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/BAS.pdf
          Another interesting wrinkle is while the filioque is omitted in the rite as printed on pages 185ff, it is present in the rite that begins on page 230 (“A Form in the Language of the book of Common Prayer 1962).

  1. You’re right that this Agreed Statement slipped under the radar (and I have doubts about the truthfulness of paragraph 2). But I’m aware of a little more history than its footnotes give.

    Lambeth 1988 strengthened the 1978 resolution, and the 1990 meeting of the Anglican Communion Council strongly seconded the recommendation; they moved from recommending it be considered to recommending it be done when Provinces next revised their liturgy. By 1998 many Provinces had passed resolutions agreeing to do so – among them Scotland, Wales, Canada, TEC, New Zealand and Central Africa (I can testify Scotland, for one, followed through). The Nicene Creed has been used without the Filioque at Lambeth Conferences from 1988 onwards, and at the enthronement of successive Archbishops of Canterbury; in short it is now long established Communion-level policy, which has moved forwards from the tentative first steps of Lambeth 1978. It is simply another parochialism of the CofE (like the ASB’s dropping of the Apostle’s Creed from baptism, notwithstanding the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral) that its synodical processes could only muster so lukewarm a compromise when the time came to produce Common Worship!

    HOWEVER, this was agreed to on the basis that a return to the common AD 381 text of the Creed remains fully consistent with the Filioque doctrine, howsoever that should most properly be understood. No one is yet proposing we remove the Filioque from the Quicunque Vult…

    (Similar recommendations have emerged from RC-Orthodox dialogue. The 1995 Vatican ‘Clarification’ on the Filioque noted that it should not be used, even in the Latin Rite, when the Creed is recited in Greek; more recently the 2003 North American Orthodox-Catholic Agreed Statement called for the Greek to be the basis for all liturgical translations of the Creed.)

    1. Thanks for that very informative and knowledgable comment. It seems to me, though, that this statement goes beyond returning to the wording of Constantinople, to rejecting the doctrine of the Filioque – “We agree that while the Holy Fathers speak of a relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father through the Son, they never hold that the Spirit proceeds from or through the Son”. I think the question about the wording of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed as a conciliar declaration is one thing, but another, the rejection of a filioque doctrine, is being smuggled in by default.

      I should add that I make no claim to any doctrinal expertise. I’m simply observing a serious problem between this statement and Anglican formularies being maintained as unaltered doctrine in the context of current debates.

  2. I have yet to fully digest the new Statement – thanks for bringing it to my attention! – but I do agree with you some of it looks tendentious. As one who finds Augustine’s trinitarian theology particularly attractive, I can’t help but notice that all the ‘Holy Fathers’ footnoted wrote in Greek! And I agree with you that it seems to be reading more into our agreement on the text of the Creed than is warranted.

    Nevertheless the Statement, however partisan in its interpretation of the Fathers (the Cyprus Agreed Statement of the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue was more ready to recognise that some of the Greek Fathers cited here may acknowledge “some kind of dependence of the Spirit on the Son within the immanent Trinity.”), is rejecting only an immanent Filioque, and this rejection – warranted or not – would not be inconsistent with the BCP formularies. (Paragraph 2 claims our Churches already ‘generally’ apply the clause only to the Economic Trinity, though I’m not sure how well this assertion would stand up to examination.)

    At any rate, the issues of the text of the Creed (where the West might fairly be argued to be procedurally in the wrong) and of the doctrine (where I am inclined to think the more fanatical anti-Filioquist voices themselves in the wrong) are separable.

  3. Also: what about the doctrine of Original Sin. As I understand it (correct me if I am wrong) the Orthodox would not agree with Article 9. This is at least as important as the Filioque disagreement.

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