Robert M. Andrews has recently published an article called ‘Continuing Anglicanism?  The History, Theology, and Contexts of “The Affirmation of Saint Louis” (1977)’.[i]  The article might not come to my own readers’ attention, since it appears in an Australian academic journal, albeit a good one with international contributors.  Since the article also is very much within the scope of this blog’s interests, it might be useful to draw the attention of my readers to it.  The article raises important matters which I would like to consider here.

The question mark in Andrews’s title is not gratuitous or dismissive but goes to the heart of his argument.  That is, Andrews sees a tension embedded in the ‘Affirmation’ itself.  This tension has played itself out in the history of the Continuing Church.  Conscious recognition of the tension and a resolution of it one way or another is necessary if the Continuing Church is to continue its increasing stability and its doctrinal and institutional coalescence. 

Andrews notes in particular a tension between two facts about and assertions made within the ‘Affirmation’.

First, the ‘Affirmation’ asserts that it does nothing new.  The ‘Affirmation’ claims that ‘…we continue to be what we are.  We do nothing new.’  This theme of continuity and of repudiation of innovation is implicit in the self-understanding common in the very name of the movement that flowed from Saint Louis and the ‘Affirmation’:  the Continuing Church. 

On many levels the assertion of continuity is justified.  As Andrews notes, those who met in 1977 rejected innovations in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, of which the most notable was the purported ordination of women as priests (pp. 42-5).  Andrews gives little attention, however, to the matter of liturgical continuity.  Yet particularly among layfolk and older non-Anglo-Catholic clergy, liturgical change was in 1976-1977 just as disturbing as the ordination issue.[ii]  The same Minneapolis General Convention (September 1976) that asserted the permissibility of women’s ordination also gave initial approval to radical alterations in the prayer book, which were ratified finally as the 1979 Prayer Book following approval by a second General Convention.  More attention by Andrews to the desire for liturgical continuity would have helped to explain the assertion of continuity in the ‘Affirmation’.  

Secondly, Andrews notes that the ‘Affirmation’, despite its ‘claim to continuity is…accompanied with the problems of discontinuity’ (page 40, emphasis added).  As Andrews notes, ‘there is little in the Affirmation of the qualified language and doctrinal minimalism that one associates with Anglican comprehension’ (pp. 49f.).  The ‘Affirmation’ in fact relativizes specifically Anglican formularies, such as the Thirty-Nine Articles, and takes definite positions on doctrinal issues concerning which Anglicans historically have been indefinite and divided.  Andrews notes among those matters on which the ‘Affirmation’ is clear and definite are the dogmatic authority of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the status of all seven sacraments, and the necessity of episcopy for valid ecclesiology (pp. 50-3).  The clarity of the ‘Affirmation’ creates a discontinuity with the vagueness or ambiguity or ‘comprehensiveness’ of much earlier Anglicanism.

On this matter of discontinuity, at least in the rejection by the ‘Affirmation’ of comprehensivism and ambiguity, Andrews claims as ‘the most distinctive attribute of the Affirmation’ its omission of mention of the Thirty-Nine Articles.  In this regard Andrews quotes what I believe to be the most important single principle in the ‘Affirmation’: 

…all Anglican statements of faith and liturgical formulae must be interpreted in accordance with them [i.e. the doctrinal principles of the Affirmation].

Andrews notes that this principle ‘necessitates an interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles that is in-line with the Affirmation’ (p. 53). 

Andrews then quotes a statement by me from 2019:  ‘…the Affirmation establishes itself as an interpretative lens for viewing, and as an hermeneutical principle for understanding, “all Anglican statements of faith and liturgical formulae.”’  I argue, in the paper from which that statement is taken, that this fact is of central importance in understanding the Continuing Church.  Anglican formulae are not a kind of Occam’s razor limiting how we receive the central tradition of the faith.  Rather the central tradition of the faith, according to the ‘Affirmation’, provides the key for interpreting Anglican formulae and ‘distinctives’.  This reversal of hermeneutical authorities is discontinuous with some forms of Anglican theology, though not with the self-understanding of many Anglo-Catholics or, before the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, of other older Anglicans. 

Andrews is perceptive and correct, I believe, in emphasizing at several points the tension within the ‘Affirmation’ between the assertion of continuity and the establishment of partial discontinuity in hermeneutic principles.  Andrews also is correct, I believe, is seeing a partial resolution to the tension in the Anglo-Catholic character of the ‘Affirmation’.  Continuity with earlier Anglicans is easier to detect when the earlier Anglicans and Anglicanism in question are Anglo-Catholicism in particular. 

I have already noted Andrews’s neglect of the liturgical issue as an important motive for early Continuers and as an element making for continuity.  Before returning to the continuity/discontinuity tension, I should mention one problem with Andrews’s major historical source. 

Regarding the history of the Congress of Saint Louis (1977) and the first decades of the Continuing Church, Andrews relies heavily on Douglas Bess’s study, Divided We Stand:  A History of the Continuing Anglican Movement.[iii]    Bess’s book is the only extended history of the first decades of the Continuing Church to date.  Unfortunately, the book is riddled with errors, major and minor.  The errors range from frequent misspelling of names and places to a major categorial error in Bess’s construct of ‘the Southern Phalanx’. 

The historical context for Bess’s book was a quarrel and then schism within the Anglican Catholic Church in the late 1990s.  In that period, near the end of Archbishop William O. Lewis’s tenure as Metropolitan of the Original Province of the ACC, a struggle ensued over seniority among the other bishops.  Seniority mattered because the senior bishop ordinary would become Acting Metropolitan of the ACC in the event of Lewis’s death or incapacitation.   

A minority of bishops eventually left the ACC.  This minority argued that the real issues leading to the division were doctrinal.  The minority labelled their opponents as Protestant comprehensivists and dangerous liberals, while they presented themselves as true Catholics. 

Bess’s history seems to accept that minority interpretation.  Bess uses the term ‘Southern Phalanx’ to describe the larger party that maintained control of the ACC.  The geographical element of the term made little sense, except in that most ACC members in the Dioceses of the South, the Mid-Atlantic States, and New Orleans stuck with the majority.  But so did the Diocese of the Midwest, such Anglo-Catholic shrine churches as Saint Mary’s (Denver) and Saint James’ (Cleveland), and notable Anglo-Catholic bishops and clergy including Bishops James Orin Mote and John-Charles Vockler.  Furthermore, a few years later, when the minority of departing bishops had themselves split three ways, no one continued to maintain seriously that the ACC majority was Protestant, liberal, or comprehensivist or that doctrine was the real cause of the 1997 schism. 

In short, Bess’s historical perspective includes an important category (‘Southern Phalanx’) that was of no real heuristic, explanatory value and had little or no historical basis.  Until there is a better history of the subject, however, Bess’s book will remain useful for the information it conveys.  In any case, Andrews’s article, while dependent on Bess in some perhaps unavoidable respects, does not mention the ‘Southern Phalanx’.  Instead, Andrews quickly identifies the real and salient issues raised by the ‘Affirmation’ and correctly identifies the basic principles within that document.  The ‘Affirmation’ contains an assertion of continuity but also a central hermeneutical principle that is discontinuous with elements often found in earlier forms of Anglicanism.  The discontinuity is much lessened if the comparison is not between the ‘Affirmation’, on the one hand, and all older forms of Anglicanism and all Anglican formularies, on the other hand, but rather is between the ‘Affirmation’ and conservative Anglo-Catholicism. 

The central assertion of the ‘Affirmation’ directs the Continuing Church towards both the central historic tradition of the universal Church and towards the great Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  The ‘Affirmation’, then, while establishing some tension between some distinctive elements in Anglican history and formularies, nonetheless establishes a much greater and more fundamental unity both with the historic tradition and with the living consensus of the great Churches of the East and West.  That is the greatest achievement of the Continuing Church:  one that should be self-consciously accepted and carefully cultivated. 

[i] In the Journal of Religious History.  Volume 46.  Number 1.  March 2022.  Pages 40-60.  Henceforth cited in the text parenthetically with page number.

[ii] This was particularly the case in the United States.  It is true that in Canada the 1975 General Synod purported to permit the ordination of women priests, and liturgical experimentation was underway there also.  But in Canada, and later in England, the liturgical and the ordination issues were much more separate than in the United States.  The Episcopal Church created a larger coalition of would-be Continuers by undertaking a new Prayer Book and women’s ordination in the same year.  A permissive position on abortion, also adopted by the Minneapolis convention in September 1976, added even more to the coalition and to the impetus that led to the Saint Louis Congress.  In the Episcopal Church 1976 brought radical changes in liturgy, in the understanding of holy orders, and in moral teaching.

[iii] Berkeley:  Apocryphile Press, 2006.

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