The Anglican Theological Mare’s Nest

In one way or another theological education in the Anglican Communion remains a mare's nest. What first began as an illusion, or perhaps a hope, that there is a proper way to do theological education specific to Anglicanism, has become a snarl of untidy bits and pieces. To quote Helen Roberton, reflecting on the change in the use of the phrase mare's nest, "A progression through illusion to misconception to confusion to muddle to extreme untidiness seems to have occurred." That seems to quite nicely describe what has transpired in the understanding of theological education in the Anglican world.

In the past several weeks there have been a variety of reports on theological education in the Anglican Communion or in churches of the Communion. The reader may be bored to tears, but those interested in the future of the Communion will want to wade through it all – its illusions, misconceptions, confusions, muddle, and extreme untidiness. What is at stake is the theological breadth of Anglicanism and the training of the baptized to live and proclaim the faith. So here are some of the more recent matters on theological education in the Anglican Communion:

  1. Global South Theological Formation:
    This announcement from the Global South Steering Committee was posted on May 15: "The Global South Anglican Steering Committee has commissioned its Theological Formation and Education Task Force to draft a theological framework of an Anglican Catechism for the worldwide Communion. The Proposal will be submitted to the Steering Committee for release by June 2008.

    Members of the Task Force include:

    Rev. Dr Joseph Galgalo, Kenya
    Dr Edison Muhindo Kalengyo, Uganda
    Canon George Ugochukwu Njoku, Nigeria
    Canon Dr Michael Nai-Chiu Poon, South East Asia (Convenor)

    The following have agreed to be Corresponding Members for this task:
    Bishop Paul Barnett, Australia
    Rev. Dr Kevin Donlon, USA
    Professor Oliver O'Donovan, UK"

One of the members of this group, Dr. Kevin Donlon, has written an apology for this project in an essay titled, "Catechisms: More than Remembering". Dr. Donlon is a priest in the Anglican Mission in America. This essay came out only two days after the announcement of the group's formation. Some of the other members of this team have impressive credentials in Anglican Communion churches.

This task force is about the business of putting together a catechism for the Anglican Communion, a task uninvited by the instruments of communion, but rather by the Global South Steering Committee (GSSC). This is being tooled up to provide a basic outline of orthodox Anglicanism, but for whom? Will this get presented at Lambeth? Perhaps not, perhaps rather at an Lambeth in Egypt (or somewhere) meeting. But what is interesting about this project is that the GSSC is requesting this as a follow-up to a larger project of the "Third Encounter" held in Egypt in 2005. There the following mandate for the Theological Formation and Education Team was published:

  • Prepare a revised Catechism for training in discipleship
  • Develop a training program for existing Anglican leaders
  • Strengthening the network and cooperation between theological institutions and theologians in Global South. Where possible we will cooperate with Western institutions and theologians who share a similar vision in a theological education that is faithful to Scriptures and tradition.
  • This team will also work as a resource group to write, research, reflect and advise the Primates as needed.

The Global South Steering Committee is tooling up to make a major evangelical and "orthodox" push in theological education worldwide. In many ways its work is closely related to Lambeth resolutions and communion wide conversations about theological education. But it is clearly partisan: that is, it is both theological education from the Global South, it distinctly distances itself from what it considers education that is not faithful to Scriptures and tradition. It is an illusion or perhaps a misconception that Anglican theology has ever been understood to be a single whole defined by catechism, curriculum, or creed. But the effort makes us all pay more attention to a theology that connects us to the whole community of faith, not only in the present, but through the whole history of the church.

  1. The Anglican Way in Theological Education:
    On May 25th the Anglican Communion web pages carried this notice: "Members of the TEAC (Theological Education for the Anglican Communion) Working Group held a consultation in Singapore 10-16 May 2007, to explore 'The Anglican Way in theological education'. Participants in the consultation included members of TEAC's Steering Group and Anglican Way Target Group, as well as a number of other people who brought particular expertise and helpful cross-links to the process.'The meeting was honoured with the presence and contributions of Archbishop Rowan Williams for two days of its discussions. Participants in the consultation explored how the Anglican Way was informed by specific concerns; e.g. contextual issues, educational process, recent developments in Anglican ecclesiology and Anglican ecumenical conversations. A key document 'The Anglican Way: Signposts on a Common Journey', which seeks to set out key parameters of the Anglican Way as a framework for Anglican theological education, was agreed by the consultation (see below for the complete text of this document). A number of specific projects to help resource the teaching of the Anglican Way were devised and will be developed over the coming months. Additionally, the meeting provided an opportunity to welcome TEAC's new Regional Associates and induct them to their tasks."

The document "The Anglican Way: Signposts on a Common Journey," provides a valiant attempt to balance the concerns of various strands of the Anglican theological spectrum, but seems to fall in the "muddle of extreme untidiness." Still, this may not be all bad. I tend to agree with Archbishop Tutu who once remarked something to the effect that "Anglicanism is very very untidy." The document proper begins,

"The Anglican Way is a particular expression of the Christian Way of being the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. It is formed by and rooted in Scripture, shaped by its worship of the living God, ordered for communion, and directed in faithfulness to God's mission in the world. In diverse global situations Anglican life and ministry witnesses to the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Together with all Christians, Anglicans hope, pray and work for the coming of the reign of God."

The careful reader will note the singular, "The Anglican Way is a particular expression…" Again, either illusion or muddle. The notion that there is an "Anglican Way," such that the identification of it would provide some sort of border between what is Anglican and what is not, is a useful fiction, but finally not a reality. I think the effort is important because the working group understood the value and the limits of the effort to describe "The Anglican Way."

In a preamble to the document they said, "These features, described as the 'Anglican Way', were intended to form the basis for how Anglicanism is taught at all levels of learning involving laity, clergy and bishops. This document is not intended as a comprehensive definition of Anglicanism, but it does set in place signposts which guide Anglicans on their journey of self-understanding and Christian discipleship. The journey is on-going because what it means to be Anglican will be influenced by context and history. Historically a number of different forms of being Anglican have emerged, all of which can be found in the rich diversity of present-day Anglicanism. But Anglicans also have their commonalities, and it is these which hold them together in communion through 'bonds of affection'.

This preamble gets it right: it is about sign posts, different forms of Anglicanism, rich diversity, and commonalities, and bonds of affection.

This document deserves careful study and I hope it will wend its way through the Anglican mare's nest to become a basis for the wider development of theological education in the Anglican Communion. Such conversations are precisely what the Anglican Communion is good for.

  1. A row has been brewing at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford, one with a bit of drama and lots of accusations. It has raised some questions about the theological education of this particular evangelical faculty. It is of interest here in part because one of its members is also a member of the small community of scholars who collect themselves as The Anglican Communion Institute. You can follow the untidy mess on Thinking Anglicans, here and here and here. At the same time some interesting things come to light about evangelical Anglicanism. Richard Turnbull, the principal of Wycliffe Hall gave a lecture last year which is just now posted for reading. In it he said the following.

    "What I understand by our identity as evangelicals is this. That we believe in the supreme authority of scripture in all matters of life and faith… The second key mark I would identify is a doctrinal mark. … it seems to me that our understanding of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is at the heart of a defining mark of what it means to be an evangelical. Thirdly …the whole understanding of our relationship with Jesus Christ as a personal relationship with a personal God, and it is to that that we are converted. And fourthly…We are committed, are we not, to bringing the gospel message of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Jesus. And in this land that is 95% of the people, and 95% of the people in this country facing hell unless the message of the gospel is brought to bear. So those are my four points about evangelical identity: the priority of scripture, substitutionary atonement at the heart of our doctrinal beliefs, the need for personal relationship with Jesus and our commitment to evangelism.

    … I do think, you know, that this means we must be very wary about embracing a Catholic understanding of the Church. There is enormous temptation for evangelicals to embace an Anglo-Catholic understanding of the Church, its nature and its ministry. And I think we need to be very careful indeed that we do not betray …our evangelical identity by embracing an understanding of the Church that is not historic Anglicanism. When Robert Runcie said, "Evangelicals don't have an ecclesiology," what he meant was, 'I don't like the ecclesiology that evangelicals have.' We do not need to apologise for our understanding of the Church: we are simply to faithfully expound it… The second point …Can I just draw attention to the strategic nature of our theological colleges. …I view the post [of Principal of Wycliffe Hall] as strategic because it will allow influence to be brought to bear upon generations of the ministry. Now, you put yourself in the shoes of the liberals and you capture the theological colleges and you have captured the influence that is brought to bear upon generations of future ministers. And so I simply want to draw your attention to the strategic nature of theological colleges. And thirdly, I want to note the challenge that liberalism brings to us…I need [?]also want to warn against the nature of liberalism within our own midst. What I mean by that is this whole idea of what it means to be evangelical being broadened so that it encompasses everybody and everything. If the liberals seek to capture the theological colleges in order to exercise strategic influence, the first step will be to encourage liberal evangelicals to capture the evangelical colleges. And I just want to draw that challenge to your attention and not overlook it and not to think all is well."

In the midst of the very untidy situation at Wycliffe Hall its Principal has done an interesting service. He has put on the table in clear and concise terms the conservative English evangelical concerns: (i) scriptural authority, substitutionary atonement, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and a commitment to evangelism as salvation from hell, (ii) strongly anti-catholic ecclesiology (finally one suspects Calvinist), (iii) capturing the theological colleges for this same English evangelical agenda.

This sense, that the matter of theological education is both about content (items (i) and (ii)) and about dominance (item (iii)) seems to permeate the row that has resulted from the Wycliffe Hall caper. Giles Fraser, in a Guardian column posted May 29th, "Not Faith, but Fanaticism" puts it this way,

"Of course, what should really happen is that the bishops of the Church of England stop using colleges like this to train its priests. Places such as Wycliffe are turning Anglicanism into a cult. But it's a symptom of how bad things are in the C of E, and how frightened its bishops have become of the financial muscle of conservative evangelicals, that they won't find the gumption to cut Wycliffe adrift.

But clearly they should. For Anglicanism is fast becoming the nasty party at prayer, with traditionally inclusive theology being submerged by a bargain-basement prejudice that damns to hell all those who disagree. This isn't faith, it's fanaticism. And the University of Oxford should not be supporting its work."

The Vicar of Putney, Giles Fraser is not exactly the darling of the evangelicals, but his remarks show just how difficult the English evangelical wing has become for the Church of England.

  1. Dr. Stephen Noll's Open Letter on Theological Education to Network Bishops and Common Cause Partners. On May 27th, Stand Firm posted this Open Letter on its site. In this letter Dr. Noll, Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University, spells out his concerns about sustaining an evangelical theological tradition, not simply as a 'strand' of the theological efforts in Anglicanism, but at the true voice of faith in a church (The Episcopal Church) that is "radically sick."

    He begins his letter, "I write you about an issue close to my heart: the sustenance of orthodox Anglican theological education in the USA . As many of you know, I worked for 21 years at Trinity School for Ministry to fulfill its vision to reform and renew the Episcopal Church. Sadly, we failed. Any failure has multiple explanations, but I am convinced that one of them is the failure of conservative bishops to see the urgent need to send ALL orthodox and evangelical students to Trinity. Instead many naively accepted a pluralistic approach to theological formation. Trinity was seen as a nice new dish at the Episcopal smorgasbord, catering to certain renewal people, not the necessary remedy to a radically sick denomination."

    Dr. Noll recommends that "The Boards of Trinity and Nashotah House should announce that their primary mission is to serve the Network and Common Cause churches and that they will no longer receive students sponsored from revisionist dioceses (not a very costly decision since they won't send students anyway).

    The Network and Common Cause dioceses and churches should commit themselves to require all candidates for ministry to get their degrees from Trinity or Nashotah or a REC seminary, or at least to attend for one year to instill in them a common Anglican ethos."

    He then closes by observing that Network and Common Cause churches ought to fully support Trinity and Nashotah House, and that if they do so, "there is a real chance that orthodox Anglicanism can emerge as a real church like the Presbyterian Church in America (note, with its Covenant Seminary) and not just a welter of "continuing" factions. If it doesn't, I think we are sowing the whirlwind."

    This letter has of course raised a flurry of comments. I have rather good memories of visits to both these institutions, and while I would be distressed to see the full range of theological education be circumscribed by the theological perspectives of either institution, each has value in a larger context. What is of issue here, however, are Dr. Noll's two points: (i) That the right sort of theological education to counter the "radically sick denomination" that is the Episcopal Church is necessary for the future of faithful Anglicanism in America, and that (ii) the model he proposes is essentially a Calvinist model – "a real church like the Presbyterian Church in America (note, with its Covenant Seminary)."

What are we to make of all this?

In just a few weeks we have seen:

  1. A catechism on its way to being a Global South agenda for theological education,
  2. An Anglican Communion vision of an Anglican Way for theological education.
  3. The struggle in England for the future of theological education.
  4. A statement in favor of similar education in the US for "a real church."

Well, to return to the beginning of this essay, this is a mare's nest of material and it only becomes more untidy by the day. The struggle for the future of theological education in the Anglican Communion is clearly related to the struggle for dominance being exercised by English evangelicals, their American counterparts and more worldwide by Anglicans informed more or less by Calvinist principles.

I have visited every seminary in the Episcopal Church except Bexley Hall and have found refreshment in every one. Over the years I have visited seminaries in Taiwan, the Philippines, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Haiti and Puerto Rico. I was a student at The Episcopal Theological School (BDiv /MDiv) and The Episcopal Divinity School (DMin). In every place I found excitement and energy and more wonderfully both Anglican brothers and sisters and Christian fellow travelers (aka pilgrims). I have been influenced by them all. The breadth of Anglican theological work is quite amazing and delicious.

The struggle going on now is whether or not there will continue to be a wide range of theological investigation, study, formation and life in the Anglican Communion or not. In the Episcopal Church the real question is whether or not such institutions as Nashota House and Trinity School for Ministry will continue to inform the conversations in this church or not. In the end I think Dr. Noll's letter is very bad news indeed, not because of his perceived need to hold evangelical standards, but because he wishes to separate these schools from the wider conversation. Similarly I think the Global South Steering Committee may be doing a good service by looking again at an Anglican Catechism, but wrong to be having that conversation without input from 'tainted' sources outside the evangelical camp.

Hard as it is to wade through all this material, if we are interested in the future of Anglicanism we need to pay attention to this mare's nest. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way to a generous future in which the many theological strands that got us into this mess might be either celebrated or woven together.


  1. Rev. Harris, an equal problem we have is the widespread testimony (and, therefore, anecdotal, admittedly) that graduates of Trinity and Nashotah are not welcome in most dioceses of the Episcopal Church. This may have at least something to do with Stephen Noll's thinking.

  2. I remember as I entered seminary (CDSP), I talked with someone from the Diocese of Fort Worth who was going to Nashotah because that's where the bishop told him to go. My bishop told me to go and choose any seminary and did not outlaw Trinity or Nashotah. It was a fun couple of months visiting seminaries.

  3. I'm intrigued that Nashota House (a place I always associated with what I felt was the worst aspects of Anglo-Catholicism [the mimicry of Tridentine Roman Catholicism]) has now become "evangelical."

  4. phil...I thought Dr. Noll's comment about the current Dean of Nashotah not being presentable for ordination because he had been director of the library at Trinity was telling....

    No doubt there have been such instances of people not being welcomed. It cuts across the board and I am not sure the cure is to deny admission because a person is from an unclean diocese. In living memory (It helps to be an old fart) there are folk who could not be trained in any of our seminaries on account of race, origin or gender.

    Once graduated and ordained I would hope placement in a new diocese might be on the basis of record, not school of origin. If a bishop has had really bad experiences with people ordained from a given Seminary that bishop might be more cautious, but the blanket rejection of graduates from a particular seminary is a foolish idea.

    Where a bishop wants his or her students to go is another matter. - not necessarily better, but another. And another story.

  5. My bishop, now retired, did not want me to consider Nashotah House or Trinity because he didn't "think either extreme serves the church well". Funny that at that time (1994)Nashotah House was viewed as being at the opposite end of the spectrum from Trinity.

    I decided on Seabury-Western in Evanston, Illinois. One of the reasons I chose S-WTS was the story (then Dean, now Bishop) Mark Sisk told me. He said that there was once an evangelical seminary and an anglo-catholic seminary, both of which were under threat of closing. One had money and buildings but no students, and the other had students but no money or buildings, I don't remember which was which. They decided on a life together of untidiness, vowing that at no time would the seminary become all of one sort or another - evangelical or anglo-catholic - but for all sorts of Episcopalian understandings to live together, to not resolve the tensions amongst and between all the different views and pieties. Rather, the students were to wrestle with being able to articulate the faith that is in them, and why they believe and practice as they do.

    That was how it was at S-WTS when I was there. I remember the late Taylor Stevenson telling a student who wanted to know why we were studying Camille Paglia when wasn't seminary supposed to teach right theology, that he was there to teach us how to think theologically, and to become theologians. That's why I thrived at S-WTS.

    I had to hammer out my thinking and believing next to a former Pentecostal, and another student, now a bishop, from a nearby non-denominational evangelical seminary, an anglo-catholic who when he genuflected you could hear the sound of his knee strike the stones, and a charasmatic who took offense that I didn't want to hug. I didn't like it all the time. But it was the right thing, for me to be there.

    And, to not take ourselves too seriously, the REAL awards night, which was held right after the academic awards night, included the Golden Spike award for the spikiest senior, the Silver Spike for the most promising spikiest rising senior, and the Calvin award for, well, the graduating senior demonstrating the purest Calvinist piety all three years.

    I'm sad to learn that this past year, S-WTS is going begging for students. If it dies, I will mourn the loss of a place where I struggled with and loved so many people different from me. If I have to choose between indoctrination, and the untidiness of different ways of thinking and believing and practicing, give me Anglican untidiness, "or give me death" ( ! ).
    Love in Christ,
    Lois Keen

  6. My studies at EDS coincided with the beginning of Steven Charleston's tenure. I had started exploring several years earlier, when Bill Rankin was dean, and interviewed with him. He was unapologetic for EDS's radical stance, and was even proud that a number of dioceses refused to send their postulants there or to ordain EDS grads (even Massachusetts under David Johnson steered postulants toward General). Being somewhat right of center, I was wary, but conversations with students convinced me that there was sufficient openness to different perspectives that I needn't fear.
    Steven Charleston didn't fundamentally change the politics or mission of the school, but did reach out to build bridges. One Visiting Day in my last year, a prospective student sat in on one of my classes -- a postulant from the Central Gulf Coast, there with the encouragement of his bishop! By reaching out to the center of the church, EDS has certainly grown (more students), and probably has more influence in the church than it did when it was operating more insularly on the fringe.
    Of course, if Noll and Turnbull want to create a pure educational environment untainted by liberalism, they are quite free to do so. But they should not be surprised that those seminaries are increasingly marginalized and irrelevant to the life of the wider church.

  7. Perhaps bishops are leery of TSM and Nashotah grads because experience shows that if you bring them into your diocese you will soon enough have an insurrection on your hands.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.