The View from the Three Legged Stool

I've been thinking about the Anglican three legged stool and the hope and prayer of being a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice, etc.

The past weeks have seen some signs that a number of people who we might otherwise have thought were caught up in the realignment agenda have had second thoughts about taking themselves out of this Church and into some other.

Fr. Jake reflected on friends in the Diocese of San Joaquin who he holds dear even when there are apparent divides. Likewise, I read the list of those who signed the letter from 12 clergy in Pittsburgh stating their intention to continue to work from change from within the Episcopal Church and found the name of at least one person I know and respect highly. The Rev. Dr. James Simons is quoted extensively in the Episcopal News Service article on the letter just published in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and for good reason. Jim is a thoughtful and talented priest and a person of great integrity.

I am thankful that as Anglican Land matters play out it appears that we may end up with an Episcopal Church that will still have in it James Simons and Terry Martin ( Jake's more or less reall name), Dan Martins and Sarah who Laughs, and everyone in between. What holds us all together can be viewed in a number of ways. Here is one:

We mostly sit on Anglicanism's three legged stool - scripture, reason and tradition. Oh we may argue about which is most important but we know that is really not very helpful. We find stability because the legs are all there, all strong and present.

Oddly, we know also that a one legged stool would suffice but that such a stool acquires its stability from a certain rigidity - it has to be squarely seated under one's rear, or perhaps pushed into the ground. It's not really suited to being moved around much, or for the squirmy.

As someone who would just as soon shift the stool occasionally, or shift around, I don't really like the one-legged type. I've met some who think one-legged stools work just fine. These are the sorts who like the stools you sometimes find at soda fountains or a certain class of bar. As I remember, if not well bolted down, they don't work very well, particularly if the sitter is not always attentive. (Not to suggest that I've ever fallen off a bar stool!)

So I like the Anglican reliance on a stool that you can move about and sit or stand on with some confidence.

For some reason in the back recesses of my mind I remembered today one of the first books ever read to me by Anne (sainted and still lively mother), Horton Hatches an Egg. Horton, who was faithful one-hundred percent, sat on a one-legged stool. I loved Horton and his faithfulness and his tree. I noticed as I got older that what with Horton being heavy (after all he was an elephant) his tree (one-legged) ended up having several more props and became a bit more stable. Horton, faithful one hundred percent, found himself on a three legged stool after all.

Perhaps friends who I thought had moved into one-legged land of Scripture, or Reason or Tradition alone, have instead come to realize that they too have needed the full prop-up of a three-legged informing faith.

All of this is of course foolishness as ruminations go. I know that the three-legged stool of Anglicanism idea gets to be somewhat hackneyed and overused. Still, I am hopeful that the future of the Episcopal Church will be filled with all sorts of Christians with a tendency to lean back on two or even one leg of the stool and still settle back down to the stability of all three together.

The Episcopal Church is filled with lots of one hundred percent faithful folk, relying at one time or another more on scripture, reason or tradition, sometimes on two, and mostly on all three. It's good to know that friends with whom there are strong disagreements are still sitting down together to talk - sitting on three-legged stools in Anglican Land.


  1. The Episcopal Church is filled with one hundred percent faithful folk

    are you really saying that everyone in the Episcopal Church is faithful, or have i misunderstood?

  2. thomas...right, a bit muddled. It's a hard sentence to get straight... I made a correction that TEC is filled with a lot of 100% faithful people...giving a bit of slack, knowing that nothing we do is 100%...but I am, after all trying to parallel Horton hatching an egg.

  3. I always loved the "Horton Hatching an Egg" story and read it to my own children. I never noticed before the extra props that certainly would have been necessary for Horton. And for us, too. Anyone who goes out on a limb in faith, as Christians regularly do, need that 3-legged stool. I love this Episcopal Church.

  4. The three-legged stool is now a sufficiently uncommon piece of furniture, on either side of the Atlantic, that comparatively few folks recognize it as a symbol of stability. The tripod format is unique in furniture in that three-legged items - stools, tables, whatever - will sit firm and stable on almost any surface, however uneven. Fewer than three legs and the object will fall; more than three and it may rock, except on the most even surface.

  5. For an excellent and encouraging look at the three-legged stool in action, as it were, I recommend H.R. McAdoo's "Anglicans and Tradition and the Ordination of Women."

    At a time of so much acrimony in the Communion, this was a book that, when I read it recently, actually made me feel good about being an Anglican.

  6. I appreciate the metaphor, and in fact the post, but I think the problem comes when one attempts to pit one of these legs against another. They must stand together or not at all. But this means that one cannot say, as so many seem to want to, that reason trumps scripture. Reason that leads to a conclusion that is clearly not supported by scripture is not reasonable at all.

    Nor am I sure that this idea of equal value for each leg is accurate. As you aptly point out, Horton's branch does not break because it is propped up in two places, creating a three legged stool. Without the props, the branch would likely have snapped. But it's important not to confuse the props with the branch. If you tried to make the branch support the prop, nothing would fit and the whole thing would collapse.

    There really needs to be more Dr. Seuss in our theological discussions!

  7. Turn the one legged stool upside down and it will be stable, perhaps a bit uncomfortable though.
    But maybe that was their intention all along.

  8. God already set up a clear priority:

    #1. God gave the divine gift of REASON directly to us as the "image of God" when human beings were created. It was God's FIRST gift and it defined humanity and differentiated us from the animals.

    #2. Then, as human beings began to take some control away from God, they produced TRADITION - which still over and over had to pass the test of REASON, and failing that test (and inspired by the Holy Spirit), some of the Tradition had to go through a goodly number of changes.

    #3 And then Tradition produced SCRIPTURE, and the test that various writings had to pass before they could even BE Scripture was "Do they reflect the Tradition?" It was the institutional Church (not God) which gave us what we call "Scripture".

    GOD gave us Reason; the institutional Church gave us Tradition; and that, in turn, produced Scripture.

    But GOD's gift was preeminent: it was REASON.

    Pace, Hooker, but frankly I think the "three legs" of the Church in fact are Scripture, Theology, and Liturgy -- and they all stand on the floor of Reason.

    Oh, and by the way, the seat (which, after all, is the ultimate purpose for the legs) is Love!

  9. Thank you, Fr. John-Julian. The divinity of Jesus Christ was understood using human reason; the canon of Scripture was determined and developed through human reason; Scripture itself was written using human reason.

    And Love. That IS what counts in the end (something that Scripture affirms over and over again, BTW).

  10. Interesting that you speak about a "one-legged" stool of sola scriptura -- but those "one-legs" also read their scripture in the light of a tradition and reason that is simply very different than the Anglican one, and much more aligned to the fundamentalist interpretation of scripture that I live among here in Tennessee (not so far from Dayton -- home of the Scopes trial). It's all about interpretation -- about tradition and reason. It's simply if we are going to adhere to the Anglican (ancient, eastern, roman, etc.) tradition, or the 19th century fundamentalist/evangelical tradition.


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.