The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies

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Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, Martyn Percy
Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     584 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies point out, the worldwide Anglican Communion cannot draw on the kinds of criteria by which other Christian churches define themselves. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the model is juridical, the product of the authority of an institution; for Lutherans, it is confessional, the adoption of certain key statements of doctrine; for Baptists, it is sacramental practice. As a result, many previous studies have circled around the issue of how else Anglicanism may be defined.

The discipline of Anglican Studies has only been named in the last two decades, and a time when the tensions within the Anglican Communion have reached a particular pitch. As a result, parts of the Communion have looked for self-definition in particular convictions about theology and practice. In this context of instability, at one point the editors questioned the very viability of this Handbook (15), but it is a cause for celebration that they persisted. The forty-four essays presented here form a rich and suggestive meditation on the past, present, and future of Anglicanism, and will be read with profit by scholar and non-specialist reader alike.

One of its signal virtues is its global scope. While the balance is still tipped in favor of the United Kingdom and North America, there is weighty representation from Africa, Australasia, and Asia. Indeed, almost every contribution is, at some level, concerned with the legacy of establishment in England, or the complex renegotiation required elsewhere in a post-colonial context. There are some omissions, however, most striking of which is the Anglican experience in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales—two of which were churches that were first established and then disestablished.

Editors of volumes such as this are often hard-pressed to create a structure that encompasses the issues at hand, and this volume is no exception. Whilst the seven sections provide some orientation, readers seeking the Anglican view of (for example) the interpretation of the Bible will find work of interest throughout, and not simply the chapters, the titles of which address the issue directly. Some contributors have not helped the editors by writing chapters that are not so much synoptic surveys of a particular topic as they are new work on one aspect of it: fine work in some cases, but an uncomfortable fit with the purposes of the volume. Other contributors allow their focus on Anglicanism to waver, and needed a firmer editorial hand. Few readers will wish to read the volume from beginning to end: an experience which induces a sense of a continual and, at times, slightly fretful circling around the same two issues—past and present identity, and the prospects for unity.

Might unity be found by recourse to a shared history? The editors place a fine essay on the Reformation by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of history are neatly dissected. “Anglicanism,” as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, was formed a century after the Church of England itself, during which process figures such as Richard Hooker—marginal in his day—were moved to the center, and others marginalized. Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes any simple appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.

Take, for instance, the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie shows that, although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of that fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist—the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken? Or,was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organization, without which and under different circumstances, the Church might live? Several chapters show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have, at times, managed quite well without a fullyfledged episcopal system. But others make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters under survey here. To paraphrase: “many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I now (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do the same are therefore not fully Anglican.”

Anglicans, then, have needed to look elsewhere for means of defining themselves, which cluster around elements of practice, and habits of mind. The editors list a few of them: “hymns, poetry, prose, theology and spirituality” (9-10). Three chapters address these directly, and this reader emerges with a sense that Anglicans have, indeed, produced distinctive forms of each, but that they are weak markers of identity, and of little use as instruments of unity. The search for identity in these places risks merely reifying the tastes and habits of mind of educated western Anglophones.

Anglicans have often focus on the “holy trinity” of scripture, both in reason and tradition: a kind of self-definition by method. In securer times, it was easy to rest on the idea of the via media, the essential moderateness of the English religious temperament. But the existential challenges to the Communion in the last decade have caused this focus on theological approach to take on a rather darker tone, a less confident and more provisional aspect. The question might be put: Whose reason? Whose tradition? Whose reading of Scripture? For Marion Grau, inculturation—the process by which theology and practice are inflected by local context—is made possible by a reliance on “a prevenient grace [and] an anthropology and ecclesiology that trusts in the residing of Spirit and Divinity within human existence” (181). God has given His people sufficient resources, and will not, in the last instance, allow the church to founder. Balancing this optimism is a line of thought that connects Jenny Gaffin’s chapter to the thought of Rowan Williams and to Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church. The witness of Anglicanism is in pointing away from itself towards the larger church, of which it is but a fragment: in Ramsey’s words “its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail of its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic” (quoted at p.14). In an age which values competence and “message discipline,” the Anglican Communion is both an affront and a challenge. Perhaps, in the final instance, the Communion is held together by a sense of a shared past, and an act of will—a choice that must constantly be made anew—to continue together. The editors and contributors of this stimulating and fascinating Handbook have given us a resource to help in studying Anglicanism as its adherents have made and continue to make that choice. Though the price may stretch the budgets of private readers, no serious library of theology or history should be without it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Webster is an independent scholar based in the United Kingdom.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark D. Chapman is Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, England and Reader in Modern Theology at the University of Oxford.

Sathianathan Clarke holds the Bishop Sundo Kim Chair for World Christianity and is Professor of Theology, Culture and Mission at the Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC.

Martyn Percy is Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, England. He was previously Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.



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