David Lewis Stokes: On the pope’s outreach to Episcopalians

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The basic issue has never been women priests nor even the ordination of practicing homosexuals. These two issues, as serious and divisive as they may be, are simply the more newsworthy symptoms of a pathology that has gone in and out of remission for some 400 years, and that was fated to return with a fatal virulence upon the demise of British culture.

The basic issue that has eroded the Anglican Communion is what has been eating away at its foundations for 400 years: how ecclesiastical authority is to be understood. Since the 16th Century, two very different understandings of authority have engaged in a tug-of-war within the Church of England and the larger Anglican Communion.

One understanding is that the church is determined and shaped by Catholic tradition. Anglicans committed to this understanding of authority have sought to be faithful to that which has been believed by Christians everywhere and at all times. And while these Anglicans would admit that a correct discernment of Catholic tradition is often difficult, they have always considered their church bound by this tradition.

The second understanding of authority, while often respectful of Catholic tradition, proceeds from the Protestant principle of private judgment. This understanding may (and often does) appeal to Scripture and the Holy Spirit. And as long as it was rooted in a coherent culture, this understanding seemed to possess a theological coherence of sorts. But when it is torn from the soil of a coherent culture, as has occurred over the last century, the roots of this understanding are seen to be what they always were: the occasional opinions of whatever happened to be the prevailing majority.

Please read it carefully and read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalArchbishop of Canterbury Anglican ProvincesChurch of England (CoE)Episcopal Church (TEC)* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman CatholicPope Benedict XVI

Posted October 27, 2009 at 10:01 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Phil wrote:

I think it’s a perceptive column, especially in observing that the dissolution of a common culture is what has allowed Anglicanism to finally collapse.  I suspect some will object that the “Protestant principle” isn’t private judgment, but fidelity to the Bible.  But, ultimately, if it were that simple, we wouldn’t have thousands of Protestant denominations.

October 27, 10:18 am | [comment link]
2. Words Matter wrote:

To reduce the Vatican’s proposal to ecclesiastical sheep-stealing is of course stupid. And to explain it away as providing a fire escape for those who have “difficulty” with women priests and gay bishops would be condescending if it wasn’t so simple-minded.

Plain-speaking is a good thing.


October 27, 10:34 am | [comment link]
3. Sherri2 wrote:

This is a thoughtful piece, with some good insights, I think, but I thought this was a bit of a cheap shot:

The few Englishmen who continue to attend their local parish church do so more as a way of staving off the cultural chaos that now ravages English society than out of any confessional commitment.

That, is a gratuitous insult.

I do think he has pointed out the weakest aspect of the Anglican communion and the root of our present suffering - we have no ecclesiastical authority. And in America, the Protestant view that I, personally and alone, know best undermines the work of many churches.

October 27, 11:12 am | [comment link]
4. Shumanbean wrote:

I think his ideas of authority lean too heavily on generalization.

October 27, 11:13 am | [comment link]
5. tired wrote:

Interesting thought:

What of the impact on America? I suspect that its impact will be minimal. Within a mere two centuries Americans have become genetically predisposed to the Protestant principle of private judgment — including many “conservative” Episcopalians and, paradoxically enough, a large number of Roman Catholics. Besides, with each passing generation, ethnic Catholic parishes, marginal to begin with, have been absorbed by the larger church or closed. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine the Anglican Book of Common Prayer stemming the flood of liturgical mediocrity any time soon.

But the impact of Pope Benedict’s proposal is really beside the point. Truth has never been about numbers, and victories are always pyrrhic. It is enough for many of us that those Anglicans who have labored long after the Catholic tradition have at last been recognized by the church that most completely instantiates this tradition.

There are some that have responded to the pope’s offer by arguing the errors of the RCC.  I think we are better suited spending time and energy critically examining ourselves, how we got here, and what the future might hold.

October 27, 11:15 am | [comment link]
6. Terry Tee wrote:

Sherri, I have to disagree with you.  The United Kingdom is indeed now a culture without anchoring.  Mass immigration, especially from Muslim countries;  contempt towards our Christian heritage, openly expressed by politicians (if you want, I can give chapter and verse); the collapse of marriage and its replacement with cohabitation; the dilution of educational standards in schools, widely acknowledged to have reached crisis levels and now so bad that university engineering departments for example have to begin with remedial classes ... and more.  At the annual meeting yesterday with my peers from the university class of 68 we agreed that we were becoming Grumpy Old Men, and even more alarming, had turned into our parents.  But even when we acknowledged all that we shared a sense of dismay and even fear at the direction of our nation.

October 27, 11:21 am | [comment link]
7. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#6 Terry Tee
“At the annual meeting yesterday with my peers from the university class of 68 we agreed that we were becoming Grumpy Old Men, and even more alarming, had turned into our parents.  But even when we acknowledged all that we shared a sense of dismay and even fear at the direction of our nation.”

Very true, but the remarkable thing is that those under 25 are apparently blind to what our parents, grandparents before us and now we see with such clarity.

October 27, 11:37 am | [comment link]
8. Charming Billy wrote:

My apologies, Mr. Tee, but I have to think that at least some, if not most, UK Anglicans attend church out of some kind of confessional commitment. Dr. Stokes has no window into men’s souls, which is perhaps why he was so uncomfortable in the Anglican communion.

Perhaps another reason for his discomfort is the celebrated Anglican comprehensiveness, which admittedly in TEC often signifies nothing more than a decadent misconstruction of the right to private judgment. Nevertheless, there truly is something in the Anglican spirit that, rightly understood, helps Anglicans avoid the sort of false dichotomies and waspish misrepresentations upon which Dr. Stokes bases his argument.

The alternatives in the Anglican Communion are not Roman Catholicism and Liberalism, as Mr. Stokes seems to think. He compounds his error by portraying all Western society has falling into one or the other of the categories: Cultural chaos or Catholicism. I don’t think even the Pope buys that one.

October 27, 11:50 am | [comment link]
9. Sherri2 wrote:

Terry Tee, my annoyance with the passage that I quoted was his assessment of why those who are going to CofE churches are going there. Are those in the pews only there for cultural reasons? No one there is seeking the Lord? I found it insulting to imply such, but perhaps I am reading him wrong.

October 27, 12:16 pm | [comment link]
10. Sherri2 wrote:

Charming Billy, you said it much better than I did.

October 27, 12:18 pm | [comment link]
11. Pete Haynsworth wrote:

“Private judgement” was unknown to this reader, who thought that it maybe had something to do with means of salvation. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12495a.htm and probably elsewhere) indicates rather that it has to do with the primacy given by Protestants to the Bible combined with the notion that an individual is able to interpret it on his/her own.

October 27, 12:40 pm | [comment link]
12. Charming Billy wrote:

#11, “Private judgment” is short hand for the idea, reaffirmed in the Reformation, that the gospel is addressed to individuals and that it it requires acceptance based on individual conviction. Reformation thinkers also affirmed that the Church is the bearer of the Gospel and that individuals only appropriate the gospel message within the church. Individual conversion implies incorporation in the church and vice versa. Incongruity between the two implies either incomplete conversion or a defective church, or both. But the Reformers never meant to say that the individual trumps the church.

However, “private judgment” was later misunderstood in liberal, enlightenment terms as both the right and the capacity of the individual as an individual to sit in judgment on the church’s presentation of the Gospel. Perhaps the Reformers might have thought that the individual somehow retained the right to judge, or at least evaluate, the gospel, but that this right was rendered useless in view of our incapacity, as creatures and sinners, to do so. Such a capacity only exists in those who are incorporated into the Church, as Luther and Calvin et al. believed themselves to be.  In any event, the Reformers were not proto-Enlightenment liberals.

Liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics like Dr. Stokes, for different reason, both accept the Enlightenment understanding of “private judgment” as normative for Protestantism. Protestants of the “reformed and catholic” variety reject it. Whether or not you view the Enlightenment understanding of private judgment as inevitable (or desirable) given the Reformers’ view of the individual’s role in the reception of the gospel, influences where you will stand on the Catholic/Protestant and Conservative/Liberal spectrum of Christianity. But these two spectra are not congruent, as Dr. Stokes seems to think.

October 27, 1:59 pm | [comment link]
13. Don R wrote:

Charming Billy (12), that’s exactly what I thought was the fatal conceit of this piece, which was interesting for its presentation of the Roman Catholic view, however uncharitable to us Protestants it may be.  What you’ve said really points toward why the Modern version of philosophical materialism that so afflicts us and our culture might best be understood as a Christian heresy.

October 27, 2:24 pm | [comment link]
14. Words Matter wrote:

Charming Billy -

Thank you for your #12. It’s a helpful insight into Reformation thinking about which I was unaware. However, I have encountered many protestants (particularly of the Baptist and bible church persuasions) who do precisely posit their private interpretations as the final authority for all matters of doctrine. There is no way they could be called “liberal”, although it’s arguable they are impacted by the enlightenment.

Many years ago, I read in the Baptist Standard (the Texas Baptist magazine) that the core of Baptist doctrine is “soul competency”, which, as they state it, is in fact the soul ripped from the coherence of a community and left naked before God. Perhaps this is regional problem, but it’s certainly a factor in some sorts of conservative protestantism. So while I don’t disagree with your historical analysis (too many years since Church History for this boy!), I do point to current practice as it really exists.

October 27, 2:34 pm | [comment link]
15. Charming Billy wrote:

#14, Yes, I think these Baptists, etc. are liberal in the sense of Enlightenment Liberalism. Many people have noticed that the conflation of Enlightenment Liberalism and private judgment produced both Liberal Protestantism and Fundamentalism. The latter simply doesn’t acknowledge all the elements in its intellectual pedigree, in much the same way that Jewish people don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store. (Half my family are Texas Baptists, so I can say that.) Stokes is right that this sort of individualism is something like the American religion, but wrong in thinking it’s identical with or exclusively derivable from Protestantism. 

But I’m not knocking the Enlightenment or Baptists. Many streams flowed into and out of the Enlightenment and many of them came from Christian sources. And some of the non Christian streams carried waters that aren’t fatally poisonous to Christianity, a fact fair minded Christians or even a Baptist can acknowledge.

October 27, 3:32 pm | [comment link]
16. The young fogey wrote:

By George he’s got it!

I think we’ll see a replay of 1993: a few Anglo-Papalists (almost by definition English) will switch and that will be that.

But the Pope still did good.

October 27, 4:34 pm | [comment link]
17. Intercessor wrote:

Fascinating text…subscribing for now.

October 27, 4:38 pm | [comment link]
18. Dr. William Tighe wrote:

Re: #14,

See the strange, brilliant and entertaining book *The American Religion* by Harold Bloom (1991).  Bloom, a retired English Literature professor at Yale who characterizes himself in the book as “an atheist Jewish Gnostic,” advances the thesis that popular American Evangelical Christianity is at least as much Gnostic as “historically Christian” and he has several “sectarian case studies” in which he seeks to prove his thesis.  He briefly discusses Adventists, Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but his two “full-chapter studies” are of the Mormons and the Southern Baptist Convention.  As to the latter, he traces the invention of the notion of “soul competency” to the liberal SBC theologian (and SBC president) Edgar Young Mullins (1860-1928; president of the SBC from 1899), who asserted that God gives the individual sufficient “soul competency” to save himself or herself (I write “the individual,” for Mullins hinted that the same might be true of religious-minded non-Christians as for Christians).  For Christians, the food to nourish the soul was individual contemplation of the Scripture, which enabled the individual Christian to walk “alone in the garden” with Jesus—and for such individual Christians to have remarkable divergent and opposed views in the areas of doctrine and practice was only to be expected, but also of minimal relevance, for doctrine was purely a matter of human formulation.

Bloom thinks this view more Gnostic than Christian, and I agree with him.  He also marvels (as do I) at the manner in which a notion formulated by an SBC liberal for liberal became a redoubt of SBC conservatism of the non-Reformed variety.

October 27, 4:46 pm | [comment link]
19. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

As an American, it would be presumptuous of me to weigh in on the state of either the CoE or the degeneration of English culture.  I’m therefore glad, as always, that some Brits have ventured a few comments here.

But flawed as it may be, this article does help call attention to the plan fact that much more is at stake here than mere opposition to WO or gay clergy, etc.  Yes, although it’s probably an oversimplification to say it all comes down to the issue of religious authority, whence it derives and who gets to exercise it, it’s still a most important issue indeed.  And one that won’t go away.

And as an Anglican, and a conservative one, I’d have to agree with the RC author that this generous offer from the Vatican does highlight one of our grave weaknesses in Anglicanism, i.e., our lack of a real magisterium that’s able to settle bitter disputes, such as the one going on now.  There are those Anglicans who proudly claim that this is more of a strength than a weakness.  I must strongly disagree.  Yes, it does give us Anglicans a precious degree of freedom and flexibility that many Catholics rightly envy.  But it comes at a very high price.

Historically, Anglicanism did initially have a working magisterium (i.e., at the time of the Reformation), and that very real magisterium was the monarch as “the Supreme Governor” of the CoE.  We don’t call it “the Elizabethan Settlement” for nothing.  During the 45 year reign of Good Queen Bess, she virtually single-handedly stymied the Puritan-minded leaders, lay and ordained, who wished to make the CoE even more clearly Protestant.  So did King James I, and Charles I.  This was no mere formality or titular role; the monarchs truly ruled the church as well as the State.

But the Civil War of the 1640s, the conditions under which the Restoration happened in 1660, and above all, the institution of the limited, constitutional monarchy with the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1689 left the CoE with a dangerous vacuum at its center, since nothing was ever created to take the place of the monarch as Supreme Governor that had effectively been lost.

And we’re now reaping the bitter fruits of that fatal weakness in our Anglican polity, that deadly lack of an effective magisterium.

I’ll say again here, what I’ve said so often at T19 over the last couple of years.  We need to get over our Anglican irrational phobia about Roman style tyrrany.  The real threat we face isn’t some creeping ecclesiastical tyranny, as if Lambeth Palace were going to develop an all-powerful Curia.  That’s nonsense.  Rather, our real threat comes from Protestant anarchy.

There’s more at stake, of course, than that.  But that crucial question of religious authority, and the chaotic lack of it within Anglicanism, is a very important issue indeed.

David Handy+

October 27, 5:09 pm | [comment link]
20. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Oops, that’s “plain fact” in the 2nd paragraph.

David Handy+
Passionate advocate of post-Constantinian, anti-Erastian Anglicanism

October 27, 5:11 pm | [comment link]
21. Shumanbean wrote:

Charming Billy, your #12 illuminated the point I tried to make in once sentence. The author obviously has a dog in this fight, and his notions concerning “sola scriptura” seem wrong-headed and thoroughly generalized to me. But I do agree with him that this is more than about rustling sheep.

October 27, 5:28 pm | [comment link]
22. centexn wrote:

I dont understand what “subscribing” means.  Does that mean agreement?

October 27, 9:36 pm | [comment link]
23. jhp wrote:

The article is, in fact, a questionable revision of both Dr Stokes’ personal history, and that of the Church he claims he still loves.

It isn’t true that David Stokes has been silent about “the difficulties of Anglicans” or his conversion to Rome.  When he left the Episcopal Church, as he states, he was the subject of a lengthy puff-piece in the Providence Journal in which he effectively repudiated his ministry as an Episcopal priest.  To those of us who knew and respected him as a Rector, it wasn’t exactly endearing.  Since then, he’s been a frequent, cranky contributor to the op-ed pages of Rhode Island’s main newspaper.  If you read his writing, you’ll see that predictably the Episcopal Church will come in for some snide, snarky comment by the way.  He’s a good example of someone who’s left the Episcopal Church but just can’t leave it alone.

His analysis of the history of the CofE is dubious as well.  Am I alone in thinking that Stokes’ view is greatly indebted to his mentor and life-model, John Henry Newman, for some of its familiar notes:  the appeal to the historical fiction of “the Vincentian canon,” the libel that Protestantism is all about “private judgment,”  the flattering portrait of those oh-so-heroic Anglo-Catholics?  It can be argued that long before today’s radical innovators, the late-19th century ritualists and the early-20th century liberal Anglo-Catholics so stressed and exhausted the disciplinary and legal structures of Anglican authority that they paved the way for the relativism and uncertainty of the post-War developments.  In the context of the American Episcopal Church, that harbinger of bad things to come, Bishop James Pike of California, was a liberal Catholic not an evangelical!  Far from being the ones who yearned for ecclesiastical law and order (Stokes’ simplistic view), it may be argued that Anglo-Catholics showed themselves to be lawless and destructive of the Church’s ethos.
As others have pointed out, there is no straight line between the notion of “private judgment” as it was understood in 17th century Catholic-Anglican polemics and today’s notion of the liberty of conscience—a modern development Stokes evidently deplores.  Isn’t it obvious that if “private judgment” were such an elastic thing as Stokes claims it is in the CofE,  there wouldn’t have been so many separatist, non-conformist movements yearning to breathe free of it?  The right of “private judgment” in Anglicanism (as in Lutheranism) was always narrowly restrained within formidable traditions—liturgical, doctrinal and canonical.  If “private judgment” were such a prevalent feature of historic Anglicanism, then why did so many would-be non-conformists (from Browne to Wesley)  find dissenting from the Church’s life and doctrine so lonely and difficult?

October 27, 10:22 pm | [comment link]
24. Don R wrote:

centexn #22, “subscribe” justa means the person wants e-mai updates when new comments get posted.  That’s the default when you post any comment.  (See the “Notify me of follow-up comments” check box below the submit button.)

October 27, 10:40 pm | [comment link]
25. Dr. William Tighe wrote:

I wouldn’t be so sure, jhp.  The same sort of analysis was made 90 years ago in Frederick Joseph Kinsman’s book *Salve Mater* (1920).  Kinsman was an Oxford-educated Ohio Episcopalian clergyman and Church Historian who was elected Bishop of Delaware in 1908 and resigned to “pope” in 1919.  He came to regard private judgment as the bane of Anglicanism, especially in the absence of any requirement of firm confessional subscription.  As bishop, he was much involved in Anglican-Orthodox exchanges and meetings a century ago, and was embarassed at how so many Orthodox regarded Anglicans as a kind of non-papal “Western Catholics,” and especially at how many of his fellow clergymen and bishops were willing to play along with, and encourage, this genial delusion on the part of the Easterners.

I don’t understand our last paragraph: when “dissenters” pit themselves against a religious establishment fully supported by the State, they will naturally find their position “lonely and difficult.”  Heavens, when a considerable proportion, perhaps a majority, of the English population set themselves, if only passively, against the practices and ideology of the State Religious Establishment, as happened in England from the 1530s to the late 1570s (with the exception of 1553-59), they may not have found their position “lonely,” but they certainly found it “difficult.”

October 27, 11:28 pm | [comment link]
26. centexn wrote:


Thank you.

October 28, 12:43 am | [comment link]
27. The_Elves wrote:

[On some blogs, subscribe is used as a one word way of getting email updates sent to commenters for that thread.  This is not permitted on T19 because it clogs up threads and disrupts the flow of comments.  Archived threads can be readily accessed or searched and if commenters are interested in them they may always take a note of the url.  Placing an otherwise pointless comment on a thread [with or without a word such as subscribe] is viewed in the same way.  Having been repeatedly warned, in the event of persistent breach, commenters will have their posting privileges moderated or removed - Elf]

October 28, 6:31 am | [comment link]
28. Ralph Webb wrote:

Regarding the various comments about “private judgment”: True, the Reformers did not intend for Scripture to be interpreted outside the context of the Church. But modern American evangelicals in the (largely nondenominational) American evangelical subculture by and large *do* see Scripture reading and interpretation as being something for individual judgment, even though they may consult clergy, other trusted Christians, and study Bibles for help with difficult passages. While this is rarely a problem in Anglican and Reformed variations of evangelicalism per se, still our parishes are often made up of large numbers of people who come from the larger American evangelical subculture and bring this understanding with them. So while they may sting, Stokes’s (and Roman Catholic) criticisms of “private judgment” do have some merit to them, unfortunately.

October 28, 10:13 am | [comment link]
29. Contarini wrote:

I didn’t know anything about Fr. Stokes until now, but in fact what you say about his record and what he says are not incompatible. He admitted to the one article at the time of his conversion, and you did not claim that his occasional articles in the Providence Journal focused primarily on his conversion or on the Episcopal Church.

As for his claims about private judgment—yes he paints with too broad a brush and makes the typically Newmanian mistake of reading private judgment back into the Reformation rather than seeing it as an unintended consequence. But it was such a consequence, and I think that there is indeed a direct line between private judgment as championed in the 17th century and more modern ideas. Of course private judgment was never accepted by all Anglicans. And even those who accepted it in principle still expected the private judgments of all those holding public office in Church or State to concur. (This was true of other Protestant churches as well, at least with regard to the Church—something Orestes Brownson pointed out with regard to American Presbyterianism in the 19th century.) But I think it’s fair to say that in the 18th century most Anglicans would have agreed with John Wesley that private judgment was the core justification for separation from Rome. (Wesley struggles with the fact that he advocates remaining in the Church of England while not advocating unconditional submission to the Church, which would violate private judgment. I think that this tension within his own thought is one reason why he was unable to persuade his English followers to follow his example after his death. And I think it remains a problem for us in the current Anglican difficulties today.)

October 28, 10:39 am | [comment link]
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