Thinking Through Theological Freedom in the Anglican Tradition

When reading Dr. Balmer’s reflection on following Jesus from the Anglican tradition, I was struck by his point that “doctrine does not lie at the core of the Anglican or Episcopal identity.” On the one hand, I appreciate the opportunities for theological diversity and inquiry such a position provides; if there is no central doctrine that outlines what it means for Anglicans to follow Jesus, there is an increased possibility that those who identify as Anglican (or Episcopalian) will have the creative freedom to define what it means to follow Jesus based on their experiences with Him. This perspective stands in stark contrast to much of the Black Church tradition, which I believe can benefit somewhat from what Dr. Ballmer calls a “deemphasis of theology.” On the other hand, I wonder to what degree such an openness can be detrimental to those who are new to the Anglican tradition, as there is no orienting theological structure to help them make sense of their faith in and commitment to Jesus. And even though the Book of Common Prayer seems to be a valuable resource in one’s faith development, I am curious how Episcopalians process a book that does not appear to maintain the actual words or instructions of the one Christians declare to follow: Jesus.

The Anglican tendency to deemphasize theology and de-center theological absolutes can be helpful when following Jesus. People experience Jesus in a multitude of ways. In the New Testament, very rarely did people encounter Jesus in a similar manner than those before or after them. I am convinced that if we were to speak to all the individuals who sat at Jesus’ feet, received a miracle from Him, or watched Him teach, we would hear a unique perspective from each person. Jesus shows up for and works through us differently. Therefore, it is difficult to articulate a singular theological framework on how to follow Jesus or what following Jesus looks like in the world. This apparent freedom in the Episcopalian tradition is beneficial, as it allows Anglicans and Episcopalians to take seriously how they experience Jesus in the world as authoritative for how they represent Him in their families, communities and beyond.

Such a freedom is also helpful when we consider the real harm caused by certain established doctrines about Jesus. For many Christian communities, including those in the Black Church tradition, the teachings of Jesus have either been (mis)interpreted or deemphasized in comparison to those of Paul to exclude and devalue women, for instance. Doctrines have been developed and then reified to ensure that women do touch a pulpit nor assume congregational leadership positions. At their worse, these theologies have led women to question their very humanity and relationship with God. Beyond the fact that such doctrines are harmful, if not outright violent, they also ignore the fact that every believer and follower of Jesus can hear and receive a word from God! How many women have insightful perspectives on what it means to be a follower of Jesus but have been silenced because of their gender? Our doctrines, if we are not careful, have the power to counteract the very message of freedom and liberation that Jesus came to preach.

Again, I recognize such exclusionary practices are not unique to those in the Black Church tradition. Christian communities across the world, including some Anglican ones, still rely on doctrinal statements to restrict the full participation of women in congregational life. There is much work to do in the global Christian church to create space for women to contribute to the conversation about what it means to follow Jesus. But I believe the theological openness Dr. Balmer notes as integral to the Anglican tradition can help chart a way forward for Christian churches and spaces to be inclusive of all people.

However, as noted in the introduction, I am concerned how this openness might be detrimental to those who are coming to faith in the Anglican tradition. I am sure there are some orienting beliefs that guide Episcopalians; Dr Balmer himself writes that “the focus of Anglican identity is worship and sacraments and liturgy, especially encoded in the Book of Common Prayer.” The Book contains some directives and insights that guide Anglicans on how to live a life emblematic of the Christian faith. But from Dr. Balmer’s reflection, it seems like there is no central theological framework that can help orient a new believer in the Episcopalian tradition. There does not appear to be a primary Anglican doctrine that provides a foundational understanding of being a follower of Jesus. How then is a recent Anglican convert or believer that desires to go deeper supposed to muddle through and discern between multiple theologies when there is not a main one guiding the Episcopal Church? I could be wrong, but I imagine that while such theological freedom could be helpful to someone who is advanced in their theological formation, it could be confusing for others who are starting out in the faith.

Furthermore, I would be curious as to how Anglicans consider the words of Jesus considering Dr. Balmer’s claim that there is no central doctrine at the core of Anglican identity. For many in the Black Church tradition, what Jesus says and does, as outlined in the New Testament, is authoritative. Countless Black churches look to Jesus’ words to form the doctrine that will guide the structure, work, and ministry of their congregations. There are, of course, multiple interpretations of Jesus’ words throughout time, but most Black congregations emphasize Jesus’ liberating ethos in their theological formation. Black preaching and teaching in the Black church tradition centers on the theological claim that Jesus came to free those who were oppressed and help them live in abundance (not primarily financial abundance, but an abundance of joy, peace, and love). In other words, there is a doctrine that guides the discipleship efforts of many in the Black Church tradition.

How then does such a perspective translate in the Anglican tradition when it seems as if there is no central doctrine? I have not read the Book of Common Prayer from cover to cover, but from Dr. Balmer’s reflection, I gather that it does not fully contain the words of Jesus as contained in the New Testament (I say “fully” because some of the writings in the Book may be inspired from Jesus’ teachings). I realize that the Bible may still be an authoritative source for many Episcopalians; again, Dr. Balmer’s work is just one perspective among many of what it means to follow Jesus. I also realize that the Bible is not the only way to form one’s theological perspective. But I do wonder how many Episcopalians consider and process the Bible’s account of Jesus without a coherent theological foundation to ground their interpretation and engagement with His words and work.