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The Contemporary Parson

The Mere Anglicanism conference previously advertised in this magazine, “Behold the Man: The Person and Work of Jesus Christ,” convened in January at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The conference attracted clergy from the surrounding region, as well as representatives of the Prayer Book Society and a few converts to the Anglican way. Author Eric Metaxas, the Rev. David Wenham, and the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, among others, delivered lectures that were thoughtful and relevant, recalling the simple clarity of the truths of the Christian faith.

I found it especially interesting throughout Mere Anglicanism to hear dialogue concerning renewal and reformation in seminary education. While seminaries today emphasize liturgical studies and pastoral training, what noticeably has fallen into neglect is the education in historic theology—in the commentaries of the Church Fathers, the works of sixteenth century Reformers, and the very content of the Sacred Scriptures. This should not fail to concern Anglicans at large, for as the Rt. Rev. Paul Barnett, retired bishop of North Sydney, Australia, warned in his lecture, “Lay the axe at the root of the seminary, and ultimately you lay the axe at the root of the tree itself.”

Why Education in Historic Theology?
One reason for the declining interest in theology and doctrine is the philosophical shift in modernity which causes many people to consider Anglicanism primarily as an aesthetic experience. It has been argued that this notion results from a turn to “inductive theology” within the seminaries, which is itself an expression of existentialist thought.1 The inductive theologian supposes that the subjective self is the sole means of discovering and knowing God, then abstracts from his personal experience to hypothesize about Truth and the nature of reality. In parishes today, this method manifests itself as an inordinate devotion to beautiful forms, while the doctrine which binds the Church is set aside as speculative and secondary to the liturgical experience.2

The Book of Common Prayer pre-dates such experiential theology, however, showing that doctrine is central to the catholic and evangelical character of Anglicanism. The Anglican way of being Christian is continuous with St. Augustine’s understanding that we come to know God through a lifetime of prayer, illumined by God’s grace and guided always by the received truths of Christianity. These truths are found in the Scriptures and the body of authoritative teachings that have come to us with the Church’s practice of theology.

The Country Parson
The priest and poet George Herbert illustrated the benefits of historic theology in his book The Country Parson. This practical guide for clergy describes the learning and approach to Scriptures that are appropriate to a cleric and useful for instructing others in the Christian faith.

Herbert describes the English country parson as holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, and grave in all his ways, the deputy of Christ for reducing man to the obedience of God. The parson is knowledgeable about various crafts and trades, and makes great use of them as examples in his teaching. The chief of his knowledge, however, “consists in the book of books, the storehouse and magazene of life and comfort, the holy Scriptures.” As Herbert explains, “There he sucks, and lives. In the Scriptures hee findes four things; Precepts for life, Doctrines for knowledge, Examples for illustration, and Promises for comfort.”3

The parson understands the Scriptures through the fourfold means of a holy life, prayer, a diligent collation of Scripture with Scripture, and the commentaries of the Church Fathers. In his accessory knowledge, the parson has “read the Fathers also, and the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good portion of all, out of all which he hath compiled a book, and body of Divinity, which is the storehouse of his Sermons, and which he preacheth all his Life.”4 Such careful and painstaking study of texts is remarkable by today’s standards. Yet Herbert writes that the parson’s learning, an exposition of the Church Catechism, is his best way to lead his people exactly in the ways of Truth.5

With a special care for his Church, the country parson sees that all things there are orderly and befitting the Lord. He exacts of the people all reverence. He desires in services “to keep the middle way between superstition, and slovenlinesse, and as following the Apostles’ two great and admirable Rules in things of this nature: The first whereof is, Let all things be done decently, and in order: [I Cor. 14:40] The second, Let all things be done to edification, I Cor. 14 [:26].” These two rules comprise the double object of our duty to God and our neighbor; the first being for the honor of God; the second being for the edification of our neighbor. They “excellently score out the way,” says Herbert, “even in external and indifferent things, what course is to be taken.”6

Once Delivered Unto the Saints
George Herbert is clear that a cleric has three primary duties: first, “to infuse a competent knowledge of salvation in every one of his Flock”; second, “to multiply, and build up this knowledge to a spiritual Temple”; and third, “to inflame this knowledge, to presse, and drive it to practice, turning it to reformation of life, by pithy and lively exhortations.”7

In order to prepare clergy for such a task today, Anglican seminaries must teach mere Anglicanism. Seminaries must ensure that clergy are knowledgeable enough about the Scriptures and the history of the Church to realize that Christianity is not a work in progress, but rather a set teaching based upon the Gospel and received from the Fathers of the Church. They must teach that theology is not separable from philosophy, and that Anglicanism cannot be seamlessly merged with modern categories of thought without losing its very identity, as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Homilies.

This year’s Mere Anglicanism conference issued a very old call for clergy to know and to contend for that faith “which was once delivered unto the saints.” Through an education in historic theology, clergy can better fulfill this mandate.

    A recently published collection of essays, Reformed and Catholic, explains inductive theology in its commentary upon Peter Toon’s The End of Liberal Theology. In his book, Dr. Toon analyzes Peter Berger’s typologies of modern theology.
    Converts from backgrounds shaped exclusively by post-Enlightenment theology often think that by taking this approach they are rejecting the rationalism which systematizes doctrinal knowledge, leaving no room for mystery. In reality this approach simply adopts existential categories. The impulse to draw conclusions about God solely through the liturgy subtly “exalt[s] the experience of prayer rather than the doctrinal formulations of the faith or the Gospel itself as the foundation of faith.” See Dr. Roberta Bayer, Reformed and Catholic, (Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012), xxv.
    George Herbert, The Country Parson, III, IV.
    George Herbert, The Country Parson, V.
    George Herbert, The Country Parson, III.

Though the parson does not study others so much as to neglect the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, he knows that “God in all ages hath had his servants, to whom he hath revealed his Truth, as well as to him.” As one country does not produce all goods itself, that there may be a commerce, “so neither hath God opened, or will open all to one, that there may be a traffick in knowledg between the servants of God, for the planting both of love, and humility.”
    George Herbert, The Country Parson, XIII.
    George Herbert, The Country Parson, XXI.