Moral Theology the Anglican Way
A number of things draw people to Anglicanism—its liturgy, its catholic heritage, its reputed comprehensiveness. But underlying these things there is something more. There is a spirit, an ethos, a climate which is all important—the stance we take in viewing reality. It is this that has given Anglicanism an influence that is far out of proportion to its size in the Christian community.
One of the principal things which separate Anglicans from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and from our relatives in Protestantism lies in the whole area of moral theology. Anglicans have a distinctive, unique, exciting and intensely Christian moral theology. It is a moral theology that comes to grips with the problem of authority and freedom. Perhaps it is better put as the problem of authority and anarchy. In the interest of supporting my case, I could say that there are Christians who are committed to doing what they are told and those who do what they want, but that is to be grossly unfair. Between authority and freedom, there is a continuum, a scale. Various Christian bodies all have a spot on that continuum. All recognize that both freedom and authority are a part of the human experience, some emphasizing authority and others moving decidedly on the side of freedom. Roman Catholics are a good example of those who emphasize authority more than freedom. Most classical Protestants are also weighted on the side of authority: both Methodists and Presbyterians are much more highly organized than we Anglicans. And then perhaps the Baptists might be considered among those who emphasize freedom.
Anglicans, however, are in the middle saying both authority and freedom are equally important. We take the middle way, the via media. The whole idea of the mean between extremes comes from Aristotle's Nicomedian Ethics. The thinking of this great Greek philosopher was baptized by the great medieval theologian and thinker Thomas Aquinas. And it was the Caroline Divines of the 17th century Church of England who made this concept of via media part and parcel of the Anglican way of thinking. In their practical divinity, the Caroline Divines emphasized the via media—the mean between the two extremes. The Church has authority, not to give orders, but to teach. The Church does not make rules and laws to govern, but to teach what is true and right. Humans are given the freedom to apply the teachings of the Church in their daily lives.
Choice, then, or responsible freedom is the very hallmark of Anglicanism. Emphasizing an incarnational theology, Anglicanism takes humanity very seriously. And it takes very seriously man's greatest gift from God—his freedom. "He himself made man in the beginning and left himself in the hand of his counsel." (Eccl. 15:14) Think how God operates: he never violates or takes away that gift. God is not an “Indian giver” no matter how badly that gift is misused or abused. The willing service God wants from us wouldn't be possible if he used force or threats or punishment. He makes his will known and then leaves it to us. The incarnation came about as it did so as not to violate man's freedom. Think about that! But how many times in the course of history has the Church been more imperious than God himself and forced people into a mold against their will? What a horrible insult when we think we know better than He!
Herein is the genius of Anglicanism at its best. Humanity is allowed to give willing service to God—our choices become positive ways of growing in holiness.
There is grave danger whenever responsible freedom is encouraged. It is treating the people of God as moral adults, not as children. When the Church is weighted on the side of authority you have external conformity, definitions, unity. The only choice is to accept the authority. Authoritarianism buys these things at a tremendous price. On the other hand, total freedom results in vagueness, chaos, and dissension. Just as Parent Effectiveness Training emphasizes, neither authoritarianism nor permissiveness are viable alternatives—rather it is responsible freedom that is the only answer. Parent Effectiveness Training states that both authoritarianism and permissiveness use the language of power and deal in terms of power and control. And, as Parent Effectiveness Training states so effectively, one has more influence if one does not use power.
Anglicanism's emphasis on responsible freedom of choice is not just a matter of moral theology—it also lies at the center of its spirituality. The moral choices and the devotional life of the Christian are seen to be the two essential ingredients in that process called sanctification—as the end of the life of prayer is not just holiness but God Himself, so also, the end of the moral life is not just goodness or righteousness, but union with God. In Anglicanism, we take very seriously the glorious liberty of the children of God, a liberty which allows us to make those choices leading to growth in the stature of the fullness of Christ, not only morally but also spiritually.