Here are Dean’s reflections on Fr. Holmgren’s visit to our store. Fr. Holmgren represented the Episcopal tradition in our Local Explorations in Ecumenical Dialogue.
Unity in Difference, Difference in Unity: Fr. Holmgren on the Anglican Communion
I must begin this reflection, as usual, with gratitude. I offer my sincere thanks to Fr. Stephen Holmgren and everyone who came to participate in this discussion. Fr. Holmgren’s lecture presented a very interesting perspective on the Anglican Communion. Like Rev. Lawton’s talk on the Wesleyan tradition, Fr. Holmgren presented both autobiographical and historical contexts for discussing the tradition to which he has devoted his professional life. With experience as a student at Oxford, England, a professor at Nashotah House seminary, and a rector for several years, Fr. Holmgren provided a variety of windows through which we were able to see the many dimensions of the Anglican Church. Once again, our audience offered thoughtful questions and provided the opportunity to continue working out some nuances in the presentation.
Having heard from two distinctly Protestant traditions, the amalgamations of the Anglican Church functions as a perfect hinge in the discussion. As Fr. Holmgren explained, English Christianity has had a mixed history of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, including, also, many shared similarities with the Orthodox Church. He began by making a distinction between the church in England and the Church of England, emphasizing the rich tradition of Celtic spirituality in the history of English Christianity. The English Christians had particular dispositions, and with the historical break from the Roman Catholic Church, those dispositions continued to percolate. While the desire of Henry VIII to divorce did indeed provide an impetus for the split, it was not the only cause of this separation, according to Fr. Holmgren. Nevertheless, even in this break the Anglican Church tried its best to remain unified as a Christian society and, despite the tumultuous reigns of two sovereigns following Henry VIII, with the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Anglican Church committed itself to the via media, or the middle way, an attempt to balance theological extremes through a shared desire for union and peace in basic truths rather than division and violence as the result of a commitment to radical authenticity or possibly marginal truths. Fr. Holmgren cited the oft paraphrased maxim of Vincent of Lerins, that Anglicans believe what is held “always, everywhere, and by all” with regard to Christianity. From here, Fr. Holmgren traced the sensibilities of the Anglican Church.
Like Dr. Smith last week, Fr. Holmgren employed the term “Reformed Catholicism” to describe his tradition. He emphasized the Anglican tendency to blur particular boundaries without eliminating them, calling it a “soft-edged” tradition. As such, he suggested that while truth can be explained propositionally, it is not always best expressed through propositions. For this reason, Anglicans are more likely to answer a question through quoting a hymn from the hymnal or a prayer from the famous Book of Common Prayer rather than an answer from the catechism (which is dramatically brief compared to the catechisms of other traditions). This reflects a focus on the questions in the life of faith, perhaps even more than the answers. Though he did not use this word himself, Fr. Holmgren seemed to present the Anglican Church as a church of irony. For example, when discussing what makes the Anglican Church distinct, he suggested that it was the Anglican commitment to blurring the lines in the hopes of unity. In other words, the distinction is a lack of interest in distinction. Though he acknowledged the difficulties present in this commitment (deciding where the center is, what the basics are, etc.), he suggested it is also a unique strength, allowing for the proliferation of peaceful discourse and faith that tries to remain true to Christ’s prayer that Christians be unified.
Fr. Holmgren offered reflections on several more themes which are, unfortunately, too much to detail in full here (i.e. the notions of common grace and public Christian engagement, a limited canon law, the Episcopal experience, and the development and importance of the daily prayers in Anglican spirituality). All of these themes, however, seemed to be employed to support the fundamental emphasis on unity and conversation. With its attempt to be in agreement with the Christian community at large, the Anglican Communion is a great bridge into our next two traditions, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Please join us next week as we hear from Fr. John Geaney, rector at the Cathedral of St. Andrew! With all the recent talk of Reformed Catholicism, it is sure to be a helpful addition.