Something to Sing About? The Assumptions underlying the theology of the new Hymn Book

By Robert Crouse


For the faith and practice of Christians generally, the books of Holy Scripture hold a privileged place. “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord/ Is laid for your faith in his excellent word.” Throughout the centuries those sacred texts have been venerated as divine revelation, as communicating the truth about God and God’s Will for his creation, and Christian churches have traditionally looked to Scripture as the basis of doctrine and source of inspiration.

But just what does it mean to speak of Holy Scripture as divine revelation? As Paul Jennings remarks, in a recent article “Towards a Biblical Church”:

“The relationship of the church to the Holy Scriptures remains a complex and divisive issue, but one vitally important for the health of the church. We live, it seems, in a time in which there is no clear vision or consensus about the nature of these Scriptures, and what their function is in our common faith.” [Paul Jennings, “Towards a Biblical Church: A Plea for Accountability in the Way We Use Scripture” in The Challenge Of Tradition: Discerning the Future of Anglicanism, ed. John Simons (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1997), p. 51.)

Anglicans, in particular, says Jennings, “still seem hopelessly divided as to how we should go about being a biblical church. Debate within the church, in particular on theological issues, is hampered by mutual incomprehension. The familiar theological and Political polarization in terms of liberal and traditionalist positions is alive and well; indeed it seems to be gaining new strength—fed by the general social and political trends of the 1990s” (Jennings, p. 52.).

By “classical liberalism”, Jennings understands “the underlying, usually unconscious assumption that the language of faith is merely the symbolic representation of our own religious and moral sensitivities, that Scripture, doctrine and liturgy can only express our innate spirituality, instead of informing it and nourishing it with something new.”

By the “extreme traditionalist position,” Jennings—surprisingly, I think—understands “Christian fundamentalism” (Jennings, p. 52). Surprisingly, I say, because it seems to me that traditionalists would think of the meaning of Scripture as somehow mediated by an authoritative tradition of interpretation, involving creeds and councils, while fundamentalists would insist upon the unmediated authority of the text.

Perhaps we need three categories rather than two: liberal, fundamentalist, and traditionalist. Among Anglicans, one does not find fundamentalism very much represented; the polarization is between liberals and traditionalists: liberals for whom the Bible is a kind of resource book, to be used selectively, avoiding (as the new lectionaries do) portions which are offensive to modern liberal sensitivities, and correcting politically offensive language; and traditionalists, for whom the Bible, interpreted through the tradition of creeds, councils, Church Fathers, and Anglican history is the authoritative source of doctrine and definitive of the primary images and proper language of faith.

The polarization of these factions has been, and continues to be, destructive in Anglicanism, particularly in those churches in which liberalism has been predominant. That is so because Anglicanism is, in its essential character, traditional. What constitutes Anglicanism specifically as a distinctive form of Christianity is a particular way of reading, understanding, and living in obedience to the revealed Word of God; and that particular way is embodied in and explicated by our tradition of common prayer.

In Anglicanism, there is no principle authority other than the Word of God in Holy Scripture, as understood and expressed in the Book of Common Prayer. The mandate of our own Canadian General Synod—its “Solemn Declaration”—says precisely that:

We are determined by the help of God to hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments, and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word, and as the Church of England hath received and set forth the same in The Book of Common Prayer and in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion; and to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity.

That tradition of understanding, worshipping by and living by the Scriptures has been by no means static or inflexible: it is a living, growing tradition, open always to new insights, and comprehensive of various standpoints and perspectives. The Anglicanism of the Elizabethan Settlement is not exactly that of the Seventeenth Century Divines; the Anglicanism of the Tractarians is not exactly that of the Evangelical Revival; and so on.

Yet Anglicanism is not amorphous; it is not formless. It has a theological shape determined by the creeds; it has a moral shape defined by God’s commandments and the moral teaching of the Scriptures and Christian tradition. Its language is flexible, too; but it cannot be just arbitrary; it must be consistent with those concepts and images which predominate in Scripture.

Thus we speak, for instance, of God the Holy Trinity—a name which does not appear in Scripture; yet it is consistent with the Scriptural conception of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one. The religious language of our tradition employs a vast array of names for God, some of them Scriptural and some not: God is a Spirit; God is Love; God is Wisdom; God is Power; God is Fountain of Life; God is Being; God is the One; God is Absolute; God is the Good; God is the First Cause and so on, but the names of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, primary for Scripture, remain primary for faith.

The Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials affirms, “There is one God, self-revealed as three persons, ‘of one substance power, and eternity’, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For the sake of the Gospel we decline proposals to modify or marginalize these names and we affirm their rightful place in prayer, liturgy and hymnody.” The Declaration certainly does not deny other names of God (as some of its critics imagine), but it insists upon the primacy of this triune name, and is unwilling to see it modified or marginalized in the interest of political correctness.

From a liberal standpoint, according to which “the language of faith is merely the symbolic representation of our own religious and moral sensitivities”, that “gender-specific” Trinitarian language ought to be balanced by equivalent feminine forms, or at least by “gender-neutral” forms, such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier”. The modifying or marginalizing of traditional religious language is an essential part of the liberal agenda. The new liturgies of the Book of Alternative Services did not really accomplish very much in that direction; the new hymn book is a bolder step forward, and it will no doubt be followed by more progressive liturgies. Perhaps the expectation is that people will sing anything so long as they like the tune, and thus will become used to the new language before they have to confront it in more solemn liturgical form.

In all this, there are very serious questions, about the nature and authority of the Word of God, the basis of our religious language, and the character of Anglicanism as a way of being a Christian. Among those questions is one about the theological significance of the images and language of Scripture: Is it, for instance, arbitrary (or perhaps simply relative to a particular society) that Jesus tells his followers to address God as “Our Father”, or that (with St. Paul), we speak of the Church, the New Jerusalem, as our “mother”? Is it a matter of indifference whether Christ is thought of as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride, or might those images just as well be reversed? Does the fact that Jesus on one occasion takes to himself the simile of a mother hen protecting her chicks mean that it is appropriate to address Jesus as “mother” as well as “son”? The questions can quickly become ridiculous; but the fundamental question about the authority of Biblical and traditional imagery is of great theological and devotional importance.

In this time of the proliferation of separated Anglican churches, the division of the Church of England into “two integrities”, the growing tension between the more orthodox Anglican churches of the Southern hemisphere and the more liberal north, and the phenomenon of what we somewhat euphemistically describe as “impaired communion”, these questions have some urgency.

And the basic question, I suppose, is this: Are the concepts, images and language of the Holy Scriptures, as understood in our tradition, definitive for our faith and practice as Anglicans today? I think the answer must be “yes”, and I think that the continued existence of Anglicanism depends upon that answer.

This address is reprinted from The Anglican Free Press Eastertide, 1998. Vol 15, No. 1. Used with permission.