Flexibility and change in the Episcopal Church: The Commemoration of William Reed Huntington

In the debate over a potential covenant for the Anglican Communion, you might see mentioned from time to time the idea that Anglicans already have a covenant of sorts: the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888. You can read all about it in your Book of Common Prayer (p. 876) but it has four elements:

  • Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation;
  • The creeds as a sufficient statement of the faith;
  • Dominical sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) rightly administered;
  • Historic episcopate locally adapted.

The man behind the Quadrilateral was William Reed Huntington, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates today. Huntington was a parish priest, long-time deputy to General Convention, and advocate for ecumenical reunion in the United States. In fact, it was his desire to see the church united that led to the Quadrilateral. These were the elements Episcopalians had to see in another church to be reunited with them. The Quadrilateral remains a factor today, explaining why the Episcopal Church can be in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but not, say, the Presbyterians, who have a much different understanding of the ministry of the episcope. (Huntington was also a priest for many years in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although the Diocese of Western Massachusetts didn’t exist then, it’s more proof that it may be a small diocese but still one that punches above its weight.)

Efforts to use the Quadrilateral as the basis for intra-Anglican unity are a category mistake. The Quadrilateral is about ecumenical relations. And there’s good reason for this. If we say that the Quadrilateral is essentially a proto-Anglican Covenant, then we’re saying that our relations with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa or the Anglican Church of Canada are no different than our relationship with the ELCA or the Moravians. We may sometimes feel that way but the whole idea of the Anglican Communion, as I interpret it, is that those churches that have a historic relationship have some sort of special relationship that is distinct from that shared with other members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Now you may think, as I largely do, that the proposed Anglican Covenant is unnecessary. But don’t say that Anglicans already have a covenant. Huntington had something entirely else in mind when he was devising the Quadrilateral.

Sometimes the Quadrilateral is seen as a bit too firm and an obstacle to reunion, particularly the part about bishops. But what I like about Huntington was his advocacy for  flexibility and change in other parts of the church’s life to facilitate ecumenical reunion. He thought, for instance, the church could be a bit more open to liturgical change. To this end, he spent a lot of time on prayer book revision.

Huntington’s commemoration, then, poses several questions to the church in this time of change: what do we think is worth preserving about our church? What can we more readily compromise on?

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