The Quadrilateral

An extract from the 2008 Morpeth Lecture.

While the first Lambeth Conference was taking place and William Tyrrell was working to establish and expand his flock in Newcastle, American Episcopal priest William Reed Huntington was writing a book.

Huntington’s career was spent in parish ministry largely divided between two cures, at All Saints’ in Worcester, Massachusetts and Grace Church in the city of New York. His accomplishments were many: he was the leading member of the House of Clergy in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church for decades, and a significant innovator in areas including liturgy, mission and, at a strikingly early date, women’s ministry. [Pardon me if I pause here to note and celebrate the recent election of my classmate at Trinity College, Kay Goldsworthy, as the first bishop in the Australian Anglican Church].

Huntington’s most enduring theological contribution however is well known, but not so well-known as his. It was made in a book germinating during the 1867 Lambeth Conference, published in 1870, and called The Church-Idea: An Essay Toward Unity.[3] There he proposed a ‘Quadrilateral’ or four-sided figure, four elements fundamental to the Christian Church—the Scriptures, Creeds, the two Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist and the Episcopate— as both the essence of a genuinely Anglican position, and a basis for efforts towards Christian unity.

Huntington was a broad churchman committed to Christian unity in and for mission, and had a vision of a truly national Church in the United States, that would reflect the ethos of Anglicanism not by confessional or liturgical specifics inherited from the Church of England, but in a reformed Catholicism that could encompass the Christian population of a nation.

Huntington was seeking to identify the universal and fundamental characteristics of a unified catholic Christianity as manifested in the ancient Church of the early centuries. Huntington was not merely being romantic in invoking the vision of the ancient Church; he knew that any golden age of unity, peace and freedom for the early Church was largely mythical, a few years between Constantine’s conversion and his interventions in theological and ecclesiastical politics.[4] The Church however had had episcopal governance from a very early stage, and had performed the two sacraments of baptism and eucharist even since before its emergence from Judaism as a distinct religious movement, and hence before the canon of scripture itself, or the creeds. These elements were inextricably linked as characteristic of what has subsequently been seen as Christianity.

Of course Huntington’s particular dream of a unified American Christianity was not to be, but the bold vision had its impact on American and on global Christianity. The confident but broad assertions of Huntington’s Quadrilateral gave Anglicans conceptual tools for ecumenical engagement as never before, not only with other episcopally-governed Churches but also with protestant Churches with whom they could dialogue with greater openness, having established grounds of difference as well as commonality. There are clear lines of influence extending from Huntington’s work to the World Conference on Faith and Order, precursor of the World Council of Churches, in 1927.[5]

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church as a whole had endorsed the Quadrilateral in 1886, and the Lambeth Conference of 1888 did the same, putting its own stamp on it in the mind of most Anglicans outside the USA. These endorsements, like the original proposal, were intended to describe the basic characteristics of the universal Church with mission and ecumenism in mind, not to analyse the underlying characteristics of Anglicanism. Yet the result has usually been less expansive - Anglicans think of the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’ as a sort of denominational descriptor in four bullet points.

My purpose in recounting this narrative involves three things. First I do intend this story specifically to enjoin the Quadrilateral as a sufficient basis for Christian and by implication Anglican unity today, over against current attempts to recycle the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as a sort of Anglican ‘confession’ comparable to those of the continental protestant Churches. But the second and more fundamental point I wish to make would apply to the Articles as well.

No really significant movement for renewal within Anglicanism has begun, or is likely to begin, with attempts to define Anglicanism itself. The key moments and movement for various Anglicans, ‘high’, ‘low’ and other, all stemmed from attempts to identify and enact what was adequately and necessarily Christian. The Articles of Religion and the Quadrilateral, and for that matter the Reformation and the Oxford Movement themselves, all have this in common – that they were not attempts to establish distinctly Anglican groups or practices, let alone protestant or Anglo-Catholic ones, but to assert the fundamental and universal meaning and demands of Christian faith.

My third reason for invoking the Quadrilateral then is this. I do not believe that core practices or beliefs held for the sake of Anglicanism, rather than for the sake of the Gospel itself, are likely to inspire the necessary confidence or commitment that will provide a future vision for Anglicanism. The Quadrilateral will not serve Anglicans simply as a way of passively marking boundaries which the willing or the curious may cross if they choose. If its elements are worthy of defence they are worthy of advocacy as well. The paradox it offers and demands is that Anglicanism must look beyond itself to renew itself, and therefore be open to a diverse future or futures.

[1] Robert Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1991), 187-90.

[2] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 10.

[3] First published in New York, by E. P. Dutton and Company, 1870.

[4] John Woolverton, "Huntington's Quadrilateral: A Critical Study", Church History, 39 (1970), 207.

[5] Notably through the work of Charles Brent, Episcopal missionary bishop in the Philippines and later Bishop of Western New York; see A. C. Zabriskie, Bishop Brent: Crusader for Christian Unity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1948).


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