The Episcopal Trojan Horse

A Reflection by John Newton, of the Church of the Messiah, St Paul, Minnesota

I could hear the creak of its wheels as it was led slowly up to the gate. In this case it was not the well-known four-legged wooden horse that was left outside the walled city of Troy, but a three-legged contrivance, popularly known as the “three-legged stool”.

Over the course of the past generation or so, the three-legged stool has virtually become a holy object, an unassailable principle used uncritically to explain the ethos of the Episcopal Church. The three legs of the stool, we are told, are Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.

The argument goes basically along these lines: We are a church that gives authority to the Bible. But the Bible alone, we are told, is not enough. After all, it was written hundreds of years ago within the context of primitive worldviews, and does not address many of the complex issues of our present time. So in jumps Reason, offering us all the insights of contemporary physics, biology, anthropology, medicine, psychology, and sociology, along with numerous other fields of research. Besides that, we live in a cultural context today that is distinct and different from previous centuries. Indeed people all over the world have grown up in different “traditions”, and we need to “listen” to them all.

Now to the contemporary mind there can be something very attractive in all of that. Yet before we open the gate, we need to ask, “Where did this notion come from?” Do we find it in any of our Anglican formularies? Is it in any of the creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, or any of the ordination vows required of deacons, priests and bishops?

If you ask, you will be told it comes from Richard Hooker (1554-1600), a Church of England clergyman who spent much of his life toiling over an eight-volume opus entitled Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. However, search as long as you will and you will find no reference to the three-legged stool in Hooker’s work. The closest you will come is this single sentence:

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.” (Laws, Book V, 8:2)

For Hooker, as with Anglicans down the centuries and around most of the world today, Scripture was preeminent. As Article 6 of our Articles of Religion states, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

This is not to say that we ignore reason and tradition. Historian Arthur P. Monahan writes “For Hooker reason was God’s greatest gift to human beings, giving them the capacity to understand God’s plan for reality as a whole and situate themselves within it.” Theologian Peter Toon adds, “By ‘the voice of the Church’ [Hooker] meant the major decisions of ecumenical councils and of national churches which relate to important matters on which Scripture is silent or only supplies hints.”

Dr Grant LeMarquand at Trinity School for Ministry helpfully suggests that we think not of a three-legged stool, but of a tricycle, with Scripture as the front wheel. Godly reason and tradition (more precisely, “the voice of the Church”) may offer a degree of stability. But it is the Scriptures that give us both propulsion and direction. May they continue to be for us “a lamp for our feet and a light for our path”, sweeter to our taste than honey.

John Newton, Church of the Messiah, St Paul, Minnesota