There are a lot of theological debates out there. Pretty much every tradition or denomination has its favorite arch-nemesis with whom it constantly battles, and it’s often not a pretty sight. Such strife is often most intense when the dispute is taking place within one church or tradition: who gets to set the standard for everyone else? Is there room for disagreement or must uniformity be enforced to ensure orthodoxy?
In the Anglican tradition, one of our big internal theological debates for at least a century was that between Calvinism and Arminianism. I’ve written about this a little bit before, for myself, just exploring the basic positions taken by each side, in the hopes of making proper sense of their debate. Ultimately I have chosen to embrace neither of those parties wholesale, as I recognize some strengths and weaknesses in either system. I recently found out that Charles Simeon, a famous Anglican priest of the 18th century, also refused to take sides in this great debate. This surprised me, because, knowing he was one of the great evangelicals of our tradition, I had rather assumed that he would have been a champion of the Reformed/Calvinist party within Anglicanism. But he was not.
I bitterly regret that men will range themselves under human banners and leaders and employ themselves in converting the inspired writers into friends and partisans of their peculiar principles. Into this fault I trust I have never fallen. One thing I know, namely, that pious men, both of the Calvinistic and Arminian persuasion, approximate very nearly when they are upon their knees before God in prayer, the devout Arminian then acknowledging his total dependence upon God as strongly as the most confirmed Calvinist, and the Calvinist acknowledging his responsibility to God and his obligation to exertion in terms as decisive as the most determined Arminian. And what both these individuals are upon their knees, it is my wish to become in my writings.
from his Preface to “Horae Homileticae”
What Charles Simeon is doing here is noting that, at least within the Anglican tradition, the competing parties are praying the same way. Their underlying theological principles differ from one another, but when you get past the slander and the straw man arguments and the misunderstandings often held between the two groups, Simeon found them essentially identical in their prayer and devotion and service to Christ. And in their sameness, he wanted his writings to be. Simeon was surprisingly non-partisan, resistant to systematized theology – seemingly more than I personally consider appropriate. His preference for raw biblical theology without systematized arrangement strikes me as a little naive.
Nevertheless, his point about the warring factions being essentially united in prayer is quite profound. This is, I firmly believe, one of the greatest strengths of the liturgical tradition – we share a theologically rich life of prayer that transcends many of our particular debates and factions of biblical interpretation. Obviously, this liturgical union of theological sparring partners won’t (and can’t!) reconcile every faction out there. Calvinism and Arminianism were close enough together for their prayer and living to coincide; there are other divisions that run much deeper which even common liturgy cannot reunite without being seriously (and dangerously) watered down.
But where unity-through-prayer is possible, it is a beautiful and amazing thing. I am thankful and proud to be a part of a tradition that has such a valuable resource as the Prayer Book liturgy!