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OLD MEN NOD: Another Anglican World

How I Discovered and Now Commend Comprehension

Memories stir along with fallen arches, creaking knees and automatic weight loss when entering the late sixties of one’s life. Most of my childhood was spent in rural areas of post war England. For a good part of that time my mother and I lived in the Diocese of Norwich –the dead see as it was then termed. Nonconformity was strong enough to deny the parson free range in the village. Yet the old parish church, set dead center on the main street and its surrounding churchyard, parish hall and tithe barn, the vicarage just down a lane, occupied a significant area of real estate and still was the focus of community memories long and short. Unless one came of a dissenting family with live ties to the Baptist and Methodist Chapels; our Roman Catholic Irish doctor had to drive miles away for Mass; the familiar rites of passage, birth, marriage and death were observed and celebrated in that old and rather musty building. This had been the case for centuries, reaching back before the Reformation probably to the time when the interloping East Angles were converted to Christianity.

On the wall of the church was an impressive list of vicars going back to the 13th Century. There was only one gap. The gap puzzled and fascinated me until I was told that the lacuna occurred when Anglicanism was abolished by the Puritans. During those days the spiritual ancestors of those who now worshipped in the Baptist Chapel down the street, held sway in old St. Mary’s Church until the king returned in 1662. Then the dispossessed vicar returned, surely in his dotage, and carried on for a few years.

The deanery was stoutly middle of the road in what was then termed “churchmanship”. Holy Communion was celebrated chastely at 8: AM, and at 11: AM on the first Sunday in the month and on the great festivals. Clergy wore cassocks and surplices, with a colored stole for the sacraments and hood and scarf or the Offices. In the wider affairs of the church, we were guided by the long obsolete Canons issued in 1663. There was no General Synod. The clergy met in the ancient Convocations established before William conquered, probably before there was an England, and certainly before there was a parliament. The laity had a National Assembly and was becoming more influential in the life of the church. At parish level, the parochial church council with its wardens attempted to keep the vicar in check.

Of course there were church “parties” or mutual interest groups, although we knew little about them. A local vicar belonged to the “Modern Churchmen’s Union” and emptied his pews by suggesting the sort of things about the Bible Bishop Spong now seems to believe are new and revolutionary. And then there was Walsingham, the Anglican Shrine to our Lady, but it was more than thirty miles away; out of our sight and imagination.

As we had no equivalent to General Convention, these parties were not so much pressure groups as convenient associations to give mutual aid and comfort and perhaps to spread their ideas by contact and ‘evangelism’. Of course there were Evangelicals, who used the 1662 Prayer Book rather more strictly than the rest of us and published pamphlets warning of the dreadful dangers which accompanied the use of candles and colored vestments. They seemed to believe that the Church of England was founded by Thomas Cranmer. We knew better. Our parish church was old and full of pastoral memories when Cranmer was burnt at the stake. Our bishop and his suffragans were tolerant of eccentricity, wore the robes which fitted in to local flavor, and stayed out of the way most of the time.

Now to my story: Our vicar, all six foot seven of him, was a reserve army chaplain. He was summoned to active duty. For a few months we were under the pastoral care of a gentle ninety year old priest called Roger Boys. He had been trained at Lincoln Theological College when the saintly Tractarian Edward King was bishop. When he was not able to take the services, supply priests were brought in.

I was the only server in the parish. I arrived at the church one Sunday to be met by a distraught verger who told me that there was one of them Roman priests in the vestry who wouldn’t leave. Fascinated, I went to have a look. There stood an ancient cleric, in a cassock with buttons down the front, wearing a funny hat with a pom pom, with a laced garment over his arm. With great hesitation I explained to him that the Catholic chapel was miles away. He replied that this church was the “catholic church” and that he was here to say “Mass”. And so he did: guiding me to do all sorts of liturgical acts not seen in the building since the reign of Bloody Mary. He befriended me and took me to Walsingham and Anglo Catholic meetings. The crucifix he gave me still adorns the wall of my study. He had been a missionary in Africa and preached sermons our ordinary parishioners could understand.

It was with him that I first met “gay” priests and laity who seemed to form a tolerated and rather “Masonic” inner circle within the Anglo Catholic Movement an the wider church.

Then the Sunday came when a quaint old fellow, in cassock, bands and a mortar board arrived and attempted the do the Lord’s Supper from the north-end, which obliged him to hold back the curtains which nearly surrounded our “Sarum Altar”. He objected to wafers, but we had no bread. He preached interminably about our sins and their rewards and although normally gruff, pitched his voice to a reedy falsetto when reading the prayers. The choir giggled.

Of course there was “Mr. Franks” in the next village, he of revisionist views about miracles, the virgin birth, and the resurrection who did Mattins for us once or twice. No one could understand why he was a priest! I later discovered that this shy and troubled man was partly Jewish, a refugee from Nazi Germany, to whom “orthodoxy” equaled the sort of accommodation many German Christians had attempted with Hitler.

And there was always the ancient Father Boys, with his snow white hair, crumbling surplice and Oxford hood, who though a “Catholic” fitted in and taught this young boy to pray and rejoice in a beauty of holiness beyond myself. He taught me about the Church in its mystery and mission.

My American readers may well object that all this has nothing to do with contemporary American Anglicanism, in which “parties” have become lobbies, synods, legislative assemblies and instant communications in shill and uncompromising voices our daily meat and drink. But I leant then that the church is at base none of these things. It is rather found, in myriad expressions, all over the world, in its worship-centered devotion and people and place centered mission. At the Daily Offices in this parish, those who attend pray daily for provinces and dioceses all over the world, not as structures and organizations, not as Catholic, or Broad, or Evangelical, or a mixture of all. We pray for +Gene Robinson and +Peter Akinola, warts and all and through them to ordinary women and men, flawed and “fallen”, saints and sinners, who attempt to be merely the church. There’s nothing radical in this. Anglicanism at its best has been merely the Church in microcosm, made up of the baptized, with all their saintliness and fallenness, who as best they may, place themselves in fellowship together as the rhythm of lessons, festivals, fasts, Word and Sacrament, shape us to be the signs and portents of the kingdom which is and is to come.

If we returned to ponder these things, much which enflame and divide us would fall into relative place. For it is to the “village”, however expressed and discovered, that we find our mission to and with all its inhabitants, whatever their strengths and failures. For we are not a sect for fellow travelers – however we make common cause with those with whom we share convictions – but a church, a microcosm of the Ch
urch to and for all who would avail themselves of our lay and ordained ministry.

IS "CHURCHMANSHIP" DEAD?

Articles in church magazines and journals, blogs and the chatter on email lists are full of talk about leaving the church, or leaving the Communion, or being expelled from the Communion. Liberals emulating Patrick Henry suggest that being expelled from the Anglican Communion may be a very good thing. North American Anglicanism would be free to follow the Holy Spirit, whom, it seems, now speaks through majority votes in church synods. Mind you, the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to speak through majority votes in African church synods.

Conservatives, with Cranmerian flair, dream of a reformed Episcopal Church, separated from the corrupt old ECUSA. They dream not only of a new church here, but a new Anglican Communion, in which the Articles of Religion set the pace, and the Word of God is rightly preached.

Polls suggest that most Episcopalians have some sympathy with those who think that our last General Convention went off track. But most Episcopalians aren’t organized and aren’t represented in either House of General Convention. They love and support their local parishes, think of the diocese as “them” and have no interest in the National Church.

Those who are activists take their model from secular political institutions, with their parties, lobbies, funding groups, and alas, dirty tricks. Viewing the church largely as a political animal, it becomes possible to think in terms of separation. The language of schism becomes acceptable, because it is no longer invested in doctrine. “Communion” now means merely an association, and “Church” an institution. If either seems to fail us, we can do without them, or start something new.

Anglicans used to believe that the church was indefectible. C.B. Moss wrote “The Church is indefectible – that is she cannot wholly fail, or fall permanently into error which would destroy the foundations of the Christian religion; but she is not infallible, or secure from making mistakes. No one can be sure, before a Council is summoned, however fully representative that Council may be, that what it will say will be true. Councils, as experience has often shown, may easily be led astray by expert politicians: their members do not always listen to the voice of God. No human being, or assembly of human beings, is free from all possibility of error; even when they are completely sincere they are subject to the limitations of the age in which they live.”[1]

With this in mind, it was once possible for us to take our part of the Church with a grain of salt, while holding it in deepest reverence. Its human nature, its eccentricity and untidiness, its attempt to hold together the mutually exclusive, far from driving us away, claimed our tolerance and our affection. For despite its history of error, corruption, and faintheartedness, it remained the church; part of the Church, the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church. We found assurance of that Sunday by Sunday. In corporate worship, we heard the Word of God in accordance with the Calendar, kept the Christian Year and celebrated the sacraments. We were served by authentic bishops, priests and deacons. We were the Church in microcosm in our diocesan and parochial units. Our Prayer Book contained not only liturgy but a liturgy which celebrated and prayed that which we believe. Anglicans, it might be said, loved the church despite itself, and loved the Church because of itself. We didn’t leave, for the most part, even when the church seemed at its worst. We joined because we grew to love her and found in fellowship and worship the gate of Heaven.

Now there’s talk among liberals and conservatives of “leaving” the church to be a part of something purer. Some say that if the Anglican Communion makes us reverse course, or demands that we act as if we were really“in communion” we go our merry way in an institution where we may do as we please. Others say that if the General Convention fails to abjure its recent decisions we should go our merry way. At the center of all this is General Convention. Do we base our faith on the decisions of General Convention? Should the Anglican Communion judge us on the basis of decisions made in General Convention? When clergy solemnly swear to abide by the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church does that mean we are in duty bound to believe that decisions of General Convention or even the Canons carry the weight and authority of that doctrine, discipline and worship discovered in the Book of Common Prayer including the Catechism? Certainly the concept that local synods have the Divine Mandate to issue decrees binding the consciences of believers, in other areas than liturgy, ceremonies and non-essential discipline, is a departure from the Anglican Way and smacks of a belief in corporate infallibility.

If the Church is indefectible, then should we not, in patience remain faithful to her, despite her blemishes and imperfections? If our church continues week by week to do that which the church does, should not member Provinces of the Anglican Communion take note of that fact? For surely God is not frustrated by our good-intentioned errors. The church is not defined by its members, individually or corporately in governing boards, but by its faithfulness demonstrated day by day and week by week in its parishes.

The problem for many of us, as I see it, is that if we are set adrift by the Anglican Communion, and if some of us opt for a new Anglican Church in America, where shall the rest of us go? Perhaps like faithful laity and clergy in Cromwell’s day, we’ll do what we can where we are to preserve the church until in good time, God’s purposes become clearer.

[1] C.B. Moss, The Christian Faith, SPCK, 1957

IS "CHURCHMANSHIP" DEAD?

Articles in church magazines and journals, blogs and the chatter on email lists are full of talk about leaving the church, or leaving the Communion, or being expelled from the Communion. Liberals emulating Patrick Henry suggest that being expelled from the Anglican Communion may be a very good thing. North American Anglicanism would be free to follow the Holy Spirit, whom, it seems, now speaks through majority votes in church synods. Mind you, the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to speak through majority votes in African church synods.

Conservatives, with Cranmerian flair, dream of a reformed Episcopal Church, separated from the corrupt old ECUSA. They dream not only of a new church here, but a new Anglican Communion, in which the Articles of Religion set the pace, and the Word of God is rightly preached.

Polls suggest that most Episcopalians have some sympathy with those who think that our last General Convention went off track. But most Episcopalians aren’t organized and aren’t represented in either House of General Convention. They love and support their local parishes, think of the diocese as “them” and have no interest in the National Church.

Those who are activists take their model from secular political institutions, with their parties, lobbies, funding groups, and alas, dirty tricks. Viewing the church largely as a political animal, it becomes possible to think in terms of separation. The language of schism becomes acceptable, because it is no longer invested in doctrine. “Communion” now means merely an association, and “Church” an institution. If either seems to fail us, we can do without them, or start something new.

Anglicans used to believe that the church was indefectible. C.B. Moss wrote “The Church is indefectible – that is she cannot wholly fail, or fall permanently into error which would destroy the foundations of the Christian religion; but she is not infallible, or secure from making mistakes. No one can be sure, before a Council is summoned, however fully representative that Council may be, that what it will say will be true. Councils, as experience has often shown, may easily be led astray by expert politicians: their members do not always listen to the voice of God. No human being, or assembly of human beings, is free from all possibility of error; even when they are completely sincere they are subject to the limitations of the age in which they live.”[1]

With this in mind, it was once possible for us to take our part of the Church with a grain of salt, while holding it in deepest reverence. Its human nature, its eccentricity and untidiness, its attempt to hold together the mutually exclusive, far from driving us away, claimed our tolerance and our affection. For despite its history of error, corruption, and faintheartedness, it remained the church; part of the Church, the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church. We found assurance of that Sunday by Sunday. In corporate worship, we heard the Word of God in accordance with the Calendar, kept the Christian Year and celebrated the sacraments. We were served by authentic bishops, priests and deacons. We were the Church in microcosm in our diocesan and parochial units. Our Prayer Book contained not only liturgy but a liturgy which celebrated and prayed that which we believe. Anglicans, it might be said, loved the church despite itself, and loved the Church because of itself. We didn’t leave, for the most part, even when the church seemed at its worst. We joined because we grew to love her and found in fellowship and worship the gate of Heaven.

Now there’s talk among liberals and conservatives of “leaving” the church to be a part of something purer. Some say that if the Anglican Communion makes us reverse course, or demands that we act as if we were really“in communion” we go our merry way in an institution where we may do as we please. Others say that if the General Convention fails to abjure its recent decisions we should go our merry way. At the center of all this is General Convention. Do we base our faith on the decisions of General Convention? Should the Anglican Communion judge us on the basis of decisions made in General Convention? When clergy solemnly swear to abide by the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church does that mean we are in duty bound to believe that decisions of General Convention or even the Canons carry the weight and authority of that doctrine, discipline and worship discovered in the Book of Common Prayer including the Catechism? Certainly the concept that local synods have the Divine Mandate to issue decrees binding the consciences of believers, in other areas than liturgy, ceremonies and non-essential discipline, is a departure from the Anglican Way and smacks of a belief in corporate infallibility.

If the Church is indefectible, then should we not, in patience remain faithful to her, despite her blemishes and imperfections? If our church continues week by week to do that which the church does, should not member Provinces of the Anglican Communion take note of that fact? For surely God is not frustrated by our good-intentioned errors. The church is not defined by its members, individually or corporately in governing boards, but by its faithfulness demonstrated day by day and week by week in its parishes.

The problem for many of us, as I see it, is that if we are set adrift by the Anglican Communion, and if some of us opt for a new Anglican Church in America, where shall the rest of us go? Perhaps like faithful laity and clergy in Cromwell’s day, we’ll do what we can where we are to preserve the church until in good time, God’s purposes become clearer.

[1] C.B. Moss, The Christian Faith, SPCK, 1957

General Convention’s Voice to the World

If General Convention is to play a significant role in speaking “peace to those who are afar off and to those who are near” it must be seen to be willing to challenge positively the powers that be in whatever form those powers may appear. Power is exercised not only by governments, but by oppositions, by segments of public opinion, by culture and region and not least by our own parties and segments reflected in the beliefs and passions of our own parishioners. In this respect I would concur that there are many crucial issues upon which Christians may disagree not only fundamentally but in the matter of how one witnesses practically to the watching world. Yet behind those disagreements there surely is to be found a common search for and listening to the mind of Christ.

We don’t seem very good at lifting up the “otherness” of the Church, of which our church is a local manifestation. By “otherness”I do not mean some detached and censorious body divorced from the market place, but our vocation to be the present cloudy manifestation of the alternative “kingdom” which is now and which will be eventually. Jesus is Lord. Surely our pilgrim, journeying church is the alternative to all power, in our collective priestly calling to be for the world to God and to be for God to the world? Not a form of fortressed ‘puritanism’ or of worldly accommodation, but rather a holy nation, a royal priesthood, involved sacrificially in the lives and destinies, tragedies and hopes of all peoples everywhere. Our hope is clearly expressed in the last paragraph of Eucharistic Prayer B.

Thus, for instance, where is our general voice being heard about the endemic corruption of our political system -surely not a conservative versus liberal issue?

Where is our voice about consumerism, about the dreadful and often corrupting influence of the media on young and old together? One could go on and on. And do we confuse the legal rights of a free people with our duty to speak the Word, in the Word? Where is our loving hope to change the minds of those we freely dismiss with demonizing terms, returning evil with evil? Is that not particularly so when we consign to our own hell those who, whatever their denomination have walked through the waters of baptism with us?

So often GC, in tackling a host of resolutions on social issues, without meaningful debate or in depth study seems to be preaching to that part of the choir involved in those issues. Few if any of our solemn pronouncements are noted beyond the Convention site. They are not even noted, by and large by our own parishioners, many of whom feel divorced from the whole process, and most of whom remain blissfully ignorant about our solemn pronouncements. Ignored prophets have nothing to say. And when we are heard, what we say is labelled as support for and conformity to extra-ecclesial lobbies and groups. Now it well may be that there is a similarity between that which we say as a church, and that which is being said in society at large. But the confusion is devastating.

I am quite sure that if our church was dominated by “conservative” pressure groups, given the level of our secularism the same impression would be at large and would be equally true. But if we are to be a microcosm of the Church, rather than an association for this or that secular power group or segment of culture, we must have a real internal debate about just how we go about being that which stands apart – that which is “holy” in the precise definition of that term – in order that we may be truly involved in the world to which we have be sent with a message of redemption.