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Right from our emergence as a separate face in Christianity, Anglicans have sought to comprehend what seem to be mutually exclusive viewpoints and ecclesiastical parties. Now that is a fact. The reasons lying behind this extraordinary attempt to include as many of the baptized as possible and to invite into fellowship even those who sit lightly on our seemingly minimal requirements for reception are complex and were at first both political and practical.

They were political because the zeal of the Reformers was tempered by the policies of the British Crown. The thought that there might be a multitude of what we later termed denominations in one nation wasn’t even on the table, or even in the minds of most people. Even in Scotland, where Calvinism triumphed, there was to continue one Church in one nation, based in a continuity of parishes and parish churches. On the Continent, at least in the Germanic lands, the idea of a nation state hadn’t emerged. Even there at first, in the multitude of large and tiny principalities and duchies, those following one or other of the Reformers formed their own local church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

The British and Scottish monarchs no more envisioned denominationalism than they did democracy. How could they? It was beyond their imagination. There had to be one Church if there was to be one King.

Practically the fact was that at local level the focus of religion centered on the parish church, including its graveyard. Friends and relatives, ancestors, for centuries were baptized, married and buried in that holy ground. Only the most zealous thought it possible to divide the sheep from the goats and establish rival religious communities inhabited by the “elect” and the pure in doctrine and morals, inhabiting alternative buildings..

Early Reformers like John Jewel, while thundering against the papacy, mass, prayers for the dead, a sacerdotal priesthood or “apostolic succession” in its “Catholic” sense, affirmed at length the continuity and “catholicity” of the Church of England harking back, as some do now, to a golden age discovered in the early days of Christianity, a tactic used by liberals and conservatives to this day.

Next year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Anglicanism in the United States. Our first priest, Robert Hunt, seems of have been a “church evangelical”, a distinction now used to separate those Calvinists loyal to the National Church and those who would later plant themselves in Massachusetts. His first act was to assemble the colonists and celebrate Holy Communion using the Prayer Book of 1559.

Forty years later Anglicanism was abolished in England and the Commonwealth tolerated the emergence of a multitude of sects or denominations. Only in Virginia and surrounding areas did the Church survive, tolerating, under what we would now find fairly harsh conditions, the emergence of newly formed groups.

For nearly two hundred years, American Anglicanism developed and encouraged a diversity of opinion. These ranged from what we might call a Broad Church aristocratic church in the South to an emerging High Church movement in the North where the church was not established. The variations were not a matter of liturgy, vesture, or ceremonial. After 1662 all used the new English liturgy almost devoid of ceremonial and ecclesiastical vesture. Many churches looked exactly like Presbyterian chapels inside with a central pulpit or one which towered above all else. Holy Tables were small and portable. The parson wore academic gown over his cassock if he had one, perhaps donning a surplice for the Eucharist celebrated maybe four times a year. Mattins and Ante-Communion with a long sermon was Sunday fare. Yet there was wide disagreement about bishops – best kept in England – on the nature of the Eucharist and other sacraments, on predestination and election or even about whether the Church was a denomination or the local manifestation of THE Church.

These divisions nearly derailed attempts to create a National Church after the Revolution. There were suggestions that episcopacy could be optional, established by presbyteral ordination, or whether the Nicene Creed should be in the liturgy. Although PECUSA settled many of these things internally, it was the Archbishop of Canterbury who interfered and mandated the restoration to a draft Prayer Book of what he believed to be essential elements. So much for meddling by Canterbury in our affairs!

And then came the Evangelicals who rescued from oblivion the church in the Southern and middle states and created the church in Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas and elsewhere. They were Bible people as seen through the lens of the writings of the English and Continental Reformed theologians, encouraged extra-liturgical interpolations to the Prayer Book and in prayer meetings, dreamed of a pan protestant united church across the nation and made common cause with their allies abroad.

A revived High Church party did the same in the North, with New York as their center. They lifted high episcopacy, liturgy strictly used, territorial episcopacy, the Church as the “true” church as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and opposed all cooperation with Protestants.

Then came the Anglo-Catholics who taught apostolic succession as the esse of the Church, the real presence and the Eucharistic sacrifice in a manner not unlike that taught by Rome and Orthodoxy, encouraged auricular confession, elaborate acts of worship using the gestures, vestments and ceremonial in use in Roman Catholic parishes and interpolations in the Prayer Book liturgy or even the use of Missals, translations of the then Roman Rite. They formed monasteries and convents and seminaries and evangelized areas of the country.

Then came Liberals, who espoused “modern scholarship” of the Bible, embraced Darwin, championed the poor, people of other races and cultures and longed to see the Kingdom of God established by the social and economic witness of the church.

In all this there was much cross-fertilization. The great middle ground of Anglicanism was the place where the ideas of movements and parties, in a practical and local manner were absorbed, amended or discarded. All this took time and patience.

Comprehension didn’t always work. The Methodists left us, or we left them after the Revolution. Evangelicals left us in the 1873 schism which created the Reformed Episcopal Church. By and large we stayed together. We wrote sometimes dreadful polemics and distributed pamphlets about Confession or Colored stoles. We often thought the worst of each other. Yet we remained substantially intact, tolerant of diversity, whether doctrinal, ceremonial or social.

Surely we can learn from this history about our nature and communion? Is it not ironic that in these days of progress we seem to have returned to the worst days of our existence, when church folk and puritans fought for the very soul of the church and very nearly killed it off? “Zeal for your house has destroyed me” or so the psalmist wrote. The division of our church into two houses would be a denial of all we have been and claimed to be. Separation from our brothers and sisters in the wider communion would be equally a denial of that event which happened four hundred years ago near Jamestown, surely as important a moment as our emerging as the third constituent in what we would later term the Anglican Communion after the Revolution.

Comprehension may be limiting, may make development slow and erratic, and may discourage prophets –although it did not do so in the past. The question is whether comprehension is possible in a day when the church is defined not by its beliefs and practices, but by majoritarian decisions by governing bodies and by the influence of lobbies, pressure groups, the media and email!