I’ve been musing about Anglican diversity. When I was young our diversity ran from those who believed in a sacerdotal priesthood, Apostolic Succession, the Sacrifice of the Mass, auricular confession and the use of the Missal to those who believed that Anglican “priests” were Ministers of the Gospel, that an Historic Episcopate was adiaphora (not core belief), that Jesus was present at Holy Communion only to faithful believers and not in Bread and Wine, that sins were to be confessed diectly by the saved and who used the Prayer Book with little or no ceremonial. In short there were individuals, parishes and dioceses -perhaps whole Provinces – which differed little from Roman Catholicism and others which made a Scottish Presbyterian seem High Church.

There were also notable clerics who doubted the supernatural aspects of Christianity. Indeed for centuries there had been Bishops who were Deists, like Bishop Hoadly, and many more who sat lightly on Credal Faith.

The first Lambeth Conference was in part initiated by bishops who were annoyed that the Bishop of Natal had written a book on the authorship of the first few books of the Old Testament which nowadays would be regarded as small beer.

Nor is this the first time that our internal divisions have brought us to the point of collapse. At the beginning of the 17th Century Anglicans who sought to rediscover the heritage of the church before the Reformation, albeit in what would be considered very mild reforms such as placing the Communion Table back at the East end and fencing it with rails to prevent dogs from urinating on the Holy Table or parishioners using it as a repository for their winter clothes, collided with “conservatives” who were militantly Reformed and Protestant. The church collapsed. For over a decade Anglicanism, except as an illegal and underground church, survived only in Virginia.

What in part provoked that struggle was the determination of the the “High Church” reformers to enforce their practices by Law, as Archbishop Laud issued his regulations and prosecuted conservatives in Ecclesiastical Courts.

When the Church of England was restored in 1660 it took its revenge on those who had opposed the Laudian reforms by persecuting the Puritans, driving our saintly folk like Richard Baxter. Those driven out went underground and created Nonconformity and the Free Churches and the Church of England no longer could claim to be a truly national church.

What then developed was not a homogeneous church but one that learned to tolerate extraordinary diversity without officially endorsing the various movements and emphases which emerged whether Evangelical, Catholic, Broad Church or merely eccentric. Such liberality was sorely tested particularly after the Anglo Catholic Movement which occasioned the Reformed Episcopal schism and of course Anglicanism wasn’t flexible enough to embrace Methodism.

So what is different now? I scanned the bill of particulars appended to the Nigerian Primate’s recent letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Therein one finds snippets of statements and interviews given by our Presiding Bishop and other Episcopalian worthies. None of these snippets were as radical as the sort of stuff some Anglican theologians were airing thirty years ago. No one broke communion then. Only the retired Bishop of Newark, an “inverted fundamentalist” writes books which challenge the entire belief system of Christianity. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that many of the attempts to appear intellectual or sophisticated in attempts to attract people who have problems with the uniqueness of Christ for instance are indeed a betrayal of the faith. But there’s nothing new in anything they say. Why then are we in danger of falling apart now? John Robinson’s “Honest to God” didn’t break us up. Why now?

I think there are a number of reasons for our present state. The first is the advent of the internet. We now know intimately what people say and teach. Secondly we haven’t come to grips with the sexual revolution which began with the invention of reliable contraceptives. The Western Church now inhabits a world in which casual sex, living in what was once termed “sin” and the creation of powerful groups advocating their rights to sexual expressions once regarded as immoral have faced the church with pastoral situations once unknown. Clergy routinely marry couples who have lived together and have children out of wedlock. Young people in our pews take such things for granted.

As the church has fudged or accommodated such relationships for decades it has become difficult to articulate moral teachings which are consistent.

Fundamentally, if I may be permitted a pun, our problem in TEC is that our church like the Laudians is intent on legislating a new moral code which we often forget embraces the non-marital relationships of both gays and “straights” and blessing these relationships in a manner which looks like Holy Matrimony, a “lesser” sacrament according to our Catechism. Like the Laudians the advocates of such formal legislation have scant patience with the old conservatives who are subject to official and non-official persecution, some self-inflicted by those with a taste for martyrdom and other marginalized because they cannot in conscience embrace these “reforms”. We see our Mother Church going to great pains to provide episcopal oversight to those who cannot accept the ordination and consecration of women clergy while our own church which has little claim to be a National Church refuses to make room for those whose claim to membership in the Episcopal Church is historical and actual. As a result those alienated behave like alienated people, plan schism and export their grievances abroad. The dreadful divisions in the Anglican Communion have been largely caused by zeolots in power who neither embrace Anglican comprehension nor an adequate Anglican ecclesiology. They have been deepened by wounded traditionalists who have looked for help beyond the borders of TEC and for a number of reasons, some virtuous and some self-serving no longer trust those in power or recognize our bonds in baptism and worship.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for restraint, for patience, for a time out fall on deaf ears as Anglicans cling to their principles and slogans, embrace their wounds and regard themselves as guardians of the holy flame, whether liberal or conservative. The ideological divisions which have brought our American politics and politicians into disrepute similarly alienate many Episcopalians who find themselves in the middle and merely want to worship in peace and retain their identity as Anglicans and Episcopalians.

In times past we learned that enforcing reforms brings nothing but disunity and schism and an alienation of ordinary parishioners from their duty to worship God in accordance with our rites and ceremonies. We once learned the hard way to give space to reformers, allowing the common sense of ordinary lay and clerical people to engage in a practical assessment of new ideas or a return to old ways. The two great revivals in Anglicanism, the Evangelical and the Anglo Catholic were essentially conservative revivals of aspects of the church which have had their day in times past. We’ve had Liberals among us at least since the 17th. Century. Even the great Reforming Bishop Hugh Latimer was a social liberal in his own context. He was locked up in the Tower of London for championing the poor!

In many ways our great Archbishop of Canterbury, a convinced Catholic is calling for us to reexamine and live into our comprehensive tradition. But we don’t listen. Instead we seek to institutionalize and legislate our new and old ideas by Canon or by creating extra-mural structures. It is high time we revisited our long tradition of informal toleration, a tradition which has maintained in our worship and customs the core beliefs of Reformed Catholicism while giving space to reformers whose bright ideas we have informally embraced, rejected or amended over long periods of time. TEC in its initial attempt to enforce one liturgical practice has unwittingly drifted into an intolerance with dissent which has no place in our tradition. Such a drift has emulated the bureaucracy of large franchises rather than Anglican comprehension. But that is a story for another day.

2 Responses

  1. While I recognize that the idea of Anglicanism as an institution housing three major parties – low church/evangelical, high church/anglo-catholic, and liberal/progressive – is a cherished facet of our current self-understanding, I have two qualms with it. First, it projects too much of the present upon the past. Between the time of the Reformation and the Revolution, the church effectively split into two camps: those that wanted to keep the Book of Common Prayer, and those who wished to discard it. Some of those “Prayer Book Protestants” (to borrow Judith Maltby’s term) wished to embellish it – the Laudians. I find it odd, however, to see the Puritans as “conservatives” when they didn’t wish to conserve the Church of England as it had been reformed, but wished to change it/reform it further (which assumes, of course, that the Reformation existed on a continuum of lesser to greater reform; I deny the descriptive worth of assuming and asserting such a continuum, but that is another story…). The 17th century was not the 16th century, but the tradition developed as it developed; Laudians preserved Cranmer, Jewel, and Hooker, just as they preserved the Book of Common Prayer and traditional practices associated with monarchy (i.e., the King’s touch). However, the Puritans did not. If anyone was conserving anything, it was the Laudians moreso than their Puritan opponents; the fact that the latter were iconoclasts further underscores the point. And, of course, at no point did Cranmer ever claim that his reformed liturgies had reached a zenith of linguistic and aesthetic permanence; rather, he held that the national church had the right to develop its liturgy as it saw fit, not least with the approval of the king. The Laudians maintained this to a proverbial “t”.

    Second, why is such diversity even desirable? It’s not just bewildering, but downright chaotic. While one may draw some interesting ideological lines between bishops like Hoadly and Spong (I don’t think J. A. T. Robinson ought to be put in this category, but that too is another conversation – and one which I am still hammering out), but is it really helpful to group them under the category of “liberals”? When it comes to those liberals/progressives in the church today who claim the lead of the Holy Spirit for their changes, this is hardly rationalism of any sort. If anything, it “pretends” to the private revelations of the Holy Spirit that “enthusiasts” (and Methodists) were known for claiming, and for which most Anglicans – most notably Bishop Butler – were so opposed to. I’m not sure that rationalism and charismatic progressivism really ought to be classed as “liberalism”. These are fundamentally different.

    In sum, I think that it is time for Anglicans to dig a bit more deeply into their past, and in doing so to abandon two ideas that have been reified into transhistorical types: 1.) the type of the three-party, comprehensive church (which has been discussed here); 2.) the type of the via media as uniquely Anglican pursuit of the middle way between whatever the extremes in question happen to be (which was not touched upon in this article or in my response). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Anglican history and theology are just way, way, WAY more interesting than these two types allow us to be. I’m not denying that there is diversity within Anglicanism, but come on – there is diversity in *every* church. The Roman Catholic church has plenty of diversity within its body; divergent emphases sometimes become competing parties. Yet, it doesn’t define itself by reference to its internal arguments and inconsistencies. I tell my students that Anglicanism was built, at the time of the Reformation, on two pillars, both of which had very medieval (and even ancient) foundations: the king as the head of the Church, and the Book of Common Prayer. We have, of course, developed a tradition (which is far more coherent, I believe, than many recognize), but we no longer have the king as our head. Our diversity, which was once bounded by monarchical commitments, and then later by the nation and then the Empire, is no longer so bounded. We retain the Book of Common Prayer. Thus, it is time to start strengthening other facets of Anglican identity – like our tradition, and like our Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury – in order to better secure our identity. (And, in terms of securing our institution, I’m for canon law all the way. How that will work itself out, however, remains to be seen…)

  2. I’d argue that there were moderate Puritans who had no wish to leave the National Church and radical Puritans who wanted it reformed root and branch. The moderates were fairly content with the status quo and looked back the Elizabethan days with yearning.

    I grant you that in pre-Cromwellian days the middle church party was only in its extreme infancy but drew to Great Tew some remarkable minds.

    I have not posited the idea of a middle way between whatever extremes are present at a given time, indeed I didn’t address the idea of a Via Media at all.

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