Still Working On It

In response to Dr. Holly’s query, I’ve been mulling over my sense that there’s an effective formal distinction to be drawn between the Church of England’s separation from the Church of Rome at the English Reformation (on one hand) and the Episcopal Church’s hypothetical removal from the Anglican Communion.

Could this make a difference? The separation at the Reformation took place in an essentially Erastian environment, where the transition from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism involved the [mandatory] change of allegiance from one source of governance to another, but with the infrastructure largely intact (except, of course, the monasteries) — such that an English believer who did not want to be an Anglican had few options for articulating that resistance. Emigration and treason were the main alternatives. One could presumably be an Anglican with catholic allegiance, within a largely reformed church, as there was no other above-the-table alternative expression of the Church in England. The continuing identification of citizenship with a positive relation to Anglicanism well into the nineteenth century constitutes an environment that obliges the church to incorporate a broad range of dissent within its self-definition.

That’s part of my puzzlement about the current retrospective “This is true Anglicanism” impulse in some quarters. I had always thought that true Anglicanism bore with the potty vicar who was sure that Jesus was really an astral traveller, or that theological doctrine was a pointless appendix to the finer points of fox-hunting. Such people come, they occupy seats of greater or lesser prominence and authority, then they retire or die, and the church itself doesn’t change much. The point isn’t that we don’t care about error or try to correct error, but that the Truth is stronger, lasts longer, and eventually renders error moot. Truth counteracts error from within the church. (And that also provides us with the opportunity for learning the ways in the church may need correction — from within.)

In a world wherein the difference between being an Episcopalian (U.S.-style) and being an alphabet-soup Anglican-Communion recognized Anglican, a catholic-minded person can remain in fellowship with the trans-national church she or he recognizes by driving a little further to the congregation of choice. One is almost obliged to exercise private judgment (horrors, John Henry!) in ascertaining to which body one might belong.

That’s my present best shot at articulating the difference I sense — but I’m venturing this as a trial balloon, not as a forceful claim about the nature of Truth and catholicity.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I think a clue can be found in how the opposition has styled themselves — Orthodox Anglicans. Anglicanism hasn’t had a strong tradition of Orthodoxy as such. The last group to style themselves this way were the Puritans who were mostly driven out of (or voluntarially left) England after the Restoration.

    Today’s Neo-Puritans share a lot of features with the Puritans of old: a strong emphasis on Biblical support for doctrine, rejection of episcopal authority, emphasis on the congregation as the fundamental unit of the Church and an emphasis on individual holiness.

  2. This makes a lot of sense to me. One question I do have concerns urban settings, like London of the period, where the choice you mention would likely to some degree have existed as well–by walking, of course for most people.

    I certainly know this is the case here in SF, that folks do the driving–to some degree we don’t have a choice, the nearest church to where I live is at least 2 miles away; it seems in such circumstances (as I do not think this exercise is unusual in urban settings, even in the Reformation period), it would then be especially important for the bishop and her counsel to bring together various diverse leadership from parishes in the local church–diocese–perhaps on a more regular basis (more than the once a year convention) for face-to-face discussion and worship?

    I do know that some exercise of this choice is quite radical and revealing of where an “orthodox” mentality can go. Some of the folks I know drive in to this diocese from the Diocese of San Joaquin where they are refused communion for being in a same-sex relationship.

    Your post in March has me thinking a great deal both about Truth and catholicity, especially given that I think a schism is not the way to go and will actually hurt gay folk elsewhere in the Communion. We need to hold our horses just a little bit for the sake of more than ourselves.

    It seems to me that if something is True, we need not grasp for it tightly; and what you’re suggesting is that there’s enough room in our ecclesiology to let what is True emerge among us, messy as it may be. That is the strength of our polity and ecclesiology, a lived flesh-and-blood inquiry in our relatedness.

    What we need right now, more than anything, in my opinion, is the courage to embrace our own strength, our Trinitarian polity, and the patience and faith that the Truth will be made manifest in our ongoing life together, especially at the Altar-Table.

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