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.