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After Rowan: The Coherence and Future of Anglicanism

ABC Religion and Ethics

On Palm Sunday, I attended Mass at Southwell Minster in the small town where I live at the southern tip of the ancient English Archdiocese of York. It is a glorious medieval building that is now an Anglican cathedral.

On this occasion, however, as happens every year, the local Catholic congregation joined us for worship along with a donkey, starting with a procession round the building, returning through the massive Romanesque doorway. After the Peace, which all shared, the Catholic faithful filed off into the Chapter House - which is decorated with uniquely realistic twelfth-century gothic leaf-carvings - to celebrate their own Mass, while the Anglicans celebrated theirs in the nave.

Both congregations rejoined for the final hymn, after which the Catholic priest thanked the Anglicans for their hospitality. He then said, "We share one baptism, one love for Jesus Christ and one belief in the word of God ..." The assembled people were waiting for the "but" - but it never came. Instead the priest added, "and besides that - well, besides that nothing else can really matter."

These were surely well chosen words because it made one realise that any qualification would have amounted to a kind of blasphemy. What remained unspoken, of course, was our eucharistic division. Yet the absence of qualification forced one to reflect that there is indeed only one possible Mass of Christ. And indeed this is already recognised by the fact that in only mild extremis, Anglicans and other Christians temporarily out of reach of their own communion are generally welcomed to reception of the Catholic eucharist. For their part, Anglicans receive to their own eucharist all baptised Christians in good standing with their own churches.

Both the one ontological and the other institutional fact should encourage us to see Christian unity less as something to be realised by human effort of negotiation, and more as an already existing reality which our practice and still more our thinking struggle woefully to reflect in its entirety.

Nevertheless, in England today, Anglicans and Catholics, along with Orthodox Christians and those of dissenting churches, increasingly find themselves involved in a common struggle both against the culture of atheism and against the politics of selfish individualism and sterile greed.

It is for this reason that Catholics in the UK cannot view with indifference the prospects of their sister communion. Nor, one can suggest, can Catholics worldwide. The Anglican Church is the second largest united body of Christians in the world, and if it is currently riven by issues that often have to do with sex and gender, then it would be complacent to imagine that the Catholic Church will remain relatively immune to divisions around this dimension of human life forever into the future.

Therefore the current dilemmas of the Church of England are not of a merely local nor sectional concern. And they are considerable.

The prospects of a global Anglican Communion

A general dismay in England greeted the news that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was to take the more or less unprecedented step of stepping down from his office eight years before he is officially bound to retire. This dismay was compounded for some Anglicans when, just a few days later, the proposed "covenant" between the various national churches of the Communion collapsed, thanks to rejection by sufficient diocesan governing bodies of the mother church in England herself, against the advice of the bishops.

The covenant would have bound the participants to agree that no major shift in doctrine or practice would be undertaken by any of them without a full-scale "consultation" with all the other national churches. Failure then to comply with the global consensus could conceivably lead to various degrees of exclusion from full inter-communion.

It is important for Catholic readers to realise that Rowan Williams had sought this covenant, in part, for ecumenical reasons. The Vatican signalled to him at the start of his primacy that conversations leading to further unity could only be re-commenced if the Catholic Church could be sure that the Anglican Church was truly capable of acting as one body.

Many Anglicans agreed that this was a reasonable concern. However, in regarding this ecumenical concern as his priority, Archbishop Rowan was making a fatal decision to put global unity before local policy in the Church of England itself at home. For whatever the shades of opinion about homosexuality and women's ministry, the cultural gap between some African countries (where homosexuality is a criminal offence and women's role is always socially subordinate - often alongside a considerable latitude about male heterosexual behaviour) and North America, Britain and Australasia (where almost everyone embraces some degree of a more tolerant and egalitarian approach) is almost unbridgeable.

And here one confronts the core of the dilemma which faced Rowan and which will still face his successor. It is so extreme that one can only feel the profoundest sympathy for him and for any future holder of this office. For it would be crass to imagine that there are any simply and obvious theological solutions here.

Much of the British press is of the traditional "whig" view (literally dating back to the opinion of the Whig political party in the eighteenth century) that the Church is a national church that should be subordinate to the state and to "progressive" opinion. Accordingly its duty is now to adjust itself to the new common sense of contemporary Britons.

In rightly rejecting this view, Rowan Williams, in accordance with the traditions of the High Church and of Evangelicalism alike, has seen the unity of the Church as taking precedence over such temporary national and cultural concerns. For him - and standing in a lineage that would include equally Hooker, Wesley, Newman and Wilberforce - the establishment of the Church of England implies not a rubber-stamping of the current political consensus, but rather the subordination of the state to the eternal unity of human beings in the God-Man Christ as being the very test of the legitimacy of any human-made order.

However, standing with Rowan on this vertiginously high ground (as I would wish to do) can still leave one with an uneasy sense that the mundane needs of the British people are thereby sacrificed to a long term prospect without foreseeable remission. A neglect of the theologically acceptable aspects of current western culture may seriously impair the preaching of the gospel.

Moreover, the primacy of Church over state and the recognition of the Anglican Communion as part of the Universal Catholic Church (it has never been officially identified as "Protestant") has not hitherto involved any submission to a global Anglican communion. Instead, up till quite recently, the various "Episcopalian" churches (some established in their own countries and others not) have been but loosely linked by a common respect for the see of Canterbury, which otherwise has enjoyed no magisterial nor juridical authority outside the realm of England - not even in Scotland or Wales (which are within separate archdioceses).

On this basis, even some "non-whigs" have been arguing that the Church of England must now look to itself and not try to put an irreparable world-egg back together again. However, Rowan's concern for the global Anglican Communion is no mere nonsensical fantasy. It is, rather, first of all realistic in the face of a globalised world which will continue to ensure that one communion can make internal trouble for another. But it is in the second place theologically correct, because the Church from the very outset was defined in part by its transcending of ethnic and political boundaries.

For Anglicans to thus despair of their own global unity would be to admit that they have given into despair of the restoration to full recognised unity of the entire body of Christ throughout the world.

Restoring the Church of England

All the same, Rowan Williams's attempt to follow this unavoidable double imperative has now collapsed. Does this mean that his successor now has no choice but to "re-connect with the nation" and refocus on achievably domestic goals?

I think that the answer is - and must be - no, and that there may after all be another way to render the local square compatible with the terrestrial circle. Such an alternative can become clear if one allows a consideration of time to break into an apparent geometrical or spatial stand-off. Perhaps Anglicans in the UK need to say that for now they have an urgent pastoral responsibility to British citizens who are, after all, their most immediate neighbours, and that this cannot be sacrificed to an implausible future prospect.

Given that for the present Anglicans have little choice but to put global agreement on hold, the approach here should perhaps, for the moment, simply be one of encouraging the various provinces to live with their differences as far as possible. Consequently, the number of international meetings held specifically to discuss hopelessly controverted issues should be henceforth minimised. But this would be with the specific intension that, in the longer term, another sort of strategy can hope to make progress toward global Anglican unity.

Let me give a few examples. On the home front, the proposal of the coalition government to legalise gay marriage makes it imperative for the Church of England to take a stand against the intended measure, while distinguishing such a stance from any mode of prejudice against gay people.

This may well imply that a majority of British Anglicans - who resist any redefinition of marriage, and yet have no objection to civil partnerships for gay people, including gay priests, and the blessing of these partnerships in church - can no longer afford to tarry for the rest of world. (It should be noted that no issues about legitimate expression of same-sex affection need arise here, since a gay union cannot be "consummated" within the traditional theological understanding of that term - that is, an act of sexual intercourse between man and woman that potentially leads to procreation.)

But perhaps even more urgent for the Church in England than addressing this issue is the need to amend the growing incompetence and theological incoherence on the ground. There are three crucial elements that stand out:

- Almost ubiquitous liturgical chaos, where many evangelicals and liberals alike have little sense of what worship is for.

- The increasing failure of many priests to perform their true priestly roles of pastoral care and mission outreach, in a predominantly "liberal" and managerialist ecclesial culture that encourages bureaucratisation and over-specialisation. This has often led to a staggering failure even to try to do the most obvious things - like publicising in the community an Easter egg hunt for children in the bishop's palace grounds! To an unrecognised degree this kind of lapse explains why fewer and fewer people bother with church - though the underlying failure "even to try" has more to do with a post 1960s ethos that assumes decline and regards secularisation as basically a good thing, or even as providentially ordained since religion is supposedly a "private" and merely "personal" affair after all.

- Perhaps most decisive is the collapse of theological literacy among the clergy - again, this is partly a legacy of the 1960s and 70s (made all the worst by the illusion that this was a time of enlightening by sophisticated German Protestant influence), but it has now been compounded by the ever-easier admission of people to the priesthood with but minimal theological education, and often one in which doctrine is regarded almost as an optional extra.

It is in relation to these three issues that Rowan Williams's perhaps inevitable global concern appears most fatal. His premature departure is severely mourned because he has been the most intellectually astute, the most spiritually subtle and the most culturally perceptive of any Anglican archbishop in two hundred years or more. He has started to restore Christian self-respect in public debate and public life in Britain and abroad - a massive achievement which will only appear the greater when he is no longer there, and when we have had more time to assess the sheer weight and seriousness of his many archepiscopal addresses over the last few years.

Yet the paradox of Rowan's domestic rule is that he appears to have done little to craft a strategy for dealing with the three above-mentioned failures, despite being only too aware of them.

But not only that, he has also - to the complete bafflement of nearly all his natural sympathisers - compounded the ecclesiastical malaise by giving financial and strategic priority to mostly dubious pastoral strategies (inanely dubbed "fresh expressions") which operate outside traditional parish and liturgical structures in favour of "networks" of the secularly likeminded. Such strategies have actually shown no sign of working while, to the contrary, the highly traditional and largely High Church cathedrals are the greatest success story in British Christianity. Equally, Rowan has tended further to encourage the recruitment of inadequately trained clergymen and women.

These conspicuous lapses would seem to betoken a lack of informed policy on the home front, itself perhaps mainly consequent upon the excessive recent demands of the global communion.

It is on this front that Rowan Williams has made many important and brave interventions to protect Christian practice on the continent of Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and the Sudan. But one can at the same time question the wisdom of the "covenantal" means to Anglican unity as opposed to the goal itself.

For one thing, it was never likely to work, so pursuing it had only the validity of a nod to the abstractly ideal rather than any genuine ethical substance. It would also seem to be but a clumsy instrument of policy, unlikely to bind future generations without hierarchical enforcement and hierarchical sanction.

Furthermore, the notion of a "covenant" lacked any firm basis in Anglican theology, since it appeared to exhibit an insufficient regard for objective truth and the preservation of this truth by the episcopate, as opposed to the achievement of practical consensus. And for perhaps a majority of Anglicans it smacked too much of a Reformed "confessional" agreement, while for some Anglican evangelicals it seemed superfluous in the face of biblical authority. At very least, it surely lacked the kind of organic rooting in long term habit and lived belief that has allowed other ecclesial documents to become normative.

Therefore both realistic and theological considerations must make one wonder whether this was really the kind of thing the Vatican had in mind as a way to achieve greater internal Anglican unity. Does this objective not rather require a slower and more embedded approach?

The Catholic Church and the future of Anglicanism

Despite the fact that one could argue that the Catholic Church is over-centralised and sometimes too authoritarian, it must also be said that its global unity is more fundamentally possible because of the stream of cultural and intellectual influence that emanates from Rome. This is only right and proper, because the "economy" of God operates always through sanctified place and through processes consecrated by time. These things cannot just be willed away, even were it good to do so.

But something similar, albeit to a lesser degree, has to apply to Canterbury: only because of what it has meant to England down the ages and only because England in turn has operated as a rich and complex ecclesial culture - including a unique choral tradition, the equally unique change-ringing of bells, and a distinctive blend of theological and literary culture that has helped to shape the entire legacy of the West - does "Anglicanism" exist elsewhere in the world at all.

Thus the British may have come to despise and deplore the efforts of missionaries, but, as a remarkable series of programmes about "reverse missions" (from former colonies to the UK) on British television has revealed, such a man as the Congregationalist David Livingstone - who respected African culture, was skilled in medicine, fought the lingering African slave trade and helped to end tribal conflict - is still revered in Malawi to which he came from his native Glasgow. And for this reason Britain continues to be regarded in some parts of the world with a certain awe and respect, conjoined with a (sometimes despairing) care for its increasingly crabbed and decayed antiquity - rather of the kind that Anglo-Saxons once felt, and many still do, for Rome and Italy.

It would be crazy, not to mention spiritually fraudulent, not to capitalise on this legacy of connection, however compromised it may be, like all the most decisive human links. Britain needs now to learn from the greater vibrancy of the "reverse missionaries." But at the same time, the UK still enjoys - because of its long history and still comparably huge wealth - cultural resources of learning, artistic activity and governing skill within its churches which it needs to share both more and more effectively with the rest of the world.

So at this point, domestic and international needs appear to point in the same direction. In either case, there is an educational and formational deficit that has surely helped to produce such catastrophic recent divergences within global Anglicanism, quite apart from the impoverishment of spiritual life at home.

If we are to come together, then we need increasingly to learn together - which means both to study and to wonder in concert. What should this mean in practice? I suggest at least three things:

1. The Church of England needs to make higher education its top priority - especially given that it can no longer necessarily rely on the universities providing theological courses if they are given no ecclesial assistance. In Britain, we need excellent divinity schools and an enhanced church role in the existing universities of Anglican foundation - from Oxford and Cambridge to the smaller and more recent institutions. (It should be noted that already the life of Oxbridge chapels and churches, like that of cathedrals, is showing strong signs of recovery, alongside the beginnings of a theological and vocational revival.) It would be a good idea also, as Rowan Williams himself has often suggested, to supplement this with an equivalent role for South Africa, which provides a vital link between the African world and that of the "western" nations. In such institutions new inspiration and old learning could creatively mix. And the elite future leaders of global Anglicanism trained there would preserve a natural love for their alma mater and its cultural and political setting.

2. The Church of England needs some sort of equivalent of the Catholic cardinalate. This could be supplied - not by the superfluous creation of an equivalent super-elite - but rather by reinforcing the collective international authority of archbishops who are globally some thirty-eight in number. Currently they meet infrequently and in various locations round the world, but perhaps they need to assemble more often and usually in Canterbury, so that they can be given a more consistent role in shaping a new policy for the whole communion. This would at once enhance the "enforcing" role of Canterbury (without which no polity of any kind ever stands) and yet also increase the influence of Anglicans in other countries. For at present, the periodical Lambeth summit of all the world's bishops is simply too infrequent and too unwieldy - and this has been a considerable part of the problem. The archbishops might also be given special links to particular dioceses or even specific parishes in England so that they would have a sense of another home in that country and a stake in English affairs.

3. The Anglican Church needs to increase the effectiveness of its teaching office, since this is an essential aspect of priesthood and episcopacy. While the operation of the Catholic magisterium is still (whether fairly or unfairly) regarded as too draconian by many Anglicans, there is little doubt that Anglicanism has gone way too far in the other direction, and offers its members pitifully little guidance and only partial and sporadic leads on doctrine and practice. Again, the work of the doctrine commission in England has recently lapsed and needs to be revived, but in a new international guise and a more thoroughgoing fashion.

These three points together, however, can sound far too like an attempt to build a parallel or even a rival Rome. That is most certainly not the intention. Rather, they should be seen as only steps towards an eventual reunification under Roman primacy.

For this reason, it would be hoped that the three enterprises - of revived theological education, tighter collegiate international leadership and an enhanced teaching office - would in each case be carried out as far as possible in tandem with Catholics, and indeed with the Orthodox. (Joint higher educational ventures in particular should be immediately possible, but also increased consultation over Church teaching and frequent visits of Anglican leaders to Rome as well as to Canterbury, with reciprocal visits of Catholic leaders to Canterbury as well as to Rome.)

The future venture of the Church on earth may indeed depend considerably upon this partnership.

The coherence of the Anglican legacy

Here it should be noted that the Anglican legacy is perhaps more crucial and coherent than is sometimes realised. With English Catholics, Anglicans share common pre-Reformation roots that stretch back to the Venerable Bede. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently stressed, it was Bede who gave to the English a strong sense that they were another chosen people who would enjoy God's favour only if they obeyed his laws and sought justice. It was the same Bede who continued the originally Celtic concern with geography, history and the study of nature.

Likewise in Anglo-Saxon England, boosted by King Alfred's translation of the Christian neo-platonist Boethius, there developed the most impressive early vernacular literature in Europe which, through Alcuin, helped to sow the seeds of the revival of humanistic learning in the Carolingian empire on the continent.

These four elements - Christianity, constitutional justice, empiricism and Platonism, along with the careful but imaginative use of words -- have ever since characterised the English legacy. Yet for all Bede's veneration of Celtic ways, he insisted (and the British inherited from him) on a fervent loyalty to Rome and Roman ways, so that up to the time of the Reformation English characteristics were inseparable from the English people's interpretation of the Latin legacy, including Latin Christian art and architecture.

It was perhaps the breaking of that link which helped to give later England at her worst an imperial arrogance, serving only herself rather than the transmission of European values, and a Promethean recklessness in the treatment of nature and human labour.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1689, a "whig oligarchy" came to forge much of the modern English legacy. This was based upon a dubious metaphysical and political Newtonianism - semi-Arian in character and often bound up with the dominant currents within Freemasonry - as recent historians have so strongly emphasised.

For this ideology, a powerful central government operating through oligarchic and secretive influence permits the operation of an automatically self-adjusting free market, stimulated by tempered self-interest - just as Newton's limited but essentially panentheistic god influenced the universe through "active principles" like gravity, but still left the atomic units of a dead nature free to organise themselves through the automatic working of mechanical laws.

The worst part of the Anglican legacy was the surrender of too many "latitudinarians" to just this whiggery (even though there were decent whig supporters of a more qualified stripe). It is ironic that it is often this image of bumbling if well-meaning pious wordliness and complacently sacralised compromise that has given Anglicanism its popular journalistic identity.

For in reality the core of the tradition, from Hooker onwards, and right into the twentieth century, sustained a remarkable, quietly heroic and theoretically quite definite resistance to an overly facile and uncritical progressivism. One can identify three important aspects of this resistance:

1. Beginning with Hooker, a radical insistence on the mingling of Christ's human and divine natures that later gave rise to an "incarnationalism" and "kenoticism" refusing - often in contrast to the intellectual and spiritual betrayals perpetrated by Catholic baroque scholasticism - any facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature. Indeed, just because it had to resist Puritanism, Anglican thought often went further in the direction of a "hyper-Catholic" pan-sacramentalism than Catholic thinkers themselves. In the literary work of Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare (if he was an Anglican), Edmund Spenser, John Donne and Thomas Traherne, we discover a radically conservative celebration of the mystical significance of the cosmos, the human body, human sexuality and human language (against Calvinistic rationalisations of its usage) in ways that are often linked with remarkable poetic and fictional innovation. This is allied to a new sense, expressed first by Spenser and later by Traherne, that with the "dilation" of the heart upwards towards God, its expansion outwards into the cosmos, human society and the sexual other is not simply left behind, as if the two enlargements were in competition with each other. A new conception of apocalyptic, first expounded by Spenser in his "mutabilitie cantos" at the end of The Fairie Queene, synthesises eternal stability and change in terms of the idea of spiritual "growth" that reaches its acme in heaven.

2. Anglicans tended often to resist the turning of Newtonian science into a crude metaphysics. They sustained a sense of a genuine divine transcendence beyond any immanent heights, so allowing for the equal closeness of God to all of his creatures. The powerful influence of the self-taught Yorkshireman John Hutchinson ensured that many "country" as opposed to "court" Anglicans - and then most Methodists - did not tend to accept the dead matter of the Newtonian universe but (curiously like the pantheistic political radicals, heirs of Bruno and Spinoza) continued to insist on an animated, teleological and variegated natural order.

3. Though officially the establishment, Anglicans have often offered a political counter-culture to the ever-regnant British whiggery. This resistance has again inspired much literary satire and fantasy, besides philosophical innovation: one thinks of Swift, Goldsmith, Berkeley, Sterne (after a whig beginning), Burke, Edward Young, Coleridge and Lewis Carroll - who also, like Swift and Sterne, mocked both reductive empiricism and the claims of logic to reveal a created reality that is really the supreme divine work of art.

But this three-fold resistance also inspired a practical critique of homo economicus, whose first and finest fruit was opposition to the slave-trade. This political current mutated, and yet stayed the same, in the modes of Toryism, Jacobitism, Methodism and the Labour Movement.

Its legacy has remained to inspire Anglicanism's vigorous critique of Margaret Thatcher's updated whiggish subversion of the British political and social post-war settlement, and Rowan Williams' public search for a more radical and less statist new settlement that would challenge the neoliberal hegemony that resulted. And the same legacy has diversely resonated in former British dominions - for example, in the influence of radical Anglo-Catholicism on Desmond Tutu in South Africa, or George Grant's Canadian "red toryism," which inspired his highly nuanced critique of the work of John Rawls in English-Speaking Justice.

With respect to all three dimensions - the unity of faith and embodied life, caution about science and technology, and a political communitarianism (as we would now say) - there is more in common between Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals and the Orthodox than is often allowed.

Indeed, it is important to remember that Methodism derived from the work of a High Churchman - John Wesley - to whom is largely traceable also the spirit behind evangelicalism. This movement - despite unfortunate Calvinistic regressions - sometimes also sustained a radical Toryism critical of industrial exploitation, and a romantic celebration of the imagination as revealing the truth of nature and participating in the creative mind of God. (One thinks here especially of the Bronte sisters.) The same tendencies were yet more evidenced by the various heirs of the Oxford Movement, several of whom migrated to the political left.

Today, there is much evidence that Anglican evangelicals, like their American cousins, are breaking with those narrowly "economic" theologies of the atonement which have often proved an alibi for secular "economism," and are discovering a wider and truer biblical vision along with a sense of the inalienable social character of human beings - a sense which should eventually lead them to have a better sense of the primacy of the Church in the Christian enterprise.

So besides the three specific practical measures already detailed, what matters for Anglicans in the near future is finally to expunge from its midst the more heterodox and worldly-compromising notions of surviving whiggery, in order that Anglicanism can at last stand forth in its hidden coherence: radically biblical yet hyper-Catholic; sturdily incarnated in land, parish and work, yet sublimely aspiring in its verbal, musical and visual performances.

Then perhaps it will be able at last to contribute more unequivocally to the redemption of Britain and the Christian mission to the world. Additionally it might become a fitter partner for Catholics in new moves towards the earthly manifestation of ecclesial unity.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
03 April 2012

Issue(s)
British Civic Life

About The Authors

Professor John Milbank

John Milbank is Research Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philoso...