Recently I read a whole book on the history of the Church of England. I think its the first time I have done that. It is a very interesting history and I reckon there are a few things we can learn from it. But rather than get too serious about those lessons I offer the following:
Whimsical reflections from the History of the Church of England at a time of upheaval among the ‘descendants’ of the Mother Church: draw your own analogies with our day!
(1) Despite disagreement and division, a settlement in favour of ‘comprehensiveness’ is always possible:
- the Synod of Whitby (664) brought together Celtic and Roman Anglicans and resolved a sharp dispute over the date of Easter
- the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) steered the church carefully between the Scylla of Rome and the Charybdis of Geneva
(2) Despite earnest attempts to include or retain those on one edge or other of the church, it may not happen:
- The Toleration Act of 1689 which granted freedom of worship to orthodox Protestant Nonconformists sealed the schism between Nonconformism and Anglicanism. It came after an attempt to include the Nonconformists in the Church of England with one part of the church rewriting the Book of Common Prayer was rejected by another.
- John Wesley died ‘within’ the Church of England (1791), but his Methodist movement diverged from it, and that movement itself split down its Arminian and Calvinist flanks. (Actually its arguable that the CofE did not try very hard to retain the Methodists).
- John Newman left the Church of England for Rome (1845) but other Tractarians, notably Pusey and Keble, remained in the Church of England.
(3) If you are a controversialist, do not think death is the end of your troubles:
- John Wycliffe’s body was dug up years after he was buried (1384), burned, and the ashes thrown in a river (1428).
(4) Schism may be simply a prelude to reconciliation:
- the Nonjurors were a group of bishops and clergy who decided in 1689, when William III and Mary were granted the throne in favour of the ejected James II, that they could not transfer their oath of allegiance from one sovereign to another. They seceded from the church, managed to provide a succession of bishops, but could not maintain the schism beyond the beginning of the nineteenth century.
(5) It is possible to be both wrong and right at the same time:
- the Nonjurors (again): they were right to be loyal to their oath to their king (James II) but they were wrong to overlook his Romanism which would have undermined their Anglicanism should he and his line have remained on the throne.
(6) (With an eye on those in the Anglican Communion opposed to female leadership) Some of the best years have been under a woman governor:
- Elizabeth I: after the blood and gore of the Henry VIII to Queen Mary switchback era, things settled down, peace broke out, and Hooker wrote the greatest work of Anglican theology apart from the BCP itself, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
- Anne: in 1704 Queen Anne restored to the church the tenths and first-fruits annexed to the Crown in 1534 by – who else – Henry VIII. This sum was called Queen Anne’s Bounty and was used for augmenting clergy stipends.
- Victoria: during Queen Vic’s reign the Church of England grew its offshore presence to the point where it could truly claim to be a ‘catholic’ in the sense of ‘worldwide’ church, and the first Lambeth Conference was held in 1868.
(7) Long periods of conflict can lead to Anglicans with unusual names: it is said that Latitudinarianisn in the late seventeenth century arose because ‘a century of religious strife and religious confusion had produced in many men a sense of sheer weariness’ and so they escaped from the factionalism of Anglicans with short descriptive names, i.e. from the quarrels between ‘High’ and ‘Low’ church!!
(8) It is the permanent character of the Anglican Church to oscillate between the primacy of Scripture and the primacy of other things (the papacy, philosophy, ritual, etc):
- Wycliffe, Tyndale, Cranmer, the Puritans, the Wesleys, the Clapham Sect each represent strong ‘Scripture-based’ movements in the life of the Church of England, each battled against other movements and moods in the life of the church, and each had their day in the sun; but none ‘triumphed’ in the sense that the change they brought continued without challenge, revision, or reversion to some degree or another.
(9) The future may be with us in the present, but it can be difficult to recognise:
- who in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries recognised that the maligned and persecuted Lollards were the precursors of the Protestants of the sixteenth century?
(10) Foreign intervention can do a lot of good:
- the English Reformation benefited enormously from the likes of Europeans Peter Martyr, Martin Bucer, and A Lasco who shifted to England from the Continent.
- would we have had the King James Version of the Bible if James I had not shifted from Scotland to England?
- William III, a Dutch Calvinist, brought over with his wife Mary to replace James II, finished off Romanist tendencies in the English monarchy once and for all. - Moravians living in London were instrumental in the conversion of John Wesley.