Continuing to reflect on the question of Anglican unity in a fractured world, divided global Christianity, net-torn Anglican Communion, I note, looking over my ecumenical shoulder, that there are amazing stirrings of difference and dissent within Roman Catholicism, spurring Pope Francis to remark with concern about polarization on the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.
In this report by Christopher White, National Catholic Reporter (H/T Ron Smith), the opening paragraph could have applied to the Anglican Communion any time since 1998!
"Pope Francis on Oct. 11 marked the opening of the 60th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council — a three-year period that launched landmark reforms in the Catholic Church's relationship to the world around it and the church's own liturgy and practices — by pleading for the church to "overcome all polarization and preserve our communion.""
What to do with our own Anglican "polarizations" and attempts to "preserve our communion"?
Well, I've been thinking about two previous challenges to Anglican polity which, unfortunately, did not end in unity but in a division, with a twist, as I shall attempt to explain.
Those two divisions (or, perhaps better, separations) occurred as Methodism found itself unwelcome in the Church of England and then a century or so later as Plymouth Brethrenism was established. In both cases (seeking here to comment as objectively as possible) there was aspiration to develop church life freed of the then structures and protocols of Anglican ways and means of being church.
But there was a notable twist: no longer were there bishops (at least not initially for the Methodists) nor communion with Canterbury. Nor, for that matter, was there any attempt (so far as I am aware) to continue with the word “Anglican” (or similar) in the naming of the new churches which resulted. Thus there was separation and no confusion about the nature of each new church (or set of churches).
Fast forward to today’s world. While there are similarities in concerns today, for a purer, more biblical, more faithful-to-Jesus church to be formed, the disaffiliation of members of Anglican Communion provinces today is leading to a confused state of global Anglicanism.
First, churches (which includes CCAANZ hereabouts and the Diocese of the Southern Cross in Australia) are being formed which have bishops. Just this past weekend, in the polity known as AMiE, three new "bishops for Britain" were ordained in Hull.
Secondly, the word “Anglican” often features in the new names of such entities. In turn this means there is claim and counter-claim about who the “true” or “legitimate” Anglicans are today, around the globe. There is, so to speak, a sharp question whether a new “21st century Methodism-Brethrenism” is the true Anglicanism?
Now, this is where things get a little (if not a lot) interesting because there is a degree of arguing past one another on the matter of true/false Anglicanism.
I am exploring certain questions here framed by “true” versus “false” but, mostly, I do not like making claims about true Anglicans and false Anglicans. My preference is that we simply talk about what it means to be Anglican and what we agree or disagree about this matter.
For instance, I want to argue that there is an historic, personal component to being Anglican which means that Anglicans are Christians in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But there are Anglicans in the world today who clearly disagree with me because they call themselves Anglicans when they are not in communion with the ABC.
On this line of argument, Anglicans hold to a set of beliefs (e.g., as expressed in the 39A and the BCP) and determine that communion with other Anglicans is based on sharing those beliefs rather than on a fellowship relationship with the ABC. Yes, such talk also involves considerations of polity: that Anglicans hold to certain beliefs-and-have bishops. And, with respect to “history” the claim here is that Anglicans today are in fellowship with Anglicans of yesterday because each generation shares the same beliefs.
I want to suggest that there is a bit more to the situation of 21st century Anglicanism and who may reasonably or legitimately claim to be "Anglican" than the above paragraphs.
The point of our mother church, "the Church of England" is that it was "the Church of England." That church sought (and still seeks) to be a church of all England, both in the sense of potentially engaging with everyone in England and in the sense of reflecting a range of theological views (Catholic and Protestant, evangelical, broad and Anglo-Catholic, more recently, for and against the ordination of women). By implication, an Anglican church in the tradition of the Church of England, the 21st century CofE in the tradition of the CofE of previous centuries, is a church which is broad, inclusive, tolerant and intent on engaging all citizens of the nation.
Along the way of such intention, Anglican churches have adjusted ways of doing things and understandings of Scripture: women are being ordained, once they were not; artificial contraception was opposed by the Lambeth Conference in 1920 and then not so in 1930; remarriage after divorce is better accepted than it once was. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we have restructured ourselves to better reflect the cultural diversity of our church for a bicultural nation and for a set of nations (we include, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa).
Of course such adjustments can be dismissed as some kind of sell out of the gospel to culture but they can also be robustly supported and advanced as the church understanding that the relationship between gospel and culture involves adjustments from time to time. Jesus spoke Aramaic but our four written gospels are in Greek. There was only one Jesus but we have four written gospels which are each shaped by different cultural contexts within which they were written and for which they were written and disseminated. On a matter such as divorce and remarriage, it is a simple fact that differences emerge between Luke/Mark, Matthew and 1 Corinthians. Under different circumstance, NT documents provide different responses to the power of the state (Romans 13 and Revelation 13). There is no one pristine, pure model of the first church replete with a set of infallible doctrines. This does not mean that 20 centuries later "anything goes" but it does mean that it is reasonable for Anglican churches to aspire to be either a national church (CofE) or a church for the whole nation (many Anglican churches in many nations), that is, a church which is broad rather than narrow, inclusive rather than exclusive.
Consequently, alongside my argument that what matters in being Anglican is being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, I also place the argument that being Anglican is being intentional about breadth and inclusivity of views and approaches to being Anglican.
Now, rather than jump up and down re (say) the latest development for AMiE in Britain as being "un Anglican" or similar, a more diplomatic conclusion to this post is, I suggest, to end with a question:
As we who say we are Anglican journey through the next decades of the 21st century, are we shaping ourselves to be a church which in its potentiality is for the whole nation or only for part thereof?