Ben Hecht once suggested
trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.
John Paul II and Benedict have created the most centralised regime that Catholicism has ever known – a far cry from its state in either the medieval period or the Counter-Reformation. It is with an anxious ear for those alternative voices, not much different from those of mainstream wishy-washy liberal Anglicans, that Pope Benedict seeks to encourage those who think like him beyond the walls, and to bring them inside the fortifications.
Much is left unsaid amid the present triumphalist crowings of those Catholics who see this as a victory over a feeble, tottering Anglicanism, since Anglicans are temperamentally disinclined to blow their own trumpets. The Church of England is not about to disintegrate, as anyone who knows its day-to-day life, rather than listening to what journalists say about it, will be aware. Most Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals are fed up with all the name-calling, intolerance and calls for revolt...
There is one killer fact about the pope's present move. "Traditionalist" Anglicanism is a shotgun marriage between incompatible groups: extreme Anglo-Catholics and extreme evangelicals...
Their alliance with the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics has been one of convenience, because both sides cannot stomach women in positions of clerical authority (for entirely opposite reasons) and hate the idea that homosexuals might be just part of the spectrum of boring normality in God's creation. (Anglo-Catholics are more muffled in their outrage on this one, given how many of them are gay themselves.) So the pope's move will split the traditionalists down the middle and reveal how fragile their alliance is. The best law in church history is the law of unintended consequences.
In one sense, this is a storm in a teacup, stirred by an elderly cleric in the Vatican with a private agenda and a track record of ill-thought-out policy moves. In another, it is a fascinating moment in a confrontation as much a struggle for the soul of the Church of Rome as of the Church of England. Once we have got past the screaming headlines, we should keep an eye open for the real story.
The Church of England has always functioned as more of a coral reef than a model trainset, mainly because that’s how Christianity was usually done in these islands before the sixteenth century, and the English were characteristically averse to clericalism and control. For Protestants unsatisfied by such pragmatism, there were New World colonies. The people with get-up-and-go got up and went, especially after the Civil War, leaving the rest of us a rather pragmatic, unassuming, and messy lump. Since the 1830’s, those sufficiently scared of the modern world to be attracted by New Model Ultramontanism usually ended up by becoming Roman Catholics. Thus all the Vatican politics behind the denunciation of Anglican orders in 1893 — a quaint marketing ploy for a different, positivist, age.
Anglo-Papalism, an idea that first appeared in the last quarter of the 19th Century, only takes in a small section of Anglo-Catholics in the C of E. They may be colourful people, but any historical assessment has to take into account everybody else. Something similar could be said of extreme Prods. The vast bulk of the Church of England has always been more multifaceted, its Protestants closer to Richard Hooker than Walter Travers — boring, but true.It could be that a Coral Reef Church, with an open and creative base in the Creeds, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, might eventually turn out to be as sound a home for faith and holiness, as one predicated on Imperialism and control. Like Professor MacCulloch, I suspect this question will be answered over the next hundred years or so bottom-up, rather than top-down.