Thursday, 12 February 2009

Church of England: Why and How?

What is the C of E, and how does it keep going? Andrew Brown asks, pertinently,

Can the church of England, or even the Anglican Communion, ever split? Or is it simply too disorganised to lose a unity which it never actually had?
Not a cruel question — an obvious and sensible one, and the answer is basically “yes.” This answer shows up something special about the character and process of the Church of England. Just like the Apostolic Church in Corinth, it’s always going down the pan, always sneered at and despised, always dying, yet behold we live. The offscouring of all things it may be, but it doesn't go away. Why not? “Is it a good way to be a Christian, or even a stable one?” asks Andrew. It’s certainly a very down to earth one.

Nick Baines observes with great clarity how the Church hangs together, in human terms. Such behaviour, seldom described but often experienced, resonates through Church life like Brighton goes through Brighton rock. Parishes freely welcome, then gently cherish and nurture, challenging people. Clergy cry at strangers’ funerals, and try to think of new and entertaining school assemblies, with governing body in the evening. Ringers slide off to the pub at 6·30 and catch up with the gossip. Lambeth does Indaba, sustained disciplined cross cultural listening. being this kind of Church annoys imperialists and bullies of all stripes, but we stick with it. You find similar processes of listening, respect and accommodation, if you look for them, on every level and, to a great or lesser extent in every place:

The Church of England is perhaps the only church witnessing to the pain of holding together instead of taking the easy option and simply splitting and going where your mates are. It costs nothing to form yourself into a community of like-minded people among whom you won’t have to struggle with challenge or difference. But that is not the Church. Just like the first disciples of Jesus, our vocation is to follow Jesus together. Jesus did not give any of his disciples a veto over who else should or should not be called into the company of disciples.

Secondly, instead of doing it the way the world does it (that is, running away from the tensions into safe groups of the like-minded), perhaps the Church of England has no option but to wrestle openly with its tensions in a way that refuses to pretend to the watching world that every issue is easily resolved or reality ignored. I get as impatient as everyone else at some of the things I hear, but they don’t give me permission to walk away.

Yesterday’s synod debate on the Uniqueness of Christ, with its landslide result (wonderfully live-blogged by Peter Ould), shows something significant and often forgotten. What basically holds the C of E together is a sense of Christ, and reverence for Christ, addressed from many different personal directions but focussed simply on him. The Rest is Noise. The Church simply has no big organisational Salt-Lake-City/ Vatican coherence. Whenever it tries to develop one, because human nature is always more comfy that way, it makes a fool of itself. Its power is profoundly voluntary and humane, rather than institutional. We can be as passionate as we are inspired to be, but we don’t do doctrinal fascism. Our cultural milieu is not confessionally Liberal, but it is profoundly Libertarian in a John Milton sense (Areopagitica). The Church is almost the ultimate Starfish, rather than Spider organisation. This, in fact, is its strength, not its weakness. Go figure.


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Anonymous said...

Does that mean, then, that the only Covenant needed or possible is "We're in this together"? And has anyone told GAFCON?

Anonymous said...

I used to think we were doing the right thing by trying to stick together, but then I was struck my multiple instances of Anglican parishes that got on better with their local Catholics, Salvation Army, Baptists and Unitarians than with the Anglican parish up the road. No-one is being edified; we're just destroying one another. I now think it would be better to let those who can't stomach women bishops and gay marriages go their own way, so that we can eventually aim for the same friendship with them that we have with other denominations. As a visiting RC Franciscan once said in a sermon at our church, we should be less obsessed with Christian Unity and get better at celebrating Christian Diversity.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this one Alan. Christ-centredness and Christ-likeness in holding together with those we disagree with go well together. I've taken to putting into blessings "you, those you love and those you do not love".

Peter Kirk said...

Have you been reading Dave Faulkner's series on starfish and spiders? I have, and came to a very different conclusion from yours about how the church fits into this model. OK, I will concede that the Anglican Communion is starfish-like. But at the diocesan and lower levels the Church of England looks to me much more of a spider than a starfish, as is shown by your own title, and by the very existence of a General Synod which can make decisions binding on all. Yes, as you wrote in 2007 "Incumbents and parishes have had tremendous autonomy", but the tense you chose to use then is significant: dioceses and provinces are fighting to reassert control over parishes and turn the whole organisation into a spider.

I agree with you that being a starfish is the strength, not the weakness, of a church. But the Church of England has been busy throwing away this strength, and that explains much of its current weakness.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for comments, all.

Ray, I'll check it out.

Jim, I sometimes wonder whether we could relaunch the whole communion as a Facebook Group! That "we're all in it together"g way of measuring membership is deep in the DNA. In the Elizabethan period laypeople turned up and they were in — not having windows into people's souls etc. I understand the arguments for covenant, but hope if we go down that route we end up with something that goes ont he back of an envelope at max...

Liz, I've noticed that, too on occasion. It all comes of not really being a denomination in the modern sense in the first place, I suppose. And strangely enough when people try to confect cheesy "Don't mention the war" unity it never works. You get the most Catholic minded together with the RC's and everyone decides they have a lot in common. But what about getting the least RC in style on board? That's what happened, or rather didn't happen at and after Malines in 1922. Since 2002 and the St Alban's conference ecumenism has reorientated on mutual recognition of diversity rather than trying to hack everything into an institutionl whole. Much healthier, and works much better on the ground.

David; grteat thought. What you said reminds me of G. K. Chesterton. The reason the Lord told us to love our enemies and love our neighbours is that usually they're the same people!

Peter, I'm slightly thinking out loud on this whole thing, and my instincts are very much with you. I think if we are starfish like it's because of the complexity and deep rootedness of historic rights and privileges — wrong reason, but right result, perhaps. It's notable, however, among churches that the C of E's colleges and missions, for example, have always been voluntary societies not central provisions. People from other lands have no idea this is the case and are amazed it should be so. Rather like having lifeboats that are a voluntary organisation.

I think the drive towards centralism which, like you, I don't think is an unmitigated blessing, is strong;y driven by societal trends beyond our control — HR legislation, Finance legislation, Child protection, health and safety legislation, educational legislation etc. Lots of legislation in there, isn't there. That and the good ol' fashioned fact that clergy want to be paid and have pensions. ome diocese have gone down the Rochester line of getting people to fund their own locally to a large degree, but it's more popular with clergy and parishes to have a slightly more watertight system.

I hear all kinds of dire things said about bishops and archdeacons wanting to control everything. If it's true. confront the so and so's — they could be destroying the Church! But with 288 congregations / 324 clergy blue files out the back Karen and I have absolutely zero will to control or micro-manage anyone. Our job is to get out here and back them up, and preach the gospel, not faff about with head office politics! I was a parish priest for 24 years before becoming a bishop, and that's where my heart is. Full stop.

I also pbserved in the prison service that the lower echelons were usually healthier than the higher ones. It's quite a challenge for some of us some of the time to remember that in this job, but it's worth it.

Young fogey emeritus said...

Can the church of England, or even the Anglican Communion, ever split? Or is it simply too disorganised to lose a unity which it never actually had?

I've been saying the same thing in a different way lately, Bishop. This is an intra-Protestant fight, one side of which happens to agree with the Catholic faith on same-sex sex. But both believe in a fallible church ISTM and both sides commune all baptised Christians so naturally most laity don't care and why not let the thing break up?

I know of course that in England there's the spanner in the works that is establishment: which side would keep it? Neither?

Yes, that the Catholic Movement didn't speak for all of Anglicanism — far from it really (though we thought we were the only authentic Anglicanism) and the differences were of substance not just style — is why reunion talks with the Catholic world foundered. 100 years ago in America Orthodox Bishop Raphael (Hawaweeny, an Arab serving under the Russians) came to his negative conclusion about Anglicanism exactly for that reason. (Of course there was also St Tikhon's friendship with Anglo-Catholics.)

And then there is the Orthodox communion, of which the Anglican Communion arguably is a 19th-century protestantised imitation: not the Vatican nor Salt Lake City yet... Catholic.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, yf, for really interesting thoughts, that add a fascinating dimension to the discussion, taking us to how the discussion is framed on a meta level. Thank you so much for this...

Speaking personally/ historically (not ex cathedra — we don't do that int he C of E) I find that the majority of members of the Church of England don't view themselves as "Anglicans," a word coined in its modern sense by Gladstone in 1838, I believe, to mash a kind of denominational thing out of the Church of England in the light of Roman Catholic emancipation.

Three hundred years of church life predated that, and it is in that broad tradition, not the Protestant/Catholic custard pie fighting of the Victorian age, that the roots of the Church of England lie.

People go, or don't, to their local Church in order to be Christians, not denominational loyalists. The exclusivism and imperialism of Rome is as repellent to them as it was to their predecessors in the fourth, eighth or eleventh centuries.

I'd measure "Catholic" by the Creeds and Scriptures, "securus judicat orbis terrarum," not the Roman franchise, which is an honoured significant and distinct part of it but by no means the whole, or the fat controller of everything. It never was.

As for ultramontanism, I would see that as a mainly hysterical reaction to 19th Century liberal progressivism, and pretty irrelevant to where we can be today.

The other thing it took me many years to learn about and appreciate was the significant Catholic dimension of Protestantism. People in the 16th century were quite unaware of any mission to start a new church. They almost invariably saw what reform as a return to a broader and more primitive Catholic order, free of Roman imperialism.

Establishment is no sweat one way or the other to me. It's just the operating model of all Western and Eastern orthodox (But not Nestorian/ monophysite/ Jacobite etc) Christianity for the past 1700 years, so of course the Church of England does it. It wouldn't have to always, and it's about the only "Anglican" church that is established. It does carry particular culture, history, opportunity and responsibility, as it has since the fourth century.

When I studied 19th century history, there was a tremendous congruence between Anglo-Caholics like Athelstan Riley and the great historic Churches of the East, including "Assyrian," much marginalized and ignored in Victorian England. I'm sorry that so much of this historic resonance has been lost by the triumph of the Papalizing view within the Anglo-Catholic party — a significant loss of dimension that hampers a true sense of unity with the Catholic whole, within which I think I often see the Orthodox contribution, however fractured and multiform, as the most significant element! It just violates Roman Imperialist consciousness, that's all, but it's none the less a gift of God to all his people, for all that.

Young fogey emeritus said...

So I take it your audience with the Pope is off indefinitely, my lord? :)

Seriously, regarding 'Anglicanism', true. Theo Hobson began an article in The Spectator that way with a vicar rabbiting on to a parishioner about the global Anglican Communion of which they were part and she cut him off saying 'I thought we were Church of England'. As I said the Communion is a C19 invention (speaking of imperialism!).

Anyway as you might remember, Bishop, Hobson likes a broad church that 'knows its place', doing what the state/ruling class tells it to. Backhandedly he gave me some insight: conscientious Christians in the C of E always felt bad about Erastianism; Evangelicalism (look beyond the state to the pure word of God as read inspiredly by Calvin), Methodism (get away from the dead hand of the state to focus on personal holiness through a disciplined life) and Anglo-Catholicism (look beyond the state to the infallible church like in the time of the fathers) all were attempts by them to correct this.

Again what's interesting here about Orthodoxy (despite centuries as a state church in several of its native lands) is that without a Pope to blame like in the West, the answers it gives on doctrine and most surface Controversial Issues™ on sex and the sexes today (except possibly contraception - the Pope stands with the fathers on that) that are symptoms of the deep divide of fallible/infallible church, answers that come from the life of the church itself and not from any edicts from on high, are... not Eastern liberal Protestant... but again... Catholic.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'd love a time with the Pope, if you've got tickets! Have much enjoyed contacts with Cradinal Kasper...

Infallibility — Now there's a completely barmy modern word (though one or two like Thomas More spoke of the Church corporately as infallible before then). Nothing to do with the Bible and completely unknown to creeds or ancient tradition. Part of what makes it such an available shibboleth.

As you say, Orthodoxy has often been very deeply inculturated — part of its glory, but also a continual challenge. Same problem with the Church of Englnd, and the Papal states before those were largely lost. Disestablishmentarianism was one of the errors condemned by the syllabus of errors.

I love Theo Hobson's book on Milton, which I think is almost unbeatable for scope and wisdom out of all the crop last year. Probably wouldn't agree with him everything, though.

As for hot button culture wars, I suspect these are much less important than most of the lead protagonists in them think (hope?). The English can often be superbly realistic about them; They point out that the Good Samaritan is part of the tradition, as well as more disputatious oogedy-boogedy detail.

Just believing in and teaching the Bible and Creeds is plenty for me to be getting on with, plenty satisfying and fruitful. I've very little need for extra trimmings...

Anonymous said...

"Can it ever split"....Is this serious? It *is* a split! It's dozens of splits. It's parishes that say the Creed and don't believe anything in it, ones that say it and believe it, and ones that have dropped it because they don't believe it. It's bishops who think the Trinity is "Excess baggage". It it anything besides a split?? Anglicanism exists in Britain because the government writes it big checks, and atheists still get their children baptized. Other than that, what fine and uplifting writing. Is this the church that once produced minds like C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Derwas Chitty? Not quite.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Anon, those are just its most obvious fun points...! I've never experienced any of the things you rail against; must have led a very sheltered life.

Why not come over here sometime? And if you come across one of those big checks, please tell me where and what they might be?

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