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.