The recent turmoil in the loosely affiliated churches that are described as “The Anglican Communion”, has produced or thrown into prominence several new committees and quasi executive bodies. Among them is a group that is called, somewhat quaintly, “The Primates’ Meeting”. These meetings began after the Lambeth Conference of 1978, but only recently have they seemed to mimic some of the organs of the much more tightly hierarchical Roman Catholic Church. Thus, at a fairly recent meeting in Tanzania, they requested (though, directed would seem more accurate) the Bishops of ECUSA, to “make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex (they mean, I assume, same-gender) unions in their diocese or through General Convention”. The Primates go on to insist that anyone living in a same-sex (sic) union should not be approved for Episcopal orders. I am not clear whether this means that such a life-style is permissible for deaconal or presbyteral orders.
Whatever else can be said about the current imbroglio, as a student of nineteenth century history, I experience an intense sense of déjà vu. One recalls the events of 1840-60: the fuss over Professor Hampton, the Gorham case and the Colenso affair; then, in following decades the rash of litigation over lighted candles, chasubles, thuribles and even vested choirs, and it begins to sound eerily familiar. I had thought that the main parallels lay mainly in the area of challenges to traditional theological formulations and inherited Christian behavior patterns. A recent conversation with the Bishop of Niagara, however, revealed that the conservative evangelical objection to vestments and ceremonial practices is still a potent issue. He reported that at a recent Ordination in (I think) St. Paul’s, almost a dozen candidates refused to wear a stole, and some even a cassock. How many deck chairs can we re-arrange?
The Church of England in the Nineteenth Century
Owen Chadwick’s The Victorian Church is required reading about all this. It might be a good idea, rather along the lines of the story of 70 Rabbis who produced the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (the Septuagint, or LXX) to lock up the bishop of Pittsburgh, his US co-schismatics and the swelling number of African diocesan satellite bishops, with Chadwick’s two volumes, and let them out only when they could complete a searching exam on the history of the Church of England in the 19th century.
Church & State
Chadwick’s account of the attempts to revive the Convocation(s) is revealing.
The Convocation of Canterbury had not been allowed to meet since 1717, except at the call of new Parliament when an address affirming the royal supremacy was made to the King/Queen.
The attempt to re-vivify the Convocation began in the wake of the Gorham case debacle, which started in 1847 and dragged on until 1853; in that year the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council overturned the judgment against Mr. Gorham for departing from the apparent teaching of the Book of Common Prayer (B.C.P.) that infant baptism alone resulted in unconditional regeneration. Evangelicals were not happy with any view of the Sacraments that smacked of ex opere operato, insisting that baptism needed conscious repentance to achieve moral regeneration. The issue was clouded because the B. C. P. and Thirty-nine Articles (XXXIX) are not entirely consistent on the matter, but it was the assertion of State power over Church Doctrine that was at the center of the uproar. It was now the turn of the Tractarians to threaten wholesale departure from an Erastian church. (The Evangelicals had threatened departure should the judgment against Gorham be upheld).
Owen Chadwick has a riveting account of the whole affair, (The Victorian Church - Part 1, pp.309-324). At one point when Lord Aberdeen was, briefly, Prime Minister, it seemed clear that a meeting of Convocation to receive a committee report could not be stopped. The Law Lords so gave their opinion. Aberdeen had searing memories of the split in the Established Scottish Presbyterian Church in 1843 when over the very issue of the power of the State to dictate to the Church, rather more than one third of the ministers seceded to form the Free Church. It is reported that Aberdeen said to his son: “Your friend is right who says the Church of England is two churches only held together by external forces. This unnatural apparent-union cannot last long, but we may as well defer the separation as long as possible.” (p. 319).
The Proposed Covenant
One of the efforts now under way to hold the Anglican Communion together (no longer, be it noted, merely the Church of England) is the establishment of a Covenant to which all the autonomous churches of the Communion must assent.
In the Church Times last year, David Edwards, the retired Provost of Southwark wrote:
“[T]he new Anglican Covenant is not likely to provide a permanent identity…. it avoids any clear statement of the reasons for Anglican diversity or disunity. Thus it does not mention the controversy about homosexuality, in which biblically derived morality is in tension with the modern knowledge that this condition is natural for an important minority of humankind, as created by God through evolution.”
Here Edwards puts his finger on a central facet of the Conservative Evangelical position. Not only does it insist on the inerrancy (not necessarily, be it noted, a literal reading) of the text, but it does this, by and large, by an anti-intellectual stance that puts ideology before the results of careful empirical science. The force of scattered texts in the Book of Leviticus whose interpretation is tentative at best is opposed to the growing evidence that homosexuality is a “condition natural” for many people.
The problem of setting up ‘confessional’ standards for the whole Church of England, let alone the whole Anglican Communion in its post-imperial, and now, even post-Commonwealth mode of operation, is well illustrated by a consideration of the Thirty-nine Articles
The Thirty-nine Articles
Soon after he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, it is reported that William Temple while chatting to Winston Churchill complained about the problems of maintaining Lambeth Palace in war time: there are, he moaned forty bedrooms in the place; to which Churchill is said to have replied, “How inconvenient when you have only Thirty-nine articles”. Whether Winston consciously equated that strange document, the XXXIX Articles, with chamber pots is not clear, but he certainly was not alone in wanting them to be pushed securely out of sight under a bed.
Apart from a very brief period, they had never represented the actual spectrum of belief allowed in the post Henrician church. This mishmash of Lutheranism, Patrological references, virulent anti-papalism mixed with lacings of Calvinism certainly did not get the Articles into the league of the great Continental Reformation Confessions. Indeed, following the failures of various Puritan efforts, e.g. the Savoy Conference, the document remained rather like an inactivated bank account: remained that way, that is, until the very end of the 18th century.
A Very Brief History
Strictly, the XXXIX Articles are not part of the Book of Common Prayer, but have been printed with it, in the U K, since the 1662 B.C.P., and on and off since the 1800s in the US Episcopal book. The history of their development is long and, not surprisingly, given the contentiousness of the times, convoluted. I am indebted to Marion Hatchett - Commentary on the American Prayer Book, pp. 583ff for a succinct summary of some tiresome history. In the Background are the Continental Confessions, particularly Augsburg (1530) and Württemberg (1552), both of which focused on controversial questions. On the way to the XXXIX Articles we pass through the Ten Articles under Henry, and the Forty-two, set out in 1553: written largely by Cranmer, all beneficed clergy were required to sign on pain of deprivation. Naturally, no one was too concerned about Protestant Confessions (or Covenants, which once again seem to be hovering over us in a menacing way) during the reign of Mary Tudor. The Thirty-nine finally emerged after the accession of Elizabeth I, the result of many deletions, emendations and substitutions. (For details, see Hatchett 587). In the seventeenth century, the Puritans refused to subscribe to them because they had not rooted out noisome papist elements like episcopacy and baptismal regeneration: in the eighteenth century, they made the Latitudinarians very unhappy because of narrow atonement theology and Augustinian-like original sin statements. During the nineteenth century they were partly the cause of several high profile cases that went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and by the twentieth, I suspect, that they were only mentioned in the Evangelical Theological
Colleges like Clifton, Bristol and Wycliffe Hall.
The American Book
The newly autonomous Episcopal Church of the United States of America havered for quite while. After all, Article 38 read, “The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this realm of England, and other his dominions….and is not, nor ought to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction". Other changes can be found by reading the miniscule italic print in the Articles as printed in the Historical Documents of the Church in our 1979 P.C.B. (pp. 867 ff.).
The Deputies held back the Bishops from including a revised version of the Articles in a proposed Prayer Book in 1789, and consideration was twice more postponed in 1792 and 1795. It was not until 1801 that “both houses approved a resolution that the Articles… be set forth”. (Hatchett 587). In their revised form they were placed between the Psalter and the Ordinal; in 1886 they began their journey to their present status as an “historical document”, being removed to the end of the Prayer Book. In the present (1979) book they share the dubious distinction of being in the same section as the Athanasian Creed, of which it has been aptly said “it is neither by Athanasius nor a Creed”.
Some Reflections on a Covenant
This somewhat truncated account of the XXXIX Articles does not inspire confidence in the future of an Anglican Covenant. To take two specific examples:
1) Is it conceivable that consensus can be achieved on the theology of the atonement? Many conservatives will insist on an Anselmian “penal substitution” theory. I personally find it quite unacceptable, but would be able to live with those for whom it is “the gospel truth” so long as I could turn to Abelard, Aulen and many others for enlightenment; unhappily it seems, conservatives cannot live with what they designate as “heretical” views.
The Inerrancy of Scripture
2) A much more intractable subject would be the interpretation of scripture and the understanding of the nature of Christian Doctrine (Dogma).
Here are two absolutely central issues:
A) How do we read the biblical texts, taking into account the MSS studies, the archeological finds, the historical researches, the critical studies and, above all, the results of careful empirical scientific investigation of the past three centuries?
B) How do we shake off the habit of treating doctrinal statements (Dogmas) as though they are a direct communication from God, totally immune from linguistic, cultural, economic and political conditions current at the time of the original formulation?
The drift to an inerrant reading of the biblical texts is quite obvious in the US and also in many of the Anglican autonomous churches that have sprung from the Colonial era. I also suspect it is quite a prevalent in the Church of England; even a scholar like Tom Wright seems, since assuming the cloak of Durham, to have moved away from his original conservative critical positions, (as when I knew him as Chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford),and only the other day, the New Yorker reported that the bishop of Carlisle attributed the dreadful weather this summer to divine retribution for the moral slide of the UK: surely the kind of opinion that springs from a pre-critical reading of the bible and a totally outworn dogmatic view of divine providence.
From the time of Essays and Reviews, on through the writings of the likes of Gore, Headlam, R.H Lightfoot, Hebert, Michael Ramsey and countless others, the Anglican tradition has been able to absorb the best of critical scholarship which a conservative statement of plenary biblical inspiration would surely not embrace.
Conclusion – What is the Anglican Communion?
The all-pervasive lack of clarity about the nature of this conglomerate body no doubt reflects the fuzziness of the “good old Church of England”, a fuzziness that has enabled the two (or more) churches to hold together in some recognizable form.
Some helpful notes on the legal status of the Church of England can be found on the Web site of the History Department of the University of Botswana. The author points out that the Church of England “is not a voluntary society with rules made by compact. Instead, its laws are part of the English legal system”. It was not until 1919 that Parliament gave the church some limited authority by setting up the Church Assembly. Even so, its limitations were made glaringly obvious when Parliament refused to pass into law the revised B.C.P. of 1928. The note continues, “In the 1970s the Church Assembly was replaced by the General Synod, but the basic procedure remains”.
A contemporary conundrum for the Church of England is what to do about the Parliamentary approval of a covenant between same gender couples, in effect, recognizing a form of civil union.
Autonomous Churches – Not Provinces of the Church of England
Perhaps more problematic is what to do about the so-called Anglican Communion. One small pointer to the confusion is, I think, the use of the term “Province” for what is clearly now an autonomous church, which once had very close links to the Church of England. So, the Church in S. Africa was regarded as a kind of extension of the Church of England, a kind of addition to the traditional Provinces of Canterbury ad York. That the Province of S. Africa was so regarded is surely validated by the fact that J.W. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, having been deposed by a synod of African Bishops (1862), successfully appealed to the Privy Council. “On 20 March 1856 the judicial committee [of the Privy Council] held that the proceedings of the synod were null and void.” (Chadwick Part II, p. 9).
Clearly, the Anglican Church in S. Africa is no longer a “province” in the 1862 sense, though it continues to be called so, as do other affiliated Anglican bodies. The issue of nomenclature may be a small matter, but it cloaks a great deal of confusion, the sort of confusion seen when the Primates in Tanzania assumed that the ECUSA bishops alone, with no reference to the General Convention, could give them the assurances they demanded.
Perhaps we might most helpfully see the Anglican Communion as a kind of spiritual analog of the Commonwealth, which emerged, it seems, to perpetuate a shade of the dissolving empire. Having served its purpose, the Commonwealth is hardly seen any longer as a functioning organization; even its symbolic aspects are slowly slipping away. Perhaps the Anglican Communion could discreetly join the cortege? Or, maybe, it already has.