Friday, April 30, 2010

A Tale of Two Churches:The Church of England in Crisis

Canterbury Tale

The current New Yorker (April 26) has a masterly article, an essay in effect, on the present state of the established church in England. Jane Kramer, the author, has a sharply focused view of a scene that is often murky and obscured by the notorious English fogs; she regularly contributes the Letter from Europe for the magazine.

Note well that that is the Church in
England, not the United Kingdom, since the established church in Scotland is not part of what is now known as the “Anglican Communion”, being Presbyterian in polity, not Episcopalian. Nevertheless, the situation where the Queen is both head of an Episcopal body and also head of a Presbyterian one is rather typical of British systemic ambiguity (where a ‘Public School’ is in fact a private institution and the Constitution is not readily available to the lay person). It also points us back to the origins of the kind of incipient schisms that Kramer so admirably delineates.

James I & the Puritans

King Henry was hardly a reformer: he attended the Latin Mass every day of his life and only very reluctantly agreed to a vernacular version of the Mass, for that is really what the first Prayer Book of 1549 actually was. It was his daughter, presiding over what is called “the Elizabethan Settlement”, who in some measure held together those who looked still to Rome and those who looked to Geneva. After her death, leaving no direct heir, the throne passed to James VI of Scotland, the son of her cousin Mary. (Henry’s sister, Margaret, was Mary, Queen of the Scots’ mother).
The Reformers who felt that things had not gone anyway far enough under Elizabeth were delighted; here was a monarch brought up in a strict Calvinist country, formed by the fiery John Knox. Surely, they believed, at last a real reformation could be accomplished. This is not the place to follow the meetings of the Hampton Court Conference, called by James in 1604. He clearly was not sympathetic to the Puritans who could not accept the 1552 B.C.P., and he was adamant on the issue of an Episcopal polity. At one point he railed at the suggestion of a Presbyterian form of church government, “If you aim at a Scots Presbytery, it agreeth as well with monarchy as God and the devil!” He more or less dismissed them with the often-quoted line: “No Bishops, no King”. One wonders how direct is the connection to that day’s meetings to the sailing of the
Mayflower, the (dire?) results of which are with us today!

Women Bishops & Gay Clergy

Kramer gives us a fair account of the dilemma of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but she quotes Diarmaid MacCulloch, a revered Oxford historian, saying,
“Rowan has enormous grace, he gives his opponents space, but he has a lack of killer instinct, which I’m afraid is a necessary quality for leadership”,
and makes it clear that the Archbishop supports the logical next move in the ministry of women: ordaining women priests as bishops. It is this issue, however, that has caused the latest violent rocking of the boat.
For several years, the center stage has been held by the conservatives, the Evangelicals, who made a fairly deliberate change in strategy some years ago, more or less abandoning opposition to the ordination of women to concentrate on opposition to any form of same gender blessing and particularly to condemn the ordination of openly homosexual men. Not surprisingly, the consecration of Gene Robinson provided them with a big arms cache. Stephen Bates in
A Church at War, (London, 2004) gives an excellent account of the differences between the conservative US religious right and the much older British evangelical tradition (ch. 7), but also notes, as does Kramer, that recent decades have seen the adoption of the crude anti-scientific attitudes of the US groups by British conservatives. Bates traces the development of the anti-gay evangelical strategy with immense insight and detail.


The anti-gay agenda was certainly significant in the emergence of GAFCON, of which Kramer says:

“In 2007, the conservative evangelicals attached themselves to a group called GAFCON, for Global Anglican Future Conference, which a year later emerged from the shadows of the Internet to hold an alternative bishops conference in Jerusalem. The meeting was hosted by, among others, the schismatic Nigerian archbishop, Peter Akinola, who retired this month, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen - a man described by one liberal Australian Anglican as ‘taking over our church by stealth, ordaining anything evangelical that moves.’”.

In the ‘mother’ church the center has moved. As Kramer makes clear the burning issue is about consecrating women bishops, and an alliance is emerging (as it did in the case of the scheme for reunion with the Methodists) of the conservative Evangelicals and the conservative remnants of the Anglo-Catholic movement.

To quote Jane Kramer again:

It took seventeen years of wrenching Synod debate for women to be ordained, and when they were, some five hundred male priests fled in protest - two-thirds of them, as the saying goes, ‘to Rome.’ The prospect of women’s elevation to the House of Bishops has been even more divisive. This isn’t a question of High Church and Low Church differences. England’s church has always been (the common word) ‘inclusive.’ It grew as an uneasy accommodation between the traditionalists of the Apostolic Creed and Catholic ritual and devotions now known as Anglo-Catholics and the brimstone-and-Bible Protestants born in the chapels of the Reformation, making common cause against the Church of Rome. Today, it covers a sliding scale of beliefs and practices, with the majority of England’s Anglican parishes somewhere in the middle. But the argument about women bishops cuts across all the old divisions.

The Wider Anglican Communion

The broader issues of the Anglican Communion are not central to Kramer’s account, but are clearly a significant ‘backdrop’; she writes,

Geoffrey Kirk, an unabashedly misogynist London vicar who is the national secretary of Forward in Faith, told me that, for him, the tipping point was the Episcopalian bishops’ election of Jefferts Schori as their presiding bishop. He called it ‘a fundamental scandal’ and added,
" ‘I think Mrs. Jefferts Schori is a layperson. It’s not my doing. They decided.’ He said that a shoplifter was ‘more qualified, per se,’ to be a bishop than a woman was, so long as the shoplifter didn’t say that shoplifting was good, or that he was a Marxist spreading the wealth around.'"

It is, she implies, the deep desire of the Archbishop to hold together the “Anglican Communion” that leads to the appearance of ineffective leadership. He “is determined to preserve what remains of that bond [the connection “with the mother church in England]”. In this context, Kramer remarks that “(s)chism is hardly new to Christianity”, and one may add, not new to the C of E in particular, Methodism being the most striking example.
Perhaps it might help to put in perspective the possible exodus of a thousand or more clergy in the C of E to look at some earlier history.

Church & State in Mid-Nineteenth Century

Owen Chadwick’s
The Victorian Church (Part I, pp.309-324) gives a lively account of the attempts to revive the Convocation(s) in the mid-nineteenth century.
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.

Two Churches

The attempts to revive Convocations were, of course, part of the Church/State tension so clearly displayed in the Gorham case. 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. The State could not over-rule the Church in this matter, but this was only one battle in what might prove to be a long and costly war. If the church got the bit between its teeth, an inevitable clash with Parliament loomed. 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, and so he was unhappy with the Law Lords’ ruling. 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).

What Now?

That was in 1853. One hundred and fifty-seven years later, the policy of deferring the separation seems to be at least still breathing: but the ecclesiastical boat continues to rock, almost swamped at times by sudden squalls Yet the situation is very different from 1853. The C of E is realistically at least three churches now, and the autonomous churches of the Anglican Communion have embraced a bolder view of the scriptures and take more seriously the facts of scientific research. (Of course, a significant number of center members of the C of E would concur). This has led to internal schisms, notably in the US, led by the deposed Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan, but by and large, they are strong. Perhaps the final break up will not be the naughty behavior of Canada, the US, New Zealand and others, but the long predicted sorting out of Rome and Geneva in the English church.

1 comment:

Judi said...

Wow. As always,You leave me breathless wanting more history. I must get the current New Yorker.

However, the comment attributed to Geoffrey Kirk about the Presiding Bishop and a shoplifter has me fuming. Oh, that I were close enough to...