Revd Professor John Kater considers the identity of the Anglican Church.
No one who identifies with the Anglican Communion as it has extended itself around the world can fail to notice that these are not the quietest of times to be an Anglican. For several decades, Anglicans have found themselves embroiled in controversies which at times threaten to break the bonds of communion that have held us together. Indeed, sometimes those arguments seem so deep and difficult that we begin to wonder if the Communion can hold together, and ask if the Anglican Way has a future at all.
One of the problems in discovering an answer is that the question is tied up with another related question: just what do we mean when we talk about the future of Anglicanism? What does it mean to be an Anglican? What does it mean to be an Anglican in the 21st century – in Hong Kong, or Canterbury, or Brazil or South Africa? And as soon as we begin to ask ourselves that question, we are confronted by the fact that the answer has, in fact, changed over the years.
At the time of the Reformation, when the Church of England declared its independence from Rome, the answer was very clear: to be Anglican was to be an English Christian. Anglicanism was the faith of the English people; the Reformers were quite clear that the English Church and the English people were one and the same. The particular form that the Church of England took on was based on what we might call the Anglican principle: each people has the right to worship in its own way, in its own language, to sing its own music, to interpret the Bible in ways that make sense in a particular context, and to organise the Church as best fits that context. That was the principle that guided Thomas Cranmer when he directed the emergence of the Church of England during the reign of Henry VIII and his son King Edward VI. It was the same principle that was developed in the work of Richard Hooker, writing at the time of the first Queen Elizabeth and still considered by many to be the greatest theologian Anglicanism has produced. In the case of the Church of England, this meant that the church would be governed by bishops under the direction and by appointment of the monarch, who was understood to be the ‘supreme head on earth’ of the Church of England because the church was simply one aspect of the life of the English people. Its worship would be shaped by the Book of Common Prayer.
Hooker pointed out that there are some aspects of Christian faith that belong to all Christians – the importance of the Bible, the doctrine of the incarnation that affirms that Christ is both human being and God among us, the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist which Christ himself commanded us to carry on. But he also affirmed that the scriptures must be interpreted in order to discover how they apply to a given context, and that there are a great many aspects of Christian faith that are neutral. Christians are required to celebrate the Eucharist; but what words they use, how the officiant dresses, and whether they use leavened or unleavened bread, are left to individual national churches to determine as best suits their circumstances. Hooker even believed that while it is appropriate for a church to be governed by bishops, where circumstances make that impossible, the church does not stop being part of the Body of Christ. The Anglicanism of the Reformation was a profoundly contextual expression of Christian faith.
Another aspect of the Anglicanism of the Reformers was that they understood it to be a via media – a ‘middle way’ between the two extremes of Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism of John Calvin’s followers. But as a reflection of English culture at the time of the Reformation, Anglicanism was always something of a hybrid, just as the English themselves were a hybrid people. English culture – and Anglican identity – included elements from the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain, but also from the Romans who occupied England for centuries, from the Anglo-Saxons who brought their Germanic culture and language, from the Vikings who invaded from Scandinavia and settled over much of the country, and finally from the French who conquered England in 1066. The Anglicanism of the Reformers drew, whether consciously or unconsciously, on all those aspects of its heritage. And it never occurred to our Anglican ancestors that Anglicanism should be a church for anyone who was not English; other peoples had the right to their own churches, though they considered themselves to be a ‘sister church’ to the other churches of the Reformation – Calvinists, Lutherans and others.
A Changing Identity
The definition of Anglicanism began to change when England joined other European countries in establishing colonies in other parts of the world. Because the Church of England considered itself the church of English people wherever they might be, it followed the colonists to North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of the Caribbean. And in each of those places, the church tried very hard to create the same setting as English Christians knew back in England. But from the beginning, it was an impossible task. For one thing, the context was completely different. Anglicanism in England was a religion of cities, towns and a settled countryside. In the new settings, it found itself in a wilderness. Furthermore, there were already people living in those places, who had never encountered Christian faith and who now found themselves considered subjects of the English Crown and ripe for conversion (whether they wanted it or not!). Furthermore, in many cases Anglicans had to do without bishops; the Church of England was present in North America for a century and a half before the first Anglican bishop was sent to the New World. This meant that no one was confirmed, and anyone seeking to be ordained had to make the dangerous sea journey across the Atlantic. In the years before the first bishops, fully half the North Americans seeking ordination died in the attempt. In time, those colonies became independent; and because the Church of England was a national church, it no longer belonged to them. In each of the former colonies, new churches were established that tried to hold on to the heritage they had received from the Church of England, but in each case, they found it necessary to make changes to fit the new context. For example, in the newly-independent United States, Anglicans called themselves ‘Protestant Episcopalians’. They devised a new Book of Common Prayer, with prayers for the president and Congress instead of for the king and the royal family. For the first time, bishops would be elected by the clergy and laypeople they served. Unlike the Church of England, the new Episcopal Church had no connection with the state and must become financially self-sufficient. And because American culture was attempting to embrace the concept of democracy, the church established a system of government in which laypeople had an important role in its life. As colonial churches in other parts of the world became independent, each of them found it necessary to make adaptations to fit their new context. In doing so, they were following that ‘Anglican principle’ that each people has the right to a church that reflects its own context. As a result, while the Anglicanism of Australia or New Zealand shared much with Canadian or South African Anglicanism, in each case there were also significant differences. The members of these churches continued to identify with the tradition they inherited from the Church of England; Anglican no longer meant ‘English’ though it still had a strong reference to the heritage of the English Church.
That definition underwent even more changes in the19th century, which Church historians consider the ‘century of mission’. We might also call it the ‘century of colonialism’ since Anglican Christianity accompanied the British Empire as it expanded around the world, in much of Africa and large parts of Asia. In these colonial settings, Anglicans seem to have forgotten that ‘Anglican principle’ which affirmed that each people has a right to its own practice of Christian faith. The colonial Anglican churches worshipped with the English Book of Common Prayer, preferably in English; the hymns that were sung were the hymns of the Church of England. Church buildings were built to look like English churches, even when the climate made them radically unsuitable. Bishops – always English – continued to be appointed by the English state. Many of the missionaries imposed a completely British style of Anglicanism on the colonial churches. Late in the century, the United States also became a colonial power, and American Episcopalians attempted to impose American-style Anglicanism on Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Panama.
By the latter decades of the 19th century, the missionary movement had spread Christianity of various traditions throughout the world. Missionaries often found themselves in conflict and competition with representatives of other churches and traditions, and it was clear that such disunity was having a negative effect on mission. In 1888, for the first time Anglican bishops, who had begun meeting every 10 years for what was known as the Lambeth Conference, addressed the issues of competition among churches, and raised the possibility of entering into full communion with Christians of other traditions for the sake of the Church’s mission. If churches could be brought to unite, they suggested, they could work together instead of competing with each other. In a document which continues to be of great importance today, the bishops adopted what is known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral. In that document, the bishops of the Anglican Communion affirmed that Anglican churches are prepared to enter into full communion with any church which shares four principles: the Bible as the ultimate principle of faith; the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; Baptism and the Eucharist; and the ministry of bishops. It is interesting to note that the bishops accepted the idea of full communion with churches that do not have deacons, or Confirmation, or the Book of Common Prayer.
In the 20th century, as the colonial churches one by one became autonomous, the Anglican principle that peoples have the right to a church that reflects their culture and context was rediscovered. As a result, the Communion as we know it today is marked by a diversity that would have astonished our ancestors at the time of the Reformation. ‘Anglican’ no longer means ‘English’ and in some cases it no longer refers to the Church of England at all. Reformed churches in Spain and Portugal had no bishops, so they appealed not to the Church of England but to the (Anglican) Church of Ireland for the gift of the episcopate. The bishops of the Philippine Independent Church were consecrated by the American Episcopal Church. In some churches, bishops are elected by clergy and laypeople; in others, it is the bishops who do the electing. There is also enormous diversity in worship: some Anglicans are Pentecostal, especially in the Church of Southeast Asia, the Anglican Church of Chile and the Anglican Church of South America. Some churches prefer ‘free’ worship to the use of a fixed liturgy. Anglicans in Africa frequently dance as part of their worship. And in Asia (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), following the principles outlined by the bishops in 1888, Anglican churches joined with Christians of other reformed traditions to create United Churches.
Perhaps it is in the diversity of contexts experienced in a truly global communion that makes the survival of Anglicanism a question to be asked. Contemporary Anglicans are divided by aspects of culture such as polygamy, the nature of Christian marriage, human sexuality, and gender: some churches ordain women while others do not; some churches bless same-sex marriages while most do not; some churches allow polygamous families to be baptised, while others do not. Anglican churches have very different roles within their society: in some places, evangelism is against the law and Christians must keep a low profile in order to survive. During the dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda, the Anglican Church opposed his tyrannical rule and its Archbishop was martyred. In Brazil and Oceania, Anglicans are deeply involved in issues of climate change and the destruction of the environment. In Canada and New Zealand, the place of Native peoples in church and culture continue to be of primary importance.
For some, such diversity seems to be unbearable; as a result, some member churches have declared themselves out of communion with others or have boycotted important gatherings such as the Anglican Consultative Council and the Lambeth Conference. In a few places, including Brazil and North America, bishops, clergy and laypeople have withdrawn to form new churches which claim to be ‘Anglican’. It is such schisms and other symptoms of a damaged communion that makes some people ask if Anglicanism has a future.
Given the seriousness of the challenges, the question is a fair one; but I believe that the Anglican Way does indeed have a future – if it takes its history seriously. Specifically, I believe that our future as a Communion depends on five points.
First, we must realise that from its beginnings, Anglicanism has been a hybrid tradition. While its earliest manifestation incorporated the various distinct elements that made up English culture, Anglican Christianity today has elements drawn from every continent. Its members speak a multitude of different languages, worship in distinct ways, and read the Bible from different perspectives. There is no ‘pure’ Anglicanism. Anglicans who, like many African believers, dance their way to the altar with their offerings, are just as Anglican as those who prefer to place their gifts in silver plates or brocade envelopes passed by solemn laypeople. The Anglicanism of those who greet one another at the Peace with a profound bow, as is the custom in Korea, is no more or less authentic than that of Pacific Islanders who exchange the greeting by rubbing noses or of Latin Americans who exchange vigorous hugs as they sing a hymn of greeting.
The reason, of course, is that Anglicanism is a living tradition which has continued to evolve down through time. The Anglicanism of the Reformers is not the style of faith we practise. A century and a half ago, a priest of the Church of England was arrested for having lighted candles on the altar of his church, while another congregation experienced rioting that required fifty police to quell when its choir began wearing vestments. Neither would be considered offensive – or troubling – to Anglicans of our time.
Second, I believe our future depends upon our recognition that the Anglican Communion is what it says it is. It is not a church but a communion of churches, sharing their life with each other but free to develop their own style of faith as the Church of England did at the time of the Reformation.
Third, it is that Anglican principle first spelled out by Cranmer, Hooker and others that continues to guide our evolution: each church has the right and the duty to worship God using the language, the music and the concepts of its own culture, organising its life in ways that best serve its mission and ministry, reading the scriptures in dialogue with its own context.
Fourth, the Lambeth Quadrilateral, first approved by the Lambeth Conference in 1888 but affirmed repeatedly by churches around the world in the years since it was first spelled out, continues to provide a framework for mutual respect in mission and ministry. Communion does not depend on uniformity; it depends on sharing a common trust in scripture, a common affirmation of the Creeds, a common commitment to baptism and Eucharist, and the ministry of bishops as the way to hold our diversity together. There is no reason why Anglicans who share those four points need fear our differences; to the contrary, if we will pause and reflect, I believe we will realise that they do in fact provide the common ground necessary for us to recognise that what we share is far more important than what we differ about.
Finally, our future depends on reaffirming what Richard Hooker taught us more than 400 years ago: there are many aspects of Christian practice that are not essential to our faith, but are in fact neutral, the accidents of time and place. While we may be personally devoted to them, our future depends on recognising that what makes us Anglican is not a matter of taste or preference.
Does Anglicanism have a future? Yes, if we can recognise our diversity and understand it as a blessing and a gift and not a problem. “The Church’s one foundation,” we sing, “is Jesus Christ our Lord.” How we build on that foundation is a matter of culture and context; and who knows, those who seem most different from us might turn out to be our sisters and brothers after all.