Celebrating the Anglican way
The Rectory, February 2001
Those words, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his introductory essay to the volume edited by Ian Bunting, called ‘Celebrating the Anglican Way’ summarises very well a classically Anglican approach to faith. It is an approach which is increasingly under attack. There has been, since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a growing campaign from various directions to close down, or at least to define limits to theological debate and church practice in the Communion. Let me say straight away that the attack comes from both liberal and conservative factions, though the language used tends to give the impression that it is only the traditionalists who are being negative and obstructive. In fact it has often been said that the dyed-in-the-wool liberal is more difficult to debate with than anyone else!
Elsewhere in this magazine, I have written a review of the recent autobiography written by Bishop Jack Spong, formerly Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church of the USA, who retired last year. Alongside it is printed a copy of his ‘Twelve Theses’, which he published just before the Lambeth Conference, and caused quite a stir around the Communion. Indeed, from many quarters there were demands that he should be disciplined by his church. I will be very interested to hear reactions to the theses, and hope that over the next two or three editions, we might be able to publish a few. A little bit of debate in these columns would be a very good way to go forward.
I think you will find it pretty clear from my review of Bishop Spong’s book (which certainly is not the most objective review you will ever read) that I feel that somewhere he has gone way off course in his theology. Others feel that much more strongly than me! However, he also has many admirers; many have been inspired by his writing, by his preaching, and even more by his commitment and care for groups of people who have felt and continue to feel marginalised by the Church.
So Anglicanism is faced with a challenge. It is not a new challenge. Indeed, the first Lambeth Conference was called in 1867 specifically because bishops in different parts of the world felt they needed to come together to discuss the issues raised by another controversial figure, Bishop Colenso, Bishop of Natal in South Africa. The decision to call the conference was not taken lightly by Archbishop Longley, and many English bishops were very doubtful about the wisdom of doing so - to the extent that neither the Archbishop of York, nor the Bishop of London attended. But Archbishop Longley was clear even then, when diversity of belief in the church was far less easily accepted, that it was not the Anglican way to define belief. “It should be distinctly understood”, he said in the House of Lords, ”that at this meeting no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to which shall affect generally the interests of the Church, but that we shall meet together for brotherly counsel and encouragement…”
In other words, we have never gone for a centralised authority with the power to bind and define. Nor have we ever presented a statement or confession of faith (other than scripture and the ancient creeds) as a test of faith. Rather we have encouraged debate at every level. We have invited those who disagree to face one another, and ‘knowing whose children we are’, in the context of prayer and worship, to walk together asking God to open all our eyes and our hearts to the riches of his truth, a truth which none of us can ever have more than a very partial grasp of.
It has not been our way to exclude those with whom we disagree. Far from it. Anglicanism has thrived on disagreement. One essayist writing an appreciation of Archbishop William Temple after his death in 1944, wrote:
But for disagreement and debate to be constructive, there must be a basic trust and a basic respect for one another. There is a growing tendency to claim that our understanding of truth is the only one, that our interpretation of scripture is the only acceptable one, and that our practice of our faith is the only permissible one.
I recognise that this rapidly changing world breeds insecurity. Many people are looking for roots, for stability, for security. The Christian Faith offers that, but we are also always ‘pushing out new shoots in a variety of directions’, seeking to engage the world, and to speak to it. That will always be controversial, and it needs pioneers who will work and speak in new ways. No-one said our journey would be comfortable, but I am convinced that as Anglicans we have a great deal to celebrate, and we must not allow the Communion to be wrenched apart by the few who find it so hard to walk together.