St Alban's Church

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Today is: Tuesday 27th, 2022

What is the Anglican Church?

The second Adult Sunday School meeting explored the question “What is the Anglican Church?” and was led jointly by Ulla Monberg and Mark Oakley.

The following notes from the meeting may be helpful:

The English Reformation is a collective term that refers to a series of events that took place over thirty years in several distinct phases. What also seems clear is that within a century of Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1533 England had become a strongly Protestant country. But the outcome of this revolution in English life was a good deal less tidy than in many other European countries.

In England there were, basically, as many Reformations as there were Tudor monarchs. One of these, of course, was a counter-Reformation back to Rome under Mary. The others under Henry and his children Edward VI and Elizabeth I were individual in character and moved in different directions. And all the time, as Eamon Duffy’s work has reminded us, there were the reformations or resentments that happened within the ordinary people rather than at the court and parliament level.

Henry VIII was fascinated by theology and to begin with did not like reformation and especially the writings of Luther. In fact, he wrote a defence of traditional religion in 1521 called “the assertion of the seven sacraments” and a grateful Pope, Leo X, bestowed on him the title of “ Defender of the faith” for it.

Because Pope Clement VII would not annul the marriage between Henry and Catherine of Aragon, essentially political work was done that eventually entailed church law being subordinated to the common and statute law of England. This led to Henry breaking with the Pope and indeed he was the first King in Europe to do so and he had to work out how this political break related to the doctrinal reformations in progress across the North sea.

In 1534, the act of supremacy declared that the King was the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England and during his reign the English church was effectively nationalised and then to a significant extent privatised. An English bible was ordered to be placed in every parish church and an English litany introduced but the point is that otherwise little official doctrinal or liturgical change occurred. Henry VIII died in 1547, more than seventeen years after the meeting of the reformation parliament, never having heard the Mass other than in Latin.

The second phase of the English reformation occurred in the brief but turbulent reign of Edward VI and now there was doctrinal change. Significantly this was expressed first and foremost in liturgical change, centrally in the prayer books of 1549 and 1552 of which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was the chief author. The Church of England would continue to express its beliefs chiefly in its liturgy. Cranmer’s liturgies were built on the medieval liturgical tradition resembling those of German Lutheranism and differing from the worship of the Swiss reformed churches. Doctrinally though, the 1552 prayer book showed strong reformed influence as did the 42 articles which followed in 1553. One important difference was that the English ordinal consciously retained the term priest and continued the orders of Bishop (with succession), Priest and Deacon. So liturgy and doctrine were changing but the historic structure and order of the church remained intact.

The 1559 act of supremacy amended the title for Elisabeth I as, “supreme governor of the Church of England”. The 1559 act of uniformity reintroduced, after Mary’s counter reformation, the book of common prayer slightly amended, the 42 articles were reduced and amended in number reaching their final form of 39 in 1570.

The English reformation was marked not so much by innovation as by rejection of the innovations of Rome. Its intention was to get back somehow to the pure faith and order of the early church. Much of the early writings were polemical against Rome, for instance that of Bishop John Jewel. As time went on, the writings also began to criticise the Puritanism that was also popular in parts and so the idea of the Church of England as a via media between Rome and Geneva came into its own.

The pivotal work of Richard Hooker and the so called Anglican Divines developed this concept during a period in the late 16th and 17th centuries that one historian has called the “Anglican moment” during which it became clear that the English Reformations were resulting not so much in dogmatic assertions and conclusions as to a method, a way, a direction of thinking about God that drew not just on the primacy of scripture but also on reason and tradition. It was inspired and informed by the early Church before, as it was viewed, it had been perverted by later embellishments. It was not a new church but remained a scriptural, catholic, apostolic and sacramental church. The Church of England was not a new church but the church with its earliest faith restored and refreshed, stripped of its historical barnacles. The boundaries for thinking were given famously by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes: one God, two testaments, three creeds, four councils and five centuries of Christian practice. There was also a call to acknowledge the “things indifferent”, practices that were not matters of faith but which nevertheless need not be got rid of because they build up and order the church. If something is outlawed by scripture, that is one thing but just because something cannot be proved by scripture doesn’t mean that it has to be forbidden.

Echoes of the past are still heard today as Anglicans debate whether they have any doctrines of our own or whether we simply have a distinct ethos and method of doing things. Traditionally we have not be a systematic or confessional church in the way other Reformed church have as much as a liturgical and pastoral church drawing on its early foundations and taking seriously the insights of reason and experience. As Michael Ramsey used to argue, whilst other churches will point you to their confessions and statements when asked what they stand for, there is something about Anglican development that, when asked the same question, we point instead to our Prayer Book and invite people to join in and pray with us if they would really understand who we are. German theologians have sometimes laughed that Anglicans do their theology to the sound of church bells but that has proved important. Lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of belief. The Church does not control worship. The Church is created by it.

Some of you may have heard Mark last year telling the Kirkevandring congregation about the comment of Prince Hussein of Jordan about the English – ah, the English, he said, they liked to say that the sun never set on the empire but this is only because God did not trust them in the dark. Now as you know Britain developed an Empire across the world and as the English travelled so did their Church. Desmond Tutu has a pithy way of putting one interpretation of what happened – the English arrived in Africa. They had the Bible and we had the land. They said, let us pray, and we closed our eyes. And when we opened them they had the land and we had the Bible.

Now I won´t get into too much detail here because I haven´t got time to go in to how things developed in every involved country but on the whole what happened was that as old colonial establishments withdrew so the churches that had been formed and developed by the English, including of course, majorities of local people, had to ask the question as to what would happen to them. Would they die out without the English around or would they reassemble themselves as indigenous churches always with a grateful eye, as it were, on the Church of England who had acted as their midwife and infant nurse – and this latter response was what on the whole happened. On your sheet you will see all these churches as they stand today. You will also find churches there that were founded not due to colonies but to a good deal of English involvement in the place at some time during their history and a similar development occurred.

The result is not one Anglican church, no such thing technically exists, but an Anglican family of churches, 44 of them, made up of around 80 million members. Each church is independent with their own archbishops, bishops, clergy and people, synods and structures. But because they have their roots in the English church they look to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the “first amongst equals” and it is is he who invites and hosts a conference of all the bishops every ten years so that they can come and learn and listen and encourage one another. This family of churches is called the Anglican communion, all the churches are in full communion with each other and held together in what is called bonds of affection.

Now, as the years have passed, questions have arisen as to what these churches have in common apart from some English influence. Was this all it was actually, asked William Reed Huntington, a Rector in New York in the 19th century, little more than “the flutter of surplices, a vision of village spires and cathedral towers, a somewhat stiff and stately company of deans, prebendaries and choristers”? Or was there something else that consitituted an essence of What was now being called Anglicanism? After all in the 1880s the archbishop of Canterbury was arguing that the great end of our planting a church in Japan is that there may be a Japanese church, not an English church”. So what was the relationship to be?

The Lambeth Conference of 1888 adopted what is now known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, a four pronged fork that tried to identify the absolutely essential features of the Anglican way and you have it on your sheet. In the 1930s the Lambeth conference put it this way: the ideals for which we stand are “an open Bible, a pastoral priesthood, a common worship, a standard of conduct consistent with that worship and a fearless love of truth”.

Now, we live in historic times for the Anglican communion because more work is having to be done as we speak on what it is that might still hold us together and this is because of divisions that emerged of late. There have always been problems and disagreements as you can imagine, the churches had people in them from very different cultures. If you read the notes from the 19th century Lambeth conferences, polygamy is, for instance, a thorny problem – can a polygamist be baptised, can a wife of a polygamist? Not a question that the Bishop of Maidstone, say, had to face very often but a very real issue for some African bishops and a common mind was sought. There were, and still are, disagreements about women as bishops, such as there are in the Anglican churches of New Zealand, America and Canada and, before long I should think, in England. But the main cause of division today is focused on sexuality, especially homosexuality, and the signs are that the Anglican communion is fracturing over it.

I can talk more about this if you would like me to over questions. But behind the discussion of homosexuality lies the larger question of what we looked at last week – the interpretation of the Bible? Does the Bible forbid homosexual relations and is that the end of the matter? Or does the Bible not know about what we now know as stable same-sex relationships, is it rather condemning such things as temple prostitution and abusive actions? There are those who argue that the Bible is clear and to be obeyed and that to disobey is to renounce Christian truth. And there are those who say that we understand more about homosexuality scientifically today, about how people do not choose who they love, and that love in all its diversity is of God and to be celebrated. Here is a clash and brought to the fore when the people of the diocese of New Hampshire, three years ago, elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay man with a partner as their bishop. Such was the hostiltity towards his being consecrated that he was ordered to ear a bullet proof jacket at the service and for the next 3 months.

I can tell you more if you want to know as things develop each day, but to sum up, Bishop Gene Robinson has not been invited to the conference but because other American bishops are going to the Lambeth Conference certain bishops, from Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda and Sydney have said they will not attend. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Nigeria has consecrated several men as bishops in the US to look after parishes that are not happy with the current US Episcopal church (about 2 per cent). This is highly controversial… The idea now is to draw up a Covenant that each church will agree to that will, though still accepting dispersed authority, ask each church not to move ahead of certain issues without giving thought and consulting the other churches of the communion. Is this the peace of the prison yard or is it the sail that is being hoisted to allow the church to weather fresh storms more easily? We shall see.

A final PS, just so that we don´t end on gloom! Ten years ago, the Church of England and the other Anglican churches of the UK and Ireland entered into full communion with the Lutheran churches of Iceland, Sweden, Finaldn, Norway, and Estonia. Whose missing I can hear you ask? Yes, Denmark didn´t sign up and we can talk about that too if you would like to, but it has been a great blessing to the Nordic Lutheran churches and to us to have this new partnership as we have more experience to learn from and more friends to celebrate in Christ.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury has written a short book called Anglican Identities in which he examines some of the main thinkers in Anglican development. He tries to find something that links them all and concludes that they all argue in their different ways for a theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience. They do not expect human words to solve their problems rapidly, they do not expect the Bible to yield up its treasures overnight, they do not look for the triumphant march of an ecclesiastical institution. They know that as Christians they live among immensities of meaning, live in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside out of mind and feeling.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer