There has been some very interesting discussion on Facebook and the blog following my previous post ‘When will the C of E be extinct?’. Out of this, two issues stay with me.
The first comes from John Hayward’s comment in his original article on reasons for decline that the three episcopal churches he compares with the C of E have greater uniformity.
ECUSA, SEC and C in W, are all Episcopal by conviction. It is having bishops and prayer books that set them apart from the other denominations. By contrast the C of E is the national church, which just happens to be Episcopal. It is defined more by being national, and less by being Episcopal, as it is the national and established element that really sets it apart from other denominations. Thus the C of E has more variety between congregations than the other three. To give an example from Wales, one Church in Wales clergyman described his denomination to me as like a Henry Ford car, “any colour you like as long as it’s black”! Generally speaking I have found in Wales, Scotland and the USA a fairly rigid uniformity when visiting different parishes, more so than I have seen in England. Thus the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are narrower, and thus almost sectarian in their relationship with non-Anglicans, compared with the C of E.
But the second, contrasting point is that the other churches have found it easier to change with the times theologically, and their uniformity has meant that this has happened lock, stock and barrel. John does not express his view in these terms, but more in terms of the C of E being open to evangelical and charismatic influences than the others. But a fascinating article I read yesterday by J John makes this point in terms of historical continuity.
First, and most fundamentally, the foundation of the conventional Church of England is good, incorporating as it does both sound doctrine and wise practice. In terms of doctrine, the Church of England was founded on the Bible and in terms of practice it has, despite frequent episodic swings to excesses, retained a wise balance between Calvinistic severity and Catholic ceremony. A key strength of this good foundation is, I would claim, the Anglican Prayer Book with those oft-neglected 39 Articles and the tradition of liturgy associated with it. In a world of increasingly unchurched people both liturgy and creed are enormously helpful in giving a script to follow.
He (perhaps unsurprisingly) goes on to lament the fact that many people don’t attend to this historical foundation or the claims that it makes on them—but it is there nonetheless. The most obvious distinction between the C of E and ECUSA, as well as a number of other members of the Anglican Communion, is that the C of E has retained is founding documents as the touchstone—the ASB (as its name makes clear) and Common Worship were both introduced as strictly alternative to the BCP, and not replacements of it. By contrast, when ECUSA introduced its Prayer Book in the 1970s, it replaced the BCP. Whatever the cultural issues around this, it turned the church into something with a basic historical discontinuity at the level of its theology.
One of my regular commentators, James Byron, observes in comments on the previous post:
I suspect the evangelical model of growth — culturally liberal, theologically conservative — has topped-out in the West. What’s needed is a combination of liberal theology with evangelical style. At the least, it’s worth a shot.
But both John Hayward’s analysis and J John’s perspective suggest quite the opposite. Cultural adaptability, rather than uniformity, combined with theological continuity, rather than cultural conformity, are precisely the combination that has, to some extent at least, protected the C of E. This doesn’t mean that the C of E is necessarily evangelical to the exclusion of other theological traditions, as some might infer from J John’s comments. It does mean that the C of E has a fundamental hospitality towards evangelicalism, which is not always found in other parts of the Communion. But much more fundamentally, it has a sense of theological continuity which, paradoxically, provides a sense of stability and security which might itself be the thing that is necessary to give the freedom needed to be culturally adaptability. In other words, being culturally liberal and theologically conservative go hand in hand, and both need each other. In Martyn Atkins’ words, it makes it much easy for us to rediscover our founding charisms, and make them relevant to our current context.
This then implies that there are two vital tasks for the missional church. The first is articulated most clearly in the Fresh Expressions movement: the ongoing search for cultural forms of being church that most effectively engage with our contemporary culture. But the second is found, if anywhere, in the Doctrine Commission—or at least in our serious debates about theology. Although some find these debates unpleasant and wonder if they are necessary, they are in fact a vital sign of a missional church. Without the anchor of theological security, we won’t be free to engage in the journey to meet our culture—and some would argue, we wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to offer when we got there.
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