Geoffrey Kirk goes in search of Anglican identity
What’s in a name? Now that the search is on in earnest to devise an ecclesiology which will fit the rapidly disintegrating Anglican Communion, it occurs to me that we can learn something from the names which Anglicans give themselves.
The Church of England. The name is an ecclesiology in itself. It neatly expresses the political and theological presuppositions of the later middle ages. England was seen, in political terms as an ‘Empire’ – that is to say a wholly autonomous state with power to order its own affairs both civil and ecclesiastical. The Church by law established in such an ‘Empire’ was, in theory at least, the only Church; all others (and especially the ‘Church of Rome’) were outlawed and proscribed.
It is remarkable to the modern observer how long that view persisted. Though it could not logically survive the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, it nevertheless continued into the twentieth century by way of the Oxford Movement. When High Churchmen referred to the CofE as ‘the Catholic Church of this land’ they were speaking as much of historical and institutional continuity as of theological positioning or colour.
In a strange way, then, the very name ‘Church of England’ contained within itself, as a defining characteristic, an essential anti-Romanism. (‘The Italian Mission to the Irish’) And that remains a constituent part of the Anglican identity to this day. It was nakedly apparent in the debates leading up to the ordination of women to the priesthood.
The Church of Ireland. Ireland was, of course, an ‘Empire’ like England. Though in fact a colony, it was in theory, an independent state with its own autonomy and institutions. The Kingdom of Ireland, the theory went, shared nothing with the Kingdom of England but its monarch. The Church by law established was therefore, in the same way, the only Church. Though concessions needed to be made from time to time to the Roman majority, the Church of Ireland reigned supreme.
The Scottish Episcopal Church. Things were different in Scotland, both before and after the Act of Union. There the Episcopal Church could make no legal or credible claim to be the only (or, for most
of the time, the dominant ecclesial body). Anglicanism – to use an anachronous term – was for the first time learning to live in a plurality of churches.
The Church in Wales. Expressed in that curious name is the anomalous position of Welsh Anglicans. The Church in Wales, now so tenacious of its independence, is a Church that struggled not to come into existence. Paradoxically it was largely the creation of non-Anglicans and of a political establishment which favoured them. It is not the ‘Church of Wales,’ claiming identity with and within a political entity, but ‘in Wales’, still making implicit claims of unique continuity with the province’s Christian past, but at the same time nodding benignly to ecclesial plurality.
The Episcopal Church. American Anglicans have changed their name several times. Each change of nomenclature marks a shift in ecclesiology. Though the Anglican church was established in some states before the revolution (as Presby-terianism was in others), the Protestant Episcopal Church came into existence within a Republic which had outlawed the notion of ecclesiastical establishment. Not that you would have noticed.
PECUSA adopted, in 1790 a constitution which mimicked that of the United States, and set about the task of being, not an Established Church, but the Church of the Establishment. The name located American Anglicans on the smorgasbord of denominations: ‘Protestant’ in common with the then majority in its repudiation of Rome, but over against the majority in retaining a form of ‘Episcopal’ organisation. It is a moot point how ‘episcopal’ the American Church is (in some dioceses the bishop does not even have a vote in the diocesan convention); but bishops had become for the American Church a badge of identity.
The Protestant Episcopal Church claimed a proud roll of founding fathers and later presidents among its members. It slowly developed a self-image as the ‘natural’ church of the well-heeled intelligentsia, as recent statements by Katherine Schori go to show. And as American influence in the world grew with the informal imperialism of the period after the First World War, so ECUSA (by now its Anglo-catholic wing had managed to jettison the word ‘protestant’) expanded with it. The church followed the multinationals.
The recent change of name to ‘The Episcopal Church’ marks a new departure. The emphasis is now on the international nature of the denomination – a fact which Mrs Schori emphasises at every opportunity. As the American Church distances itself from the rest of the Communion, so it increasingly asserts itself as a global alternative to it.
The Church of the Province of Central Africa. One of a group of Churches with the formula ‘Church of the Province of…’ in their names, Central Africa is presently demonstrating how fis-siparous such structures can be. Whilst TEC is seeking to demonstrate its international credentials from Taiwan to Mexico, Central Africa (a post-colonial construct) is busy breaking down into national units. Torn by strife over women’s ordination and attitudes to human sexuality, it is a microcosm of the wider Communion.
Perhaps such breakdown is inevitable. After all, what legitimised Anglicanism in Africa was originally Empire (in the nineteenth century, not the sixteenth century sense). Now it is gone the nation state is the logical, indeed the only, political unit to which Anglicans can look to establish a geographical and cultural identity.
For me this brief analysis of ‘What’s in a Name’ issues in rather depressing conclusions. People talk of an Anglican Way’ which is in some sense an intellectually coherent mode of Christian thinking and living alternative to the ancient churches of East and West. For all the intellectual and literary achievements of Anglicanism (mostly of the Church of England, it has to be said) only three things seem permanently to characterise it: national identity, cultural conformity (to the ambient culture of each province or nation), and a persistent antipathy to Roman Catholicism.
Anglicans have proclaimed themselves a ‘bridge church’ across the Roman-Protestant divide; but they have proved singularly incapable of delivering the goods. TEC leads where others will undoubtedly, if belatedly, follow, multiplying the reasons for division. Even in the Church of England the intellectual rationale upon which the Reformation Church was based has long since sunk into oblivion. In the final analysis ‘we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’. Or sometimes, of course, there. \ND\