Arthur Middleton considers what it is that may be worth saving if the Church of England is to break up and how we might go about restoring the treasures of the Anglican heritage
Cardinal Kasper, who has given generously of his time to the Church of England recently, spoke for many Anglicans when he said, ‘It occurs to me that at critical moments in the history of the Church of England and subsequently of the Anglican Communion, you have been able to retrieve the strength of the Church of the Fathers when that tradition was in jeopardy. The Caroline divines are an instance of that, and above all, I think of the Oxford Movement. Perhaps in our own day it would be possible too, to think of a new Oxford Movement, a retrieval of riches which lay within your own household.
‘This would be a re-reception, a fresh recourse to the Apostolic Tradition in a new situation. It would not mean a renouncing of your deep attentiveness to human challenges and struggles, your desire for human dignity and justice, your concern with the active role of all women and men in the Church. Rather, it would bring these concerns and the questions that arise from them more directly within the framework shaped by the Gospel and ancient common tradition in which our dialogue is grounded.’
Fr Aidan Nichols has expressed the same sentiments about the need for Anglicans to bring classical Anglicanism into a reunited Church. Thirty years ago Michael Ramsey was advocating the need for a new Oxford Movement. It is an attractive proposition and invites a discerning consideration, not in the sense of replicating a piece of past history, which would be impossible, but in a discernment of what the essence of that Movement was and the underlying principles that motivated it.
The Tractarians’ concern was why the Church was so weak in the face of the dangers which threatened it; dangers not simply from the outside but also in the actual life of the Church of their day. William Palmer said, ‘we felt ourselves assailed by enemies from without and foes within…enemies within the Church seeking the subversion of its essential characteristics and what was worst of all, no principle in the public mind to which we could appeal.’
For such people the Church was no more than an association for the promotion of religion and social virtue. Matters of dogmatic belief, ecclesiastical organization and liturgical observance were only of secondary importance. Hence the Church lacked that clear principle by which it could define its true character and defend itself against the world. So national apostasy and ecclesiastical apostasy were two sides of the same coin.
Our questions are the same. Does the Church have a distinctive and independent witness to the society in which it is set? Is it to be ‘conformed to this world’ or is its purpose to be very much more?
Today’s apostasy is as real as that which Keble preached against. It intrudes itself as a political correctness that is tearing the Anglican Communion apart in the struggle of two incompatible religions. Its aim is to re-interpret biblical and credal orthodoxy and conform it to the secular spirit of the age.
The bishops do not exemplify in their teaching and work their status and function as the apostolic ministry in and to the Church founded by Christ. It is reduced to a functionalism that anyone can do; man or woman. An understanding of the episcopal office is missing in the contemporary Church of England and this is why there is so much confusion over it, not least among bishops themselves; and why it is so difficult to get across its absolute centrality for the Church in reunion discussions.
What stands in the way of this reappraisal of the episcopal order, vital for our Church, is again a want of principle, a principle by which we can assess and reform. For the Tractarians their bishops lacked any understanding of the Episcopal Office and they point us to where we should look for it. They sought to recover it by their emphasis on the Apostolic Succession and the sacramental character of the episcopate. They wanted to revive an awareness of the true character of the bishop, and of the fact that this character was the most important thing about him. It was the symbol of the divine origin of the whole Church.
But the Tractarians were also concerned with the renewal of the priesthood, by their emphasis on sacramental and priestly ideals. This is what changed the whole character of priestly ministry and awakened the parochial clergy with their watch-cry, ‘Stir up the gift that is in you.’
Priests need a true and profound understanding of their calling to receive a ‘divine commission’ that should permeate and inform the whole of their spiritual lives. Only then can genuine and effective priestly action flow and only then will society learn that it needs this distinctive ministry which it can find nowhere else. Renewal in our church must begin, as did the Oxford Movement, though not of course end, with the renewal of the priesthood.
The Tractarians were concerned for a return to the prescriptive sources of Anglicanism. We must make friends with the great Anglican divines of the seventeenth century and the early Christian Fathers that were the bedrock of their theology. This is vital for the renewal of the Church and also for the intellectual and spiritual formation and nourishment of the clergy. For the Tractarians, a priest’s life and work must be grounded in sound doctrine, the traditional and orthodox faith of the Church, which rested for them on the Bible, the early Fathers, the Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican divines of the seventeenth century.
Returning to prescriptive sources
How many priests know the Fathers or anything in their own classical Anglican tradition where there are crucial resources for their intellectual and devotional life? How much is today’s ordinand informed of these resources in theological college? The evidence suggests that emphasis is more heavily weighted on the agenda of politically correct issues than classical Anglican theology.
Our church and its leaders apparently are not presenting a vigorous and reasoned defence of those core doctrines which are the Church’s foundation; doctrines and sacramental life not our own and received from the universal Church. We need to be made aware of the spiritual treasures of the Anglican divines who preserved the Reformed and Catholic heritage of the Church of England; and whose heirs the Tractarians recognized themselves to be.
Once more, Anglican renewal must have its theological side; a re-statement and affirmation of the Church’s historic faith in this twenty-first century. There is little sign of this as yet. These divines have much to say to us of the whole tenor and temper of modern church life. They saw the Christian life in terms of holiness, the sanctity of the individual member and the whole body of the faithful.
Theology is not just a matter of intellectual clarity but the union of human lives with God in the way of holiness. So the Christian life is ‘one of constant discipline where we are immersed in holy things which are to be handled in a spirit of sobriety, austerity and awe.’ This is such a contrast to the loss of dignity in the casualness and laid-back mateyness of much Christian worship today. For these divines the Church is a supernatural body that reflects the divine holiness and this present life is a preparation for the life to come. The ‘life of the world to come’ is not merely in the future but it is a present eternal state that penetrates our earthly life.
After July the outlook looks dark but not hopeless. If it seems that the English Catholic Church is disappearing into sectarianism, remember that it is still present in us. If we are in a New Interregnum then we must realize that we cannot survive by a policy of mere aloofness and obstruction. We must continue to justify our opposition on theological and historical grounds and so inform ourselves to do so.
Our aim and that of our constituency must be to build an edifice of reasoned theology and devotion in support of orthodox Anglican church principles. Not only will this moderate our opponents. It will make these principles intelligible to them. This need is crucially urgent when so many theological schemes for training priests have retreated from theology. We must encourage our young ordinands and laity to engage with us in this endeavour by organizing groups and conferences and providing the necessary resources. From lectures and retreats I am conscious of laity keen to know more about this.
Let us avoid knee-jerk reactions of rushing into the arms of another Communion, or becoming a defeated and bedraggled remnant begging Rome for ecclesiastical asylum. Let us continue to stand firm in our Anglican orthodoxy against the modernism that is doing its worst to conform our Church to secularism. Let us reach out to our Evangelical brethren whose concern is for a biblical and historical Anglican orthodoxy, and then we will have the riches of our Anglican patrimony to bring into a reunited Church when liberalism has withered away.
In this spirit we can take up the challenge of Cardinal Kasper and retrieve the riches which lie within our own household and retrieve the strength of the Church of the Fathers, a fresh recourse to the Apostolic Tradition in a new situation.