Mark Stevens describes the three-legged foundation of the Church of England’s historic stability and explains why this equilibrium is now so decisively threatened
What is really happening to the Church of England? It could be argued that the various embattled interest groups (Anglo-Catholics about women priests and Evangelicals about human sexuality) have become so embroiled in their current hobbies that they have neglected the big picture. For there can be no doubt that a wider battle is being fought, over the very nature of the church, and that the tactics of local skirmishes are obscuring the over-all strategy. To understand the present crisis (even to see that there is a crisis at all) it is first necessary to clear the ground a little. There is much loose talk in Anglican circles about a mythical ‘Elizabethan Settlement’. This is supposed to be an historical agreement to ‘include’ in the Church the widest possible variety of theological opinion. It is even used by American revisionists as the antecedent of their policy of’radical inclusion.
No such settlement
The truth is that no such ‘settlement’ has ever existed. The holders of all shades of religious belief in the sixteenth century were bigots to a woman. The most that has ever been achieved in the life of the Church of England has been an armed truce between three opposed parties: the Low Church, the Broad Church and the High Church. These positions generally, though not exactly, conform to the three ‘legs’ of Hooker’s stool (Scripture, Tradition and Reason), itself another persistent piece of mythology.
For most of the CofE’s short history the parties have retained their position by temporary alliances. So the Liberals (the ‘Broad Church’) have allied themselves with the Anglo-Catholics (the ‘High Church’) to counter the sola scrip-tura claims of the Evangelicals (the ‘Low Church’), and the Anglo-Catholics have formed an alliance with the Evangelicals to counter the radicalism of the Liberals. A classical example of this balancing act is the restraint presently being shown over lay celebration by the diocese of Sydney in the hope of holding together, under the GAFCON banner, a sufficient force within the Communion to deal with North American revisionism.
But this era of the Balance of Power, whereby each party has been able to enjoy
its hour in the sun whilst never managing to eliminate either of the others, is coming to an end. All that was needed to end it was a fourth and overwhelming force; and the Liberals have brought it into play. That force is, of course, the ambient secular consensus.
The balance of power
So long as England was a Christian country and Parliament – the Church of England’s supreme doctrinal authority -was made up, for the most part of Christian believers, or at least of those with Christian sympathies, the game could go
on. But an Established Church in a less than Christian country finds itself in a very different position.
The advantage (as was already clear from the Scandinavian experience) then passes inexorably to the Liberals. The secular consensus (for example, about human sexuality or gender equality) becomes the blunt instrument with which they can bludgeon both their adversaries. The agenda of the European Enlightenment can be called in definitively to rout the forces of revealed religion.
That this is the process we are currently witnessing cannot be doubted. It is, of course, in practice, not so bald and brutal; but it is proving effective nevertheless. For Reason (re-calibrated as contemporary experience or Zeitgeist) to triumph over the other legs of the stool, it needs to overthrow both Tradition and Scripture. In consequence it needs to divide the Low Church and the High Church, and to pick them off separately.
The deciding issue
What better instrument for so doing than the ordination of women? Holy Order has always seemed to most Evangelicals a matter of secondary
importance, and it can be convincingly portrayed as a subject which the New Testament never directly addresses. Prelacy, has for so long been the bogeyman of the Low Church, that it can even be argued (though quite improbably!) that female bishops will be less prelatical and more ‘consensual’ or co-operative’.
Gender equality, moreover, features so highly on the secular agenda that it cannot easily be gainsaid: it can be portrayed as crucial for evangelism. No one will any longer take seriously, it is claimed, a religion which does not accommodate itself to the new dogma.
And having circumvented the potential alliance of Low Church and High Church with an issue which traditionally divides them, what better way of following up the advantage than by raising the issue of homosexuality: one about which Scripture is blindingly clear, the secular consensus is equally affirmative, and which is notoriously the Achilles’ heel of Anglo-Catholics?
The end of comprehension
What we are witnessing is nothing less than the triumph of one party, and the consequent end of the Church of England. Whatever remains after the debacle, it will be radically discontinuous with what has gone before. In his book The Panther and the Hind (dedicated, let the reader remember, to ‘Eric Lionel Mascall mag-istro catholicae veritatis*) Aidan Nicholls laid gently to rest the notion that the three schools of Anglican churchmanship’ somehow complement one another in a richly ‘comprehensive’ Church. That, he says, requires a lot of swallowing.
But the armed truce between those three parties, whilst it was never enough to constitute a church proper, did go some way to ensuring that the Church of England was at least identifiably Christian. It is by no means certain that that identity will survive the coming victory of the Broad Church.
In the eighteenth century the ‘comprehensiveness’ of the Church of England was both ensured and limited by the Test Acts. All the signs are that the new parameters of conformity will be sub- or post-Christian: the acceptance of ethical a priori principles to which the religion has forever been inimical. |