Bishop Geoffrey Rowell considers Anglican Patrimony

Anglicans who stand in the Catholic tradition have in recent times not had an altogether good press. Seen as negative and obstructionist, standing in the way of such clearly desirable goals as the ordination of women as bishops, ‘traditionalist’ has become for many a pejorative term. The departure of five Anglican bishops to the Ordinariate set up by Pope Benedict for Anglicans who wish to give priority to the quest for unity and reconciliation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, which Anglicans as a whole had welcomed warmly in the days of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, has been seen variously as a betrayal, or as opening the way for an endorsement of the changes to the historic order of the church which they had questioned.

Pope Benedict in setting up the Ordinariate welcomed the ‘Anglican patrimony’ those who entered it would bring as an enrichment of the Catholic church – in itself a significant affirmation of the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, and challenging Anglicans as to what exactly that patrimony is and was.

Limits to diversity

The Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism of an earlier generation, Ronald Knox, once described the Church of England as a ‘kind of ecclesiastical Noah’s Ark’, recognizing the genius of the Church of England for being a broad and inclusive church, but implying that it was simply a menagerie of different opinions. The Anglican Covenant, at present being offered for acceptance to the various provinces of the Anglican Communion, recognizes that there is an identity to Anglicanism, and that there are limits to Anglican diversity. It is never a matter of ‘anything goes’. The Declaration of Assent is unequivocal. The Church of England ‘is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Its identity is grounded in worship, and in the communion of love which is the life of God the Holy Trinity. It ‘professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic creeds.’ It is therefore governed by the revelation of God and the apostolic faith of the early centuries of the Church. The faith and order to which it witnesses is therefore something received and to be handed on.

Handed on faithfully

When St Paul, writing of the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship, told the Christians of Corinth that he had ‘handed on to them that which I also received’ the word used for ‘handing on’ in Greek is the word for ‘tradition’. Change in the Christian Church can never be the simple endorsement of contemporary culture. That culture is not new revelation, but that which has to be seen and tested in the light of the revelation given by God and handed on faithfully from one generation to another.

When, in the sixteenth century, ecclesia Anglicana – ‘the English Church’ – was reformed, those, like Bishop John Jewel, who defended that reformation, did so not by saying it was adapted to contemporary culture, but by a return to the faith and order of the early church. Very deliberately, unlike the Protestant reformers of continental Europe, the Church of England maintained the historic, apostolic, three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. The Church of England did not abandon the historic apostolic ministry but sought to reform it. Ever since Anglicans have held that those ordained as bishops, priests and deacons, are ordained as bishops, priests and deacons of the Church of God. Change in that ordering of ministry is therefore a matter not just for the Church of England or the Anglican Communion but for all those churches who claim to share that ministry. Developments in faith and order need this wider reference.

Anglican patrimony

At the end of November I was privileged to have an audience with Pope Benedict, and was able to say to him that, as an Anglican bishop, standing in the catholic Anglican tradition, I – with others – wished to continue to witness to the catholic identity of Anglicanism, and received his encouragement to do so.

The Anglican patrimony is not just a matter of hymn-books and liturgy, of Evensong and the English choral tradition, important as those things are. It is a sacramental way of living out a catholic identity, expressed in relation to the community and in a wise application of moral ideals to personal and pastoral realities. It is what the churches of the East have sometimes recognized as a Western Orthodoxy. Above all it is about a faithfulness in a way of Christian living that expresses the beauty of holiness, which is about transfiguration into the likeness of Christ, living out the maxim often attributed to St Augustine but originating in the theological conflicts of Reformation Europe – ‘in essentials unity, in doubtful things liberty, and in all things charity.’

This ‘Credo’ article was first published in The Times on 5 February 2011