Andrew Carey on Rowan Williams Letter to John Howe and Ecclesiology

I think Anglican ecclesiology has probably always been a mess. This is partly a result of the way Anglicanism came about in the 16th century, initially through a break with Rome for the King’s own idiosyncratic reasons. So there’s a sense in which the national identity of the Church came first to Anglicanism in a rather topdown sort of way.

However, what emerged over the ensuing decades, and indeed centuries, was a national and then international church which underwent reformation. This was on a different path from the continental Reformation and Counter Reformation but was heavily influenced by at least the former. However, we can pretend no longer that it was a peaceful reformation that met with little resistance. It had many martyrs and the acts of uniformity were ruthlessly and tyrannically imposed on the English people.

In a recent article for the Church of Ireland Gazette (Anglicanism and Protestantism, October 19) Professor Alister McGrath attacks a sort of wishful thinking that places Anglicanism solely in the Catholic tradition. This type of thinking primarily emerges through the plainly unhistoric way in which Anglicans have imagined themselves to be always in a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Yet as recent historians have pointed out the original English reformation was far more self-consciously about finding a middle way between Zwingli and Luther than between Rome and Geneva. Furthermore, other Protestant churches, not just Anglicanism, retained aspects of Catholic order, high views of the sacraments and even an episcopate while still maintaining a Protestant outlook. Anglicanism can therefore be rightly considered different and unique, like every other single church, but certainly cannot claim to uniquely occupy that mythical via media.

Instead it was a later development, the Oxford Movement, which resulted in Anglicanism tilting itself towards a Catholic ecclesiology. While it is true that there were always tensions between Catholic and Protestant elements in the Church of England these cannot ever be said to have represented a via media, as much as a very broad church. Anglicanism has been captured by this Catholic ecclesiology for the past century or so most notably in the ARCIC process. Furthermore, in the proliferation of Anglican Churches throughout the world, there are indeed many provinces which view themselves solely through a Catholic ecclesiological perspective and others which take a more pragmatic Protestant view of things.

The crucial point of the current debate about the future of Anglicanism during this crisis over human sexuality is that either Anglicanism becomes a family of Protestant churches with varying degrees of relationship between its parts, or it continues on its trajectory towards a more fully Catholic vision of
the church. And it is here that the Archbishop of Canterbury is signalling the direction he favours in a letter to the Bishop of”¦ [Central] Florida, John Howe.

In the letter, he signals a vision of Anglicanism which rejects the Protestant emphasis on national churches, and instead argues that Anglicanism’s catholicity is expressed through its bishops and dioceses. He writes: “Any diocese compliant with Windsor remains clearly in communion
with Canterbury and the mainstream of the Communion, whatever may be the longer-term result for others in The Episcopal Church. The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop
and the diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such.”

This letter was written in the context of a traditionalist bishop seeking reassurances
from the Archbishop as a number of his ministers contemplate separating from the diocese in order to retain their Anglican identity. In other words, that Anglican identity is to be found through a bishop in communion with Canterbury, rather than establishing new non-geographic episcopates whose relationship to Canterbury is less clear.

This provides one possible way through the current mess in which the American Episcopal Church finds itself, but leaves a huge number of questions up in the air. Should Anglicanism be solely
defined by relationship to Canterbury? What does this emphasis on Bishop and diocese say about Anglican decision making? Only a few years ago, liberal Americans were arguing that the Bishop
and diocese were the basic ecclesiological unit and therefore that was where these controversial decisions on same sex blessings and gay clergy should be taken.

On the other hand, the more Catholic view at that time seemed to suggest that such controversial decisions should be taken at the highest synodical level possible. And for many whose consciences
are troubled by being in relationship with what they regard as an heretical and apostate denomination such as The Episcopal Church, is it going to help to be separately in communion with a Canterbury
which is hedging its bets?

–This article appears in the October 25th , 2007, edition of the Church of England Newspaper on page 14

Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ecclesiology, Theology

29 comments on “Andrew Carey on Rowan Williams Letter to John Howe and Ecclesiology

  1. Adam 12 says:

    I think the best argument for Via Media is that until recently we have placed the concept of Apostolic Succession very high on our list of priorities (hence the name Episcopal Church, as, governed by bishops). There is also a heightened awareness of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. Women’s ordination (particularly the concept of having women bishops) and a departure from the Apostles’ teaching have severely weakened that claim, and, of course, TEC’s dalliance with Unitarianism has been fatal to the theologial concept for those who remain loyal to 815.

  2. wvparson says:

    It is true that during the Edwardian years, less than five, the via media was a middle way between Lutheranism and pre-Calvinism. During Elizabeth’s reign, at least until Hooker (and it is not easy to determine what influence Hooker’s first published works had) the struggle was between extreme Calvinism and church-evangelicalism. By the time of Laud (whose party reigned for about 12 years) Herbert’s “mean between two extremes” was that between Rome and Geneva where it stayed until Tractarianism arrived, by which time Geneva was no longer such a force while Rome was. The fragmentation of Protestantism weakened any English reaction to Geneva as did English insularity to all but a nativist anti-Roman Catholicism.

    McGrath’s depiction depends on identifying his golden age in a very short period of time and to some extent Archbishop Carey has succumbed to that thesis. However the Archbishop is right to point us to substantial evidence that the Reformation was not as popular as hitherto suggested and that it was substantially imposed from above. However the reign of Mary Tudor and the threats to Elizabeth from abroad and the influence of the BCP resulted in a popularity for what would be called Anglicanism which even survived the Puritan top-down imposition of the Interregnum.

    A more responsible approach is to evaluate Anglicanism on its own merits rather than in reaction either to classical Roman Catholicism or confessional Protestantism. What it became is much more than the substance of its original parts and what it became is better viewed by examining what it became rather than seeking out golden ages upon which to establish a thesis.

    Modern Episcopalianism might be viewed as being a body influenced by the trappings of the Oxford Movement and the optimistic social doctrines of between the Wars liberal mainstream Protestantism. It remembers little of its origins. It is for this reason that the return of Evangelicalism in the 60s was and is greeted as an alien invasion rather than a return to something which was never the whole but a significant strand in its DNA.

  3. wvparson says:

    I apologize to Archbishop Carey. That’s what comes of commenting early in the morning. The writer was his son, Andrew, to whom, in part, my reply is now a response.

  4. robroy says:

    An excellent essay.

    “Should Anglicanism be solely defined by relationship to Canterbury?” My answer is the current ABC is purposefully vague to the point of dissembling. It is obvious that his machinations and subterfuge killed the DeS communique. My trust in him is zero. (So that would be a no.)

    “Only a few years ago, liberal Americans were arguing that the Bishop and diocese were the basic ecclesiological unit and therefore that was where these controversial decisions on same sex blessings and gay clergy should be taken.” If this is the case, and Lambeth 1.10 is the standard teaching of the church as Rowan Williams has stated, why has he not disavowed those dioceses that participated in the ordination of VGR?

    The answer is that the letter of Rowan Williams was fantasy. No bearing in reality. A waste of time.
    [blockquote]Remove far from me vanity and lies.[/blockquote]

  5. Ephraim Radner says:

    WVP points to some rather important historical defects in Carey’s (and by proxy, McGrath’s) argument. Even in England, the notion of a “national church” for Anglicanism was always constrained by its forthright and immovable (so it seemed) commitment to the episcopacy, understood in a relatively robust way. When offered the opportunities for greater comprehension, these were always rejected for the sake of maintaining the episcopacy. The reasons for doing so initially varied, but more and more centered around a self-consciously mined notion of ecclesial existence drawn from the patristic era and the New Testament (read in a certain way, obviously). Althought the C. of E. did in fact suffer a range of theological dilutions over the years, it is not clear that “comprehension” in the end was the main reason. After all, most denominations have done the same, including those most opposed to the establishment claims and demands of the C. of E..

    There is a great difference between the claim to diocesan “autonomy” and “communion in the Church through one’s bishop”. Williams’ note regarding communion with Canterbury is not, as the “clarification” from Lambeth points out, about some new “polity”; it is, in the local context of the original letter, simply pointing out that the larger character of communion with the greater Church (in this case — as Bp. Howe wished to have stated in a small compass — Canterbury, but it could be any other representative of the church) is through the diocesan bishop, not through the Province or national church, which is an organizing entity rather than a “sacramental” reality. The letter did not say nor was it designed to say that there is not a greater sacramental reality (and therefore authority) given to the “Communion” of churches through their bishops, especially as “gathered” (and Provinces do find a place here, but not supremely or definitively), to which individual bishops and dioceses have accountability practically, theologically, and spiritually.

    Finally, Carey’s notion of the “capture” of Anglicanism by a “catholic ecclesiology” misstates the actual historical dynamic at work (it certainly seems to lay it out negatively, anyway), which has not been driven by ecumencial dialogues (they are, in large part, the product, not the origin) but by the evolution of a world-wide church and its lived relations, through its bishops. That is, by mission. “Catholicism” is a missionary reality primarily. It withers when mission withers; it revives when mission revives. But because the Gospel’s mission is also about “oneness’, as Jesus himself says, the two go together.

  6. William Tighe says:

    Re: #2,

    The first paragraph is a good succinct summary of a complicated history. On Hooker and the extent and limitations of his influence, “wv parson” might like to consult *Anglicans and Puritans?* by Peter Lake (1988). (Lake’s question mark after the title indicates his strong dissent from John New’s little book *Anglican and Puritan: the Basis of Their Opposition* [1964].) It concludes with a very good section on Hooker’s “marginal” status within the CofE in his lifetime, and his posthumous status as the “Defender of Anglicanism” when (in Lake’s view) he was in reality its inventor.

  7. BabyBlue says:

    Let’s have a dose of reality here, as we head into the court room in three weeks.

    This is not how 815 will win its lawsuits – hence the slapdown following John Howe’s release of Rowan Williams letter. 815 has all ready been confronted with Rowan’s letter and within hours we received that so-called “clarification” from someone who felt it necessarily to explain what Rowan Williams really meant when he said what Andrew here explains he said. Obviously, Rowan didn’t check with the 815 legal team before sending his heartfelt letter to John Howe and you can see the legal language that has been inserted in the “clarification.”

    For 815 it’s all about the lawsuits – if 815 wins the lawsuits then they will solidify their centralized power and who cares then what Rowan thinks?


  8. Christoferos says:

    The question that +++Rowan does not answer is whether a bishop is in Apostolic succession because he continues in Apostolic teaching, or rather because the particular person sitting in Canterbury’s chair says that they are still in communion. Windsor compliance does not necessarily mean a bishop is in compliance with the apostles’ teaching, which is what apostolic succession is for. Demanding obedience from faithful people who are under bishops who are non-Windsor compliant (or barely Windsor compliant) seems to fly in the face of what Williams notes in his book on Arius was commonplace in pre-Constantinian Christianity: the moral authority of people who pointed out when bishops were not continuing in the Apostles’ teaching. Williams seems suggest that there is no place for my church, which after one year is 200 and growing and thriving and “Anglican” because of its distinctives. Were it not for Rwanda’s lack of compliance with Windsor, these folks would have nowhere in the entire Diocese where they could go to hear the apostles’ teaching. Isn’t it ironic to suggest that bishops are the focus of unity when they are unified by Canterbury, not the apostles’ teaching, which is what they should have if they are truly in the succession of the apostles? It seems to me that we should, in the post-Christian, post-establishment church West, return to pre-Constantinian ecclesiology, rather than think of some “ecclesiolocial golden age” of one centralized bureaucracy and visible unity. The unity in the early church, wherever it was, was measured by the plumb line of the apostles’ teaching, not by their “communion” with whatever “first among equals” they could ingratiate themselves to politically. For Rowan Williams to have such a muddled ecclesiology does not help us as we are holding out the words of life in ways the Episcopal Churches around us will not. If we had waited for this Diocese to plant this kind of church which actually grows through conversions because of the power of the kerygma, we would have had to wait 15 years and then be told we were too “conservative” because we didn’t allow unitarianism to flourish alongside the Gospel.

  9. William Tighe says:

    Re: #5,

    “Anglicanism was always constrained by its forthright and immovable (so it seemed) commitment to the episcopacy, understood in a relatively robust way.”

    I would agree with this statement, provided it be understood as referring to the period after 1620 wrt “forthright and immoveable” or, perhaps, to the period after about 1590 wrt “relatively robust” (cf. Richard Bancroft’s Paul’s Cross Sermon of Feb 1589, Anthony Marten’s aggressive defense of episcopacy in 1590, Bancroft’s defense of episcopacy, in the form of a slashing attack on the Genevan Church in *A Survay of the Pretended Holy Discipline* of 1592 and Thomas Bilson’s *The Perpetual Government of Christ’s Church* of 1593). Before that date, apologists for the Elizabethan Settlement (such as Archbishop Whitgift) defended it simply on the basis that as (a) there is no Church Polity mandated in Scripture, (b) the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church desired an episcopal polity and (c) the Church of England was thoroughly Reformed in its doctrine, rejecting the errors of both the Catholics and the Lutherans, it followed that (d) all English Protestants ought to submit quietly to the Queen’s will in that respect.

    Peter Lake’s book, referenced above, discusses these matters in some detail. More recently, G. W. Jenkins, in his *John Jewel and the English National Church: the Dilemmas of an Erastian Reformer* (2005) shows how Jewel, for whom there was no essential difference between bishops and presbyters, felt constrained by loyalty to the Queen (for who he privately expressed some disdain) to accept aspects of the Elizabethan Settlement to which he felt some string repugnance (as insufficiently purged of “popish errors”), and to defend them. Anthony Milton’s *Catholic and Reformed: the Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought 1600-1640* (1995) demonstrates with great clarity and at considerable length how the colleagues and disciples of Lancelot Andrewes (“the Caroline Divines” or “the Laudians”) attempted to effect, and in the short run succeeded, a total change in the self-perception of the Church of England, such that “Anglicanism” stood equally aloof, albeit in different ways, from Continental Protestantism (Reformed and Lutheran alike) and Roman Catholicism.

  10. Ephraim Radner says:

    #8: You are right; he has not really grappled publicly with the question of apostolic teaching and its relationship to episcopacy, and he should. I think, to be fair to him, that he does indeed have a view about these matters, and it is one that is probably, in the end, more sympathetic to your sense of the teaching integrity of the church than you might imagine. However, I agree that he has not properly addressed this, and has rather allowed processes like the Covenant to take the place of such a discussion (and it can do this, up to a point, but only up to a point).

    Myself, I believe that the AMiA is indeed, as you indicate, a blessing to you and to other individuals. I believe that, as a missionary organization, it could and should be a blessing to the whole church. It is the latter possibility that is being constrained by the breakdown of order within the Communion, for which all parties share a great deal of responsibility, including Abp. Kolini.

  11. John A. says:

    #5 So, does that imply that our primary work must be to clarify and revitalize the mission to which we are all committed? What happens if we cannot agree on the mission?

  12. j.m.c. says:

    [blockquote]Only a few years ago, liberal Americans were arguing that the Bishop and diocese were the basic ecclesiological unit and therefore that was where these controversial decisions on same sex blessings and gay clergy should be taken.[/blockquote]
    I am very interested in this and would like to read more about it – any info very welcome, I’ll be back to these comments.

  13. Ephraim Radner says:

    #11: If we cannot agree on either apostolic teaching OR the thrust of our mission — “we” in this case being Anglicans of whatever stripe — are “Anglicanism” is not bound any longer to the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, but is a kind of ersatz groping about for spiritual fulfilment. After all, we are called to be “propagating the historic faith and order”, as earlier Lambeths and various constitutions (e.g. TEC’s) assert. That is why the currently proposed agenda for next year’s Lambeth Conference is both important but being poorly founded. It is about “mission”, but (at least as I understand its current direction) it will avoid matters of “teaching”. This is nonsense, if true. Those who attend — and while, I recognize the mess involved right now in discerning the matter of attendance — should insist that teaching be part of the agenda. Or, the matter or basis of such teaching needs to be settled, in some practical way, before the Conference. Here is where #8 above points to an essential task that lies before Canterbury, the Primates, and the ACC — indeed, before all of us: get clear about what pieces need to be practically resolved in order to do the job we’ve been given to do; and then resolve them. Anglicanism — to get back to the thread — has indeed, in the past century (cf. Lambeth 1930, but also earlier), made it clear that “councils of bishops” (and not only or necessarily [indeed, just the opposite] national councils of bishops) are the means by which we are called to do this sorting out. So: bishops must meet, pray, sutdy the Scriptures together, listen, discern, and decide. In one sense, this is exactly what the Lambeth Conference is meant to offer. But so many limitations are being placed on its meeting and character, that it appears that no one wants really to go about this business. But if not Lambeth, than who? And if not today, when? And… you know the rest.

  14. KAR says:

    It seems to me, any Catholic Argument for Anglicanism would do every thing it could to uphold Apostolic Canons. I have a real hard time accepting that Anglicanism has done that and recent letters between +Howe and Canterbury do not seem to those while seeking to establish Apostolic continuity. It is more laughable now with not only women clergy but female episcopate (let alone a married episcopate) than when Apostolicae Curae was written.

    I can respect Forward in Faith because they are consistent. However +Howe was the very charismatic rector at Truro (which apparently became more towards the evangelical under +Minns (based on other opinions, I was not there throughout) and a liberal Anglo-Catholic academic to suddenly trot out a very traditional Apostolic Succession view seems inconsistent with the breath of their works. It is also inconsistent with Tradition.

  15. evan miller says:

    Thanks to all commenters on this thread. It’s been really informative.

  16. Mike Watson says:

    Re #7: I don’t doubt that “815” complained, but it is hard to see how they got anything very useful as a result, let alone accomplished a slapdown. The statement issued by the Lambeth press office did not retract or amend anything anything said in the Archbishop’s letter to Bishop Howe. Nor does it dispute anything that could reasonably be inferred from the letter. “Clarification” appears to be a term applied by others, not the Archbishop or his spokesperson.

    The statement from the Lambeth press office says that the structure of the national church serves the dioceses and reiterates that “the diocese is more than a ‘local branch’ of a national organization.” Compare that with the TEC’s complaint against the Virginia parishes and others, which says on its first page that the diocese is a “geographical subdivision” of the Church, with “Church” being defined as TEC. A few pages later in the complaint, a “hierarchical” organizational structure is described wherein General Convention occupies the “highest level.” The dioceses are at the level below with their role being to “assist” in carrying out the Church’s (i.e., TEC’s) mission in their respective defined geographic territories.

  17. Id rather not say says:

    As I have pointed out in another thread, I think it worth pondering in connection with the ABC’s letter that TEC is unique (I think) among Anglican provinces in that it’s primate [i]has no diocese.[/i]

    How might that impact considerations of “polity” and the authority of the bishop?

  18. RevAlex says:

    [blockquote] Yet as recent historians have pointed out the original English reformation was far more self-consciously about finding a middle way between Zwingli and Luther than between Rome and Geneva.[/blockquote]

    He’s exactly right. As Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ashley Knull have pointed out, Cranmer was for years and years pushing the theological understanding of Luther and the sacramental understadning of Bucer. The real Via Media was King Henry VIII who wanted to nix the Pope but keep many Catholic practices and Sacraments that were against the Protestant understanding of Justification by Faith.

  19. wildfire says:


    Isn’t the PB the ordinary for Europe? I believe this is the basis on which +Griswold voted in favor of consenting to +Gene Robinson’s election in 2003.

  20. wamark says:

    It seems to me that Rev Alex points out the formative and profound truth of Anglicanism that I came to understand through several summers of study at Oxford. It is a truth that American Episcopalianism has never really understood because of the inordinate influence of the Oxford movement on the formation of the ECUSA, especially at a time when it was moving westward. Ephraim Radner also seems to be locked up in his own mythical conceptual framework in this regard and as a result is either intellectually unwilling or unable to effectively deal this formative truth.

  21. William Tighe says:

    Re: #18 (and #20),

    While I would agree with “RevAlex’s” quoatation, his own addition needs correction. Martin Bucer was the mentor of John Calvin; their views on the sacraments, and particularly on the Eucharist, coincide almost exactly. I can’t speak for the views of Ashley Null, but I am well enough acquainted with the oeuvre of MacCulloch (as well as the man himself) to say that he views Cranmer’s views on the Eucharist as virtually identical with those of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, and not with those of Bucer. It is an open question as to how much Bullinger’s views differed from those of Zwingli, although he certainly used different terms in expressing them. Shortly after MacC’s big biography of Cranmer appeared I sent him a copy of the two-part article in the 1988 issues of *Lutheran Quarterly* by Paul Rorem on “Calvin and Bullinger on the Lord’s Supper” and he responded by stating that he regretted not having found it before writing his book, as it would have added force to his own views about Cranmer’s theological position (he referenced the article on the same subject by Bruce Gerrish published in the latter’s essay collection, *The Old Protestantism and the New*) as identical with that of Bullinger.

    If one examines closely Bucer’s censures on the 1459 Prayer Book which he wrote for Cranmer, and then compares them with what Cranmer produced in 1552, it easily appears that far from accepting Bucer’s praise of phrases in the former expressive of a strong view of a “Real Presence” Cranmer removed or eviscerated all of them.

  22. Id rather not say says:

    #19 I though Pierre Whalon was the ordinary for Europe. Am I mistaken?

    BTW, I find both Kearon’s and McGrath’s arguments strange, as well as some of the commentary here, suggesting as they do that there was a “real Anglicanism” that was principally inspired by one school or another of continental reformers, and that the Oxford Movement came along and obscured this “original Anglicanism.” Certainly no one in the Oxford Movement thought that was what they were doing, and they weren’t, unless you believe that a devotion to Hooker and Andrewes betrays some sort of “true Anglicanism.”

  23. wildfire says:


    This is starting to sound like a Lambeth Palace clarification:

    Strictly speaking, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has jurisdiction over the Convocation, but this responsibility is entirely delegated to the Bishop in Charge.

  24. Mike Watson says:

    Re #22: I believe the arrangement is that the PB has jurisdiction but there is a suffragan on the ground, currently Whalon.

  25. Mike Watson says:

    I now see Mark McCall covered this before I sent #24.

  26. wamark says:

    #22…that is a misconception of the Oxford movement according to Brian Spinks who was on the liturgical standing committee for the CofE. The Oxford movement, at least with its founder Keble, was concerned with the restoration of the 1549 prayer book (more Lutheran with a higher sacramental theology) in place of the the more Calvinistic 1552 prayer book. Only later did the Oxford movement wander off into more “catholic” and ritualistic pretensions which were vigorously opposed by most bishops, clergy and laity…hence the “surplice riots” in parts of England.

  27. AnglicanFirst says:

    Comments #8 and #10 make sense.

    The closer to the Word and early church that decisions and creeds, canons, doctrines and statements made by man have originated, the surer I am of their Holy Spirit origin.

    The institutionalization of the church over the centuries has created error after error and the compounding of error upon error.

    Finally, church leadership has far too often provided a “bully pulpit” for those who are guided by personal prejudice and agendas, ambition, and secular loyalties that have little or nothing to do with “the faith once given.”

  28. rob k says:

    Speaking of hi-jacking, maybe it was the attempt of Continental Protestantism, often of the Reformed variety, to hi-jack the very catholic ecclesial body known as the Church of England. Ideologues flurished especially under the reigh of young KIng Edward, enabled by the power of the state, to impose their beliefs on the English Church.

  29. rob k says:

    Speaking of hi-jacking, maybe it was the attempt of Continental Protestantism, often of the Reformed variety, to hi-jack the very catholic ecclesial body known as the Church of England. Ideologues flurished especially under the reigh of young KIng Edward, enabled by the power of the state, to impose their beliefs on the English Church.