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