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Unity and Universality, Locality and Diversity in Anglicanism

Sunday 11th January 2009

A contribution to the Second Receptive Ecumenism Conference, 11-14 January 2009, Ushaw College, Durham: 'Receptive Ecumenism and Ecclesial Learning: Learning to Be Church Together'.


When Martin Luther began to question the authority of the Papacy, he initially wanted to appeal to a council of some sort; that is, he saw himself to some extent in the succession of those who, a century or so earlier, had attempted to resolve the divisions between rival claimants to the Papacy and to promote the union of Christians in East and West by means of a general convocation of the bishops of Christendom. For Luther, there had to be some means of establishing definitively that certain devotional practices, and the theologies that had developed to justify them, had become actively subversive of the heart of Christian faith – the heart of the faith, that is, as it was increasingly being made plain in its primitive contours through educated study of the Bible. The Papacy was not, he believed, capable of reforming itself or challenging its own self-interest, and something different was required; there was enough of an alternative tradition around to do with conciliar processes to offer some encouragement. But, as it became more and more obvious that such a process was not going to be initiated, Luther turned to the 'Christian Prince' as the only alternative capable of deciding – and enforcing – change in the Church.

As rapidly emerged, this was welcome news to a good many who had rather less principled interest in theological reconstruction; and the second great phase of the European Reformation shows the recoil of some of the most principled reforming minds from what seemed to be the short cut of appeal to a political authority of uncertain and mutable theological conviction. Calvinist polity established a suspicion of merely de facto political power as deep as that of Thomas Aquinas, and the systematic Calvinist (in this as in some other areas) was as unwelcome a presence as the systematic Thomist in many of the newly shaped states of Renaissance Europe. The Church itself had to determine its doctrine, not the prince; and the Church itself had to be defined – in an inevitably somewhat circular fashion – as the ensemble of Christian communities that were prepared to accept the critical pressure of Scripture upon the existing arrangements of ecclesiastical polity. It was, from one point of view, a sort of conciliarism in a new key, the conciliar process of bodies that had repudiated other ways of settling disputes through the violent intervention (as it was seen) of centralised power, whether in Church or state terms.

And in the middle of all this, the Church of England in its modern form emerged and attempted to deal with its first major crises. The Henrician break with Rome was always a theologically indeterminate affair from the point of view of the King and many of his advisers: those aspects of Catholic practice and piety that were abolished under Henry were so treated largely because they were capable of reinforcing a sense of the independence of the clerical estate from the Crown, rather than because of a clearly 'Reformed' theological agenda. What had happened in England was that a political decision about a dynastic marriage had been severely complicated as a result of appeal to Rome; royal marriages had been declared null for far less defensible reasons in the preceding centuries when sufficient pressure had been applied, but Henry had the misfortune to make his appeal at a point when the political interest of the Papacy was against any such declaration. (He also had the misfortune of having to deal with an unusually strong-willed, devoted, courageous and principled wife.) For him and for many of the clerics who held high office at the time, the divorce debate simply illustrated the risks and futilities of an appeals system so vulnerable to the ups and downs of a foreign political entity. What made this different from potentially similar mediaeval standoffs, however, was the new availability of a critique of the papal right to act as a universal supreme court. Initially – as in Thomas Cranmer's first intervention in the debate – this involved the possibility of appeal to the universities of Christendom; but this rapidly merged into a native version of appeal to the Christian Prince. And those like More and Fisher who resisted this did so on the grounds that, whatever the weaknesses of the old system, it had embodied a clear process of submitting local decisions to a universal tribunal: having the prince as appellate authority simply ran the risk of isolation from 'Christendom' in any meaningful sense of that word – from that universal body of believers in whom alone was vested the authority of Christ, and which spoke through its apostolically authenticated hierarchy.


I have begun with this very rapid and inadequate sketch of a few historical points in order to draw out the fact that much of the Reformation was a debate about where ultimate appeal lay for the Church. And in England in particular this emerged as a political – and even narrowly legal – issue before it became a fully fledged theological one. The answer that was forming in Henry VIII's later years (and was to be reinforced in some rather startling ways under his successor) was connected to a doctrine of God's providential raising up of rulers to whom was committed the spiritual renewal of their people – a belief rooted in a particular reading of the Old Testament, and requiring an unprecedentedly high doctrine of royal charism. In case the point is not clear, it should be said that this was not about the power of something called 'the state' over something else called 'the Church', but a radically re-Hebraised doctrine of the Church as a recognizably political thing, in which those who were technically laity could still enjoy an authority that was as directly rooted in divine grace and illumination as that of any cleric. This is why sixteenth century England became one of those states referred to a little earlier in which both Catholic and Calvinist were suspect.

Yet this was never the whole story of the Reformed Church of England – as is illustrated precisely by those debates involving Calvinists and, if not Catholics in the simple sense of ecclesial communion, at least those with a historical and theological conscience about Christendom as a whole. English Calvinists in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were very much aware of belonging to a sort of 'Protestant International'; the practice of 'the best Reformed Churches' was something that could be prayed in aid to commend various practices (including, incidentally, the continuing liberty of the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant dispensations from university residence for those seeking degrees – i.e. the Church's continuing authority as the source of legitimacy for what we would call higher education). And this international connection, which was by no means restricted to radical 'disciplinarians' in the Church of England (i.e., those who under Elizabeth pressed for a more comprehensive Reformed polity), is a reminder that the question about where the final courts of appeal lay was never absolutely and finally settled in the theological sphere, even if it was determined in the law of the land. Richard Hooker's defence of the English settlement, in its own time an alarmingly unconventional document, both reinforced the sense of the Church as in some ways a political unit (the realm in its spiritual identity) and broadened its theological method to insist upon a search for a kind of consensus in theological history; it marks a growing interest in 'primitive' patristic and even, in a limited way, post-patristic consensus as an authoritative if informal court of appeal, whatever the precise outworkings of the Crown's legal supremacy.

Thus, English representatives can as a matter of course attend the Calvinist Synod of Dort in 1618 as participants in the 'Protestant International'; and Archbishop William Laud, no less, can warn against the risk of the state corrupting the Church's historically determined doctrine and spiritual integrity when it is itself forgetful of its obligations to God. The point is that the English Reformed settlement was never just a matter of legal positivism (that doctrine, like the law, is what the courts of the land say it is) nor was it a matter of pure local judgement. It depended, certainly, upon a strictly defined point of law – that there was no appeal outside the realm for legally binding decisions about matters of dispute in the Church any more than there was for matters of dispute in other areas; but it also in various ways both assumed and argued for processes of theological discernment that were not in any simple way bound to this constraint. It searched for ways of articulating theological consensus, through the Reformed 'conciliarity' of international discussion among Protestant experts, and, in other and less systematically Calvinist circles, through the increasingly sophisticated accumulation of 'primitive' (early Christian) consent – which became a matter of first importance as trinitarian disputes became more acute in the later seventeenth century, and also a significant reminder that contemporary theological consensus was answerable to certain established canons of recognizable Christian orthodoxy. It is a nice irony that, in the seventeenth century, it was French Jesuit scholars who were least worried by apparent lack of consensus or doctrinal clarity in the patristic period precisely because the positive authority of the See of Rome could be invoked to settle disputed questions. The savants of the Church of England – the historians of doctrine and commentators on the Creed, like Pearson and Bull – had to work harder to demonstrate continuities and coherence in the Fathers; and it is another nice irony that they enjoyed some popularity among Gallican prelates in France, suspicious of Jesuit positivism and incipient ultramontanism

These issues persist in doctrinal debate through the eighteenth century and emerge in dramatic new colours in the nineteenth, as the controversies provoked by John Henry Newman's early work demonstrate; but that is another matter. The central point is that the Reformed Church of England, having begun its independent life in the context of a debate over where appeal could be made in matters of theology and discipline, refused –along with other Reformed (and, for that matter, Orthodox) churches - the solution of a universal 'chief magistrate', partly on the grounds that such a universal magistrate could not be relied upon to be properly universal so long as his office was enmeshed in political interests. But in so refusing a universal judge, it did not yield to what I have called a positivism of the local state as a strictly doctrinal authority. It continued to search for intelligible grounds for consensus, sometimes in a more obviously narrowly Reformed fashion, sometimes with an eye primarily to the 'primitive accord' of the Church of the early centuries. And it is essential to recognize that this interest in the early Church was not – as it is so often represented – an appeal to a kind of archaeological purity, but a serious effort to articulate and display the 'grammar' of a universal Christian language as it was reflected inseparably in theological speculation and in liturgical worship, prior to those major schisms which had destroyed the visible unity of Christendom. It was and is neither an unintelligible nor a purely antiquarian and untheological enterprise.

To oversimplify rather drastically, the theological method of the Church of England sought in its Reformation period to supplement the appeal to the Christian Prince with an appeal to processes of shared investigation of the Christian heritage, and to efforts towards settling a contemporary consensus across diverse Reformed bodies. The latter tends to wither on the vine during the seventeenth century, with the deepened polarisation in England itself between those who still regarded the Reformation as incomplete and those who increasingly insisted upon the maintenance of signs of universal consensus through the historic ministry. The Thirty Years War and related conflicts also did much to dissolve and even discredit what I called earlier the 'Protestant International' model, and England's Protestantism became in many ways both more insular and more political (nationalistic). But the history of the Church of England's theology amply shows how deeply the concern went for 'diachronic' consensus, for that focal sense of a core element to doctrine defined by the accord of the early centuries.


These historical observations may cast a little light on the present difficulties of what we now call 'Anglicanism'. So far, I have avoided the term as representing an anachronistic understanding of how the intellectuals of the Church of England saw themselves in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; however, as time went on, the weakening of any residual notion of the English realm as a confessional state combines with the growth of affiliation to the Church of England outside the boundaries of that realm to produce an identity which is unmistakeably more like that of a global confession than that of a national church. And the history I have been sketching ought to make us cautious about assuming that the 'essential' principle of this identity is the autonomy of the local or national church without qualification. The Reformed Church of England undoubtedly repudiated the idea of a supranational court of appeal, and did so in a context of Renaissance / early modern absolutism which is now as unattractive as it is politically inaccessible; but any serious study of the period will show that the refusal of the Pope's 'magistracy' did not entail an ideological commitment to local/national liberties in every area of doctrine or practice. The two strands I have described – involvement in international consultation, and appeal to antiquity – make it plain that, while no external authority can be invoked to coerce the local church in the realm of England, this does not imply that that church's doctrine and discipline are no-one's business but its own.

And there is the continuing dilemma of historic Anglicanism – the denial of a central executive authority in the Church Catholic, yet also the concern for a Christian identity that is not simply local – either in the geographical sense or in the perhaps even more tempting historical sense of being held answerable only to the common sense of the present age. Without entering here into the bitterly contested area of the Anglican Communion's efforts to manage diversity in sexual ethics (though some of the implications of the historical map I have drawn will not be hard to work out), we might look at the way in which the not much less contested matter of women's ordination has been discussed.

This is perhaps the most obvious area where independence and accountability have been in tension. Those who have supported women's ordination have appealed to the lack of a specifically theological consensus forbidding it, and thus to the local church's liberty in such a matter. Those opposed have appealed to the relative silence of the tradition as evidence for the fact that it would be at least grossly premature to speak of anything approaching consensus over the very status of the question. But for some (and I include myself here), it has been a deeply significant part of the process that the discussion of women's ordination has gone on in tandem with an ecumenical process – primarily in ARCIC but also through the Faith and Order Commission – that has sought to define the essentials of ordained apostolic ministry in ways recognizable to all major participants in the global encounter of churches. There has been a serious effort to maintain what I have called the 'grammar' of talk about the ordained ministry as something in principle universal; and although more recent Roman Catholic declarations have strongly suggested that there can be no such agreed grammar without an explicit reference to issues of gender, this is not quite where either the ARCIC or the Faith and Order processes found themselves a couple of decades ago.

What I am suggesting is that, for all the gravity of debate around this matter, the way in which it has been considered in the Church of England and other provinces of the Communion has illustrated something of the method that the Reformation period implies – that is, not accepting a decision from elsewhere, but equally seeking a common language in which to continue the discussion and the consequent relationship. To make a brief point out of a massive debate and agenda, it may be that this is how we should be conceiving the task of learning to understand each other and the limits of our shared discourse in the current disputes over sexuality as well. And I would argue that the new concept of an Anglican Covenant is precisely conceived as an organ for that kind of process: an acceptance of mutual accountability with the degree of self-restraint that goes with this, as a condition for seeking common theological perception and practical policy. The idea that such a Covenant is alien to the historic genius of Anglicanism is, I believe, a misreading of that history as if it were simply a validation of local liberty.

If this is correct, then the present discussions about the Covenant form one important way in which the historic path of what is now 'Anglicanism' can feed into wider ecumenical debate. If the Church needs to move away from centralised positive authority, from the model of a supreme magistracy, what are the relations and structures that will enable proper accountability to the wider time and space of Christian tradition? What then will preserve the churches from a localism that can be - as Anglican history also demonstrates in painful and unattractive ways – arrogant, uncritical, jingoistic and culturally illiterate, as well as profoundly impoverished both spiritually and theologically? And if such a mutual search for proper accountability is to be effective and well-ordered, then how do we conceive the role of anything like universal primacy? If it is not an executive function but a convening and moderating one, 'presiding in agape' in Ignatius' words, what is the structural shape of this? The evolution of the See of Canterbury into a quasi-patriarchal reality may be, as some from both 'left' and 'right' in the Communion love to point out, a colonial hangover; but it is inevitable that, even in the microcosm of Anglican fellowship the issue should arise of how the local churches are to be legitimately convened and ordered. The marginalising of Canterbury would not of itself solve that question. And the question itself simply focuses the issue of properly 'evangelical' primacy as it arises in the macrocosm of global Christianity.

If I were to raise the rhetorical temperature here a little, I'd want to suggest that the kind of Anglican self-scrutiny here outlined, both historical and theological, might even be read as posing to the churches in general the question of what an effective but 'non-violent' universal consensus would be like in the Church Catholic – a passion for universal understanding and a common vocabulary of faith and of service that did not depend on a residual model of any kind of magistracy. The language of 'courts of appeal' tells its own tale; part of the story I have been sketching is of a church in which the pressure of certain legal questions distorted the church's self-understanding in a number of ways, even if it did not finally obliterate it. Whatever canonical processes and sanctions may appear form time to time, we need to be able to think about how we are accountable to each another (and to the Body of Christ across the centuries) outside the frame of jurisprudence. And because this is a weighty spiritual rather than simply organizational issue, it is neither easy nor brief to deal with.

My aim here has been to tell something of the story of the self-understanding of the Church of England in its post-Reformation history, and of the global fellowship that has emerged from that history in a way that draws out how a non-centralised body that still believes itself answerable to Scripture and primitive tradition preserves a common language and practice without betraying a core instinct about the risks of universal executive power. It is probably abundantly clear that the Anglican story does more to define the problem than to clarify the solution, given that we are still searching for structures that will embody what we believe must be embodied. Yet it is not entirely misleading to say that this is in itself the mark of a church that seeks to be 'biblical': the New Testament Church is not a single structure, but nether is it a conglomerate of local enterprises, regarding others with more or less benign indifference. II Corinthians makes it as plain as could be that the flourishing of one community is bound up with – and directed towards – the flourishing of others, that there is no such thing as wealth or resource that is simply the business of one local body – a point that is surely applicable as much to spiritual as to material resources. Paul struggles to broker and organize practical relations that will honour this, and this is at the heart of his apostolic authority. And the implication is clear that genuinely apostolic authority is what shapes and directs believing communities into mutual service and common witness - whether we are speaking of the ministry of any local pastor, or diocesan bishop, or of the Petrine ministry as it might be.

The Anglican heritage has been plagued by the temptations of political positivism, nationalism, insularity and cultural self-satisfaction; but it has also consistently (with varying degrees of self-consciousness, it must be admitted) tried to embody a faithfulness to the conviction of given and authoritative revelation, and universal Christian consensus and continuity. For many, this is an exercise in circle-squaring; but I don't think it is any more or less so than the entire enterprise of the Church as the New Testament envisages it, the body (the Body) which is truly one in the mutual gift of its members – since that gift is, simply, Christ.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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