Anglican identities

This review first appeared in Reformation and Renaissance Review 7;1 (2005), 131-2. Whilst reading through it again, I was struck by how topical it remains, and indeed how far sharpened have been some of the questions of Anglican unity and identity the two books raise. They appear here with minor modifications.


Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (London; Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004)
Edward Norman, Anglican Difficulties (London; Continuum, 2004)

Much work concerning Anglican identity has tended towards two centres of gravity. For many years, analysis of late Tudor and early Stuart religion accepted a straight-forward divide between consensual, moderate, ‘English’ Anglicans and doctrinaire, inflexible, disruptive Puritans. For a new generation of scholars from the 1980s, a new force of anti-Calvinists or Arminians became the grit in an otherwise harmonious Calvinist oyster. Alongside  this replacement of one bi-polar paradigm with another, scholars such as Peter White, and most recently Judith Maltby have sought to carve out a distinctive middle way for nascent Anglicanism, and one less dependent on rival theologies of grace. Anglican identity is to be found in attachment to the Book of Common Prayer and to the rituals and rites of passage of the now genuinely national church.

At the same time, a more present-minded historical approach has been somehow to attempt to capture the spirit or ‘genius’ of Anglicanism; to divine what the Church of England’s secret is that allows it to hold seemingly wildly divergent groups together in the late twentieth century. Bishops and historians, Stephen Sykes, Stephen Neill and John Booty among them have tried to explain how a church, hybrid in its formation and almost pathologically reticent in defining itself, has managed to survive.

The two works under review here both attempt to contribute to the latter debate by means of the former, whilst coming to very different conclusions. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, in a collection of occasional papers and lectures, seeks to explore the loci of Anglican identity, whilst acknowledging the difficulty of the task by the plural of the title. The core Williams locates is not a legislative, ecclesiological one, nor an attachment to ritual. Neither is it to be found in distinctively Anglican doctrines of, say, pre-destination or the Eucharist. It is rather in an attitude to epistemology and a mode of theological engagement with the notion of truth. When faced with the task of engaging with the work of God, Anglicans have been characterised  by an attitude of ‘passionate patience’ whilst faced by ‘immensities of meaning … in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling.’ Lest this might suggest a creeping relativism, Williams’ passionately engaged seekers after the truth of God would assent to the immutability of that truth, whilst  remaining reticent about definitive pronouncement about it.

Each of the essays here is lucid and judicious, making some demands on the reader but with ample reward. For specialists in the English Reformations, the pieces on William Tyndale, Richard Hooker and George Herbert are rich and suggestive. Hooker, so often appropriated as exemplary of every shade of Anglican opinion, emerges here as a ‘contemplative pragmatist’, steering a painstaking course between ecclesiastical authoritarianism and creeping scepticism. Williams’ evocation of Herbert’s perseverance in the face of his Afflictions is the clearest example of the type of ‘passionate patience’ he delineates in the Introduction.

It is in the treatment of these figures as exemplary of a distinctive Anglican approach that an objection arises, although perhaps not one that could ever have been met in a volume of occasional papers such as this. If these are indeed Anglicans avant la lettre, then it may be concluded that the Church of England was not Anglican for perhaps 150 years after its formation. It is difficult to imagine John Jewel or Edmund Grindal, William Laud or Lancelot Andrewes, George Abbot or William Perkins easily fitting this template. It would also be necessary to show a continuity in thought over the two centuries here between Herbert and the next subject, B.F. Westcott, to decide whether such passionate patience is a abiding characteristic of Anglicanism, or a product of more modern and post-modern circumstances. It would be a shame if such a subtle collection as this were unintentionally to fuel an uncritical reading-back of modern Anglican self-fashioning into earlier periods. It is however, perhaps an occasion for optimism that the occupant of the see of Canterbury has sufficient intellectual range to deal with Tyndale and John A.T. Robinson in the same volume, and all the pieces here reward repeated reading.

For Edward Norman, retiring Chancellor of York Minster, Fellow of Peterhouse and former Reith lecturer, there is rather less ambiguity in the sources of identity in the Church of England. For Norman, such musing on identity would be so much rearranging of deck-chairs on a rapidly sinking ship, as the Church of England has no core. The Roman Catholic church in England is better placed to withstand the storms of secular humanism and religious consumerism is that it has a clear sense of its own nature. The problem for Norman is one of ecclesiology, and its roots are traced directly back to the Reformation. By cutting itself off from the historic church  and ecumenical councils, the Church of England was left without any universal consensus fidelium to which to appeal, and its erastian polity made impossible the development of any alternative means of defining doctrine. These incompatibilities, submerged for a while by emphasis on the Protestant nature of the church and by universal use of the Book of Common Prayer, were exposed successively by Tractarian revival in the nineteenth century and secularisation in the twentieth. The impulse to accommodate difference, to value unity over clarity, is an Anglican hallmark for Norman as well as for many other commentators. The difference is that it is for Norman symptomatic of the incapacity of the church to formulate doctrine at all. If Norman is right, it will also prove the church’s downfall within a generation.

Readers will draw their own conclusions as to which of these visions of Anglican identity promises most, but their simultaneous appearance affords an opportunity to compare divergent uses of the Reformation past in the contemporary church, and may profitably be read by those interested in either.

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