What is Anglicanism? A review essay

[This is an extended version of a review that appeared in Reading Religion, the review journal of the American Academy of Religion.]

Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, Martyn Percy (eds)
The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies
Oxford, OUP, 2016
ISBN:978-0-19-921856-1
Hardback, xiv + 657 pp

As the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies point out, the Anglican churches can draw on none of the kinds of criteria by which other Christian churches define themselves. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the model is juridical, the product of the authority of an institution; for Lutherans, it is confessional, the adoption of certain key statements of doctrine; for Baptists, it is sacramental practice. As a result, many studies such as those by Wolf, Booty and Thomas (1982), or Sykes and Booty (1988) have circled around the issue of how else Anglicanism may be defined.

The discipline of Anglican Studies has only been named in the last two decades, however, and at a time when the tensions within the Anglican Communion have reached a particular pitch. Launching the new Journal of Anglican Studies in 2003, Bruce Kaye (also a contributor here) wrote of ‘the challenge of construing the connecting profile of Anglicanism in its global form’, as parts of the Communion looked for solutions in global organizations within the existing structure predicated on particular convictions about theology and practice. These divisions came to a head at (or perhaps alongside) the Lambeth Conference of 2008, when a body of bishops absented themselves to meet separately in Jerusalem; so significant were the tensions, in fact, that the editors questioned the very viability of the Handbook (15). It is a cause for celebration that they persisted. Taken together, the 44 essays presented here are a rich and suggestive meditation on the past, present and likely futures of Anglicanism, and will be read with profit by scholar and non-specialist reader alike.

One of the signal virtues of the volume is its global scope. In 1988, all but one of the contributors to Sykes and Booty’s The Study of Anglicanism were from the British Isles or North America (the last being based in Switzerland); here, while the balance is still tipped in that direction, there is weighty representation from Africa, Australasia and Asia. Almost every contribution is at some level concerned with the legacy of establishment in England or the complex renegotiation required elsewhere in a post-colonial context. There are some omissions, however, most strikingly of the Anglican experience in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, two of which were churches that were first established and then disestablished: a perspective which it would have been valuable to hear.

Editors of volumes such as this are often hard put to create a structure that neatly compartmentalises the issues at hand, and this is no exception. Whilst the seven sections (on historiographies, methods and styles, contextualisation, identities, controversies, practices, and futures) provide some orientation, readers seeking the Anglican view of (say) the interpretation of the Bible will find work of interest in each of the sections and not simply the chapters by Gerald O. West and A. Katharine Grieb, the titles of which address the issue directly. A small but significant group of authors have not helped the editors in the task of achieving coherence by writing chapters that are not so much synoptic surveys of a particular topic as new work on a particular aspect of it: fine work in some cases, but an uncomfortable fit with the purposes of the volume. Others allow their focus on Anglicanism to waver, and needed a firmer editorial hand. Few readers will wish to read the volume from beginning to end (as this reviewer did), an experience which induces a sense of a continual and at times slightly fretful circling around the same two issues: past and present identity, and the prospects for unity.

Might that unity be found by means to a recourse to a shared history? The editors rightly place a fine essay by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of the sixteenth century history of the Church of England are neatly dissected. The formation of ‘Anglicanism’, as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, dates from a hundred years after the foundation of the Church of England, in which process figures such as Richard Hooker – marginal in his day – were moved to the centre, and figures such as William Perkins or Thomas Cartwright were marginalised despite being highly influential at the time. (That some readers may need to look these two figures up is an indication of how occluded they have become; neither appears anywhere else in this volume, and Perkins is re-christened Thomas in the index). Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes the appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.

Take for instance the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie again shows that although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of the fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist (the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken)? It was this principle that derailed the single most significant ecumenical scheme of the twentieth century in England, to reunify Anglicans and Methodists. Or, was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organisation, symbolically useful even, but something without which under different circumstances the Church might live? Chapters from Mark Chapman on missionary bishops, Kevin Ward on mission and Robert Bruce Mullin on the church in colonial America all show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have at times managed quite well without a fully fledged episcopal system. But other chapters make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters. To paraphrase: ‘many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do this are therefore not fully Anglican.’

Anglicans, then, have needed to look elsewhere for means of defining themselves, which have tended to cluster around elements of practice and habits of mind. The editors list a few of them: ‘hymns, poetry, prose, theology and spirituality’ (9-10), a ‘distinctive ethos’ which matches the many older attempts to find the ‘spirit’ of Anglicanism. Three chapters address these directly: Ann Loades on spirituality, Phyllis Tickle on prayer and the late Kenneth Stevenson (former bishop of Portsmouth) on aesthetics. Loades is detailed where Stevenson is allusive, but this reader emerges with a sense that Anglicans at certain times and places have indeed produced distinctive spiritual theology, hymnody and liturgy, but that these are weak markers of identity and of little use as instruments of unity. It is hard to avoid the impression that the search for identity in these places risks merely reifying the tastes and habits of mind of educated western Anglophones.

Anglicans have of course for a long time focussed on the ‘holy trinity’ of scripture, reason and tradition: a kind of self-definition by method. Formed of urgent necessity during the Reformation as a way of carving out space between the overweening pretensions of Rome and the bracing scripturalism of Geneva, in times of lesser pressure it became a rather more comforting formulation. Socially and economically secure as the established church of an imperial nation, it was relatively easy to rest on the idea of the Anglican via media, the essential moderateness of the English religious temperament. But the existential challenges to the very existence of the Communion in the last decade have caused this focus on theological approach to take on a rather darker tone. The question might be put: whose reason? Whose tradition? Whose reading of Scripture? As these questions have become harder to answer in a global context, the distinctive Anglican way of doing church has taken on a less confident and rather more provisional aspect.

Two aspects of this move are visible in the essays by Marion Grau and Jenny Gaffin. For Grau, Anglicanism as it has been transferred from England into colonial contexts can be thought of as a modus operandi, a rather accidental kind of pragmatism that over time became elevated to a virtue (177-8). Inculturation, the process by which theology and practice are inflected by local context, is made possible by a reliance on ‘a prevenient grace [and] an anthropology and ecclesiology that trusts in the residing of Spirit and Divinity within human existence’ (181). God has given His people sufficient resources with which to chart their path, and the action of God and his Spirit will not in the last instance allow the church to founder. Balancing this optimism is a line of thought that connects Gaffin to some of the recent work of Rowan Williams and (further back) to the Michael Ramsey of The Gospel and the Catholic Church (quoted by the editors in their introduction). The witness of Anglicanism is in pointing away from itself towards the larger church of which it is but a fragment: in Ramsey’s words ‘its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail of its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic.’ Its very brokenness is its witness.(14) In an age which values competence and ‘message discipline’, and seizes on weakness and holds it up to ridicule, the state of the Anglican Communion is both an affront and a challenge. Perhaps in the final instance the Communion is held together by a sense of a shared past, and an act of the will – a choice that must constantly be made anew – to continue together. The editors and contributors of this stimulating and fascinating handbook have given us a resource to help in the task of studying Anglicanism as its adherents have made and continue to make that choice. Though the price may stretch the budgets of private readers, no serious library for theology or history should be without it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s