This is Modern Church's response to the request by the Crown Nominations Commission of the Church of England for views on the priorities for the ministry of the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Summary

Modern Church hopes for an archbishop who will:
  • articulate and defend the Church's unity in diversity;
  • respond to controversies by seeking consensus without being unduly influenced by the prospect of schism  or demands for quick resolutions;
  • consider each proposal for change on its merits, without any presupposition against innovation;
  • see it as his role not to tell the faithful what to believe but to encourage the ongoing processes of enquiry;  and
  • be willing to hear the voice of God speaking through the moral and spiritual concerns of ordinary Christians and non-Christians.

Introduction

Commentators have been observing that the coming year could be a seminal time for future directions for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. It is not just that there will be a vacancy at Canterbury. There is also the prospect of women bishops in the Church of England; and the Anglican Covenant, a product of a ten-year dispute over same-sex partnerships, has now been rejected by the English dioceses, leaving open the question of how our disagreements can and should be resolved.

Many organisations hope for an archbishop who will promote their preferred agenda. This submission focuses on how to hold together the different factions in a spirit of mutual respect. We propose a reaffirmation of Classic Anglicanism. The first section describes it and the second analyses some of the implications.

Classic Anglicanism

We believe the leadership of both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion needs to reaffirm the Classic Anglican tradition of maintaining diversity within unity. This tradition has recently come under pressure, with demands for uniformity of belief accompanied by schismatic acts. In our view diversity of belief should be accepted as a normal part of church life and the process of seeking truth in matters of faith.

As the 1988 Lambeth Conference put it,

Tradition and reason... are two distinct contexts in which the Scriptures speak and out of which they are interpreted. It is in the interplay and the conflict between them - between the common mind of the Church and the common mind of a culture -that the meaning of the Gospel for a particular time and place is to be discerned. Indeed it could be argued that tradition - what we have called the 'mind' of the Church - is the repository of just such discernments stimulated by the tradition and the language of a particular culture. To be involved in this dialogical situation is always uncomfortable. It becomes dangerous, perhaps, only when what is properly a dialogue becomes a monologue delivered at length by only one of its parties. Tradition and reason need each other if God's Word is to be shared.1

Similar points had been made by the Lambeth Conference of 1948.2 A classic text on the theme is The Spirit of Anglicanism by Bishop (later Archbishop) Henry McAdoo, which states at the outset that 'There is a distinctively Anglican theological ethos, and that distinctiveness lies in method rather than in content'; indeed, 'There is no specifically Anglican corpus of doctrine'.3 It has been a common theme among theologians,  including Stephen Neill4 and John Macquarrie.5 More recently Kenneth Locke has defended it:

Anglicans exercise a method of authority that does not strive to achieve a uniform consensus or to enforce particular doctrinal positions. Rather, it functions under the belief that truth is best perceived by safeguarding constant debate within the Church. Anglicans, therefore, lack the predisposition to put an end to disagreement through authoritative pronouncements. All decisions are provisional and open to further criticism and debate.6

It has often been echoed by archbishops of Canterbury. According to Geoffrey Fisher, 'We have no doctrine of our own - we only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or diminution'.7 Michael Ramsey agreed: 'The Anglican will not suppose that he has a system or a Confession that can be defined and commended side by side with those of others; indeed, the use of the word "Anglicanism" can be very misleading. Rather will he claim that his tasks look beyond "isms" to the Gospel of God and to the Catholic Church.'8 He argued that 'there is such a thing as Anglican theology', but that 'it is neither a system nor a confession (the idea of an Anglican "confessionalism" suggests something that never has been and never can be) but a method, a use and a direction'.9

What this means in practice is that in matters of religious belief we are not constrained by dogmatic limits to our sources of insight. The whole world speaks to us of God, so we value the rich diversity of processes through which we can learn about God. Disagreements usually get resolved over time, but at any given time there remain disagreements and unanswered questions. Because disagreements are accepted as a normal part of church life, those who disagree can attend the same church, say the Confession in each other's hearing, share the Peace with each other and kneel at the altar rail alongside each other.

Such a broad church can allow different opinions to be heard and debated, without threats of exclusion, allowing each opinion to be examined on its merits. Conversely it means that preachers should not expect their congregations to assent to everything they say.

However Classic Anglicanism has not always characterised the Church of England, and does not characterise all the Anglican Communion today. Since the Reformation there has been an alternative Protestant view, according to which human reason is not competent to pass judgement on Scripture; the Christian's duty, on this view, is not to discuss or interpret Scripture but to accept its plain, clear teaching.

These two contrasting traditions have many variants and disagree on many theological issues. However, what has made recent disputes so contentious is the question of method: we have disagreed about how to resolve disagreements. This is the point on which Modern Church believes it is most important that the future leadership should be prepared to defend Classic Anglicanism against uniformitarian pressure to suppress differences of belief.

We therefore hope for an archbishop who will articulate and defend the Church's unity in diversity.

Some implications of Classic Anglicanism

Permitting diversity reduces the danger of schism

In practice Classic Anglicanism has proved more successful at holding the Church together precisely because it accepts that disagreements need not cause schism.

By contrast those who expect clear answers in Scripture, and deny human reason a constructive role in matters of faith, expect differences of opinion to be resolved simply by examining Scripture to establish which side is in the right. As a result uniformity of belief is expected, and unresolved disagreements often lead to schism. Those who belong to this tradition characteristically believe that their teachings are essential to a truly Christian church, and therefore prefer schism to diversity.

Schism is easy to threaten but harder to measure. In every church it is normal for some new members to join and others to leave, with no clear dividing line at which a group departure becomes a schism. There has been much talk of schism in the recent disputes. Especially in the case of the international disputes over same-sex partnerships it has become clear that the debate is unequal. For some the unity of the Communion is a high priority and moving at the pace of the slowest is an acceptable price, even if a high one. For others unity is of little interest but there is every incentive to threaten schism as a way of persuading the Communion to endorse the principles they value. Thus the prospect of schism has in effect been turned into a tool of negotiation.

A single ecclesiastical institution cannot, of course, uphold both uniformity and diversity at the same time. Despite the recent threats we think that to accede to demands for greater uniformity of belief, far from reducing the likelihood of schism, would increase it.

We therefore hope for an archbishop who will respond to controversies by seeking consensus without being unduly influenced by the prospect of schism or demands for quick resolutions.

Churches can change

One question which is often raised is whether it is permissible for the Church to change its structure and teachings. Does structural change mean the Church is no longer the true Church established by Christ? Does a change of belief mean it is no longer true to Scripture or to the deposit of faith divinely entrusted to it?

Historically the Church, however defined, has undergone repeated changes to both its structures and its teachings. Theologically it is far from evident either that Christ intended the Church to remain unchanged, or that biblical commands are intended by God to be universal and timeless.

We therefore hope to see the ethos of ecclesiastical decision-making shift change towards a greater openness to new ideas and developments. We hope for an archbishop who will consider each proposal for change on its merits, without any presupposition against innovation.

Religious research should be encouraged

Classic Anglicanism welcomes a continuing search for deeper understanding in matters of faith. Among the processes to be encouraged are the individual's attentiveness to guidance by the Holy Spirit, community learning through shared study and debate, and the findings of biblical scholarship.

This continuing search should not be limited or censored by church authorities. Questions of truth about God are to be pursued even when they produce controversial ideas and challenge ecclesiastical structures.

To this extent the search for truth in matters of faith is comparable to the search for truth in other matters. The Enlightenment search for foundations of knowledge produced a set of principles which are now considered essential to research institutions. They include methods for gathering data and establishing hypotheses, the publication of theories together with supporting evidence so that others can examine them, methods for acknowledging relevant expertise, the refusal to close down debate before consensus is reached and the willingness to reopen old questions in the light of new information.

It was theological debate, especially in England in the seventeenth century, that in the first instance produced the need for, and the development of, these publicly agreed principles. It is not surprising, therefore, that they have proved fruitful in theology as they have elsewhere. We think they should continue to be valued by the Church, not suppressed in the interests of defending inherited teachings.

This raises the question of limits to acceptable belief. Recently there has been much discussion of adiaphora, beliefs on which it is permissible for Anglicans to disagree with each other. The implication is that religious beliefs can be divided into two types, according to whether or not they are essential.

Anglican churches have never produced either an agreed list of essential beliefs or a method for establishing one. When, therefore, a claim is made that a particular belief is essential to Anglican identity, it cannot be justified by appeal to Anglican order. Moreover, even if such a list had been in place, it would not have resolved our recent disputes; at the most it could have provided an Anglican 'right answer', thereby giving the litigious an opportunity to expel their opponents.

As indicated above, Classic Anglicanism expects such questions to be explored on the basis of whether they are true, not whether they are Anglican. It is agreement on method on which church unity depends, not agreement on theological beliefs.

We therefore hope for an archbishop who will see it as his role not to tell the faithful  what to believe but to encourage the ongoing processes of enquiry.

New insights are to be welcomed

Classic Anglicanism accepts that our understanding is always incomplete. Faith is a journey of discovery. In addition to the above methods of enquiry the Church also needs to be open to new insights from outside its own tradition.

It is often argued that proponents of change are being influenced by the values of secular society rather than defending Christian teachings. Sometimes, of course, Christians may be unduly influenced in this way; but we should not go to the other extreme of imagining that the only worthwhile insights are the ones offered by the Church of the day. The Church does not have a monopoly on divine guidance, and there are times when it needs to learn from other faiths, unbelievers and secular society.

The relationship between each Anglican church and its host society varies. Here we comment on the situation in England. Many commentators have observed a reactionary trend over the last few decades. Whereas in the 1960s the bishops in the House of Lords were often ahead of public opinion in their support for liberal reforms (such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment), today the Church of England is best known for its resistance to liberalising reforms. It is widely perceived  as being out of touch with modern society, adhering to positions which society increasingly considers immoral, such as discrimination against women and gay people.

We think the Church should be more willing to acknowledge the Christian elements in society. Many of secular society's features are inherited from Christian anthropology; among them are the sanctity of life, human rights, equality before the law and equal opportunities. We therefore believe the Church, instead of focusing on issues where it disagrees with secular society, should pay more attention to society's positive aspects and seek to build on them in cooperation with non-Christians who share our aims.

Of course Christians rightly disagree with some of secular society's values. Unfortunately, moral disapproval of the Church's controversial stances is often accentuated by a failure of church leaders to offer rational defences for their positions; all too often the message which gets heard is that church leaders oppose what they oppose simply because they are Christians. In this way Christianity is presented as an dogmatic monolith, refusing to engage rationally with society's genuine concerns. Instead we think church leaders should be prepared to explain their reasons in ways which can be respected by non-Christians, while also acknowledging differences of opinion among Christians.

In general we believe there should be more willingness to respond positively to secular society, supporting it where we can and, where we disagree, engaging in constructive dialogue. We hope for an archbishop who will be willing to hear the voice of God speaking through the moral and spiritual concerns of ordinary Christians and non-Christians.

Conclusion

The Anglican tradition contains an approach to religious belief which Modern Church values and would like to see reaffirmed by the Church's leadership. This approach is based not on a set of doctrines but on a method. The method is to permit the widest possible range of religious beliefs, in order to allow for open enquiry and debate, without pressure to reach predetermined conclusions. Open enquiry and debate are valued because they are fruitful methods for seeking truth in matters of faith. Classic Anglicanism, therefore, is permissive but not only permissive: in order to enable open research and debate it also needs to resist pressure towards uniformity of belief and practice.

Jonathan Clatworthy on behalf of Modern Church, April 2012  

Notes

  1. The Truth Shall Make You Free, Lambeth Conference Report, 1988, p. 103.
  2. '[Authority] is distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of Word and Sacraments, the witness of the saints, and the consensus fidelium,  which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through his faithful people in the Church. It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralised authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check each other; these elements together contribute by a process of mutual support, mutual checking, and redressing of errors or exaggerations to the many-sided fullness of the authority which Christ has committed to His Church. Where the authority of Christ is to be found mediated not in one mode but in several we recognise in this multiplicity God's loving provision against temptations of tyranny and the dangers of unchecked power.'
  3. McAdoo, The Spirit of Anglicanism, London: A & C Black, 1965, p. 1.
  4. 'There are no special Anglican doctrines, there is no particular Anglican theology. The Church of England is the Catholic Church in England. It teaches all the doctrines of the Catholic Faith as these are found in Holy Scripture, as they are summarized in the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, and set forth in the dogmatic decisions of the first four General Councils of the undivided Church.' Neill, S, Anglicanism,  3rd Ed, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965, p. 417.
  5. 'It is often claimed that Anglicanism has no special doctrines of its own and simply folows the universal teaching of the Church. When one considers the nature of the English Reformation, one sees that there is strong support for the claim'. J. Macquarrie, 'What still separates us from the Catholic Church? An Anglican reply', Concilium, 4/6, April 1970, p. 45.
  6. K. Locke, The Church in Anglican Theology: A Historical, Theological and Ecumenical Exploration,  Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, p. 115.
  7. Speech at a meeting marking his return from a tour of Australia and New Zealand, Westminster Central Hall, 30 Jan 1951, quoted in Church Times, 2 Feb 1951, p. 1.
  8. Ramsey, A M, 'What is Anglican Theology', Theology 48, 1945, p. 6.
  9. Ibid, p. 2. More recently, Stephen Sykes has argued in favour of a concept of 'Anglicanism' - indeed, 'Unashamed Anglicanism' - and accordingly rejected the claim that Anglicans have 'no special doctrines' (Sykes, S, 'Anglicanism and the doctrine of the church', in Unashamed Anglicanism, DLT 1995, pp. 101-21). Paul Avis has engaged sympathetically with Sykes's argument (Avis, 'The distinctiveness of Anglicanism', in C. J. Podmore (ed.), Community - Unity - Communion: Essays in Honour of Mary Tanner, London: Church House Publishing, 1998, pp. 141-55.) However, the argument is, as Avis puts it, that 'faith is concerned with beliefs, with doctrine, and Anglicanism believes and teaches certain distinctive things about the Church' (Avis, 'The churches of the Anglican Communion', in Avis (ed.), The Christian Church: An Introduction to the Major Traditions, London: SPCK, 2002, pp. 132-3.) In other words, the disagreement is not about the nature of Anglicanism: it is only about whether Anglican method can properly be described as doctrine.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and was (at the time of writing) Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.