by Peter Foley
from Signs of the Times No. 33 - Apr 2009

I'm currently researching the first proper schism in the Anglican Communion that took place starting at the end of the seventeenth century and lasting to the end of the eighteenth century. It is salutary to compare that schism with the current standoff between North American Anglicans and the Common Cause Partnership.

The Common Cause groups are quite a diverse collection: some ordain women, some do not for example. Anglicanism has always prided itself in getting people with different theologies together under an umbrella, so that should be fine. The only problem is that the members of the Common Cause Partnership all branched off from Anglicanism for one reason or another, so their staying power may be limited.

On the other hand, they have a lot in common with the group I am researching. Highly principled, they claim not to have started the break. It was the main church that made the break; in this modern instance by making an openly gay man a bishop. And again there is yet another similarity with the people I am studying because homosexuality is ostensibly not the issue. Gene Robinson's consecration is merely a sign that things have gone wrong; Anglicanism has lost its way. Those gathered under the umbrella of the Common Cause Partnership have long believed that the world has lost its moral bearings, and now they mean to make a stand.

This fear of liberal values shows up in all sorts of ways. If you live in the United States you can hardly have missed the "Support Our Troops" stickers on cars. The people with the stickers on their cars are fighting a battle back home. Their war is with the sixties and seventies and in particular the stickers reference the way returning military personnel were poorly treated and shunned then. That's what they fear; that's what the stickers are about.

It's like that for the Common Cause Partnership people too. They fear liberal values; that's what unites them. One of the member groups of the Common Cause Partnership, the Reformed Episcopal Church calls its publication arm 'Footstool Publications' and cites 1 Cor. 15:25 to explain the name of its publishing house: "He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his footstool." There are enemies out there to be defeated. This system of ideas is based on fear of a liberalism that apparently undermines Christianity. The present day Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada in particular, and Anglicanism under the guidance of Rowan Williams in general, provide a great foil for this attitude of fear.

The sixteenth-century Anglicans I am researching similarly were held together by fear of religious anarchy. They also wanted a strong moral church and felt they needed a divinely ordained hereditary monarch to sustain a mutually supportive role between the state and the church. When the Dutchman William of Orange chased King James II out England in 1688 and set himself up as king instead, the world was no longer divinely ordered as it should be. The Nonjurors had seen this state of affairs before. Some forty or so years earlier a civil war had broken out in England, the king was executed as was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and bishops were abolished. "No king, no bishops" the people had cried during the Civil War, a new order was ushered in, and the world went mad. Religious sects sprung up everywhere: Fifth Monarchists, Grindletonians, Diggers, Levellers, Muggletonians (nothing to do with Harry Potter!); everyone made up their own religious rules. Eccentric religious groups became ubiquitous. Some homemade sects from this mad period survive to this day, such as Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers to name but three. Armed with these serious and grounded fears, principled Anglicans of the sixteenth century made a stand and broke off from the regnant church. This was a sober group that included the Archbishop of Canterbury and a third of the English bishops. Today we are similarly about forty years on from the perceived liberal anarchy of the free love sixties, with its interest in eastern mysticism, civil rights and the bra burning National Organization for Women. All these mad things have leached into the Anglican Church in its most liberal manifestations. If your fears center around the liberalism popularly associated with the sixties, there is a lot to choose from in contemporary North American Anglicanism: Worship services where God-knows-what happens; ministers who bless God-knows-what kind of relationships.

What happened to this little sixteenth-century band is already programmed into the structure of the Common Cause Partnership. The original schismatics disagreed amongst themselves about liturgical matters. They broke into Usagers who wanted to go back to an older form of communion service (mixing water and wine) and those that wanted to stick with the traditional Anglican liturgy who were known as Non-Usagers. Eventually they made up and the Usagers agreed to drop almost all their newfangled ideas. Well, most of them did, because after that there were extreme Usagers, moderate Non-Usagers (the combined group) and extreme Non-Usagers. By the end of the eighteenth century it becomes hard to track what the dwindling and disparate communities were up to and they were pretty much gone in England.

At the moment the Common Cause Partnership is unified in its opposition to the existing North American Anglican provinces and all they appear to stand for. But beneath the surface the Common Cause Partnership is programmed to split up. Its proposed canons make it very easy for congregations to leave and to take property with them. On the other hand the Reformed Episcopal Church has been around in one form or another since the nineteenth century, so it has proven itself to have sticking power.

The REC has made good connections with the Free Church of England which is of a similar vintage. I met one of their ministers on a recent research visit to Britain. He was a sweet man, past retirement age who lamented the dwindling size of their congregations. "What are seven people with an historic monument to keep up supposed to do?" he asked me. These little bands are more burdened by history and their responsibilities than they are able to be religious communities: they have church buildings to maintain but almost no congregations to support them in many places now. He felt they had recently been let down by a charismatic man who had risen to lead them, only to then split the congregation into two.

My interlocutor was not a theologically sophisticated man, but he was sincere and very sweet and I could only feel sorry for him. In his eyes I see the future of the Common Cause Partnership.


Peter Foley is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture at the University of Arizona and has recently returned from St Deiniol's Library in Wales, where he was Canon Symonds Memorial Scholar.