As I have written several times before, I have never been one to set down a folding chair to watch from the sidelines as the Anglican Communion paraded past a gawdy mess, with the wheels coming off its floats and intra-communion squabblers ripping the collars from each other’s necks screaming “Apostate!” and “Fundamentalist!” Yes, it’s almost impossible not to poke some fun now and again at some daft statement or goofy attempt at attention-grabbing by the Egregiously Right Reverend Bartholemew Dim or the Supercilious Archbishop of Flustered on the Thames.
But I find the history of the English Reformation fascinating and poorly understood by most (who still think Henry VIII “started” the Church of England, which is off only by a thousand years). From martyrs Tyndale and Latimer and Hooper and Ridley, to Cranmer and Jewel and Hooker and Andrewes, to Donne and Swift and Rossetti, to Wesley and Wilberforce and Thornton and Shaftesbury and Saunders, to Lewis and Sayers and Eliot, right down to Wright and McGrath and Stott. And many many more: thinkers and poets and satirists, reformers and advocates for the poor, right down to the country vicars whose names no one will know but who were probably the glue that kept worlds within worlds bound by the pages of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version, as well as an evangelical concern for the rights and needs of others.
And that was both the glory and the glorious failure of the Church of England: the attempt to hold together the disparate parties and factions by way of the glories of the language and a time-tested liturgy.
Maybe not such a failure. Even as Anglicanism fragments and bleeds members to other congregations, N.T. Wright says to keep the faith:
Snapshots from my time in Durham tell a true story of what the Church is there for. The foot-and-mouth crisis strikes the Dales, and the local vicar is the only person the desperate farmers know they can trust. A local authority begs the Church to take over a failing school, and within months, when I visit, a teenage boy tells me, ‘Well, sir, it’s amazing: the teachers come to lessons on time now.’ Miners’ leaders speak of the massive coal stocks still lying there unused, and we campaign, in the Lords and elsewhere, for the new technology that can release it. The new vicar at a city-centre church, dead on its feet a few years ago, apologises that the weekday service is a few minutes late in starting; he has been helping a young, frightened asylum-seeker whose case is coming up the next day. In one old mining community, so many shops had closed that the bank shut as well; the local churches have taken it over, and run it as a credit union, a literacy training centre and a day centre for the very old and the very young. In a world where ‘family’ means ‘the people in the neighbouring streets who are there for you when you need them’, I ask a young adult what’s different now she’s become a worshipping member of the Church, and she replies, ‘It’s like having a great big second family.’ The Church, said William Temple, is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members. I have to report that this vision is alive and well, and that the Church of England, though not its only local expression, is in the middle of it.
This is the real ‘Big Society’. It’s always been there; it hasn’t gone away. Check out the volunteers in the prison, in the hospice, in charity shops. It’s remarkable how many of them are practising Christians. They aren’t volunteering because the government has told them we can’t afford to pay for such work any more. They do it because of Jesus.
No good can come from the further dissolution of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion. Yes, there will continue to be much silliness, and radical politics dressed up as evangelism for the 21st century, but how much stands to be lost can only be measured by how much the Church of England has already contributed, not only to England but to Christians — and non-Christians — everywhere.
I could be a happy Anglican, if need be. Better the 1928 BCP and the 39 Articles than what passes for liturgical scraps in some Lutheran churches. Better a little evangelical pietism than complacency disguised as law and gospel preaching. What does Jesus think of all this, I wonder? Now there’s a novel thought…