Highly political synods shattered Anglicanism's fragile unity. Catholics should take note
A former Anglican Chaplain to the Queen, the Revd Gavin Ashenden, is spearheading a revolt in the Church of England Synod over the thorny issue of homosexuality. Anglicans are talking openly about schism. Catholics the world over should be watching very carefully.
Anglicanism’s real problem has always been a theological schizophrenia – the result, perhaps, of it having formed to appease a lusty monarch rather than to preach a creed with clarity. Ask a hundred Anglicans what Anglicanism actually is and expect a hundred answers. The Church of England isn’t, really, one Church at all. It’s an Erastian umbrella organisation holding together, by virtue of the Crown, a huge range of competing theologies.
For most of the 20th Century this diversity was even viewed as its strength because, thanks to a shared pension board and the clever use of ambiguity in official statements, the three main factions within Anglicanism – which one wag labelled ‘high and crazy’, ‘broad and hazy’ and ‘low and lazy’ – were happy enough to rub along together despite their radically different set of beliefs. It seemed as if the Nicene Creed, a very loose application of the 39 articles and strong civic approval gave just enough common ground to hold the show together.
Two major developments in the 20th Century brought this uneasy truce into question. The first was the adoption of synodical governance which led to a radical politicisation of the Church of England. With everything suddenly up for grabs, by virtue of majority vote, the factions no longer pulled together in unity but began to plot and lobby against each other. General Synod became a battleground on which theological opponents could be put to the sword. And it didn’t take long for the liberal lobby, strengthened by trends in society and over-represented on the bench of bishops, to realise synod worked in their favour. Did the Holy Spirit said no to women priests in July’s Synod? Fret not: table the motion again in February, then repeat ad nauseum, until the Holy Spirit finally gets the message! That is how democratising the deposit of faith tends to work, though the system admittedly tends to favour Barabbas over Jesus.
The second development which disrupted Anglican unity occurred when the Book of Common Prayer became optional not mandatory. You are what you pray: lex orandi, lex credendi. With the shackles removed, parishes started to go their own way. Today, there is almost no common ground between an evangelical parish on one side of town and its liberal counterpart on the other. This represents a massive problem for the Church of England: how can you bring people together in love when there is zero shared praxis between them? The situation has become so grave that the Lambeth Conference can no longer be held, due to deep divisions even at the level of the episcopacy.
Throw into this toxic mix the effects of the sexual revolution, and the strong secular ideology of the present culture with its LGBTQ crusade, and the writing seems to be on the wall. Historically the Church of England kept to a via media, teetering between Catholic and Protestant claims. But neither of these is destined to win out. Instead the body will fall between the gaps. Its Catholic claim (and ecclesiology) ended with the defeat of Anglo-Catholicism over the issue of women priests; its authentic Protestant claim ended via an inevitable creeping embrace of “gay marriage” and notions of gender fluidity.
Unless a miracle occurs, the CofE seems destined to fracture into various splinter bodies, as already happened in America. Expect bitter legal disputes as competing bodies take up residence on your high street, each claiming to be the voice of authentic Anglican witness. So it is that the Revd Gavin Ashenden finds himself embroiled in this final battle for the soul of modern Anglicanism. He and a few others are making their last stand against the powerful modernist liberal consensus that dominated the most recent Synod.
Catholic observers can take little pleasure from this unfolding saga, for we too wrestle bitterly with modernism at present. We too face the threat of division and of capitulation to the prevailing culture. One must hope that the fate of modern Anglicanism serves as a stark lesson to those in Rome who are tempted by liberalisation. For there is now little doubt – given the experience of recent years – that orthodoxy unites Christian bodies via shared proclamation of truth, whereas liberalism only pulls them apart via ambiguity, worldly agendas and rebellion.