Episcopal Journal Column: I

The Episcopal Journal publishes a monthly column by Gordon Graham. The theme for 2011-12 is 'Aspects of Anglicanism'. Each column will appear as a blog page approximately one month after its first appearance. Information on the Episcopal Journal, including subscription can be found here.

Aspects of Anglicanism
From National Church to Global Communion

By Gordon Graham

Coming up on 500 years ago, the King of England fell into dispute with the Pope. Though this took place at the time of the Protestant Reformation, it was not part of it. There was no deep theological issue at stake, and no major theological thinker on a par with Luther or Calvin figured in it. The dispute was a purely political matter – on both sides. The result, however, was something quite new -- a branch of the Christian Church that was still Catholic in its beliefs and practices, but self-governing, with the King as its head instead of the Pope.

In the first decade of this ‘English Church’, a simple and obvious step was taken. If this was the English Church, it should worship in the language of the country. If it was the national church, its worship should be uniform across the nation. And so, in 1549, for the first time ever, a ‘Book of Common Prayer’ in a local language was published. The bishops who put it together and authorized it had not been appointed by the Pope. Nevertheless, they were consecrated in the historic line from Peter, and most of the material they used was simply a translation from the old Latin prayer books.

The population of England at the time was small -- around 2 million people – and not everyone liked the change. Indeed the ‘new’ church was so weak and vulnerable, that it barely survived.  Soon it reverted to Rome, then it allied itself with the Protestants, before it swung back in a Catholic direction, only to be abolished under Oliver Cromwell. In fact, it took an amazing 130 years just to become securely established within a single nation. Fast forward another 300 years and we find this ‘English Church’ surviving, but now as just one, and by no means the largest, of 38 churches comprising the Anglican Communion that it spawned.

St Andrews Cathedral, Aberdeen

How did a small church for one nation, become an international communion of 70 million or more, spread across the globe? A key moment in this extraordinary development is magnificently commemorated on the ceiling of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Aberdeen, Scotland.  Running the full length, side by side, are two sets of crests painted in glowing colors and set against a brilliant white background -- on the one side the crests of the ancient bishoprics of Scotland, on the other the arms of the founding States of the USA.

The event they commemorate took place close by, but in much humbler surroundings. On November 14, 1784, a small gathering witnessed the consecration of Samuel Seabury as the first bishop for the ‘English’ church in post-revolutionary America. Seabury had travelled to London in the hope of consecration, so that the worship and witness of the Anglican Church could continue, despite the political break with England. His request was denied, because he could not swear allegiance to a King who alone had the power to appoint bishops. A solution lay north of the Border. There, Presbyterianism was in the ascendant so that, strangely, though the two countries were one Kingdom, the King became a Presbyterian as soon as he crossed into Scotland (as Queen Elizabeth does to this day).

A Presbyterian King cannot appoint bishops, or authorize a single prayerbook. This meant that those who clung to episcopacy in Scotland, had put themselves beyond the law. Yet a faithful few continued to consecrate bishops in historic succession, and even (in 1764)to authorize their own prayer book, a slightly modified version of the original book of 1549. It was to this tiny, illegal, Scottish Episcopal Church that Seabury made his request, which was granted when three of its bishops and few other clergy gathered with him on a dark November day.

At that point something wholly new in the history of the Christian Church came into existence – a ‘communion’ of three churches, none of them under the authority of Rome, all of them able to claim historic episcopacy, each of them authorizing a Book of Common Prayer. In the century that followed the number grew, mostly for political reasons – the rise and fall of the British Empire, trouble in Ireland, the development of Australia, Canada, South Africa -- though American missionary endeavor also took Anglicanism to Latin America and the Far East.

No originating plan or overarching purpose lies behind this serendipitous history. Even at the most important points, ‘stuff just happened’. This does not make it any less the work of Providence, however. On the contrary, the Bible confirms again and again the truth that God uses the vagaries and contingencies of human history to bring about the work of our redemption.  This means that, after many centuries, and in unpredictable ways, Anglicans have been entrusted with a unique manifestation of the Body of Christ.

There is a lesson to be drawn from this, perhaps. In the debate that currently dominates the Communion  -- inclusivism versus Scriptural authority, modernity versus tradition, liberalism versus orthoxdoxy – there is a danger of forgetting what is truly at stake. Almost inadvertently, we might reject God’s providential gift.