Anglican Spirituality – Local versus Universal

The Anglican “Experiment”

In his book Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith: The Anglican Experiment, Bruce Kaye provides a fascinating account of Anglicanism that puts flesh on Archbishop Rowan Williams’s suggestive comments about the relation of Christology and locality by focusing on the Anglican Communion.

Kaye is not restricting his analysis only to the Anglican Communion, but rather he is using the Anglican Communion to illumine what he takes to be the essential character of the church catholic. That character is determined by our belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Son of God making possible and necessary the invitation to all humanity, without distinction of race or circumstance, to respond to the gospel. Those who respond to this invitation do so, according to Kaye, “in the particularities of their personal circumstance.” The challenge, therefore, becomes how the personal response to the gospel, responses unavoidably determined by place, can be credited without threatening the church’s unity.

Kaye develops his account of the place of the Church of England with the current controversies in the Anglican Communion clearly in mind. He explores how a “globalized” form of Anglicanism has emerged from a local form – by which he means England – with the result of deep divisions and conflicts dominating the common life of Anglicanism. He does not think, however, that this is a development unique to the Anglican Communion.

According to Kaye, patterns of life that now characterize Anglican life were present in the New Testament. By fulfilling the hopes of Israel through a crucifixion of universal significance, as well as the call of the disciples, Jesus laid the foundation for a profusion of local diversity and cosmic belonging. Kaye quotes the second century writer Diognetus to give evidence to the necessary relation between Christ’s cosmic and universal reality as the background to make locality not only possible but necessary. Diognetus puts it this way:

“For Christians are no different from other people in terms of their country, language, or customs. Nowhere do they inhabit cities of their own, use a strange dialect, or live life out of the ordinary. They have not discovered this teaching of theirs through reflection or through the thought of meddlesome people, nor do they set forth any human doctrine, as do some. They inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, according to the lot assigned to each. And they show forth the character of their own citizenship in a marvelous and admittedly paradoxical way by following local customs in what they wear and what they eat and in the rest of their lives.”

It is important to attend to the language Kaye uses to characterize Diognetus’s description of Christians. Kaye refuses the contrast between the universal and particular, and instead resorts of the language of the personal as a contrast to the universal to suggest why the gospel can only be received in context. To be sure, the gospel is for prisoners, jailers, magistrates, philosophers, masters, slaves, men and women, but that it is so requires that each person must respond by making the whole of their life subject to the everyday interactions of the community of the church.

From the beginning, Christianity has struggled to sustain the creative tension between the personal appropriation of the gospel and the gospel’s universal reach. The result has been the creation of a politics that sought not to overthrow the old political order, but to build a new order manifest in each church’s peculiar circumstance.

The current divisions and controversies arising from locality that beset Anglicanism, from Kaye’s perspective, are nothing new. Local diversity has always characterized Christianity and conflict is thereby inevitable. Kaye, for example, reminds us that Western Christianity is a local tradition within which other local traditions developed creating continuing disputes. That Western Christianity names a “locality” is a nice reminder that all claims to place depend on contrast with another place.

Kaye, therefore, suggests that Anglicanism became identifiable as a place with a distinct history because Bede wrote hisEcclesiastical History. For it was Bede’s history that created what would become the idea known as “England.” Kaye suggests, therefore, that Anglicanism is best understood as a regional form of Christianity not unlike the church in Gall. Without becoming any less insistent on the cosmic lordship of Christ, the church in England developed a distinctive way to be church by maintaining a resilient call to personal discipleship to Jesus. From Kaye’s perspective, Henry VIII is but a later expression of the resistance of Anglicanism to the attempt of Rome to develop an imperial conception of catholicity.

Kaye identifies Anglicanism, therefore, as the attempt to maintain catholicity without Leviathan. The fundamental character of our faith means an extensive diversity is required not only within local community, but between communities. Each person and community must respond faithfully to the particularities of their situation yet they must seek, if they are faithfully to be Christ’s body, to remain interconnected. The necessity of such interconnectedness is called “catholicity.” To be “catholic” is to recognize that my particularity must serve to build up the whole.

Such building up has always been a challenge. Kaye, in particular, calls attention to the ambiguity created by the attempt to impose order on the Anglican reality through the 1662 Act of Uniformity. From Kaye’s perspective, the Act of Uniformity was an attempt to impose conformity on the church without respecting the diversity of gifts found in the parishes of England.

“The Act of Uniformity did not serve well the tradition of Anglican Christianity. It narrowed the focus and failed to move the ecclesiastical structures in a direction that served the new social and political realities of the Christian citizens of England.”

Some seem to think that something like an Act of Uniformity is required in response to the current controversies in the Anglican Communion, but Kaye thinks such a response would be ill advised because it would deny the Anglican commitment to live faithfully in their local circumstance even though doing so creates diversity that creates difficulties for those in other places.

Kaye is not suggesting that truth does not matter, but that truth demands that those whom we do not understand not be cast beyond the pale of fellowship. Anglicans have been committed to the local expression of the faith which means that the challenge confronting its reality as an international fellowship of churches should not be how we can enforce uniformity, but rather how we can be known through our love of one another.


Anyone interested in the present conflicts within world-wide Anglicanism may be helped in trying to understand the genius of Anglicanism, as it attempts to relate the local parish life to the larger world of Ekklesia Anglicana; by dipping into the below-mentioned article (from which the above is an extract) : –

The place of the church and the agony of Anglicanism

Stanley Hauerwas ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS 27 SEP 2012


In this extract – from the complete article (which can be accessed from the above link) – Stanley Hauerwas offers a very good overview about the present situation within the Anglican Communion; which posits the possibility that conflict has arisen because of the tension between the two contexts – of the polity of the Local Church and the Larger Communion. Whereas, for instance, the Church of England has been formed to meet the criteria of its own sociological political and religious context; other Provinces of the Communion have their own (different) context of socio-political and religious ethos and expediency.

What has long been true of the differences between various parochial areas of the Church of England – and yet the Church of England has managed to stay together despite those differences, not only of churchman-ship but of social and political contingency – is simply not working to the same degree when comparing, say, the Church of England with the  Episcopal Church in the USA, or the more conservative Churches of the GAFCON Provinces; which have already separated out from the Western Provinces on their differing understanding of gender and sexuality. 

Holding to the thesis that the Church must be experienced locally, as well as universally, Mr. Hauerwas quotes Richard Kaye’s seminal book: Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith: The Anglican Experiment, citing Kaye’s recourse to the second century writer Diognetus, and The Venerable Bede, in his defence of the importance of the local versus the universal as being the tangible locus of the worshipping Body of Christ – which ought to have a satisfactory relationship to other members of the Body of Christ on as basis of shared Faith – but not necessarily identical  Order – on the basis that the link is ‘en Christo’, rather than merely ‘en ekklesia’.

I think that is a pretty good way of saying that present conflicts that assail the Anglican Communion may be seen to be derived from an unwillingness to recognise the need to maintain koinonia with other Provinces that do not conform to a single confessional discipline that we believe ought to mark us out as ‘orthodox’ Anglicans. There is, sadly, a tendency on the part of the more conservative Provinces to judge the openness of others to interpret the scriptures in a more ‘liberal’ way – especially in matters of patriarchy and sexuality.

Nor is the breach totally one-sided. The liberals in the Church are often critical of those who seem to baulk at the perceived need for progress in justice-based human rights issues – especially those involving gender and sexuality. While there exists this mutual antipathy ir mistrust towards either side of the doctrinal and socio-ethical divide; there might seem to be little incentive to remain together as Anglicans. The question then might be: Can the local Church still bear witness to the Christ it professes to believe in? The answer must be Yes – to a certain degree. However that witness is weakened because of the lack of charity that should be holding the Body of Christ together.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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2 Responses to Anglican Spirituality – Local versus Universal

  1. Ven. Timothy Mildenhall says:

    It’s Bruce Kaye, not Richard, Father Ron.

    And I’m not sure privileging a socio-religio-historico-ethico analysis of the rift accounts for the strange bedfellows from around the world who comprise the GAFCON dudes. ‘Developing’ and ‘developed’ world Christians hold the same account of the faith, not merely in repudiating what it is not but also affirming together new statements of the faith, in their account faithful to and continuous with the old statements.
    It’s surely not just their (widely differring) contexts that are driving them. They actually believe there is an orthodoxy and then everything else – heterodoxy if you like.
    As for me and my house, we’ll agree to differ with your take on the rift, and I suspect only time will tell which path bears fruit.
    May God bless you.

    • kiwianglo says:

      Thank you, Tim, for your correction re the author – being Bruce not Richard. Posted in a hurry, I’m afraid, which is not always to the benefit of accuracy. I appreciate your take on the conservative eclecticism of the GAFCON provinces. However, I believe that there are certain cultural leanings in Africa that absolutely refuse to accept the incidence of homosexuality as a given biological phenomenon for a minority of people – including faithful Christians. Therein, I think, lies the veracity of Bruce’s argument. Agape, Ron

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