Anglicanism has in the past defied the decentralizing trend seen within other Protestant denominations. The ‘Anglican Communion‘ regards itself as a single denomination, not a ‘denominational family’. But is this about to change? The surprising degree of cohesion within Anglicanism in the past has rested on a number of historical factors – the British colonial legacy, maintained more recently through the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations‘; the British crown as a symbol of unity; the English language as the Anglican Communion’s lingua franca; the King James Bible of 1611 and the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 as unifying texts. Yet all of these have been subject to historical erosion, with growing cultural, linguistic and political diversity within Anglicanism eating away at any sense of a shared identity. Although recent debates over homosexuality have exacerbated this process, they have not actually been its cause. It now seems very likely that Anglicanism will go the way of other Protestant groups, and transmute into a denominational family, characterised by a federalist structure, perhaps presided over by a symbolic figure of unity, almost certain to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cultural differences between North American liberalism and West African traditionalism may well catalyse this process of fissure, and the absence of strong international leadership probably makes the situation worse than it need be. Yet these tensions have simply highlighted the theological fissures and fatigues which have been part of Anglicanism from its origins.
Weaknesses and vulnerabilities often lie unnoticed, until new stresses and pressures place them under such strain that a structure finally ruptures. From the 1990s, Anglicanism has found itself being confronted with the tensions of its own heritage, long shielded from view by a benign and static cultural environment. Happily, this does not mean the end of Anglicanism, nor even the beginning of its decline. It need do no more than usher in a period of local visions of Anglicanism, each faithful to its tradition and adapted to its own specific environment. Paradoxically, the future of Anglicanism is thus actually likely to be characterised by overall growth, rather than contraction.
Understanding Anglicanism’s Protestant heritage thus allows us to understand what is going on at the moment, and what its possible outcomes might be. Might Anglicanism come to be much more like Methodism or Lutheranism in the future?
And what of the situation in Ireland? If the analogy with Methodism or Presbyterianism has any validity, it would seem that the future might not be all that different locally from the present. Certainly, there is no shortage of independent Churches in Ireland claiming a denominational heritage – especially within the Presbyterian and Baptist traditions. Yet, Irish Presbyterianism and Methodism (to give only two examples) have remained relatively cohesive entities. As I pointed out earlier, the importance of local factors in shaping regional forms of Protestantism must be noted and appreciated. The history of the Irish context suggests that, if an Anglican ‘denominational family’ does indeed emerge, the Church of Ireland will probably remain as a stable cohesive body, even if the broader Anglican context becomes more complex.
Now none of this may happen. But it is definitely a real possibility, and one which must be prepared for. Canon Cameron’s disinclination to take the Protestant nature of Anglicanism seriously, in my view, is more than historically inaccurate; it also ignores how history can return with a vengeance to shape the present. The Church of Ireland has the potential to be far more than a bearer of cultural memories; it can be a transformer of its own cultural context. The capability of the Protestant vision of the Gospel to adapt to local situations has been one of Protestantism’s great strengths in the past. It might yet be a strength in the present for Irish Anglicanism.
Dr. Alister M. McGrath is currently Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at Kings College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture.
I have to thank my least-favourite web-site ‘virtueonline’ for the re-issue of the article by Professor Alistair McGrath – originally written in October, 2007, for the Church of Ireland Gazette – from which I have taken the liberty of extracting the above (final) paragraphs. The entire article can be read at the following link:
These paragraphs from the original article seem prophetically cognisant of what is actually taking place now with the world-wide Anglican Communion. Professor McGrath’s personal belief – in earlier paragraphs, is that the Anglican group of Provincial Churches is more essentially ‘Protestant’ than ‘Catholic’, and that is his informed opinion – with which I cannot totally agree. However, notwithstanding his arguments on that score, one can see how his rationale about the essential looseness of dogmatic formalism seems to be pushing the various provincial Anglican Churches into a less, rather than more, ecclesial relationship – towards what might be considered eclecticism.
What is surprising is that – even as long ago as 2007 – Dr. McGrath should have so neatly diagnosed a situation in Anglicanism that seems now, in 2013, to be taking place before our very eyes. With the militant emergence of certain provinces from the Global South – now being marshalled under the banner of GAFCON – which have signalled their allegiance to a new ‘code of practice’ in ‘The Jerusalem Statement’ their own assessment of what they see as the parameters of ‘orthodox Anglicanism’ (aided and abetted, coincidentally by the conservative U.S. web-site ‘virtueonline’) ; there is every likelihood of what can only be called a schismatic breakaway of this body from the rest of the Communion Provinces. The process may already have begun!
GAFCON will not see this as schism, however, believing that they alone – and those who think like them – are merely taking positive action to maintain what they believe to be the ‘soul’ of traditional Anglican conservatism in matters of Biblical interpretation and ethics – especially on issues of gender and sexuality. That the world has moved on in regard to such matters seems to have no bearing on GAFCON’s decision to move out from what it thinks of as a betrayal of orthodox Anglicanism.
An attempt by the home Province of Canterbury to prevent such schismatic severance – the ‘Anglican Covenant’ movement – seems to have largely failed to meet the requirements of both sides of the arguments presented. The more liberal provinces, impatient to move on what they see as issues of justice towards Women and the LGBT community, rejected the Covenant on grounds of its tendency to restrict the action of more liberal churches in their openness to Gays and Women; whereas the GAFCON and their affiliates in other places – desirous of placing restrictions on any attempt to open up the Church to any such involvement – were also against any attempt to heal their separation from the likes of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada, from whom they have already withdrawn fellowship.
Whether the next meeting of the GAFCON Provinces in Kenya, in September, will bring any formal declaration of ‘independence’ from the rest of the Communion, or not, may largely depend on the reluctance of the more moderate gafcon prelates (if any) to sever relationship with the founding See of Canterbury. If this actually does happen, it is difficult to see how the ecclesial ties within the Communion can be maintained. Certainly, GAFCON could not claim to represent the totality of Anglicanism – founded as it is in the three-fold charism of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
GAFCON’s conservative embrace of the adage ‘Sola-Scriptura’ is sufficiently distanced from the faculty of Reason to render any claim to represent traditional Anglicanism – which has been nurtured by the progressive exercise of reason – making GAFCON’s demands for a new ‘dogmatic confessional code’ unacceptable to many Anglicans.
In view of the above, it does seem that the current situation in which there exist many different entities, that have split off from Anglican Churches around the world, on one premise or another – and yet insist on maintaining the title ‘Anglican’ – might prevail, but on a larger scale than formerly. It is interesting to note that, in both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, there are regional and cultural off-shoots that manage to maintain their ecclesial independence of ‘Head Office’. Maybe that will be the future of what we presently recognise as provincial Churches of the Anglican Communion? The next move in this saga may just be up to GAFCON.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand