This is a really difficult subject that has caused so much conflict between Anglicans and which causes people of other Churches to doubt our sincerity and attachment to the notion of objective truth. Comprehensiveness is essentially a political solution to conflict and internal instability of a nation such as happened in the Renaissance era in England. It therefore becomes a perceived solution to present-day sectarian conflict within ecclesiastical structures.
Many have argued for some kind of comprehensiveness within the Roman Catholic Church since the years following Vatican II, especially in the domain of the liturgy. Some clergy and laity remained attached to the old Latin liturgy, and others accepted the modern “happy clappy” styles and something they felt more conducive to participation rather than being an affair of clerics. In spite of liturgical differences, doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church is standard except with convinced liberals.
The different “churchmanships” in Anglicanism were more or less defined by the mid nineteenth century between the Evangelicals, the High-Church / Anglo-Catholics and the Broad Church / Liberals. Certain aspects of all of these tendencies are good for all, for example love of the Bible and personal conversion, the liturgical Mystery and the freedom to use one’s grey matter.
As time went on, these “churchmanships” divided into their conservative and liberal forms. Thus we have “affirming Catholicism” using the same kind of liturgy as run-of-the-mill Roman Catholics or liberals, the Evangelicals are mostly pentecostal or charismatic with only a minority using the old Reformation era styles of services, and differences between “central” Anglicans being quite subtle but no less real. So, instead of three “churchmanships”, we have in theory six, divided between conservatives and liberals. In reality, there are probably many more, perhaps in a continuum rather than a discrete scale.
In the old days, the unity of Anglicanism was imposed by the British Crown and the Prayer Book with the doctrinal formularies it contains. Would we want to go back to the days when priests were imprisoned for ritualism? Only Church of England people living in England are subject to uniformity laws, and even there the Prayer Book has been supplanted by a whole series of alternative rites since the late 1960’s up to the Book of Common Worship. We continuers and Anglican Communion folk in other countries are no more bound by English law than any Anglicans are bound by laws governing the Roman rite. That has an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that there is nothing to regulate comprehensiveness.
In an ideal world, people would be free to do as they want provided that those who avail of this liberty respect the freedom of other people. This is the fine balance of tolerance which is very fragile in a regime of human sin. It is like the idea of “voluntary communism” where no one is greedy, and puts his money into the kitty so that the poor and the sick can be looked after, and resources are shared by all.
If revealed dogma is true, then it is non-negotiable, and the old adage of Saint Augustine (Hippo) comes in – In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. Roughly translated, it means unity in essentials, freedom in what can be discussed and charity in all things.
Fr David Marriott wrote a comment to this blog yesterday, and it was fascinating to read. I never knew the Reverend Dr Peter Toon, but I have read some of his writings. He was a fine man, but it is difficult to get behind his thought. Should our Church be comprehensive, or should we be all low-church with the option of using high-church trappings in some places? That seems to be how it is resumed. Is there a doctrinal and spiritual reason for the high-church way, or is it just a matter of optional non-essential extras?
Is there legitimacy in some Anglicans being truly Protestants (Calvinists, Evangelicals, call them what you will) and others being attracted to the idea of rolling back the Reformation in all but abolishing superstition and simony in popular religion or following the ideals of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. We have the same thing in Roman Catholicism: some want Vatican II with the “hermeneutic of continuity”, others want Vatican II with church history starting in 1965 – and others who want to go back to the 1950’s. Can all these groups tolerate each other? Perhaps we can say that truth is above any of us, and we are all trying to get there in the ways we think are best and most appealing to us. Perhaps this idea would most reflect the Anglican way.
We thus have the idea of central Anglicanism, the Broad Church. It is an elusive concept as we all become increasingly polarised and radical in our “positions”. Latitudinarianism was another nineteenth-century concept that reacted to affirmative notions of objective truth from either the Catholic or Evangelical sides. Could this be compared with the apophatic approach of Eastern Orthodox philosophy and theology? In terms of liturgical expression, central parishes might use a “Dearmer” style English altar and vestments, but no incense or complex ceremonies. Rites are often eclectic, mixing authorised material with prayers and ceremonies from other sources. It seems to be a way of “smoothing” differences through compromise and ambiguity. We also hear the expression middle-of-the-road. Some Roman Catholics occasionally use that expression to describe themselves. Some critics will often say that what stays in the middle of the road is liable to get run over by a car! Are compromise and ambiguity the right way? Even if we do not try to “own” truth, do we still acknowledge that there is something objective outside our political and ecclesiastical agendas?
Try to please everyone, and you will please no one, as we read in Aesop’s fables. It can be a sign of weakness to bend to peer pressure, changing our intimate convictions to suit the prevailing political climate like the Vicar of Bray, pleasing everyone by saying things that each can interpret to his taste. On the other side, we are indeed called to be “all things to all men (menschen)”. The balance is on a razor edge! The broad church way can itself become narrow in its concern to show intolerance to what it perceives as the extremes of camp ritualism and pulpit-thumping bigotry.
The limits of comprehensiveness seem to be be the limits it imposes on the so-called “extreme” churchmanships. It might be more desirable to have separate ecclesial groupings tolerating each other at a non-religious level than trying to force everyone into a same mould and causing more fragmentation along unexpected lines of fracture.
When my mother died, as I mentioned here in this blog, I attended a Baptist service with my sister. It included a Lord’s Supper. My sister made a sign to me saying that I could receive communion if I wanted. I didn’t, because doing so would negate everything I believe about the Catholic priesthood. I recognised those good Baptists as sincere Christians, and I was happy to pray with them and hear God’s Word with them, but unless Baptism confers the ordained Priesthood, I couldn’t recognise their sacrament. This is the pain of separation and having to be true to one’s own beliefs.
Perhaps comprehensiveness could involve communities doing what they believe they should do, being true to themselves, but there being a basis on which all could unite – the concept of mere Christianity, without everything else becoming optional and unnecessary theatricals or trappings, or icing on the cake. Prayer and sharing the Gospel are the basis of all Christians, and few would have any major issues with that. The idea of being both a Catholic priest in one place, and Evangelical minister in another, and a broad church parson in a third place seems to tear us apart. Can I celebrate according to Sarum or the Anglican Missal and see myself as celebrating a Catholic Mass with the 1662 Communion Service (which is not one of the authorised liturgies of the ACC)? Could I do a Novus Ordo with clowns and balloons and then do something different in the next church? A priest has his intimate spirituality and is not merely a “sacrament machine” for different groups of laity with different tastes! There are limits. Maybe the ACC is “narrow” but a priest can live his way and life in stable and healthy conditions.
Another thing to consider is that things don’t mean the same thing in different historical periods. Comprehensive Anglicanism was once based on a solid notion of “mere Christianity” with belief in a revealed and true God. Now it is the liberalism that is eschewed by conservative elements in the Establishment and the Continuing Churches. What is the limit of what we include in our own communities? Women priests and bishops? The LGBT agenda? Doubts about the incarnation and the Resurrection or “reinterpretations”?How far do we have to go? Conversely, how narrow can we get before we fly up our own rear end?
We live in a very pluralistic society, and we cross paths with people who believe, don’t believe or who are seeking. Among those who believe, we have people who identify with different ideas, sensitivities and symbols. We can’t hope to mix that together. Unlike the 16th century with the conformity and anti-recusant laws, people are free to go where they want on a Sunday. We don’t have to be self-conscious and worry whether we are “open” enough to please everyone. If we are believers, we don’t have to accommodate non-believers, even if we respect them and treat them kindly. We do what we believe is the right thing, and people can choose to come to us if they feel they would be happy with us. Otherwise they’ll go somewhere else.
Some churches feel that they have to compete and adjust to the market of the moment. I would prefer to say The Lord be with you to empty pews than adjust matters of faith and conviction to a fleeting market! It is a matter of fact that most believers like popular entertainment as a form of prayer and the “charismatic” style. The charismatic churches are probably doing the best business and raking in the most money. Is that what it’s all about? I respect the charismatics and think they are sincere Christians, but I feel no obligation to become charismatic and minister to them. Like the Baptists of my sister’s community in Leeds, they deserve our kindness and we do have things to learn from them – but we don’t have to be them.
Perhaps when we become much less self-conscious and tormented, God may be allowed to do his work of healing and the ut onmes unum sint may come about at a level we least expect.
As an afterthought, I have already expressed my esteem for Archbishop Peter Robinson. I would not see eye-to-eye with him in everything, but he is a fine theologian and a man of integrity. I link to two relevant articles of his – Old High Church Tenets and Broad and Central. The real issue is the extent to which we see the Reformation as a bedrock and model of Anglicanism – or the pre-Reformation English Church – or for that matter Counter Reformation Roman Catholicism. He and Dr Toon need to be read and studied, so that we can better understand our own aspirations.