Britain has been a Christian country for a long, long time. It was probably during the first or second century that Christianity came here. It was found amongst the Roman colonists, and at some point emerged amongst the native Britons (possibly through connections with the emerging monastic movement in the deserts of Egypt and Sinai). Christian missionaries like Saint Patrick took the faith to Ireland and Scotland. In the fifth century when the Roman Empire withdrew we were invaded by pagans who drove the Britons into the west and north (Cornwall, Wales and Scotland). In these Celtic strongholds the faith thrived, but most of Britain came under pagan control.
But a new mission began — in fact two missions, one springing from the north, and the other sent from Rome. Irish missionary monks hailed from Iona and a mission under Aidan began in the north. Meanwhile Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine to establish a mission in England and he established his monastery at Canterbury. Working separately the two missions began to convert Britain again. But the two missions did not always see eye to eye. There were rivalries until Saint Theodore brought the missions together to create a unified English Church that was united to the Church in Europe and loyal to the See of Peter, the Pope.
That unity fell apart at the Reformation, when the Reformers broke from Rome believing it to be corrupt. And we have to admit that things were not good at this time. There were at times popes who were godless and wicked men, fathering many children and sanctioning multiple murders to further their political power. Little wonder that God-fearing men felt the only thing to do was to form a new Church. So Martin Luther and others formed new protestant Churches which stripped away Church structures, rituals and the need for bishops. And we find this alive today in the free Churches, e.g. Baptists, Lutherans etc.
That was the Reformation in Europe but for us it was less straightforward. Henry VIII spotted an opportunity amidst the chaos and took Church power for himself, broke with Rome, not least because he wanted to secure a male heir and acquire the wealth of the monasteries. Henry’s Church combined both Catholic and Protestant aspects of faith. Some say this was the beginning of Anglican fudge.
Out went the Latin Mass, altars, statues, decorated churches and colourful religion. The three-fold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons was retained. And a very bald book of services replaced the missals. But most important for Henry was that the Pope was no longer in control, the State was.
But all was not easy in the English Church: very strong differences existed between the Puritans and a group known as the Caroline divines. They upheld the beauty of worship and the centrality of the Eucharist. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes — a former Bishop of Chichester — prayed for unity between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans (quite radical for his day), but his high church ways could not be sustained; the Puritans fought back and political unrest produced the English Civil War.
The war was bloody and bitter yet as the war clouds cleared the Church was still there. Bishops were restored and the prayer book reinstated, but there was little appetite for fighting in the Church.
So we begin the eighteenth century, with Christian zeal being identified with fanaticism. People wanted peace and the Church became essentially an institution of civility and proper behaviour. Arguably faith was reduced to an all time low. A sense of the sacred was lost, the Eucharist celebrated only three times a year. Bishops never visited their churches. They administered confirmation in great crowds not even bothering to lay hands on people. Most incumbents did not visit their parishes and sent impoverished curates to administer them. The church was in a truly neglectful state.
Along came John Wesley and although thought of as an Evangelical preacher he was in fact very catholic — unusual in wanting to celebrate Holy Communion each day if possible. His revival was sorely needed in the Church. Yet eventually due to conflicts with the Church’s bishops he lead his “Methodists” out of the Church of England to become what we know as the Methodist Church today.
In 1833 a passionate priest called John Keble preached a sermon that would change things forever. He was fed up with the Church and saw far too much corruption. He and his friends, including John Henry Newman, Edward Bouverie, Hurrell Froude, Isaac Williams and Robert Wilberforce came together and formed the Oxford Movement. The Anglo-catholic movement of the nineteenth century began.
These Anglo-catholic fathers believed that the Church was not an institution of the State but was ordained of God. They wanted disestablishment. The authority of bishops came from their apostolic origins not their allegiance to the monarch and those in power. They rejected the idea that priests needed to be of a certain class who enforced certain standards of behaviour; they were very critical of the rich, gentlemen clergy who spent most of their time in gentlemen’s clubs. They believed that at the Reformation the reformers had gone too far, not only reforming what was corrupt, but also throwing out that which was sacred. So they re-introduced the saints, the “real presence” in the Eucharist, beautiful worship and prayers for the departed.
One of the Anglo-catholics, Newman, came to see that the Catholicising of the English Church could only occur by becoming part of the Catholic Church. In 1845, amid great controversy and at great personal cost, he converted to Roman Catholicism. He was ordained priest and eventually made a cardinal. In September this year Pope Benedict beatified him.
Although many followed Newman, the Anglo-catholic movement continued in the Church of England with the same vision as the Oxford Movement. This church continued in that tradition with many holy priests, some maybe a bit quirky (your present one being no exception).
So we come to the 20th century, with a Church of England that contained a diversity of views about itself. It was a broad church containing “liberals,” “evangelicals” and “Anglo-catholics”. This was deemed to be its strength. Diverse theologies were sheltered under one umbrella. All could be united in prayer with one prayer book. Things were fine as long as no-one rocked the boat too much.
But this “broad Church” vision had a corrosive effect. Anglican identity began to be characterised by fudging the big issues. Bishops needed to be politicians who could navigate rocky waters, and furthermore acceptable to the State who chose them. Outspoken and passionate priests were kept to the margins, and career men passed through the ranks (although there were exceptions).
We see in the 20th century the growth of the rationalist theologians, or the “liberals”, who gained ground in the latter part of the century. For a time the prayer book kept unity, but as soon as liturgical experimentation began, that was lost. While it meant Anglo-catholics could borrow liturgy from Rome, it also meant others would abandon liturgy altogether and others would invent their own liturgies and ceremonies. Today there is no uniformity in worship in the Church of England.
I believe a fatal development began in the government of the Church of England. The governing body became the General Synod and steadily began to behave like a purely democratic body, whose systems of voting could embrace or reject any doctrine it chose. And with the growing rise of rationalism amongst theologians so the Catholic understanding of the Church would be challenged by what became the prevailing ethos of the wider society.
General Synod voted to declare there were no theological barriers to women becoming priests without even engaging with the theology. Then in 1992 it voted to allow women into the presbyterate. Parliament made sure that Synod would promise to allow those who conscientiously opposed women in holy orders to have an equally valued place in the church. Measures were put into place to allow a PCC to dissent from this position and petition for alternative episcopal oversight. This was allowed in law and provided traditionalists with a place within the Church.
The flaw was in Synod itself because members of synod were often enthusiasts but not necessarily theologically aware. Society had drifted away from Christianity and the opinions of many in Synod were increasingly influenced by, and eventually mirrored, our society’s values. Everything was up for debate. By its very nature synod had become a place where political sleight of hand, counting votes and brokering deals to uphold or defeat legislation, were the order of the day rather than theological reflection, prayer and the desire for consensus.
And so we begin the 21st century in a dire mess. An increasingly liberal Church of England is in sharp decline. No-one knows what an Anglican believes. An Anglican bishop will defend the atheism of a liberal priest, but castigates the Anglo-catholic for refusing to cooperate with those who depart from the traditional faith. Far from having a valued place within the church the Anglo-catholics have been marginalised. Important though they are, human rights and political correctness are the main drivers in setting the agenda and play a much more important role in the debate than prayerful theology and biblical reflection. This has happened because it has become difficult if not impossible to reflect on the issue of women in the episcopate theologically when we cannot even agree what the nature of Church and priesthood is.
I was trained in a liberal theological college where some candidates for the Priesthood professed openly that they did not believe God was real, nor did they believe in the Creeds. Yet they were ordained. Not only did some not believe in the creeds, they did not believe in marriage, and I will not say what went on behind some closed doors.
Those pushing a liberal agenda see the Bible as a faulty man-made document, and Catholic tradition as out of date and opposed to modernity. There is no attempt to dialogue with modern society because they embrace the norms of modern society. The leader of the Episcopal Church in America, Katharine Jefferts Schori, has said that Jesus is just one vehicle to the divine and not divine in himself — plainly heretical. In the light of such thinking there is no Christian witness because there is no truth to witness to.
It is into this maelstrom that we are called to reflect on the legislation that General Synod wishes to pass allowing women to become bishops. Hold on to your hats as we try to plot our way through this muddle to some clarity and the nub of the problem. It is hoped that we may then be in a position to see and understand what it is we agree or disagree with and their implications.