A new step in the reformation of Anglicanism?

By Howard Anderson

I was re-reading John Jewell’s Apology for the Church of England last night. Yes, I know, only a Church nerd would “re-read” something as ponderous as that. My seminarian daughter, Kesha, urged me to read it because she felt it was important. It isn’t exactly People magazine or even The Washington Post. But something struck me as I read his often turgid and convoluted arguments against the Roman Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome. He, as well as his student, Cranmer, and Hooker were the three individuals who put Jewell’s thinking into a new formulation of reason, tradition and scripture; and that the Episcopal Church are another step in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the church councils.

Jewell was seen by many, especially the Roman Catholic Bishops in England, who argued vehemently in the House of Lords against Elizabeth’s “Settlement,” as merely another Protestant cleric. But in his defense of the Church of England he began to link the seeming opposites together. He was smitten by the sola scriptura (scripture only) focus of the Protestants, but was appalled by the Puritans who took things too far in throwing the Catholic baby out with the bath. His fixation on the primitive church, and their less hierarchical priesthood of all believers, reaching out to the world as a way of living into God’s reign, almost sounds like what the “emergent/emerging” church folk are writing and talking about these days. Of course it took a couple more centuries before our ecclesiology caught up with the ideal of the primitive or early church. But I think it has. And I admit that I, like Jewell, am enamored greatly by the early church, whose faults I candidly admit I have not explored as deeply as its enduring contributions to the Church today.

I remember sitting in a pub in Canterbury with several of the Cathedral Canons, and after the second pint, one said “You Americans need to get with the program and use the same polity as the rest of the Communion.” My response was something like, “Perhaps you forget, that there was a revolution in the colonies and I believe your side lost. And, as you tried to strangle the Episcopal Church baby in the cradle by withholding episcopal support, our friends, and your adversaries the Scots came to our aid.” I added, rather snidely I fear, “The Church of England and the whole Communion, will, within our children’s lifetime, adopt the Episcopal Church’s polity. My friends, if you think lay and ordained Episcopalians will give up their rights to vote on matters of import like electing their rectors and bishops, voting in General Convention and give them over to a bunch of bishops let alone primates, you are simply deluding yourselves!” Slurp, wipe the Guinness foam off my upper lip, “so there!”

This harkening back, I admit often with nostalgia dimming the realities of the primitive church, has always marked much of classical Anglican thinking. The polity we in the Episcopal Church have embraced, coming out of our revolutionary culture is truly an American intervention into the wonderful world of polity. It is a reform that does take a step forward in the evolution of a church that is thoroughly Catholic, yet embraces the reformation thinking. I always add that TEC is “the last catholic church left.” Note the small “c.” But I can say that God willing, anyone I baptize could become our Presiding Bishop. There is no automatic roadblock to anyone who has the gifts for serving TEC as an ordained or lay leader, like there is in other branches of churches in the Catholic tradition, and these roadblocks of exclusion exist even in the normally inclusive mainline Protestant denominations.

TEC is much maligned in some Anglican quarters these days. But mark my words, this reforming Catholic/catholic church of ours is doing a great thing in following the model of radical inclusion that I believe Jesus called the early Church to, and stills calls us into today. Living in the tension of being a both/and Church is not easy. We, like Jewell, look backward for inspiration and forward to a church ever more being called by God into a bright and unpredictable future. It never has been easy to live in this tension. It never will be. But as for me, I am proud of this Church of ours that dares to risk persecution and having all kinds of evil muttered against it falsely on account of following Jesus.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. He was a long time General Convention deputy and most importantly, is grandfather to a five year old theologian, Will.

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