The view from England

The Cafe welcomes several new contributors this month, including Adrian Worsfold (known online as Pluralist), who offers a view from England.

By Adrian Worsfold

I am an independent-minded Anglican at the northern edge of the Canterbury province before the land becomes, over the River Humber, part of the province of York. In this part of England, which is a notorious area for low percentage churchgoing, I’d say that at the very best five per cent of the population enter all churches of all denominations.

It is such a different scene in the United Kingdom from the United States. The only real growth in churchgoing in this country is in London among black immigrant-based independent churches. There is also the result of Poland entering the European Union and perhaps some one million Poles coming more or less all at once into the United Kingdom, many of whom go to Catholic churches for communal reasons – rather a similar dynamic to background reasons for much churchgoing in the United States. This is not the dynamic of churchgoing in the UK, where people are generally not clubable and remain reserved, and who retain large areas of personal space around themselves as individuals.

My own background is religiously mixed. Without going into detail I was raised without any church upbringing, became confirmed at a university chaplaincy into the Church of England, but have had serious Unitarian (now exhausted) and Anglican involvement since. As well as this I have had intentional contact with Bahais, Western Buddhists and the liberal end of the Independent Sacramental Movement. So you know where I am coming from.

I suppose there are around a dozen people in my local congregation of approaching a hundred that I know about who show a regular knowledge and interest in wider Anglican affairs. I do because there has always been for me an issue in the local church and the wider church. I am happy with the local church but there are increasing problems with the ethical basis of the wider Church. This is the only reason why I write about it.

This is an age of increasing specialisation, as only a minority are committed to any sort of church life. Yet the Anglican Church is based on being generalist. The problem is that as we specialise our interests, and become more selective in what we do, the Anglican Church and indeed every broad historic denomination simply covers too wide a spectrum. While doing research for my doctorate, I interviewed three Christian ministers. There was a traditionalist Catholic Anglican, a strong evangelical Anglican and a liberal Methodist. On every issue they sometimes took completely opposing positions. With this and other research I concluded in 1989 that the old denominations were increasingly meaningless, and new ones were emerging inside the old. So only old institutional habits and some fashions and understandings of spirituality, and a lot of localism, will keep the old institutions going. This may be still be considerable, but it comes with an increasing number of speciality Christian labels, and many of these identities struggling to clarify, specialise and even break free. The party system in the Church of England hardly helps.

Then in 1993 the Church of England ordained women, and it broke the back of its Catholic party. The traditionalist Catholics have either left or become marginalised. The Catholics that are left are either sacramentally inclined liberals or are critical Catholics who are mistaken for liberals. What was a stable triad of Catholics, Evangelicals and Broad (or Liberals) has become an unstable dyad of Evangelicals versus liberals. However, the Evangelicals are themselves too broad. One lot of them cannot compromise with liberals or, increasingly, anyone else, and the other lot can. In this age of specialisation, they have to split. This split comes before any straight fight between Evangelicals and Liberals.

This is what the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) is all about. Via the presenting issue of homosexuality, they are organising a split from other Evangelicals. They want other evangelicals marginalised. What they will end up doing is marginalising themselves. At the moment there is a transient alliance of the dogmatic – marginalised extreme Catholics and extreme Evangelicals. It won’t last, and like the Catholics before them, the Evangelicals in all their intensity must divide. It is quite painful for the compromising Evangelicals.

The result is a trimmed yet still broad Church. Some of the more intense liberal groups have shown the same tendency to divide between liberals and radicals. However, liberals have long put up with not getting what they want, and some have had an ethic of bringing others together. In England the Broad Church group contained, historically, compromisers and centralisers as well as radicals (those who sympathised with Unitarians, for example). That the Catholics and Evangelicals have split first and second may give comparative strength to the liberals and not lead to them splitting too. Also, the looser arrangement of liberals and their view of authority is more flexible about difference.

The core GAFCON body is basically an alliance of extreme Reformation Evangelicals, insigniicant in themselves, but allied with an up-and-coming Christianity made from a toxic mixture of out-of-colonialism religion with those literalist biblical words that reflect the kind of magical and crisis-ridden supernaturally haunted world they recognise.

My view is that each main Church should protect the integrity of the institution that the GAFCON people are attacking and will attack. It will be part of its existence to raid and to steal, should it be successful in setting up parallel but dogmatic Anglicanesque institutions. In the United Kingdom they will seek to redistribute Anglicans towards its leadership. However, there is a kind of inevitability about the breakaway, and they should be allowed to go. The attempt to centralise, to copy its agenda (as in the Advent Letter of 2007), to compromise with them, via this Covenant, is completely misconceived. Let those people go: producing another, smaller continuing Anglicanesque speciality as the main bodies trim themselves from their dogmatic extremities.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist) has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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