July 17, 2010

Preserving the Elizabethan Compromise

Elizabeth II often enjoy (and agree with) the essays of the Rev. Canon Dr. Giles Fraser. His latest Church Times commentary is especially interesting, as Fraser provides insight into the Church of England that is not obvious to Episcopalians. In his essay “It’s still time to stick together,” Fraser offers the following analysis:
The Church of England is the original big tent. The idea was that those English Catholics who didn’t want to look to Rome would agree with the moderate Puritans to dis­agree about doctrine. They would concentrate instead on worship, kneeling together in the parish church, united in common prayer. This peace treaty created the English distrust of doc­trine and -isms. These were the stuff of revolution and the Con­tinent. In our stolid empirical way, we would get on with prayer, and leave the doctrine to God.

But things are different now. For one thing, over the past few decades and in the name of diversity, we have been given permission to worship in a variety of different ways, with little uniting thread. Some flap their hands towards an overhead projec­tor; others throw incense at statues to the rhythms of the Roman missal. Fresh Expressions is the latest fig-leaf for liturgical anything goes.

Also, in a more recent develop­ment, the Puritans have discovered an alternative life-support machine for their 17th-century Calvinism: the Anglican Communion—some­where where the peace-treaty ap­proach has never made any sense.
These observations follow the General Synod debates over women bishops and the demand that provisions be made for those who cannot accept such an innovation. In other words, the English Catholics want to retreat into their own exclusive enclave.

Fraser continues:
All of this raises the question whether the peace-treaty model is viable any more, even in England. Could it not be argued that yoking together such different theological sensibilities in one Church is ac­tually a recipe for continual civil war?
Fraser ducks his own question and declares, without any real argument, that “[h]aving furious rows is no reason to give up on our together­ness.”

I’m not so reckless as to offer advice to the Church of England regarding how it should deal with its internal conflicts. (My inclination is to say do the right thing and let the Puritans and Catholics deal with it, but I might be missing something here.) It is interesting, however, that the Elizabethan Compromise of worshiping in a uniform way and avoiding interminable doctrinal arguments has degenerated, in the mother country of Anglicanism, into worshiping in very different ways and getting bogged down in irresolvable theological disputes, whether directly or by proxy. The failure to revise the prayer book since 1662 is surely important here, though whether as a cause or a symptom of the Church of England’s problems I cannot say.

The Episcopal Church is more diligent about revising its prayer book, but the trends of expanding liturgical diversity and increasing doctrinal conflict are certainly discernible in our church. I think they are less prominent here, but it must be admitted that schism, at least in the immediate past, has been more of a problem for The Episcopal Church than for the Church of England. Hedge your bets on future developments, however.

I believe that a stable Anglicanism requires the limiting of liturgical diversity and a kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to doctrine. It also requires that canonical liturgy (or liturgies) be seen as relevant and contemporary. Non-standard worship and extreme theology seem to go hand-in-hand. It is certainly true, in any case, that many of the congregations that have left The Episcopal Church, reputedly over doctrinal issues, worship in a style that would make the average Episcopalian feel uncomfortable and out-of-place.

There is an object lesson here.

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