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Harriet Sherwood recently wrote two provocative and contentious articles for the Guardian which highlighted yet more of the (seemingly) prevalent tensions within the Church of England. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her work rapidly generated the usual digital brouhaha over the weekend. After a cursory glance at the tempestuous virtual furore, I felt suitability stirred to pen this brief missal as a means of engaging with the wider conversation around Anglican identity. I do so with a healthy degree of trepidation, in part because I consider myself an outsider who is looking through a glass (darkly) at the broad diversity of the Anglican tradition. I thus feel ill-equipped to contribute much of a meaningful, experience based commentary on the serpentine, schismatic nature of the internecine rivalries that apparently pepper the wafer-thin semblance of unity within the communion.
Nevertheless, for a trainee theologian (of sorts) who has developed something of an appetite for flirting dangerously with Anglicanism as a broader movement, debates such as these are almost irresistible. Controversy within a family that one feels increasingly drawn to is very difficult to ignore; a growing sense of urgent restlessness and calling to serve said family even more so. Indeed, as many of my regular readers will know, in recent months I have been seriously considering the possibility and ramifications of throwing my proverbial hat into the ecclesial ring, by becoming a fully fledged, confirmed member of the CofE. As (un)remarkable as that statement may be to some, I do have a potentially vested interested in the future of the Anglican communion.
So, without further ado, and with one or two cards laid firmly on the table, to the matter in hand:
An apparent Anglican realignment?
Sherwood opens her article called “Top cleric says Church of England risks becoming a ‘suburban sect’.”, as follows:
‘Plans to reverse decline in congregations may alienate even more people, says Oxford dean.
One of Britain’s senior theologians has warned that the Church of England is in danger of becoming a narrow sect “driven by mission-minded middle managers” who are alienating clergy, congregations and the general public.’ – (The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford).
Immediately, her rhetoric is arguably tendentious. Granted, few would question the academic credentials of Professor Percy, who has a long and distinguished career in theological education. He is the 45th Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, a published author, and a recognised voice from within the communion that deserves plenty of thoughtful attention. For instance, one would be wise to listen intently when he critiques the sweeping program of ‘Renewal and Reform’ being foisted upon the CofE in the following terms:
‘It will take more to save the Church of England than a blend of the latest management theory, secular sorcery with statistics and evangelical up-speak.’
‘There seems to be no sagacity, serious science or spiritual substance to the curatives being offered.’
Sherwood marshals his criticisms alongside those of other clergy who are sceptical of the Archbishop Justin Welby’s push to recalibrate the CofE in such a way as to focus more on inner city suburban areas, over against rural ones (such as my own, no doubt).
Yet the paucity of contrasting viewpoints within Sherwood’s article is made all the more conspicuous by the absence of any serious engagement with leading Anglican figures who support and welcome the Renewal and Reform agenda. Sherwood’s 3:1 ratio of perspectives on the current state of play within the CofE is hardly fair, balanced, or representative of the wider communion (despite Percy’s claims to the contrary). As soon as I had read this article I was left wondering if the following ancient Hebrew proverb didn’t speak volumes on the subject matter at hand:
In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines. (Prov 18:17 NIV)
Therein lies the the rub, as it were. Sherwood is under no obligation to be even handed, yet by stating that a ‘Top cleric’, who happens to be a ‘senior Theologian’ within the CofE, is being openly critical (even denunciatory) of the current status quo within the British arm of the Anglican Church, Sherwood arguably gives the deceptive impression that Percy is the solitary voice of reason. She thereby potentially evokes an impression of him as a peerless authority figure who is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of intellect and hierarchy. His dissent is therefore cast as the result of an informed, intellectually robust mindset that is (presumably) sorely lacking within the ‘mission-minded’ ranks of the clergy who represent the movers and shakers inside the CofE. What is more, Sherwood’s closing barrage of sceptics align to suggest that the Renewal and Reform agenda is hopelessly out of touch with the lived realities of parish ministry. All in all, she presents a withering collective critique.
Now, it may be that other ‘Top Anglican Clerics..and senior Theologians’ have yet to weigh in on the topic (or feel no need to). I am not au fait enough with the rest of the British arm of the Anglican communion to know ‘who’s who’, as it were. Yet the title, tone, framing, and thrust of Sherwood’s article is clearly not concerned with pursuing much in the way of objectivity. Neither is it even cautiously optimistic or vaguely positive about any of the current developments that Percy and others lambast. For those reasons amongst others, I might prescribe a substantial pinch of salt for any vaguely discerning readers before jumping to unwarranted conclusions. An Anglican realignment is definitely afoot in the CofE, even if the precise nature of the evolutionary process at work remains a hot button topic which is mired in controversy.
Tradition vs Innovation?
I find it ironic that despite my own misgivings about Sherwood’s article, I share a degree of sympathy with Professor Percy and others who lament the ‘secular sorcery’ of the CofE’s new church planting initiatives. Urban Evangelical-Charismatic church plants are a widespread phenomenon which I am reasonably familiar with, since I have regularly attended at least three in my time thus far, and technically am part of a fledgling one now. I have written at length elsewhere about what myself and others perceive to be the inherent dangers of large churches adopting branding and/or marketing strategies to stimulate ‘growth’. All too often there is money to be made, influence to be had, and sycophantic Yes-men waiting to follow quasi-celebrity pastor-CEOs who often refuse to tolerate tough questions. Such flocks seem to live on a steady diet of groupthink and hollow religious rhetoric, which is buttressed by proof-texts and devoid of genuine gospel content. All of this is carefully choreographed to a soundtrack of Christian Pop/Rock music, flashing lights, and projectors which cost more than it would to employ two full time staff members. Yes, I clearly have issues to work through, and I’m just getting started. Needless to say, I struggle to see how these kinds of churches can genuinely embody the humble, unpretentious, self-sacrificial lifestyle epitomised by Jesus of Nazareth.
Whether or not the new church plants that spring up from the CofE over the coming years will end up looking much like their independent evangelical counterparts remains to be seen. Ostensibly some will, some won’t, and others will fall on a spectrum somewhere in between extremes. Yet what troubles me the most is the apparent push toward embracing new evangelistic methods at the expense of what I find to be one of Anglicanism’s most attractive features: The sense of ancient tradition that suffuses what Percy calls ‘a broad church – capacious and generous.’ Whilst it lacks modern branding, the CofE can point to the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ enshrined in Scripture, and enact aspects of that gospel through the mysterious sacraments that have stood the test of time. It can demonstrate it’s unwavering commitment to the episcopal structures that have their roots in apostolic succession by continuing to take the role of priestly ministry seriously, yet humbly (as Christ did). Surely it can persist in striving for that elusive via media between polar opposites, which remains as inherently elusive as it does critical for avoiding stagnation and unnecessary division? Doubtless the CofE must be willing and ready to innovate and adapt to the persistently changing landscape(s) of 21st century British culture. Yet surely ancient Anglican tradition need not be in competition with modern innovation(s)? Time will tell.
Of course, lines will inevitably be drawn in the sand over various issues such as sexuality, gender roles, pneumatology, and so forth. Broad church need not equate to an ‘anything goes’ mentality that risks undermining the very heart of Jesus’ Gospel message. Anglicans, like all Christians, must ultimately clarify their own understanding of the content, nature, and interpretation of the Gospel message if they expect to live it out faithfully. Perhaps it is an apparent failure to do this in a unified manner within the CofE that sparked this kind of statement from the (seemingly) less well known organisation called GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference):
‘In the beginning, the focus of our concern was North America and we thank God that he has raised up the Anglican Church in North America as a new wineskin in that continent. Now our concern is increasingly with the British Isles. A line has been crossed in the Church of England itself with the appointment of Bishop Susan Goff, of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, as an Assisting Bishop of Liverpool. The false teaching of the American Episcopal Church has been normalised in England..’ -The Most Reverend Nicholas D. Okoh, chairman of GAFCON (Emphasis mine).
Though not directly relevant to the topic of Sherwood’s original article, it is fascinating to get a non-European view that pulls no punches in it’s assessment of the spiritual health of British Anglicanism. I doubt many UK based ‘Top Clerics’ or ‘Senior Theologians’ would necessarily concur with Okoh’s opinion, however if nothing else it is clear that Percy is not the only high ranking Anglican to have serious misgivings about the current trajectory of the CofE. My questions in raising the GAFCON card are:
Do British Anglicans need a paradigm shift, not just regarding their evangelistic strategies or pneumatological convictions, but in terms of grasping the bigger picture of what God is perhaps doing in and through our brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world? To put it another way, do we need to be evangelised ourselves and be set free from our own blindness and ethnocentrism? Or do we persist in staring at the trees whilst failing to the see our place in the deep, dark wood?
What kind of Anglican realignment does the CofE really need? Is Justin Welby’s evangelical-charismatic church planting thrust the ticket to divine favour in an increasingly secular landscape? Or does British Anglicanism need to realign itself with the broader spread of the global Anglican communion?
Over to you, Anglican friends! Father Edward B. Green has already published a swift response to Sherwood’s other article, which touches on similar themes. Another excellent viewpoint on the same broad topic is this article by Wealands Bell. Surely there are other voices like Green’s and Bell’s who can provide alternative perspectives on the Renewal and Reform agenda within the CofE? I for one would welcome more insider knowledge.