In a recent Church Times article about some members of the Church of England who are considering joining the Roman Catholic church, one speaker, Eamon Duffy, Pro­fessor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, said that what was distinctive about Anglicans was that they had been “shaped” by the Royal Supremacy.  “A fundamental part of the nature, identity, and patrimony of Anglican­ism comes from the enforced co-existence of the Catholic dimension of Anglicanism within other more Protestant streams within an estab­lishment,” Professor Duffy is reported as saying.

Professor Duffy is not exactly right about this, but he is on to something true about Anglicanism, although what it may have to do with transferring to Rome I did not quite understand. While it is true that the reigning monarch is the ‘governor’ of the Church of England, the monarch only had power over the church from the death of Henry VIII to the outbreak of the English Civil War in the 1640s. The final authority over the Church of England has been Parliament ever since, even if the monarch retains the title. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 was passed against the expressed wishes of Charles II, and Parliament threw out a proposed Prayer Book revision as recently as 1928. That’s why Anglo-Catholics have had to get along with Protestants in ways that real Catholics (bad form to say so, I know, but let’s face facts) can avoid.

But it’s true that being under civil authority, inherited or elected, has been part of Anglican DNA for a long time, and the Episcopal Church has that DNA in ways that many of its members do not fully understand. Under Henry VIII the Church of England was Lutheran, under Edward VI and Elizabeth it was Calvinist, under Charles I and II it was catholic (but not Roman), after Parliament took over it was generically Protestant, and since then it has by law, by common authority, had to make room for people of all those types of churchmanship. When the Church of England in America became the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, that changed only slightly. The Church of England is established by law, the Episcopal Church is established by custom. The Church of England is ruled by the national government, the Episcopal Church is ruled by the national culture. Our DNA insists on giving room to theologies that differ.

That’s why life as an Anglican can be challenging. We’d all rather see the whole church just like our favourite corner of it, but the church gets into  trouble when one of those traditions takes over and tries to claim that it is the only true churchmanship. During the 16th century the Evangelicals tried that, during the 19th and 20th centuries the catholics tried it, and in the 21st century the liberals, or ‘latitudinarians’ to give them their 18th century name, are trying it. And in each of those ages the attempt has caused dissension and division, and has brought the church into disrepute, and ultimately failed. Our church only functions well when it admits that all these traditions, even the ones we personally can’t stand, have a place in it. By authority.

Those of us who don’t like what those attempting the current coup d’eglise are up to will, if we are truly Anglican, grit our teeth, salute and carry on, sticking to the understanding God has given us, hanging on all the more tenaciously to the place we are historically entitled to in this church. They won’t be able to expel us any more than those who attempted the earlier coups did, because we’re in the DNA.

The trend in the Episcopal Church during the last thirty years has only made me more and more determined to keep a place in the Episcopal Church for people who love God’s word, who feel sick to the stomach when they hear someone twisting it and distorting it to serve some purpose other than God’s, and who are determined to do everything, as an individual and as a churchman, in accordance with the obvious grammatical meaning of God’s word. Because that’s our church’s ultimate standard. It has been for 450 years, and no matter how successful those who want a different standard seem to be now, they will fail. They will always be in our church, because we are a national church, committed to making room for people of all the opinions we find in our nation, but no one opinion will ever drive the others out. People have tried for 450 years, and they have not succeeded.

Evangelicals have been the bad boys in Anglicanism for the last 300 of those years, but we’re still here, and we’ll still be here 300 years from now, unless Christ comes first.

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