One characteristic of the Church of England is that, rather like the English (being half-Welsh and half-German I can say these things) it is quite self-deprecating. It is used to being accused of being ‘wishy-washy’ and of just about anything else people can think of. Like all churches in the Western world, it has seen its numbers decline, and, being the National Church, it has come in for a deal of criticism as to its contribution to this sad state of affairs. What you don’t see it doing is to boast about itself – that would be very un-English. Being very un-English (in my ancestry anyway) I want to speak up for it.
My Church believes that Scripture, Reason and Tradition should be used in tandem when trying to understand what we are meant to do as Christians. In doctrinal terms it continues to do what it has always done, which is to strike a balance between the severity of Calvinism and the legalism one sometimes finds in other Churches. Although not used as often as it was, our Prayer Book (a masterpiece of English writing) and its XXXIX Articles, and its liturgy and Creed are enormously helpful in giving a sense of continuity. The Church provides enough forms of service to suit all tastes, but they remain within a liturgical framework, and allow any minister who wants, to avoid both the excesses of personal taste by the parson and the congregation. As ever, it tries to strike a happy medium; as so often, the medium seems less happy when struck!
In that search for balance, it is very open about the wide spectrum of liturgical and theological preferences. There are, as ever, those who insist that the end of the liturgical spectrum they prefer should be the one which predominates. As an Anglo-Catholic, I prefer a liturgy which is far closer to the Extraordinary Form in Roman Catholicism than it is to the Novus Ordo Mass – indeed, whenever I go to one of the latter, I am amazed at how Protestant it is in tone and style. I kneel at the altar rail to receive the Lord on my tongue, I do not join a queue to have him thrust into my hand. At the other end, there are those who want something which would make even a ‘Clown Mass’ look seemly. The good news is that we can all find somewhere that suits us – and being English, can feel smugly superior to that lot over there who don’t do as we do; we can also then apologise at confession.
The Church of England has also been the home to some marvellous creative minds. In terms of poetry, George Herbert, Charles Wesley (whose hymns are simply glorious), John Keble, and John Henry Newman (most of whose poetry was written whilst he was an Anglican), Tennyson, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas are all products of our tradition. When it comes to music, Anglican Choral Evensong is one of the glories of Christianity – it you aren’t familiar with it, try this.
So quiet are we about what is good about our system, is we forget how amazing our ecclesiastical system can be. The curacy system is a marvellous training method, a bit like an apprenticeship, which gives the ordinand time to adapt him or herself to the demands parish life puts on a priest. The parish system means that we are here whenever someone wants us. We are the only Church with a commitment to provide pastoral care in every parish – even if it means, as it often does now, that we have to cover five or six or seven churches. If someone wants access to a clergyman and is unchurched, it tends to be to us they come – simply because we are there. For all the good-humoured banter directed at our bishops, men of the calibre of NT Wright or Rowan Williams, make a permanent contribution to Christian theology outside our own church. They do a grand job, usually unsung, and they act as fathers, and now mothers, in the faith to all. Equally important is our tradition of education. Our parish schools provide a great place for children to learn the basics of the faith, whilst our Training Colleges, provide aspirants to the Ministry with an excellent and rigorous training. It is no accident that there have been and continue to be so many good Anglican theologians.
We retain a willingness to discuss difficult issues in public rather than in coded ecclesiastical-speak, which can give the impression we are permanently arguing; but we think that better than trying to claim everyone is on the same page really when they aren’t. We’ve managed to work our way through difficult theological issues such as women in the ministry, and if it has taken us 25 years to get most people on the same page, and if we have lost some wonderful people in the process, we have done it.
We also, of course, have a wonderful Supreme Governor, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, not one of whose pronouncements has ever had to be explained away by a spin doctor. During her reign she has seen seven Popes reign, and met most of them. Her Coronation Oath bound her in God’s name to serve her people faithfully – something she has done since 1952 and continues to do in her ninetieth year, with a schedule of engagements which would daunt someone twenty years younger. She lives her faith, and has set an example of faithful service which inspires many of us.
I could go on, but shan’t, this is already un-Anglican enough. Yes, I know there is a pile of stuff on the other side of the scale, as there is with every Church, but I just wanted to sing a small paean of praise to my Church. I’ll stop now 😳 (quietly walks away …).