The new historiography: is an Anglican via media still defensible?

05 November 2008


From the Revd Dr J. N. Morris
Sir, — May I rise to the challenge issued in Jonathan Clark’s perceptive account of the changing historiography of the Church of England (Comment, 31 October)?

Professor Clark makes many points, not all of which can be en­compassed in a letter, but I do feel sure that many Anglican historians will want to dissent from some (though not all) of the points he makes.

He is surely correct to point to the way in which recent scholarship has challenged received accounts of the Church of England’s historical identity. The case for “Catholic revisionism” put so compellingly by Eamon Duffy and others has yet to meet serious academic rebuttal, and, as Professor Clark rightly points out, the effect is to leave the Reformation crisis in Anglican history to be interpreted as a “new departure, a licence to pursue a personal spiritual pilgrimage, unconstrained by scripture or tradition”.

Yet, even if we accept that at face value (as I don’t quite), it does not follow that the case for the via media is thereby completely disabled. Professor Clark’s own work has demonstrated how close the ties of Anglican politics and religion ran well into the 19th century. The Anglican settlement, whatever else it was, was always a political settlement that enabled some degree of religious diversity. In that light, what is significant in Anglican history is the continuity of two “frontiers” of Anglican ecclesial identity: non-alignment to Rome, and the retention of Catholic order.

Within these parameters, it is true that there has been considerable flux over the centuries. But even when elements of the “confessional State” were dismantled in the mid-19th century, and when the numbers of those churchgoing Christians outside the Church of England rose above the numbers of regular Church of England attenders, it was possible — as it still is — to argue that the basic institutional form of Anglicanism expressed abiding features of the historic continuities of the Christian Church from its earliest days.


Authority may be “historically grounded”, but it also requires theological exposition and defence, and it is not clear — to many, at any rate — that currents of historical revisionism have made that task altogether impossible in Anglican terms.

Moreover, seen in a wider Continental context, the case for the Anglican via media again still has legs. Anglicanism is a reformed Cath­olicism, defined more by its polity and by its adaptability than by the imprint of any one particular theological school, as well as by its historical roots in English history and culture. Yet it has been able to rediscover, over the past hundred years, a close affinity with episcopal Lutheranism (as in the Scandinavian and Baltic Churches) and with the reformed Catholicism of the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht.

The point here is the affinity rather than the numbers. The ecumenical policy of the Church of England continues to be shaped by its determination to do equal justice to relations with Churches beyond both of the ecclesiological frontiers I mentioned. Again, in doing so, there is a strong case for saying that the Church of England has remained broadly consistent to the main lines of its history.

While I think that Professor Clark is much too pessimistic, then, about the ecclesiological implications of current historical revisionism, I am at one with him, however, about the dangers of neglecting Anglican history. It is not true to imply that there are no Anglican answers to the impressive list of Roman Catholic scholars he cites.

Let me mention just a few of the more distinguished names one could summon in defence: Alec Ryrie, Sarah Foot, Judith Maltby, Kenneth Fincham, Jeremy Gregory, Frances Knight, Nigel Yates, Rowan Strong, Andrew Chandler, John Wolffe, John Pollard, among others, some of them relatively young scholars of whom we can expect much in the future. But it is certainly much harder to see a working Anglican historical “school” of the kind one associates automatically with a fast-disappearing generation of scholars.

That does have implications for the way Anglicans are likely to understand their history and identity in the future. And Professor Clark is surely also right to draw our attention to the general neglect of church history in theological education, and to the lack of seriousness with which historical argument is treated in contemporary church debate.

Though I disagree profoundly with elements of Professor Clark’s conclusion, there is no question that he has drawn attention to the risk of a certain historical amnesia in Anglicanism, and we should be on our guard.
Dean, Chaplain, and Robert Runcie Fellow in Ecclesiastical History
Trinity Hall, Cambridge CB2 1TJ


From the Revd Simon Heans
Sir, — There is an omission from Professor Clark’s wide-ranging survey of post-Reformation historiography: his own writing.

In English Society 1688-1832 (1985), he offers “a grand narrative” of just the kind he says the Church of England now needs. As Professor Clark knows, however, the term “grand narrative” is of Marxist prov­enance, and its political conse­quences were totalitarian. Given that no Anglican wants to go down that road (or even one leading to the authoritarian Church of the 18th century, which he so lovingly de­picts), it seems to me that the claim that “The C of E needs a strong story” is dangerously mistaken.

Much better that the different traditions or parties that have always existed within Anglicanism be given the freedom to develop in their own way.
The Vicarage, Oakhill Road
Beckenham BR3 6NG

From the Bishop of Ebbsfleet
Sir, — Professor Jonathan Clark’s fine analysis of what has happened in the Church of England points to a discontinuity — and a debate — paralleled by the agonies of post-conciliar Roman Catholicism.

Attempts to recover a “hermen­eutic of continuity”, inspired by the present Pope, are leading, first and most obviously, to the recovery of some of the liturgical forms and expressions of pre-conciliar Cathol­icism. To that extent, we can see something similar to the way in which Common Worship replaced the “Alternative Service” culture of the 1960s-’80s with a set of liturgies including treasures both new and old.

I guess that Book of Common Prayer services — and integral elements of them — are nowadays on the increase, as English Anglicans, streamlined by being a much smaller organisation, experience our own modest “reform of the Reform”.

Liturgical forms, as always, point to something deeper. The question is whether, as in Roman Catholicism, there could be an Anglican theological ressourcement in the wake of the curbing of the excesses of modernity and the resultant discontinuity.

Catholics in the Church of England — and most lately Professor Clark’s article — have suggested repeatedly that it is either getting too late, or indeed much too late, for that to happen. Bluntly, worldwide Anglicanism is reinventing itself in some circles as the Church of 16th-century Puritanism (that is, is not the Church of the fully formed 1662 Prayer Book), and in other circles as an amorphous and imaginative response to new and emerging ideas and stimuli, Christian, pagan, and secular.

Meanwhile, classical Anglicanism, looking back to Aidan and Augustine, could be said to be withering on the vine, most of our clergy and lay people unaware of its very existence, let alone its serpentine subtleties.

Perhaps Cardinal Kasper’s call at Lambeth for a “new Oxford Movement” was an attempt to draw attention to this very problem.
Bishop’s House
Dry Sandford
Abingdon OX13 6JP

Perhaps Cardinal Kasper’s call at Lambeth for a “new Oxford Movement” was an attempt to draw attention to this very problem.
Bishop’s House
Dry Sandford
Abingdon OX13 6JP

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