Giles Fraser: It’s still time to stick together

14 July 2010

When trying to explain the Church of England, especially to Americans, I often say that it is a peace treaty created in response to the trauma of religious civil war. But whereas the Americans take from their own civil war the lesson that human rights must be fought for and that the fight must be won at all costs, the lesson we take from the wars of the Re­formation spilling over into the 17th-century civil war, is that making peace, however it is cobbled together, is always better than war, however principled.

So they think we are weak and unprincipled, and we think they are bellicose, and, morally speaking, un­able to see in three dimensions.

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.

Of course, the peace treaty worked only partially. Now and again, one side or another would seek to disrupt the delicate balancing operation that kept the Church of England together. But the cen­trifugal force of common prayer was always strong enough to keep us whole.

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.

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?

As we continue to fight each other in the trenches of Synod and else­where, it is tempting to think that a discreet divorce would solve all our problems. But we must say no to this pessimism. Marriages go though dif­ficult times. Having furious rows is no reason to give up on our together­ness.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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