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Why history is crucial to the Church’s future

08 February 2013

The C of E needs a stronger sense of tradition, argues Barry Orford

A FRIEND who is familiar with the ways of our theological colleges stopped me in my tracks when he said: "The problem is that we are preparing people for ordination who have no idea where we have come from." Too many ordinands today, he said, have only the haziest ideas of Anglican church history and spirituality, or of the notable figures in that history.

Is he correct? It is a serious matter if the priests of the Church of England are ignorant of our story and our spiritual tradition; and yet, looking back on my own ordination training in the early 1970s, I remember no sustained instruction on our Anglican heritage. That might still be the situation.

The late Henry Chadwick warned our Church of the danger of becoming like someone who has lost his or her memory; but this suggests that the person once possessed the information that has vanished. It is far worse if our clergy never had the knowledge to lose.

A question remains about where ordinands are to acquire a familiarity with our past and our foundations. Many who are in training are routinely made to read for degrees in theology, but courses on specifically Anglican history and spirituality are unlikely to feature there.

IT IS clear that rooting ordinands in our own tradition is work for our theological colleges, and it must be done in a way that is not simply academic, but also experiential. Any lectures on the history of the Prayer Book, for example, must be balanced by a living acquaintance with the forms and language of the BCP which have shaped our spiritual inheritance, notably the offices of morning and evening prayer.

Bishop John Moorman wrote: "Anglicanism has a great tradition of spirituality, different from Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions." This needs to be handed on. Poets such as Herbert, Donne, or Vaughan may be familiar to our future priests, but what of our doctors of theology and spiritual guidance?

Think of the men who established the nature of the Church of England over against Puritanism, and who formed its distinctive voice by drawing together older schools of moral and ascetical theology to make a new "practical divinity". Think, for instance, of Hooker, Andrewes, Taylor, Sanderson, and Beveridge. These names might not mean much to those in training for ordination, and would Bell, Temple, or even Ramsey fare much better?

I AM not advocating ecclesiastical antiquarianism. I do not wish to set up the BCP, still less the King James Bible, as idols. We cannot return to the mind of the 17th century: we have different needs, experiences, and understanding. Yet we must not fall into the arrogance that says that these past writers have nothing to say to us. They are the people who have made our Church what it is, and if we are unaware of their existence and their teaching, then we have no solid ground beneath our feet.

It is worrying when the term "Anglican" is slapped on to positions that have little justification from our history, just as it is disturbing to hear of people who say that they seek ordination in the Church of England "because it's the best boat to fish from", and not because they are committed Anglicans. If we do not learn and own our historical tradition, we, too, easily become unfocused in our purpose, and lacking in conviction about the worth of what we have received.

We have a responsibility to our future clergy to see that they are grounded in our inheritance, and, if this is not being done, then we need a serious review of our procedures for priestly formation in both residential and non-residential training. In particular, we must recognise to a greater extent how the requirements of ordinands differ from those of university students.

We must also acknowledge that ignorance of our historical background will have an impact on ecumenical dialogue. Proper ecumenism must rest on the contribution made by the traditions of the dialogue partners. What have we to offer to Christians of other denominations if we do not know our own inheritance?

CHURCH history is too often the poor relation in religious studies. In the training of our priests, Anglican history needs to play a leading part. Then clergy must hand on this knowledge to a generation that has been deprived of its Christian and Anglican heritage by society, education, and even by the Church.

"Anglicans are heirs to a tradition of which at present they are often almost unaware," A. M. Allchin wrote. "There is here a need for a recovery of memory, which will allow for a recovery of identity." This requires an understanding of our distinctive method in theology, and recognition of our inherited ways of worshipping and serving God.

An outstanding anthology of four centuries of Anglican spirituality was published in 2001: Love's Redeeming Work, edited by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (OUP). I wonder how many of our ordinands are instructed to buy a copy and read it, in order to absorb the great heritage that is ours.

Anglicans are too often prone to belittle the qualities of our Church. It is time to restore proper self-confidence, and a sense of identity, by embracing our inheritance.

If we are to meet the third millennium's challenges, we will need to become renewed Anglicans. This renewal must grow from knowing the intentions and devotional spirit of our founding divines, who also lived and worshipped in times of rapid change.

People are seeking out definite instruction in Christian faith and practice. If we are asking them to listen to us, then we should have no diffidence about offering them a tested and demanding Anglican way of discipleship, rooted in "the faith of our fathers", and reminted for our time.

The Revd Dr Barry Orford is a Priest Librarian of Pusey House, Oxford.

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