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Bumpy ride for Mother Church

08 March 2013

Angela Tilby considers a view of the future of Anglicanism from across the Atlantic


Wide influence: Canterbury Cathedral nave without the chairs, from Lawrence and Marjorie Lyle'sCanterbury and the Gothic Revival, accessible scholarship that sheds light on the creation of St Augustine's College, which boosted the Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield's career, and Dean Alford's contribution to the cathedral fabric (The History Press, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-0-7524-6294-3)

Wide influence: Canterbury Cathedral nave without the chairs, from Lawrence and Marjorie Lyle'sCanterbury and the...

Calling on the Spirit in Unsettling Times: Discerning God's future for the Church
L. William Countryman
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use voucher code CT852)

THE internal divisions in the Anglican world have absorbed a disproportionate amount of time and energy among those who care for the future of this particular suburb of Christendom.

L. William Countryman is a priest of the Episcopal Church in the United States, a poet, and a biblical scholar. He knows how weary the endless arguments have made people, and how tempting it is in such a time to lapse into defensiveness and cynicism. 

He urges us to resist. This is a time for prayer and re-formation. If the title suggests that Countryman has an answer to our problems, he quickly dispels the suggestion. He does have a clear view of where the Spirit is leading us, but he invites us to re-examine our heritage with the aid of the Book of Common Prayer and some marvellous prayers of Christina Rossetti.

The essential part of any such re-examination is a return to the fundamentals of our faith: to the belief that our common life is truly animated by the Holy Spirit; to a renewed trust in Jesus as our priest and our lover; to a recognition that we are part of the communion of saints; to thankfulness for the gifts received within the Anglican tradition; to a rediscovery of humility; and to a willingness to join in the work of the Spirit. It is a gentle, pastoral, and wise book, to be taken slowly and pondered.

English readers will sense a cultural distance. To be an Anglican outside England is to be much more aware of cultural distinctiveness. When Countryman writes about Evangelicals, Catholics, and liberals in American Anglicanism, he assumes firmer and clearer divisions than are familiar to us. He does not include Charismatics; his Catholics seem remarkably tame and actually rather Protestant; and genuine liberal theology seems to be a much more vigorous option in American Anglicanism than it is here.

Some will be irritated (I was) by his constant use of the feminine pronoun when speaking of the Holy Spirit. The intention is innocent enough, but the usage jarred on me, not least because the theology of the Holy Spirit in the West is either so deficient or bizarre that speaking of the Spirit as "she" seems to confirm the "lesser" quality of the feminine as opposed to the masculine, even in God!

The key message, however, transcends these limitations. Anglicans are called not to uniformity, but to community. This is the heritage that we have received, and which we need to treasure and pass on. In the final chapter, Countryman suggests that we find our own way to reconnect to the Holy Spirit by doing some deep breathing, and imagining the kind of Church that the Spirit might be building out of the wreckage. There is a future, but in the mean time we need to hold on tight, breathe deeply, and prepare for a rocky ride.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Adviser for Ministerial Development for Oxford diocese.

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