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Church’s three dimensions

16 December 2016

Michael Doe reflects on a cold climate for Anglican ecclesiology

The Vocation of Anglicanism
Paul Avis
Bloomsbury T&T Clark £80
Church Times Bookshop £72


PAUL AVIS has long been a leading exponent and proponent of Anglicanism, and a tireless practitioner in ecumenical dialogue and negotiation. This new work, largely a reworking of more recent articles and lectures, offers little by way of new insights, but may be a useful reminder of the underlying issues at a time when neither ecclesiology nor ecumenism is flavour of the month.

He restates how Anglicanism has a distinct and (without getting too superior) maybe better take on what it means to be a Church that holds together being one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. He reminds us how out of our particular history we are called to be “three-dimensional”: Catholic, and reformed, and critical (that is, the learning and inquiry that comes from our use of reason), defining those three characteristics in an interesting, albeit rather conservative, way.

He recognises that trying to combine these different marks of the Church can raise difficult issues. One of these is avoiding wishy-washy compromise, where the centre becomes defined as a spongy middle ground: his best quote here is from Martyn Percy, that the centre is now a radical stance that is, paradoxically, where the cutting edge lies.

Another, especially in the Communion at this time, is the issue of authority: at the time of writing Avis still seemed to see the proposed Anglican Covenant as a viable way forward, but he reserves his strongest criticism for GAFCON and its un-Catholic proposals for alternative Communion structures.

If one seeks to be critical, there are, perhaps, three things to be said. First, he calls this “missional ecclesiology”, but there is little here about its practical working out into the world, either in how the character of Anglicanism might contribute to public truth or reconciling cultural difference, or how the claimed attractiveness of Anglicanism might benefit the proclamation and application of the gospel.

Second, for all its talk of Communion, the book feels very English in the history that it relates and the thinkers whom it quotes. There is nothing on the work done by, say, Bruce Kaye in Australia or Ian Douglas in the United States, let alone what different kinds of Anglicanism may be emerging in Africa, or what has happened to it in the United Churches of the Indian subcontinent

Most of all, and sadly, it finds itself addressing a generation that does not inhabit the story told here, or maybe any story, leading to new forms of church which are more about responding to immediate, personalised needs and concerns than any wider, deeper, or historically related community or vision. The best corrective to that is precisely what Avis wants to tell us about the nature of the Church, and the Anglican Church in particular. But it will not be a ready or receptive audience.


The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn, and a former General Secretary of USPG.

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