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Local Churches for local people?

29 January 2016

John Saxbee considers the far-flung matter of Anglican Studies

corsham court, wiltshire/bridgeman images

Circumstantial: Elizabeth I, c.1610, “Weary but triumphant, Elizabeth the statesman at her most human”, in a portrait (English School) at Corsham Court, Wiltshire, from the new paperback edition of Lisa Hilton’s Elizabeth: Renaissance prince: A biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-7802-2007-9)

Circumstantial: Elizabeth I, c.1610, “Weary but triumphant, Elizabeth the statesman at her most human”, in a portrait (English School) at Corsham Cour...

The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies
Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, and Martyn Percy, editors
OUP £95
Church Times Bookshop £85.50


THERE has never been a better time than now to take stock of Anglicanism. Some 500 years since the accession of Henry VIII, we find ourselves reflecting on the latest threat to its global cohesion. How easy it is to lose sight of how this colourful and sometimes lurid history has been characterised by inclusiveness and generosity, enriched by profound theological and spiritual sensibilities.

The length, breadth, and depth of Anglicanism is the subject of this expansive (and expensive) collection of 44 essays, carefully chosen and skilfully edited so as to facilitate study of such a precious and providential ecclesiastical phenomenon.

What are “Anglican Studies”? The basic premise of this relatively new discipline is that Anglicanism is a distinctive phenomenon with theological, historical, and cultural characteristics conditioned by geo-political and sociological circumstances. So, instead of simply rehearsing its history, contributors to this symposium have been asked “to discuss issues of identity and development using distinct historical periods and interpretations”.

Again, instead of attempting to adjudicate on controversial topics such as gender, sexuality, and inter-faith relations, the book offers us informed insights into how such issues are addressed around the Communion, with the emphasis on methodological distinctiveness and diversity. The editors confirm that “nothing about Anglicanism is quite as simple as it might seem,” and, as Martyn Percy puts it, “what had previously been implicit needs to be made explicit.”

The book is in seven parts, each containing six or seven chapters, which range from fairly comprehensive surveys to specific and topical “snapshots”. So, for example, the opening “Historiography” section combines broad historical analysis by Bruce Kaye and Alec Ryrie with more focused studies by Paul Avis, Kevin Ward, Andrew Atherstone, and Mark D. Chapman on Lambeth Conferences, mission, churchmanship parties, and missionary bishops.

Part 2 covers methods and styles of Anglicanism, including Avis on the Prayer Book (apparently recent Lambeth Conferences “have lost interest in it”), Ann Loades on spirituality, and the late lamented Kenneth Stevenson on Anglican aesthetics. Marion Grau asserts a plurality of Anglican theologies to give integrity to theological education in various local contexts.

This leads seamlessly into Part 3 on “The Contextualization of Anglicanism”. Here are insightful accounts of how Anglican identity finds expression in Africa, Asia, Australasia, and North America, provided by mostly indigenous contributors. The editors acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive survey, but between them they address all the key questions that arise when the “Englishness” of Anglicanism is serially re-negotiated to reflect local cultures and their respective pre-histories.

These suggestive re-imaginings of what it means to be Anglican take on ever greater significance as the global centre of gravity continues to shift away from Anglicanism’s traditional heartlands. Daniel O’Connor’s “The Geography of Anglicanism” provides a masterly summary of the current global status of Anglicanism and the challenges it faces now — and will face in the future.

This opens the way for Part 4 to address “Anglican Identities”. This plural concept begs the question posed by a Maori contributor, Jenny Te Paa-Daniel: “Does ‘Anglican identities’ imply there are multiple discrete Anglican identities or does it imply there is one singular Anglican identity with multiple expressions?”

One of the editors, Sathianathan Clarke, responds by quoting one of the other editors, Mark D. Chapman: “instead of being a singular phenomenon or a unique global brand, Anglicanism . . . is much more akin to locally pro- duced and locally designed goods aimed primarily at the domestic market.”

Part 5 homes in on current “Crises and Controversies”. The Bible, doctrine, politics, gender, sexuality, and other religions feature in the chapter headings. These are crucial issues for Anglicanism, but the need to stay within the discipline of Anglican Studies, i.e. more description than prescription, will disappoint readers looking for a definitive steer.

That said, the first-hand testimonies of Archbishop Thabo Makgoba on Anglicanism and politics in South Africa (it may be significant that African contributions are predominantly from that country), and Clare Amos and Michael Ipgrave at the cutting edge of interfaith relations are challenging and instructive. It is also noteworthy how the unique contribution of Rowan Williams to these critical debates is repeatedly acknowledged and affirmed.

Part 6, “The Practice of Anglican Life”, contains within itself the centrifugal and centripetal forces that make their impact around the world on Anglicans as they seek to give Anglicanism practical expression in mission, prayer, congregational life, oversight, ministerial formation, and canon law. The resonance of what it means to be Anglican with what it means to be a human being is very much in evidence, and does as much as anything to explain what Anglicanism is actually for.

Finally, we come to “The Futures of Anglicanism”. Here is a pervading sense of breaking free from what John Pobee calls Anglicanism’s “Anglo-Saxon Captivity”. Micah Eun-Kyu Kim from Korea explores this in relation to biblical hermeneutics, while Janet Trisk challenges the imposition of managerial styles of leadership on to Anglicans in the global South.

Michael Nazir-Ali’s magisterial account of Anglican relations with Islam, and A. Katherine Grieb’s advocacy of Scriptural Reasoning as a tool to break the impasse over Anglican interpretation of scripture are especially helpful. It is noticeable that these forward-facing essays have little to say about human sexuality,which has featured so prominently in earlier chapters. It would be a relief to think that more important issues will indeed prevail in the futures of Anglicanism.

As the editors readily acknowledge, not everything can be covered in an enterprise of this kind, but Anglican schools, religious orders, and the important part played by the Mothers’ Union in global Anglicanism all deserve more than just a passing reference. Also, however often we are reminded that the Lambeth Conference has no binding authority, still it is repeatedly referred to as a kind of default magisterium.

By no means least, only one third of the contributors are by birth or adoption from the global South, and only a third are women. A pity, if as is claimed, the typical Anglican today is a young African woman.

It is likely that a more Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical roster of contributors would come up with different versions of Anglicanism. But there is something to be said for the Broad Church constituency’s taking on a project of this kind, and credit must be given to such even-handed accounts of a far-from-even-tempered Communion.

In the penultimate chapter, Bishop Terry Brown of Melanesia finds “Anglicanism” to be a word “suggestive of an ideology”. He prefers to speak of contextualised “Anglican ways”, of which he identifies and describes ten in all. The Anglican Way is then defined as the will and ability to hold these all together. This may risk running up against the rocky shores of a compromise or three too many, but the overall message is that the prize is worth the price.

No self-respecting library should be without this invaluable reference work — and every Anglican’s bookshelf will benefit from this compendium of informed analysis and distilled wisdom.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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