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A Church Observed: Being Anglican as times change, by Andrew Norman

13 July 2018

Graham James reads the observations of a well-placed Anglican

ANDREW NORMAN’s perspective on what being Anglican means is informed by the history of his family and his own extensive ministerial experience. His book would be a valuable primer for ordinands and clergy, especially for those with scant knowledge of the past century of Anglican church history. With a cover price of £9.95 for a 400-page paperback, it is remarkably affordable as well as attractively produced.

Norman spares us none of the agonies of Anglican life, beginning with the Church of England’s stark realisation in the First World War that the majority of soldiers were indifferent to, or ignorant of, the basics of Christian life and worship. More recently, we are taken step by step through the pain of the gradual dissolution of some of the bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion, culminating in the failure of the misunderstood and maligned Anglican Covenant, promoted by Rowan Williams when Archbishop of Canterbury.

Norman had a ringside seat during this period while working at Lambeth Palace. His earlier ministry in Paris and at Christ Church, Clifton, together with his later work as Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, means that he has a very broad perspective on Anglican life, if a somewhat top-down one. Even for an old Lambeth Palace hack like myself, the world travel involved in the various Anglican and ecumenical international meetings recorded here, sometimes in lakeside locations (it’s not all bad), can make one wonder about the reality of it all. It seems a long way from being Anglican as most people in the Communion experience it.

Both Norman’s grandfathers served as soldiers throughout the First World War and, against the odds, survived. One went on to become a very peripatetic parish priest — in Canada, Scotland, and England. His training was minimal. He was a definite, even advanced, Anglo-Catholic. His other grandfather was a farmer, less religiously observant, but exemplifying the sort of countryman for whom the Church of England was a natural habitat.

While the wider story focuses on the alienation from religion of many who fought in the First World War, I would have appreciated more reflection on why this did not apply in the author’s own family. Knutsford Gaol would hardly have been needed as a temporary seminary had there not been a substantial body of men who found a vocation to the priesthood in the trenches.

Norman writes well, and there are vivid descriptions of dimensions of Anglican life — a country rectory, a thriving Evangelical suburban church, the experience of working alongside an Archbishop of Canterbury who was wrestling with being an agent of international communion, and the contrasting impact of interfaith work and Fresh Expressions on contemporary ministry.

Norman’s overview of Anglicanism cannot be faulted for its scope and ambition. Ever the teacher, Norman summarises his conclusions at the end of each chapter, a technique that is useful in a lecture but feels somewhat limiting here. The evidence isn’t quite allowed to speak for itself.

The final chapter offers the author’s account of what “being Anglican” means for him today. He identifies no fewer than 22 features. Some are familiar enough, e.g. Anglicans are formed by scripture; Anglicans apply reason; Anglicans respect tradition; Anglicans assent to historic creeds. Others, such as “Anglicans accommodate pioneering leadership”, seem to express a hope rather than a consistent reality. “Anglicans are overseen by bishops” is a statement of fact, even if resented by some who are thus overseen.

Norman acknowledges that Anglicanism imperfectly fulfils his detailed description. Perhaps the fallibility of the Church should also have been included as an Anglican guiding principle.

The 22 features express a generous orthodox Christianity, and the vast majority of them would probably be endorsed happily by many Methodists, Roman Catholics, and others. Even Norman’s assertion that Anglicans claim only two sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — as ordained by the Lord himself does not create a barrier to the existence of other sacraments.

Perhaps little of this truly matters; for Anglicanism claims to be no more than part of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher said that Anglicanism had no doctrine of its own except that of the Catholic Church. Norman has illustrated why Fisher’s claim still has resonance.

As I finished reading this book, I learned of the death of Canon Michael Whitehead, one of the great parish priests of the Church of England in the past half-century. He was a jewel in the diocese of Durham, and a pastoral legend in Hartlepool and Sunderland. Unmistakably formed in the Catholic tradition, he could only have been produced by the Church of England. He was both Catholic and Anglican. Although it may not have been the author’s intention, I think Norman has explained why.

The Rt Revd Graham James is Bishop of Norwich.

A Church Observed: Being Anglican as times change
Andrew Norman
Gilead Books £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.95

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