Angela Tilby: The threat of the excitable new Puritans

10 May 2019

Anglican Archives

The secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon

The secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon

THE secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, spoke last week of the problems GAFCON presents to the unity of world Anglicanism (News, 3 May). Anglicanism, he said, was neither taught in theological colleges nor well understood by those who practise it. What is taught is often inauthentic — or, as he put it, “self-made Anglicanism”.

This has been obvious for years. Anglicanism is threatened by what I can only describe as a global wave of neo-Puritanism. I have been reading Richard Hooker (again), and have found many resonances from the 16th century in our current dilemmas, global and local.

All Anglicans claim some continuity with the version of the Protestant faith which was hammered out in 16th-century England after the fragile Elizabethan settlement. Hooker, as Master of the Temple Church, preached the faith as he found it in Cranmer’s Prayer Book: a scripture-based, Christ-centred Protestantism that was inclusive and sacramental, and which accepted the part played by reason in the interpretation of scripture. He believed that the liturgy formed Christians and defended them from “prophesyings” by preachers who thought that they had a hotline to God.

We have forgotten the significance of Hooker for Anglican polity. We assume that the Puritans were simply dour-faced bigots from a long-gone past. The reality is that they were, like some of our contemporaries, excitable Christians who dreamed of revolution. They were as paranoid about Catholicism as some of their successors are about homosexuality; they deplored set liturgy because they believed it quenched the Spirit; they rejected the historic episcopate in favour of leadership by those believed to be “Spirit-led”.

Ironically, in spite of so much of Hooker’s work being in defence of the 16th-century English establishment, much work on his legacy has come from other Anglican provinces. I have met African clergy who were proud of “knowing their Hooker”. It is so no more, which is one reason, perhaps, why Dr Idowu-Fearon asks: “How do we fight this ignorance which is chewing us up?”

Now, when “diversity” and the “mixed economy” are praised as buzzwords, we would do well to consider what these imagined virtues can let in by the back door.

GAFCON flourishes, as Dr Idowu-Fearon implies, not only because of the efforts of a dedicated few determined to mould the Church in their own image, but through a wider carelessness: misleading dreams of revival from some, an arrogant and empty liberalism from others, and, from all, it seems, a neglect of our history. As we see in other areas of public life, opening the doors to every wind of doctrine leads only to a new totalitarianism.

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