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The Promise of Anglicanism, by Robert S. Heaney and William L. Sachs

13 March 2020

Anglican fault-lines are underestimated here, says Alan Bartlett

I REALLY wish I could commend this book more warmly. It comes very highly recommended. It is written by distinguished Anglican scholars. It says much that is deeply wise about the nature of Anglicanism. It draws in perspectives that are wider than England, reflecting its strongly American origins. It strives for an ethos that could enable Anglicanism to recover some of its confidence and unity. The theme of “promise” is an attractive one. But I am not quite convinced, not least because the book does not adequately investigate some of its own assumptions.

The book begins with a slightly odd assertion that previous authors have thought that the nature of Anglicanism is self-evident. As an author of a book on Anglicanism myself, and as a reader of the seemingly endless books on the nature of Anglicanism, I cannot say that this is my experience. But then the authors swiftly move to emphasising, rightly, the long-contested nature of Anglicanism!

Wisely, they note that conflict, “contestation”, has been central to Anglican experience from the 16th century (a point that Stephen Sykes made passionately in The Integrity of Anglicanism as long ago as 1978) and often a mechanism for development. So they remind us not to be frightened of dispute in the Church. But they do not underestimate the seriousness or the bitterness of the current disputes.

It is revealing to notice the areas of dispute which they highlight: the growth of a more “Catholic, sacramental” outlook as part of the widespread liturgical reforms after the dethroning of the Book(s) of Common Prayer; the ordination of women as priests and bishops; the tensions regarding human sexuality.

I wonder whether the authors are missing another strand, which is the growth of a particular way of handling the nature and detail of scripture, partly in reaction to the pressures from the three movements that they have identified. This sometimes Biblicist movement runs sometimes through the vibrant Evangelical Charismatic strands of the Communion. This history and chemistry needs naming if we are to understand the current strains.

The authors identify the crucial fault line in Anglicanism as the tension between those who believe that the “Church’s truth” is “complete and inviolate” and those who believe that it is “in process of being fulfilled”. To put it simply, the authors believe the second to be the case: “To speak of ‘Anglican promise’, then, is to speak of more than fixed identity. It is to speak of a process of development that has shifted repeatedly as the Church’s situation has changed.” I wonder whether it would have been helpful for the authors to be clearer that they were taking one side in this divide?

After a chapter introducing their understanding of “promise”, the authors expound the history of Anglicanism, emphasising its incompleteness, contested nature, and increasingly contextual character, but highlighting the benefits of development through conflict. The book describes excellently the conflict-ridden emergence of a modern commitment to Anglican “catholicity”, expressed through the episcopate and the other Anglican Instruments of Communion, as well as personal relations. Many earlier contentious issues have been resolved. Thus is “Anglican promise” realised. I am sympathetic to this reading of Anglican history, but, again, we need to note that others read this history differently, as one of mistaken choices, loss, and confusion.

Therein lies the challenge that, I think, the authors underestimate. In the conclusion, they classify some Anglicans as “sectarian”: that is, people committed to protecting the Church from “worldly corruption” and self-defining as against the “other” on grounds of “purity”. In contrast, the authors argue for a “unity that does not require uniformity”. Is this not to beg the question — the very question that is at stake in the current disputes? They argue for “collegial consensus as discernment” and “authoritative and tolerant public reasoning”. I agree.

But why should Anglicans hold together with those with whom they profoundly disagree? On what basis should the Instruments convene gatherings, with GAFCON, among others, of “communities of practice” so as to learn together? Their response is: “Intercultural discernment towards God’s just end can be our response to the world’s ambiguities and challenges.” I agree; but on what grounds is such discernment conducted? Is a “common commitment to discern[ing]” enough to make us Anglican? I am worried that the concept of “promise” is just too vague.

I think that Anglican problems lie in the lack of weight given to core theological convictions, in inadequate hermeneutics, so that selective fundamentalism is not challenged, and in the absence of an honest theology of development. Anglican coherence can be held only within a theological realism about the modest nature of authority in both Church and Communion (see J. Driver, A Polity of Persuasion, 2014). I don’t think that this book adequately addresses these issues.

Its style is a puzzle. At more than 240 pages, it is a substantial and often quite densely written work, but at times it lacks the academic structure of footnotes to support the assertions in the text (chapters 3 to 7 are the most sophisticated), and there are some surprising omissions from the index (Sykes, Driver).

But the wisdom and hope in this book are precious: “The challenge is to shift the focus of contestation from what various factions in a dispute fear and oppose to what they envision and aspire to become.” That is a wise ambition, and, if it is an “Anglican promise”, then we should claim it and live it.

Canon Alan Bartlett is Visiting Fellow in Anglicanism at St John’s College, Durham University.


The Promise of Anglicanism
Robert S. Heaney and William L. Sachs
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop special price £20

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