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Angela Tilby: Privilege of establishment is not a free pass    

21 January 2022

Alamy

THE Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes round each year, and we do our best to repent of the scandal of our divisions. These divisions often originated in doctrinal differences, but they have endured more as cultural habits. Instead of merely lamenting this, as we have so often done, we could see it as a reflection of the different gifts and vocations that Churches now manifest.

Many of us have belonged to different Churches. I was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, and have memories of being at mass. My first school was next door to an Anglican parish church, which my family attended intermittently. Then I went to a Congregational church for a time, returning to the C of E as a teenager. A brief spell at a Baptist church led me back to the C of E.

In all this, I have acquired a “nose” for different ecclesial cultures. I have usually found warmth and friendliness among Methodists, combined with sharp humour. English RCs are more take-it-or-leave-it. The spiritual directness of Reformed Christians has challenged me. Later, I prepared for ordination quite a number who had started their Christian lives in house churches. There was also a former Salvationist, a former Orthodox, and some former RCs. Most recognised that there were losses and gains about becoming Anglicans, and that the C of E was not a freedom pass to anything goes.

We might be more open to the gifts and vocations of others if we were better at acknowledging our own. This is difficult in the C of E, simply because we are the national Church and historically have persecuted both RCs and Dissenters, as well as driving out the followers of Wesley. Yet, in recent years, we have tended simply to “take” as our own the treasures of other traditions, casually appropriating their gifts without humility, recognition, or thanks. We all acknowledge hymns from a range of traditions, but why does the wonderful Methodist covenant prayer show up in Common Worship without proper explanation, as though it were simply “ours”?

I sense in contemporary Anglicanism a restless consumerist mentality about the treasures of other traditions, which is neither honest nor respectful. We could call it cultural appropriation, but it’s odd how we don’t see it that way when it is we who are doing it.

I believe in our vocation to be the national Church, and I don’t think that disestablishment would help the Christian cause in the nation. But the privilege of establishment means that we are not free to do as we like, whether that involves messing about with the parish system, or the threefold order, or making up the liturgy to suit ourselves. We are not a sect — yet. But I am coming to understand why exhausted C of E people sometimes end up as Quakers.

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