Reformation History doomed to repeat itself in Church of England?

There is a saying that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Very odd therefore that none other than that most excellent historian, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Dr N.T. Wright, should fall for into this trap.

Having blogged on Authenticity, Authority and Continuity only recently, and then gotten myself into a debate on the US “dia-blogue” “One Apostolic and Catholic Church” about Lutherans and Apostolic Succession, I found it sobering to suddenly read something that wasn’t history at all, but right in the here and now, which was bang on the topic.

Here’s the nutshell version: A bunch of Church of England Evangelical Clerics have issued a manifesto (misleadingly entitled “A Covenant for the Church of England”) to the Archbishop of Canterbury, basically saying: “Do what we demand, or we will take our bat and ball and go and start our own church. But, keep in mind, even if we do leave, we are the real Anglicans, and it is you who will be to blame for kicking us out by your refusal to allow the gospel full reign in the Church of England.”

Reading “The Covenant”, all one can say is that it has been done before (just short of 500 years ago) and done with a whole lot more substance and style than these bozos are doing it. So it is not surprising that Bishop Wright should weigh in with a finely worded and argued reply: “A Confused Covenant: Initial Comments on ‘A Covenant for the Church of England'”. What is surprising is that some of the arguements Bishop Wright uses for the “muddle-headedness” of the Covenant’s authors are excellent arguments for the whole Anglican Church repenting of the stupidity of Henry VIII and hitching up with Rome again.

1) In effect, he acknowledges the absolutely appalling state of the CofE, but says that you can do much more good by staying within it and working for reform from within, and by following the lawful, episcopal structures of the CofE.

2) Futhermore, he says that by their rebellion this group have betrayed any notion of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” to which they profess to belong, and which includes “something which most who have used that formulation for the last two millenia, including most Anglicans, have insisted upon, namely a…’normal’ view of episcopacy”. In fact, they are attempting to “subvert and effectively abandon” this normal ecclesiology.

3) He criticizes them for chosing to identify themselves as sharing “with others throughout the world a commitment to the biblical truths on which the Anglican Communion is based”, since this can only be taken to mean that “our view of biblical truth is superior to all others, so that we possess an inside track on the real meaning of Anglicanism.”

4) Then there is this real doozy:

But the unity in question is there [in Galatians] the very concrete one of a community that eats together, whereas the unity spoken of in this document seems to mean the ‘invisible church’ beloved of some protestants, which results, as the history of the last four hundred years has shown, in a succession of splits and schisms. It is all very well then to say that ‘it is departure from this common faith that is responsible for causing schism’. It will not only be cynics, or those committed on other grounds to disagreeing with the doctrinal and ethical stance of these authors, who will read the rest of the document and declare that these authors are planning schism and are doing so precisely through flawed doctrine, in this case the biblical doctrine of the church.

5) The claim, of course, will be that this is all for the sake of the Gospel. So Bishop Wright remarks: “Quoting the ‘great commission’ is fine so far as it goes [but] instead, we are projected at once into what appears to be the real agenda of the whole document: a break away from any normal ecclesial practice and into a free-for-all… – in other words, we can’t do what we want in the existing structures so we shall go elsewhere.”

6) Then comes the “Covenant” authors’ claim that “the local congregation”, apart from episcopal authority, “is the initial and key seed-bed for recognizing, authorizing, raising up and releasing new leaders.” To this, the good Bishop retorts: “Recognising, perhaps. Raising up, quite possibly. Authorizing? Not within any recognizable Anglican polity.”

7) But what about the “Covenant” authors’ claim that “we can no longer associate with teaching…contrary to…scripture…or church leadership which advocates such teaching”? Dr Wright: “Fine: from now on everyone can and will do that which is right in his own eyes. …And that way, as we all know, lies split after split, schism upon schism.”

I half find myself searching for the signatures of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, et al. at the bottom of “The Covenant for the Church of England”. I wonder if Dr Wright hasn’t been reading the script for Cardinal Cajetan. But it is very interesting to see the way in which yesterday’s radical anti-authoritarian reformers metamorphosed into today’s established episcopal authorities; how what was tolerated and lauded in the reformers of the past is condemned as schismatic by the authorities of the present.

Don’t get me wrong. I reckon that Tom Wright is right on the ball here. It’s just that he seems to have completely failed to see the historical irony in the whole situation.

Perhaps a cup of tea and a lie down with Monsignor Peter Elliott’s address to the February 2006 meeting of “Forward in Faith” at St Kilda might help clarify matters a little.

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1 Response to Reformation History doomed to repeat itself in Church of England?

  1. the filthy augustinian says:

    Good essay. Yes, elapsed time does tend to make one forget…and as St. Augustine said about the Donatists, ‘schism, the enemy of unity, only produces more schisms and more schisms until there is nothing but a million splinters, sadly, where unity originally once existed.’ (paraphrase)

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