He was the Word, that spake it:
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.
So wrote Anglican priest and poet John Donne, not seeking to define precisely what happens at communion, an issue much disputed in his time. These lines are sometimes attributed to Elizabeth I, who famously said that she did not want to “make windows into men’s souls”. She also reportedly declared that “there is only one Jesus Christ” and “the rest is a dispute over trifles”.
Though the Reformation was at times bloody in England as well as other parts of Europe, her approach was more pragmatic than that of her father, Henry VIII. Provided those inclined to a more Catholic spirituality did not challenge the state, they could coexist with ardent Calvinists in the Church of England, where worship combined the old and new.
Intolerance and rivalry continued in some quarters and occasionally flared up, and quite a number of members attended church as more a civic than a religious activity. Yet at best, the Church of England offered fertile soil for faith to flourish and develop, occasionally renewed by Wesleyan and other revivals.
Theological diversity was linked with the variety of ways in which churchgoers related to God in prayer and everyday life, and the varying circumstances of the parishes where they sought to serve the community and live out their faith. As autonomous churches were set up in other parts of the world, and Christians responded to social change in different ways, diversity among Anglicans further increased.
While labels such as “traditionalist”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “Anglo-Catholic” and “evangelical” are sometimes used, these may bring more confusion than clarity. For instance, some Anglo-Catholics are implacably opposed to women priests, while others are women priests themselves. The term “evangelical” can encompass anyone from Phillip Jensen, the ultra-Protestant Dean of Sydney, to the gay bishop, Gene Robinson.
Sometimes, the tension between different approaches to faith has been creative, and enabled Anglicans like the late Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, to play an active part in the ecumenical movement. However, many Anglicans now move largely in circles filled with the like-minded – or, if they are part of a minority in their congregation, diocese or college, try to steer clear of controversial matters. Often, there has been a lack of dialogue, except when disputes have arisen.
In recent years, there has been a drive by some leaders who see themselves as the vanguard of a new reformation in the Anglican Communion, to root out views they regard as erroneous. One response has been to try to develop central structures to decide what is permitted in different provinces, and exclude those who do not agree or treat them as “second-tier” Anglicans.
Understandably, others have pointed out the value of diversity, and called for this to be safeguarded. However there is also a need for better communication so that more Anglicans understand why others hold opinions different from their own.
It is not certain what will happen structurally within the Communion. Yet whatever threats or divisions take place at an official level, Anglicans can make efforts to deepen their understanding of one another, even if the main aim in certain cases might be to convert those who have strayed from 'the truth'!
Some may steer clear of study and discussion along these lines, either because they are impatient with those who disagree, or feel too bruised by past encounters. However, for Anglicans ready and willing to engage with others, not simply debating specific issues but exploring underlying beliefs about God and love of neighbour, and the spiritual journeys that underpin faith, there may be opportunities to learn and grow.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate. She has contributed several chapters on Anglican issues and biblical interpretation to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change (edited by Simon Barrow, Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia).