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The Anglican Communion is a Myth

2009 September 9
by Gordon Reid

Lambeth Conference group photo of Bishops

When I was growing up in the Scottish Episcopal Church, we were taught very clearly that we were not the Church of England even though English immigration into Scotland had given us many English members, leading many Scots to refer to the Episcopal church as “The English Church”  (or, more likely, “the English Kirk”). We Episcopalians knew that we were the old Catholic Church of Scotland, who had cast off Rome at the Reformation, but had retained Bishops and the Sacraments and a Catholic Liturgy. Our present small size was due to our faithfulness to the Jacobite cause, and when that cause was lost, the new Hanoverian succession established the Presbyterians in the ancient churches and Cathedrals and made them the national Church.

I begin with this summary because not only were we sure that we were not the Church of England, but we also knew that it was members of the Church of England, the Redcoat soldiers, who had enforced the penal laws against the Episcopal Church. It was this persecution which had left our Church what Sir Walter Scott called “The shadow of a shade”.

I also grew up, knowing that the Bishops of my little Church had actually defied the Church of England by consecrating Samuel Seabury in Aberdeen to be the first Bishop for Anglicans in America, since the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, who had jurisdiction in America, had refused to provide Bishops.

In all of this, I had never heard of the Anglican Communion. This is not surprising, since there was no such thing in the 18th century, when all these events were taking place. It was not until the British Empire had spread the Church of England all over the world and then seen national Churches grow up in the various nations of the Empire and declare their independence from the Church of England, that a nostalgic sentiment (or a sentimental nostalgia) caused Anglican Bishops to come together in the Lambeth Conference every ten years or so.

But today, the British Empire is no more than a weird collection of countries calling themselves “the Commonwealth” – though the one thing they do not have in common is “wealth”! And the mighty Church of England, which persecuted Protestants and Roman Catholics with fine impartiality for four hundred years, is reduced to one denomination among many in England. The so-called tolerance of the Church of England not only burned Roman Catholics but also discriminated against Protestants to such an extent that they invented the Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist and many other Churches, not to mention the Quakers, Brethren, Salvation Army and other groups. And they all came to America seeking freedom from the Church of England.

The irony of the present situation is that some members of the American Episcopal Church are trying to reverse this by treating the Archbishop of Canterbury as a substitute Pope. They are allying themselves with those who say they want an “Anglican Covenant” which will define the beliefs of the Anglican Communion and will contain the legal means to expel any constituent Province which departs from these beliefs.

So out will go tolerance for a wide variety of beliefs within the one Church and we will be back in the good old days of expelling the Methodists for enthusiasm, expelling the Papists for clinging to the Western Patriarchate, expelling the Quakers for pacifism. And all this will be done by Bishop-centered bodies such as the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ Council. No matter that the priests and laity of the Episcopal Church have embraced the same democracy as their country and have voted for developments which other Churches dislike.

I can live happily without an Anglican Communion and will happily see it disappear if it means that I can disown the Archbishop of Sydney who denounces the Mass as a blasphemous fable, or the Archbishop of Nigeria who says that homosexuals are lower than swine, and supports laws punishing them by imprisonment. Not to mention the hypocritical Bishops, clergy and laity of our own Episcopal Church who are divorced and remarried, but say that they oppose women priests and our one (honest) gay Bishop because such things are contrary to the Word of God – by which they mean the Bible, not the real Word of God who was made flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus Christ our Lord.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. September 9, 2009

    A couple of historical points.

    “the Bishops of my little Church had actually defied the Church of England by consecrating Samuel Seabury”

    The Scottish bishops did not defy the Church of England. They (like the English bishops) had doubts about whether they ought to consecrate Seabury, but the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to them urging that they “would not send the suppliant away empty-handed”.

    (The doubts of both English and Scottish bishops were, incidentally, purely legal/constitutional: both were, in the abstract, more than willing to consecrate him. The Scottish bishops’ problems were, however, relatively easy to solve, as they were not part of an established church, so Seabury’s consecration was able to go ahead. Consecration in England would, by contrast, have required an act of parliament.)

    “the Church of England not only burned Roman Catholics”

    Only heretics were burned in England under Elizabeth and James, not Roman Catholics. (There were no burnings after the reign of King James.)

    • September 9, 2009

      Yes, the burning of Roman Catholics was in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, as was the burning of Protestants in the reign of Mary.

      The Scottish Bishops were only too happy to pass on the apostolic succession to America, even though the Church of England was subject to the Hanoverian incomers.

  2. September 10, 2009

    Interesting entry, Father. I’ve said many of the same things – that the Anglican Communion is a myth, a substitute for the British Empire like the Commonwealth and just a meeting at Lambeth every 10 years – but of course come to different conclusions, not a defence of Episcopalianism but, like you, not rallying for the new Protestant conservatives either. Their communion would be more coherent and tightly run but still Protestant.

    It’s interesting to compare the Anglican Communion not only to Rome (obvious given British history) but what it arguably was trying to imitate, the Orthodox communion. Not only no Vatican but not even a Lambeth, yet the theology is nothing the Episcopalians want to hear really. It’s Catholic. And the churches are culturally conservative.

    A while ago I began to wonder what all the fuss is about in Anglicanism as it doesn’t claim to the be the one true church. So one side losing membership in the Lambeth club theologically and practically wouldn’t do anything but save the ‘losers’ a few bucks not spent on a trip to England every decade. The Episcopalians would have more money for social work; the conservatives a fund to buy churches to replace the properties they lose. The property fights still would be piecemeal, case by case, I imagine with the Episcopalians winning most of them.

  3. September 10, 2009

    P.S. With their conservatives mostly gone now, as our friend Brother Stephen has observed the Episcopalians are now more tightly run and coherent as well, but I say they’re consistently a world away from the Catholic faith rather than the conservatives’ being, say, a continent away.

  4. September 10, 2009

    It might be healthier for Anglicans to imitate the Orthodox Churches and stop referring to themselves as “Provinces” (of some greater entity?) but rather as Churches in themselves. Certainly I well remember older Scottish Episcopal priests protesting at the Scottish Church being referred to as a Province.

  5. William Tighe permalink
    September 10, 2009

    The only “Roman Catholic” ever burned as such in England was Friar John Forrest, who was burned in 1538 as a “relapsed heretic,” his “heresy” being allegiance to the Pope as the earthly Head of the Church. (Forrest had taken the Oath of Supremacy accepting Henry VIII as “Supreme Head,” but got into trouble by telling those who asked his advice that they could take the Oath with a “mental reservation,” as he had done himself.) Hugh Latimer, later burned in 1555 for his Pritestantism, preached a hostile sermon at Forrest’s execution, even mocking him as a false martyr for squirming in his chains to avoid the flames — for which Latimer seems to have been heckled by the crowd.

  6. J. Thomas permalink
    September 10, 2009

    I assume The Young Fogey, is being courteous in addressing Fr. Gordon, as “Father”, rather than “Mr.”

    In reality, Scottish and American Episcopalian as well as all Anglican clergy (including all Anglo-Catholics) are in Orthodox eyes, mere laity. Neither Episcopalian nor Anglican clergy have “real” Apostolic Orders nor their people true sacraments. It’s all “dressing-up”; pretend Church, as compared to the Roman Catholics, and The Young Fogey’s Orthodox Church. We are nothing more than your mission field for new converts. Please correct me if I’m wrong on these points.

    Is it too much to ask for The Young Fogey to attend to the dirty laundry in his own One-True-Church: & before condescending to scold American Episcopalians?

    Frankly, the American Episcopalians have a clergy sexual abuse policy with some real “teeth”. Whereas the Orthodox jurisdictions in North America have policies which might just as well be printed on toilet paper. By all means, ask the mere laywomen who run the Pokrov website yourselves.

    Sing the glories of ‘Holy Orthodoxy’ all you like, but take a second look at your Church’s Orthopraxis before judging we poor, benighted, prelest-ridden ‘Heterodox’.

    - a returnee to ECUSA who was fed up with the conceit & moral corruption of the Orthodox Church in America

  7. johnny permalink
    September 10, 2009

    Very well said Father, Bravo!

  8. September 10, 2009

    I don’t shill for Orthodoxy online (and can’t stand ‘online Orthodox’); I was only making an observation. And have roots in Anglo-Catholicism I’m proud of, so Father it is.

    Hypocrisy and other sins among the clergy – such as not living up to the church teachings; the sex and theft scandals in the OCA for example – have been around at least since Judas and before (before 3pm on Good Friday the head of the church on earth was Caiaphas; afterwards it was the unworthy St Peter).

    Very different from a denomination changing its teachings, its principles, as the Protestants have done since their invention, the Episcopalians on homosexuality being only a recent example.

    That the Episcopalians have good policies to prevent sexual abuse is beside the point.

  9. September 11, 2009

    Edit: erase ‘such as not living up to the church teachings’. It’s been a long week.

  10. J. Thomas permalink
    September 11, 2009

    Heaven help the naive Anglican convert to Orthodoxy (fleeing the gay menace they’ve been told is taking over his or her former church), when they find out just how honeycombed *closeted* homosexuality is in every level of their NEW one-true-church.

  11. September 11, 2009

    I’m not obsessed with homosexuality either way. Objectively the practice is wrong but I am friends with several of that orientation. And I’m a libertarian, my love-thy-neighbour insurance: if it turns out I was wrong at least I respected my neighbour’s liberty. As I was trying to say earlier, hypocrisy is often nothing to do with the doctrine not lived up to. It’s just fallen human nature. If you were looking for something perfect (not infallible in its teachings, perfect) you were bound to fall hard.

  12. Dave permalink
    September 25, 2009

    Thank you for one of the best articles I have read in a long time.

  13. December 11, 2009

    Awesome, really cool subject. I’m going to write about it as well!

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