Six Degrees of Mushy Separation: What is Anglicanism (Part 1)

By Joshua Penduck 

Anglicanism is a denomination with a dazzling array of variations. You’ve got some Anglicans who are so Catholic they’d make the Pope blush, some so Liberal they make atheists feel like fundamentalists, some so Charismatic they make Pentecostals feel straight-laced, and some so Evangelical they make Southern Baptists uncomfortable. How is it possible to have a denomination that can include the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, the charismatic mega-church Holy Trinity Brompton, radical theologians like John Shelby Spong, and that stalwart of conservative Evangelicalism J.I. Packer? What brings it all together?

If you just concentrated on the extremes, then very little. But what legitimates these extremes are the fuzzy mush at the centre. J.I. Packer and John Shelby Spong would never have been part of the same denomination had there not been those who were closer to this mushy middle who nevertheless were on good terms with John Shelby Spong. It’s almost like the pop theory of six degrees of separation, which is the idea that you are connected to anyone in the world through six connecting people. So, for instance, I don’t know President Barack Obama. I’ve never met him. I probably never will. But, my Dad’s friend Charles was once a mayor of a large town in Texas, and on several occasions met George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas. Bush became president, and of course met Barack Obama. That’s just three degrees of separation, and through Obama I am connected to thousands. Get it?

Anglicanism is a bit like this. Whilst J.I. Packer and John Shelby Spong are on opposite sides of the denomination, we can try our six degrees of separation that help us understand how they are still part of the same one. J.I. Packer, that conservative Evangelical stalwart is on good terms with Alister McGrath, the renowned moderate Evangelical Anglican apologist. He is not too distant in his theology from the Evangelical ‘progressive’ Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright. He in turn is not too distant from Cambridge theologian David Ford (who used to be an Evangelical but is not quite anymore). Ford shares common ground with Rowan Williams, the old Archbishop of Canterbury, a Liberal Catholic, who is a little more conservative than the philosopher Keith Ward (though they agree on much), who in turn easily shares a platform with a figure like John Shelby Spong (despite having lots of disagreements with him).

What made this little exercise in six degrees of separation difficult was that I decided that all the figures had to be alive. If I went just a few decades in the past, I would find much firmer common ground between them all. For instance, C.S. Lewis has had a massive influence of most of these figures. If I went a hundred years in the past, there would be more overlap; two hundred years even more. If there were more common ground years ago, how did the differences develop?

Despite having much common ground, bit by bit different people would emphasise one aspect of Anglican thinking, sometimes to the detriment to another aspect; another group of people would emphasise a different aspect. Then, the next generation came along and they emphasised that aspect even more (leaving another aspect to be even more ignored or neglected); two groups might develop over which they thought were the more important things to emphasise. This continued for several centuries. And the little gaps between these different emphases grew larger, until eventually you get to the point where J.I. Packer and John Shelby Spong can both be called Anglicans.

What then was the thing that bound Anglicans together originally, that made it distinct from other Protestant denominations, but could also cause such variety? In short, church order. In a move that wasn’t particularly controversial at the time, in the first days of the Reformation, for the sake of good church order the Church of England decided to keep the ancient threefold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, and had a common liturgy book for everyone. When people started to criticise this for not being Protestant enough, the Church of England defended itself. But it was the small differences in emphasis in how it defended itself that would eventually cause such a big divide.

What these different emphases were are the topic of our next few posts.

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