The slow-motion schism of the Anglican Communion does appear to be a cautionary tale

The effective suspension of the Episcopal Church of the United States from the global Anglican Communion has been a vastly entertaining font of commentary and analysis, as people discover just how much you can learn about architecture from watching your neighbour’s house burn down.

As Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith rightly and eloquently warned earlier this week, this is where a rush for decentralisation can lead in religious governance, and the slow-motion schism of the Anglicans does appear to be a cautionary tale about where the German bishops seem to want to take the Catholic Church. While this lesson should be digested, there are other repercussions to consider, especially in the context of Anglicanism in this country.

The basic narrative of the Anglican split is well known: the Episcopal Church has, through its progressive and loving understanding of both human and divine nature, enacted common sense reforms to recognise and consecrate gay marriage and, thus, incurred the wrath of a bunch of backward, hypocritical, bigots from, you know, “down there”.

It has been quite amusing to see the more progressive voices of the Anglican Communion recoil from the African Primates’ intransigence that marriage is between a man and a woman with the same enlightened horror that their imperial forebears once felt about suttee.

But, closer to home, real questions have to be addressed about how the Church of England, as an established institution in this country, can have a different definition of marriage to that of Parliament. The MP Chris Bryant, who originally departed from ministry in the Church of England in 1991, and who seems to be in a perpetual state of righteous indignation about everything, left the Church of England, again, last week, claiming that history would regard its failure to recognise same-sex marriage in the same light as participation in the slave trade.

This particular analogy, increasingly favoured on both sides of the Atlantic by rich, powerful, white people, is an appalling trivialisation of slavery and only ever made from the smug safety of Parliament or Congress, university offices, or television studios. It is certainly not a line I would recommend throwing around in my former parish in southeast Washington, DC. Yet there is an underlying logic to Bryant’s point: how can the Church of England be at odds with the national government and remain the Established Church?

The Church of England was once famously described as the Conservative Party at prayer. While this is certainly no longer the case, if it ever was, from its very foundation Anglicanism has been the Establishment at prayer, continually changing to reflect the will of the government, royal or parliamentary. This was the point of John Keble’s famous sermon on National Apostasy in 1833, which led (in the end) to Newman’s conversion in 1845. The Church of England was not conceived as an expression of existing national belief, on the contrary: its function was to impose a new belief upon the population of Catholic England.

When the same-sex marriage bill was passed by Parliament, it was not because of a mandate from the electorate, nor even a majority of popular support, but because it was the will of Parliament which it felt should come to be accepted by the country as a whole, and it has: I would be surprised to read any data which showed that a majority of church-going Anglicans in this country would not now support same-sex weddings in their churches.

Of course, there is no such thing as doctrine by democracy in the Catholic Church. This is because its authority rests upon its divine institution and its mandate to preserve and transmit, unaltered, the deposit of faith; the founding authority is Christ and the immediate reference point is the Bishop of Rome, who guarantees it, under the guidance, or when necessary even the restraint, of the Holy Spirit.

For the established Church of England, the founding authority is, and remains, the Sovereign-in-Parliament. The logical consequences and developments of this historical fact may have taken, and may well continue to take, the doctrine and practice of the Established Church further and further away from what is traditionally recognised as Christianity, as a complex theological whole rather than a few culturally significant slogans.

While many Christians, within and without the Church of England, may lament the direction of travel and the ever increasing distance covered, it seems to be the inevitable course which was charted from its beginning. While English Catholics and Anglicans alike may lament the continued decline of a great treasury of our national Christian cultural, it is to be hoped that the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham will emerge as a capable guardian of what is being lost, and be recognised as such by those who see and regret this trend.

The real architectural insight to be glimpsed through the flames engulfing Canterbury is not about synodality, but about the importance of the foundation on which you build: a church built upon man will, over time, inevitably shift and crack and fall.

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