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Unto Ages of Ages: An Obituary
By The Right Rev. Winfield Mott
Note: This essay originally appeared in The Line Issue 9.9 (September 2022). Published here with permission from the author.
The Anglican Communion is very old. Her origins are lost in the mists of history, but possibly date from the First Century. There are certainly organized Christian communities, with bishops, in England by the end of the Third Century, before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon settlers for whom the Communion is named, and who arrived hostile to the Faith. The Church herself appears autonomous, perhaps with connections to the great centers of Eastern Christianity. The early days are filled with tales of heroism, zeal and martyrdom, as the indigenous people of the British Isles accepted, and then spread, Christianity. They witnessed at home to their conquerors and abroad to the pagan inhabitants of the northern European forests.
In the Eighth Century, the Church gradually came under the control of the Roman Church, which was expanding its jurisdiction throughout western Europe. She was to remain within the Papal orbit for the next seven centuries. The great Reformation movements of the 16th Century brought significant changes and chaos, influenced more by continental scholars and papal politics than by the earlier Celtic traditions of the land. In most of western Europe, the upheavals of the era resulted in unified populations in the many fiefdoms. They were either Lutheran, Reformed or Roman Catholic, seldom mixed together. But in England, no unity was achieved, despite forceful persecutions to attempt it. Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Romans, Puritans and more all contended, both within and outside the Church of England.
The Thirty-Nine Articles, an essentially Lutheran doctrinal statement (its similarity with the Augsburg Confession written several decades earlier is obvious), although with some Calvinistic aspects, was an attempt at orthodox consensus, enforced by Queen Elizabeth. But it failed to reach the desired unity, and by the next century, the Church of England herself was suppressed in favor of Cromwellian designs. The latter turned out to be so onerous that in a few years the bishops and liturgy were returned by popular demand, and have been there ever since.
Yet by the next century again, unity and doctrinal consensus were still elusive. Rationalism, Methodism, and clerical torpor (including at the episcopal level) added to the chaos. The eventual orthodox reaction, the Oxford Movement, exploded into being, triggered by the great prophetic sermon titled “National Apostasy” by John Keble in 1833. It is important to note that it is precisely opposition to apostasy which motivated the founders of the Oxford Movement, and not some desire to improve liturgical or ceremonial conditions. Though these were part of the subsequent results, the focus was to recover the orthodox core of Faith from the intellectual and spiritual debris of what the Church had become.
The next century and a half were a hopeful time for the Church. The Evangelicals also were a rising phenomenon, and also in their own way called for a return to the core message of the Gospels. The British Empire, like the Roman Empire before it, became the vehicle by which the Faith could be spread to the lands which it covered, even those like the U.S. which became independent of the Empire, but remained as nurseries for the Faith. Today, the Empire has ebbed, as they all do. But the Anglican Way continued as a global phenomenon.
Alas, the last half-century has seen a relapse into chaos worse than ever before. It can be traced easily through the history of the Lambeth Conference, a gathering every decade or so since 1867 of the Anglican bishops from around the world. Intended as a synodical council similar to those of the early Church, the recent gatherings at Lambeth have reflected the serious decline in the Anglican Communion. Agreement has become so impossible that the meetings are now devoted to listening without any attempt to reach conclusions. Large numbers of bishops, representing the majority of the world’s Anglicans, no longer attend, witnessing that they do not wish to be associated with the unscriptural heterodox views expounded. Other orthodox bishops attend, but do not commune in the general worship, stating that communion is “impaired.” National apostasy has now widened to become global apostasy, while being challenged by many faithful bishops who, however, do not control the instruments established to promote Anglican unity.
In short, it is no longer possible to identify what Anglicans believe or practice. Any group has divergent opinions within it, but in Christianity those opinions fall within the umbrella of Scripture, as summarized by the Creeds. Today’s apostasy means coming away from under the umbrella to let the rains of all forms of heterodoxy pour down upon you. Even in 1833, it was not as bad as the contemporary gales of apostasy. It means that the Anglican corporate body has died, the Spirit has left, the organs have failed, receiving no coherent direction from the head. Only the physical remains are here, as trendy hierarchs preside over mostly empty, but valuable, real estate while interminable “indaba” discussion drones on, to no conclusion.
Obituaries are written about the past, the history of a life. But like all history writing, they serve best by guiding towards the future with the lessons of the past. To be sure, no longer does Lambeth unite the Anglican world in confessing the one true Faith. No longer does the Archbishop of Canterbury preside as spokesman and titular leader of the world’s Anglicans. No longer can we share the Lord’s Table with other Anglicans, with the assumption of the bonds of unity and a creedal belief in common. That and more is dead. Yet, before you dissolve into grief, wallowing in what we have lost, lift up your hearts to see the evidence of a brighter day.
Anglicanism may be dead, but many millions of faithful Anglicans all over the world stand firm in the Faith. The Spirit has left the corporate body, but has not left his faithful people. It is the Christian process that it is through dying and coming to life again that we enter and exist in the Body of Christ. The Spirit who notes “I make all things new” now leads us to a new way of being. ”Anglican” ceases to have meaning or Divine presence. We cannot yet discern the exact nature of the new Way, except to know that it contains the old and eternal Truths, and the Spirit among us. We continue in the one, catholic Church, gathered in apostolic order around faithful bishops. Our brothers and sisters are of all tribes and nations, free from the divisions imposed by earthly authorities, confessing the one Lord Jesus Christ.
Rejoice, then, do not grieve the past nor fear the future. Anglicanism as an institutional reality is dead. But we are alive in the Spirit, and shall be unto ages of ages.
The Right Rev. Winfield Mott is a retired diocesan bishop.
Book: "The Earth is the Lord's"
Background: RR CEO, healthcare administrator, asst to cabinet minister, HR, campus pastor. newspaper columnist, city councilman Academics: M.Div, M.A. (history), grad study U of Lund, Sweden.