Cross-posted at Shreds and Patches

Anglicanism, as it became to be known centuries later, began in division. Our divisions have tended to be practical, to address experience, even if doctrinal positions develop as the issues are addressed. The Reformation in England began in moral outrage. It was about corruption, that ancient form of consumer selling. It was a moral reaction, perhaps incidentally about sex — the rumored antics of celibate clergy and religious — but more so about the commerce of faith, the selling of salvation, and the use of images and relics to clinch the deal.

Doctrines about salvation, or teachings which attempted to strip the sacraments of “magical” elements, thereafter followed. Clergy were encouraged to take wives, in part as a remedy against unsanctioned sexual activity. (I’m not going into the matter of the veniality of Henry VIII, or his commissioners and nobles who benefitted greatly from the pillage of the church, because that isn’t my point today.)

Later, part of the Puritan reaction to the Established Church was about morals. While the Puritan believed he or she was elect and saved, enormous stress was placed upon the manner of life the elect should practice. They brought the practical virtues of thrift, hard work, propriety, chastity, and suspicion of pleasure with them to America.


The Evangelical Revivals of the 18th and 19th century were similarly inspired by a reaction to the alleged collapse of public morality, although it has to be said that the Latitudinarians, the liberals of their day, were equally obsessed with good behavior and good manners. Later, when confronted with the romanticism of the Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals recoiled in horror from confessional and absolution, fearing the cheapening of grace and a worldly-wise toleration of sin. Again there was irony in such fears, given that the original Tractarian leaders were as horrified about laxities in morals, morals of all sorts, as were the most vigorous Evangelical divines.

It is therefore no surprise that our Communion is now divided over moral values. At root our present divisions are about how people behave. They are not, I would add, about laxity versus rigor. Those who would passionately lobby for a development of the doctrine of Holy Matrimony are not arguing for sexual laxity. Indeed they state that they wish to bring same-sex couples to the ideal of monogamy enshrined in the traditional doctrine. In a sense they are as keen about observing the moral practicalities of Christian living as any one else.

Hitherto concerns about morality, in the wider sense of the term, have largely centered on how the Church counters moral laxity in society and therefore among its adherents. What was believed to be right and what wrong was largely common ground, even if solutions may have differed. That has changed. The issue therefore emerges, which is equally practical and equally moralistic. Can those who oppose same-sex marriage and those who reject that it is possible, coexist in sacramental communion with each other? Recently that defining issue has been raised again by two very different people. Mark Harris, a poet-priest and blogger, wonders aloud whether it would be a bad idea if the African churches which oppose same-sex marriage wandered off by themselves. The Archbishop of Kenya suggests that true Anglicans can do without the US and Canadian churches, thank you very much, and wonders whether the archbishop of Canterbury, as he struggles to get the CofE to face the practicalities of existing in a nation which may well legalize same-sex marriages, isn’t selling out on the faith. Both spokesmen, echoing the thoughts of many, seem to say, “There’s no room for you.”

In practical terms ordinary parish priests don’t enjoy the liberty to divide that those who desire division imagine they possess. Week by week, a parish priest ministers to people whose behavior falls short of the ideals of the Faith, and indeed struggle within themselves with the same issues. Kneeling side by side at the altar rail are cheats, liars, people who abuse their loved ones, those who temper honesty in business with the desire to make money, and the list goes on. In most cases, these ordinary Christians salve their consciences with excuses far below the standards set forth in the Gospel. Modern clergy are unlikely to make examples of these people. Stocks in sackcloth-and-ash factories have no value today.

This is not to say that most clergy avoid teaching and preaching calls to live a more excellent way. If this practical pastoral care is not only possible but necessary at parish level — for even the pure may be prideful, the deadliest of sins — is it not equally necessary within a Communion of Churches? Those who object to such tolerance avow that to live in communion with those who advocate, to their minds, immorality, either the immorality of same-sex genital relations or the immorality of bigotry, fatally compromises their standards, or even the Gospel. Yet another practicality intrudes at this point, the practicality of the indelibility of baptism. As adopted sinners, saved by grace, we are stuck with each other, and there’s no place on earth we can find where we can avoid the company of the baptized, even if we disapprove of their manner of life. Perhaps mere honesty requires that we admit this reality and do our best to reach out to those with whom we disagree, share our concerns if we believe that they err, admit that we too err and stray, and do all we can to live along side them in God’s strength. None of this is possible if, wrapped in the mantles of our just causes, progressive or traditional, we shout, “We have no room for you.”

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Tony Clavier is a retired bishop, now serving two missions in the Diocese of Springfield. He is co-editor of The Anglican Digest and an occasional blogger.

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2 Responses

  1. Benjamin Guyer

    It seems to me quite problematic that so many Anglicans take contemporary divisions and project them back – far back – into the distant past. But are our differences (to put it mildly) really core to Anglicanism? I suggest that the answer is no, and that they largely extend back to 19th c. theopolitical divisions borne partially by responses to the French Revolution, and partially by responses to the enfranchisement of Roman Catholics. There is, furthermore, little point is talking about the need to reach other to one’s opponents if neither side can trust the other to obey the canon law, the civil law, or both. Tolerance can too easily become the handmaiden of lawlessness, and lawlessness can too easily become the handmaiden of abuse.

    The western medieval Church broke apart over the course of the 16th c. because of arguments over papal jurisdiction and the theology used to justify it (read Luther’s 95 Theses, in which he frequently discusses papal jurisdiction). Yet this argument was very old, extending back to the Gregorian reforms of the late 11th c. So in and of itself, this argument about jurisdiction was nothing new. Yet by this point in time, Western Christendom had become so diverse that there was little to hold it together. The papacy could not do it because its moral capital had been so sacrificed over the course of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Many of the popes of this era, such as Paul III (who called Trent), were fathers of numerous bastard children. Yet they demanded celibacy even as they dolled out indulgences. The papacy’s power was already hotly contested during the 15th c. conciliar movements, and the reform movement at Lateran V failed to reign in the pope’s power of dispensation. What is remarkable about Western Christendom is not that it shattered, but that it held together as long as it did.

    My point here is not to claim that history repeats itself – it does not because it cannot. However, I will argue that human nature has changed little, and where greed and power are coupled with legal prevarication and dishonesty, the society in question will soon find itself at civil war. What is more, when sovereignty is not clear, or when it has sacrificed its moral integrity through acts of egregious hypocrisy, the civil war will only be perpetuated. Sovereignty will be restored only through force – but that force will not be able to restore the prior regime. It will create a new regime. Such is what happened in the United States after the American Revolution; such is what happened in France after the French Revolution (several times, I might add).

    When the cry “We have no need of you” sounds forth, and when in sounding forth it finds agreement among hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions, as in the case of our Communion), we cannot put that particular genie back in its bottle. We cannot reverse the current course. It has taken on a life of its own. Acting like this is not so will only make things worse. We should turn our attention to a clear enunciation of principles, combined with a clear articulation of canon law and sovereignty, thus giving a vision for the future. We must turn our attention to the future and plan accordingly. If we do not do so, we will be swept along with the raging tide of the present and likely overtaken by it.

  2. Benjamin Guyer

    We must articulate an explicitly constitutional vision of the future or attempts at sovereignty will yield nothing more than tyranny.


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