The Ugley Vicar on the Church of England

I have known for a while of Rev John Richardson and his blog The Ugley Vicar. Indeed I have been to a Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream event which he introduced. But I have only interacted with him personally since Wednesday, when the Chelmsford ordination kerfuffle came to my notice. “Ugley” is not a mis-spelled description of him, however ugly some of his ideas might be to some people such as his bishop, but the name of the small village about 20 miles from here where he is the non-stipendiary (i.e. unpaid) vicar.

John has graciously responded to my post here and to my comments on the Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream blog which he also runs. I have also commented about him here. Now he has posted, at The Ugley Vicar, a long essay, originally written in 1997, outlining his understanding of the Church of England. Here is my response to that essay in the context of the current controversy; it is also partially in response to Tim Chesterton’s series ‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’, which I started to discuss before. Note that I am writing here as a lifelong Anglican, not as an outside critic.

I must agree with John Richardson, and Bishop Stephen Neill whom he quotes, that there is no distinctively Anglican theology. I find it confusing when people, like my friend Tim Chesterton in his latest post on ‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Eight, try to find something distinctive. For, as John describes with approval Neill’s position,

the Church of England is defined not in relation to some special, if vague, notion of ‘Anglicanism’ but in relation to the universal doctrines of the Church, derived from Scripture. …

the Anglican church represents ‘the Catholic Church in England’. And in this he picks up the crucial point, now almost entirely forgotten, that ‘Anglican’ is originally a geographical rather than a theological term.

In other words, the only thing which holds the Church of England together is that it is in England, and makes some claim to be the unique representation in England of the catholic church, i.e. the universal church. (I prefer to use small “c”‘s here to avoid the any misunderstanding that I am referring to the Roman Catholic Church.) And, by extension, the other churches of the Anglican Communion claim to be the unique representations of the catholic church in their own home countries, which are mostly those of the former British Empire.

Of course this claim implies some kind of rejection of the full validity of any other church in England, including the Roman Catholic hierarchy as restored in the 19th century. It also conflicts with the existence of Anglican Communion churches in many countries, e.g. in Latin America, in which the catholic church was already represented, e.g. by Roman Catholics, long before any Anglicans arrived. Indeed, with the comparatively recent nominal extension of the Diocese in Europe to cover the former Soviet Union, there is now at least on paper “a division of the entire world into Anglican dioceses and parishes”, including lands dominated by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

I note that the Roman Catholics have no problem with such dual hierarchy situations as they simply reject the Anglican one as invalid. Anglicans, however, in theory accept the Roman Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies as valid, but then plant their own parallel churches. How can this be consistent with Neill’s geographical understanding of the church?

I suppose my own position on this would be that the Anglican Communion cannot claim any kind of consistent basis, theological or geographical. Rather, it is a group of national churches which are very diverse but which have close historical links and which remain together in some way as a matter of convenience. That convenience now seems to be turning into an inconvenience, so it is beginning now to look as if the question is not whether the Anglican Communion will fall apart but exactly where the fault lines will run. No doubt the matter will come to a head at the Lambeth Conference next year. But my main purpose in this post is not to discuss these issues.

John quotes article XXIV of the Thirty-Nine Articles (on which Doug is just starting a series, from a rather different perspective):

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s word. […] Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

I agree that “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like”. But I don’t accept that “Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain” those traditions and ceremonies. Why should there be a national church body with the right to require uniformity of this kind? That is a point which as far as I can tell is simply assumed by John Richardson, not argued by him. The assumption seems to be that the universal church is to be divided up along national boundaries, into national bodies each of which is subject to the monarch, president or prime minister of that country. (By the way, I don’t see why the church in Australia should be subject to “the Australian premier”, rather than to their Queen who is also ours.)

Now I can see that this kind of subjection to the head of state is fundamental to Anglicanism. For the origin of the Church of England is in the blasphemous claim of King Henry VIII to be head of the church, a claim later modified by Elizabeth I to “Supreme Governor” to avoid obvious usurpation of a title of Christ, but in practice still understood, even by John Richardson, as implying subjection of the church to the monarch. But even this is not a distinctively Anglican error, for ever since the time of Constantine rulers had acted as having authority over the church, and in general the church had accepted this. Nevertheless, the concept of a national church as a distinct entity subject to a national ruler, although long established among the Eastern Orthodox, was probably a new one in western Europe in Henry VIII’s time. But it is one which is now fundamental to Anglicanism.

So, what is the Anglican response to those who, while not being doctrinally objectionable, claim the right to their own “Traditions and Ceremonies” in a country where there is already an Anglican church? In 1575 the answer was simple: when the Bishop of London had to deal with a group of Anabaptists, he “condemned them all to death and handed them over to the secular arm”, and two of them “were burned at Smithfield in the slowest way possible”. From this perspective it is not as surprising as it might first seem that the first King of England to allow freedom of religion was the Roman Catholic James II, over a century later, for such a right conflicts with the fundamental claim of the Church of England to be “the Catholic Church in England”.

So, while I have a lot of time for the Anabaptist theology described by Tim Chesterton, I have serious problems with his attempts to find common ground between it and Anglicanism. I await with interest his next post in which he intends to describe “the church as a distinct community from the world” as an area of convergence between Anglicanism and Anabaptism. For this seems to me to be an area of fundamental divergence between the two traditions, at least to the extent that Anglicanism remains true to its historic roots as John Richardson seems to expect.

Over the centuries the Anglican attitude to non-Anglican denominations in England has evolved into something which, in John’s words, “smacks more of snobbery than sectarianism.” I agree with John that we should adjust this attitude to one which

would … allow us as Anglicans to welcome all those from whom we have no theological reason to be divided, whether they are in this country or abroad. This welcome would express itself in an acceptance of members and an acceptance of ministries.

But John seems to see this as welcoming these people back into the Church of England while allowing them to enjoy the diversity it permits in principle. I would see this very differently, as a recognition by the Church of England that it is not “the Catholic Church in England” but one denomination among others. But perhaps this could be done, as a typical Anglican “fudge”, in a way which allows for both understandings.

So, to get back to the ordination kerfuffle, how can this be related to our various views of the Church of England?

In practice, despite our different approaches in principle, John and I seem to agree that the church in England consists of more than the visible organisation and structure of the Church of England, and that in England there can be other valid Christian structures, and Christians who are not heretical and from whom there is no need to be divided. Presumably he would include among such other structures, as I do, groups which have broken away from the Church of England structures, like the Methodist Church. We seem to agree that this is a valid way of allowing a variety of “Traditions and Ceremonies” within the one territory of England.

I have suggested that, given the current irreconcilable divisions in the visible Church of England over such issues as the ordination of women and acceptance of homosexuals, serious consideration should be given to dividing the church structures in such a way that those who cannot fully accept the authority of a diocesan bishop amicably leave the visible structure and set up their own separate organisations. On John’s model they would remain part of the Church of England in the same way as he considers other denominations to be. But structurally they would be separate. This would allow both the old and the new organisations to pursue their own distinct ministries without wasting energies in arguing. I accept that there are a number of practical issues about how this might be done. But John seems to object in principle to this kind of division. Given his view of the church, I am not sure why.

The main problem that I see with such a division is that the rather large group of evangelicals in the Church of England who accept ordination of women but not homosexual practice, a group including myself, would be left with a dilemma, which way to jump when such a division takes place. It may well be that the outcome of next year’s Lambeth Conference will clarify where the main fault line lies.

0 thoughts on “The Ugley Vicar on the Church of England

  1. Hi Peter:

    Thanks for a long essay! I’m not going to respond to every point you’ve made, but simply to point out that your view of what makes an Anglican is very English and would be unrecognisable in the rest of the Anglican world.

    Yes, very true, the C of E is simply the ‘Catholic Church’ in England, meeting in the old buildings etc. etc. However, in the rest of the Anglican Communion this is not the case. Here in Canada, for instance, people choose to become Anglicans because they see something in our approach that they like. Here, where the dominant forms of Christianity are Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism (Alliance, Baptist, etc.), people tend to become Anglicans because they are looking for something more sacramental without the hardline dogmatism of Rome, or something a bit less conservative than the evangelical churches. Makes it a bit tough for evangelical Anglicans, but that’s the way it is and that’s why the Anglican Church of Canada is a comparatively liberal denomination.

    Interestingly enough, the first blow for the freedom of the Church of England from the control of the state was struck by John Henry Newman in his sermon ‘On National Apostasy’ – so that in fact the first party in the Anglican world to champion the difference between Church and World turned out to be the Anglo-Catholics. But more on that in my next post!

  2. Thanks, Tim, for the quick response. I have to accept that my perspective is very English, for obvious reasons! So, I think, is John Richardson’s perspective. It seems you do have a view of Anglicanism inconsistent with the one John describes, but I suppose I was wrong to criticise you for this. Meanwhile I look forward to your next instalment, which I hope will clarify your position.

    Canadian Anglicanism as you describe it sounds much more like the kind of model I would prefer to see in England, with the Church of England recognised as one denomination among others – although I have issues with the liberalism of most Canadian Anglicans as with that of many English ones. The only thing you don’t have as far as I know, but they do have in the USA, is multiple denominations all claiming the label Anglican (but, sadly, only one accepted as part of the Anglican Communion). But, I wonder, would John see the Anglican Church of Canada as having betrayed the heart of Anglicanism by embracing this model? If so, is there any hope for the survival of his model of Anglicanism?

  3. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Does Canadian Anglicanism have more to do with Anabaptism?

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