Tradition, change and the new Anglicanism

Savi Hensman


The global media are largely interpreting the current fissures within the worldwide Anglican Communion as a struggle between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘revisionists’, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, ‘evangelicals’ and modernists’. In this thoughtful paper, Savitri Hensman shows that these are unhelpful caricatures, and that what is at stake is something far larger than an argument within one denomination. It is about the nature of Christianity in a fast-changing contemporary world, the dangers of simplistic readings of the Bible, the historic threat of authoritarianism, the challenge of human rights, and the tension between the establishment instincts of many Christians institutions and its radical, transformative roots in the life-changing story and flesh of Jesus. This reading of the situation within Anglicanism and in a broader context will assist commentators, researchers, journalists, concerned observers of many stances, and all who are interested in how the relationship between religion and society is changing after Christendom. The paper complements the author’s contributions to the new book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008) – available in the UK from Metanoia Book Service, and elsewhere via Amazon.

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"In recent years, there has been deep disagreement among Anglicans on a number of issues. This has sometimes been portrayed as a conflict between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. Yet those arguing contrary views tend to emphasise some aspects of tradition and reject others: both could be regarded as conservative in certain ways, liberal or radical in others. And there are churchgoers who are quite conservative on many matters yet who are far from happy with the approach to Anglicanism adopted by some reform movements seeking to rid the church of ‘liberalism’." ....

"The vital importance of the Bible is generally acknowledged by Anglicans, but there are wide variations in how it is read. This is in part due to its rich variety of styles, settings and perspectives reflected in its pages. It has inspired and guided, but also sometimes puzzled and provoked, listeners and readers through the ages."

"In Augustine’s view, ‘Whoever thinks he understands divine scripture or any part of it, but whose interpretation does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbour, has not really understood it." ...

"While those holding state power are all too often willing to demand that their subjects give up their freedom and dignity, even their lives, to benefit those in charge, in God’s reign things are turned upside down." ...

"Anglicans in the last century reflected deeply on the proper limits of obedience to the state, and Christians’ duty to protect the defenceless and resist oppression. In 1948, the Lambeth Conference endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights..."

"[T]he theology promoted by Global South Anglican is not straightforwardly ‘Bible-based’, or ‘conservative’ in the sense of conserving the past. The Anglicanism of these reformers is radically different in some ways from that practised by many congregations half a century ago. Despite the intention to be faithful to the text, this theological approach involves selection and interpretation of Scripture, and chooses from and/or rewrites the past to fit present priorities. Indeed the denial that human choice is involved, and the claim that divine authority – as discerned and verified by the church through the ages – underpins this particular viewpoint, makes it harder to probe whether there are more fruitful approaches based on the Bible and tradition." ...

"For many liberal and broad Anglicans, moderate or ‘open’ evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, it is acceptable to remain in fellowship with people whose views are profoundly different, even objectionable. From their perspective it is, after all, Christ’s table to which worshippers are invited, not theirs, and Christians can usually move together towards the truth by study, debate and prayer without creating separate institutional structures." ...

"unity or at least mutual understanding may be more likely to be achieved by acknowledging, rather than glossing over, the depths of differences. Those on different sides of various debates could be encouraged to explain more fully why they have reached the conclusions they have, including how they have built on, or moved away from, the foundations laid by earlier generations of Anglicans." ...

"It seems unlikely that, in the near future, a Catechism based on the Global South Anglican outline will be adopted throughout the Anglican Communion as a basis for teaching and discipline. But the authors will have done the Communion a service if it helps to reveal the depths of the theological differences which exist among Anglicans.

"Attempts to paper over the cracks and present a harmonious façade are not enough. It is perhaps time – where possible in the context of mutual respect and compassion – for deeper discussion on some of the fundamentals of faith."

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The author:

Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of Re-writing history, a research paper on the Episcopal Church. She has contributed several chapters to the new book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

'Tradition, change and the new Anglicanism' is available as a *.PDF (Adobe Acrobat) file here: