By Zachary Guiliano
As an American in England, I find myself reflecting regularly on the hard and soft edges of national character — customs, sentiments, quirks, senses of humor. Or is it humour? We are “two peoples divided by a common language,” as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying, and differences in spelling or accent are among the more superficial features of our cultural-linguistic divide.
Christ’s body, the Church, is inescapably enmeshed in the vagaries and blessings granted by the diversity of languages, peoples, and nations. And perhaps in Anglicanism this is especially true: at its best and worst moments, with varying degrees of sophistication, the churches of the Communion have sought or suffered diverse national expressions of the Catholic and evangelical faith. We have put new accents on what Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon called the “anglicana voice” of the Communion — Anglicanism’s distinct liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral patrimony, its shared history of mission, its ecumenical vocation, not to mention its indignities and embarrassments. And those accents have proved remarkably durable and portable: there is an “everywhere to everywhere” exchange, both of national gifts and curses.
“For better and for worse,” American Episcopalians (and members of the ACNA) cannot escape the legacy of the Church of England, nor can members of any other Anglican church. But the same is true in reverse: the C of E is not immutable, but has been changed by her parenthood.
Without denying our common past, present, and (God willing) future, without denying the mutual enrichment we have enjoyed with — and deprivation we have inflicted on — each other, certain differences remain, especially between Anglicans in America and England. These dissimilarities, moreover, could continue to shape the Communion in coming years, sometimes as the result of deliberate choice, as provinces choose to speak their Anglicanism in a more or less American or English accent, sometimes as a matter of sheer forbearance, as our Anglican brethren walk together patiently with us, despite our many wanderings.
A key difference: It’s hard not to see the arrival of two different “settlements” across the Atlantic, despite some instability in each church. After same-sex marriage became part of federal law, the 2015 General Convention voted to change the Episcopal Church’s marriage canon to allow same-sex marriages, yet allowed protections for traditionalists. The Communion Partners were an articulate yet small minority within the House of Bishops; traditionalist deputies were not hard to find, but they certainly were not in control of their house.
Meanwhile, in the Church of England, despite same-sex marriage being the law of the land since 2014, the question seems to be what to do with a vocal progressive minority. That group may have friends in high places (universities, cathedrals, Parliament); it may be increasingly willing to engage in relatively extreme tactics to sway opinion or wear down the opposition: “outing” clergy and bishops to the national papers or in the tea room at synod, unending letter and Twitter campaigns, visually effective protests before the media, manipulation of synodical processes, claiming “victory” over ambiguous results. But at the recent synod, the most progressive speakers and organizations stressed they sought no change in marriage doctrine. And, even after General Synod narrowly refused to “take note” of its provisional marriage report, the House of Bishops, despite a certain change of tone, continues down the path it marked for itself before the synod. I cannot imagine drastic changes in either church soon, despite internal conflicts.
But are there commonalities as well? One at least seems particularly prominent: a newly energized focus on evangelical mission. General Convention approved significant funds for evangelism; the current presiding bishop seems “an Episcopal Billy Sunday,” as my colleague Jordan Hylden put it nearly two years ago on Covenant; and Episcopal revivals are apparently now a thing. The same was true at General Synod: fundamental mission was the lingua franca, even among members otherwise at odds with each other. Central funds continue to be released for new mission efforts; a major new effort in enabling lay mission was a primary concern, presented by the director of Church Army, no less; and, as both the Archbishop of York and the redoubtable Elizabeth Paver put it, “the name of Jesus” needs to be a part of every conversation, if the church is serious about converting England — which it seems to be.
No doubt the situation is more complicated than this presentation. But whether we speak of American or English accents on the “anglicana voice,” outward-moving mission now seems to be the common stress in both. It may prove a surprising source of unity. But the differences cannot be more striking. God only knows where they could lead the Communion.
Or, perhaps, the contribution of other provinces may prove the true surprise.