Anglicans — Who Are We Now?

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral | Christopher John/Flickr

From the Archives

By Robert E. Terwilliger

Edited and introduced by Richard Mammana Jr.

Methodist-born American theologian Robert Elwin Terwilliger (1917-91) became an Episcopalian in his early 20s and trained for ordination at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the Second World War. Terwilliger was a curate and parish priest in Connecticut, California, and New York before taking on national and international roles in theological education and activism through the Trinity Institute, founded in 1967 and inaugurated by Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Dr. Terwilliger served as Suffragan Bishop of Dallas from the end of 1975 until his retirement in mid-1986, and he maintained a close association with the General Theological Seminary, where he worked in non-continuous periods as a tutor and adviser.

The majority of Bishop Terwilliger’s published articles were on topics of liturgy, gender, and ministry, and he was a founding organizer of the Committee for the Apostolic Ministry formed at All Saints Church, New York, in 1973 to oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood. This essay distributed in pamphlet form at the 1973 General Convention in Louisville was published by the former American Branch of the Anglican Society, based at General Seminary. It had previously been published in an issue of The Anglican as a reprint from the June 1969 issue of The Bulletin of the General Theological Seminary (Vol. LV, No. 4., pp. 15-21). Dr. Terwilliger reflects on the vocations of Anglicanism in a heady ecumenical moment just four years after the close of the Second Vatican Council.

The unremembered source of Bishop Terwilliger’s repeated centerpiece quote is the theologian and exegete Bishop Simon Patrick of Ely (1626-1707), whose works remained influential through the 19th century.

When I was a graduate student flirting with Anglicanism, l encountered a phrase which I memorized but whose author I have forgotten. It came from some 17th-century divine. The Church of England steers halfway between “the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid sluttery of fanatic conventicles.” The sublime snobbishness of these words distills the damning foolishness of smug Anglicanism. This sin is, however, no longer available to us. Halfway between? Where is this middle way in the ’60s? What became of our halfway between? Anglicans along with everybody else are now suffering a crisis of identity. Who are we now?

To use another metaphor, Anglicans have for centuries believed themselves securely suspended between two poles, but the poles have moved — suddenly moved — catastrophically moved.

The Roman pole has moved. Less than a decade ago, the basic positions of the Roman Church seemed fixed. The old Rome was solidly there and dependably wrong. It was readily available to define ourselves against. Rome was huge, monolithic. It even exercised a sort of gravitational force on many in our communion. Rome since the Council has become a new sort of problem. When rigid societies begin to break up, they become chaotic. For instance, in the Roman radical left it is common to find doubts expressed not only about transubstantiation, but about the possibility of prayer, the reality of the Incarnation, and even the appropriateness of “God talk.” The problem of Anglican orders seems solved in the mind of some Roman writers by deciding that no special form of ordination at all is essential for ministry. Is it possible that this old issue between our churches shall be “renewed” right out of existence?

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral | Christopher John/Flickr

Vatican II created a new epoch, a new epoch in Rome, a new epoch in Christian history. It has created a new situation for Anglicans.

One of the excellencies of Anglicanism has been a liturgy in a language “understanded of the people.” The quaintness of this phrase is a symbol of the quaintness of our position. The new Roman Catholic liturgies are not only in the vernacular, but in the vulgar vernacular. The Roman Mass in the United States is not in English: it is in American. This sudden change has inverted our relative positions. It is now we who do not speak in a language “understanded of the people.” We do have — and we must take refuge in it — the claim that at least our language is not vulgar.

Anglicans have an episcopal church. For centuries we have prided ourselves on our primitive understanding of the governing and pastoral oversight of the church by the whole body of bishops. We did not accept the lordship of one bishop over all. But we have understood episcopacy as continuity rather than corporateness. The Council’s official sponsoring of the doctrine of the collegiality of the episcopate has gone beyond the ordinary Anglican understanding of episcopacy. This revival of the sense of togetherness in ministry, so vividly symbolized in concelebration, we have had to relearn from Rome. Of course the Roman Church, fortunately, still has misconceptions about the Pope officially. But in actuality since the unfortunate Papal pronouncement on contraception, the Papal authority has been persistently eroded. Before long we may face the largest church in all Christendom as the greatest episcopal church with the strongest doctrine of the episcopate.

In May of this year, Cardinal [Leo Joseph] Suenens, Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, made a statement through the press which produced a great shaking in the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. The statement is quite simply a work of the Holy Spirit. It was a call to his church to fulfill the promise of Vatican II. In the course of it, he made these observations which are of special importance to all Christians who value episcopacy:

“I am struck by this text from the Acts: ‘Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them’ (2:14). And equally by this one, which it would be very interesting to transpose into the present day: ‘Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John’ (Acts 8:14).

“It is impossible to over-emphasize the vital unity of the apostolic college. The divine help promised to Peter and his successors does not take the form of a personal inspiration from God, but of special help in the normal working out of collegiality. It is difficult to make an exact juridical statement of “the rules of the game,” but they certainly do not depend merely on law and the literal force of any one text.”

“Over the years, authority has been exercised in many different ways. It is high time for us to realise that the old regime is no more — but this does not mean a sudden change to parliamentarianism. Decisions will not be made in our councils as a result of party pressure, or of the majority outvoting the minority. It is a good idea to re-read together St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians with its warnings against the kind of partisanship which championed Paul over against Apollos or Cephas. No credo will ever be established by majority vote. We come together to find an answer to just one question: what does the Lord want of each of us that the world may be saved? The opinion that must have the greatest weight in the gathering must be that of the informed Christian who is closest to the Lord Jesus, the most receptive to his wisdom, the most humbly ready to be led by his light.”

It used to be claimed that Anglicanism was indeed catholic but that it also had a great place for the basically evangelical elements in Christianity. Again the initiative has been seized by the Roman Church. Concerning the ministry of the word, it may eventuate that the new common Bible of the English-speaking world will be The Jerusalem Bible. There is also a passion for preaching among young Roman Catholics which seems positively Methodist. Karl Barth, as we all know, remarked some years ago that it appeared that the initiative in reformation had been seized by the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman pole has moved; the Protestant pole has also moved. For a period of twenty years or so in the ’40s and ’50s, there was an increasing consensus in non-Roman churches through the prevalence of neo-orthodoxy. It appeared that something very much like an official ecumenical theology (without Rome) was developing in Europe and even in the United States, a sort of watered-down Barthianism. But this was not to be the ground of faith for the coming great church (without Rome). Forces of disintegration set in. The debate about God, the holy advent of Harvey Cox, the Death of God caper. We began to experience the phenomena of pop theology, of theology made by the media, of theological fads and fashion with a life span of two or three years. All of this set up powerful vibrations within Protestantism that began to shatter the theological consensus so that now there is really a very far-reaching crisis of faith.

But in another dimension, there has been an amazing catholicizing of Protestantism liturgically. Many of the very best works on worship and indeed on the sacraments — in fact, some of the very best liturgics — are emerging from Protestant sources. What would we do without [Max] Thurian? [Jean-Jacques] Von Allmen? Without [Franz Jehan] Leenhardt? Indeed, it may be said that there is a higher eucharistic doctrine in the French Protestant theologian Max Thurian than can be found in some Roman Catholics at the present time. One word, transignification, focuses this fact. This new interpretation of real presence was originally initiated by Professor Leenhardt, a Genevan Protestant. It was taken up by Roman Catholic theologians such as [Edward] Schillebeeckx, and found its place in the Dutch catechism. Of course, it was denounced in a Papal encyclical, Corpus Christi, but this simply proved its popularity.

The Roman pole has moved: the Protestant pole has moved. There is no suspicion anymore. There is no between anymore. This does not, however, mean that Anglicanism has ceased to have a reason for existence. The via media has not been the only apologetic nor the best for the Anglican way.

There have, of course, been those who thought of this church as a part of the Western Catholic Church regrettably and temporarily disconnected from the main body. There have also been others who thought of this church as Protestant, but having experienced an inadequate reformation, have devoted themselves to making that reformation more adequate. Still others have thought in terms of comprehension. The Anglican Communion has gathered together in one gentlemanly body the various major tendencies in Western Christendom. There is, however, a new and better way.

To begin with, it would be salutary in all humility to take another look at Henry VIII. Most of us from time to time are engaged in defence against the old accusation that he is our father and our founder. We deliver brave lectures on Henry VIII and all that. We like to show that Henry was given the title Defender of the Faith by the Pope for his Defence of the Seven Sacraments. We like to show how the divorce business had precedents, that Henry could even have had some real scruple of conscience about his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Having done this very sort of thing myself time and again, in all candor I have now to admit that our origins are unsavory.

The change in the Church in England under Henry may not have been much worse than what was going on in other places, but it certainly was not all to the glory of God. It was an act of prideful aggression, and attended by malice and murder. But the result was better than its human origin. Indeed, the result can hardly be considered by a sane man to be the work of Henry or any mind like Henry’s. It looks marvelously like an instance of God making the wrath of man turn to his praise. Indeed, this is the miracle of the origin of Anglicanism.

It is also too often forgotten that the reign of Mary Tudor followed Henry’s and swept away any effective Anglicanism, so that the project had to be begun again with Elizabeth.

It is in Elizabeth, in the mind of Elizabeth, that we find so much that is characteristic of the ethos of Anglicanism. She was hardly a saintly soul. Indeed, it is rumored that her popular title, “The Virgin Queen,” may have been of like humor with Henry’s “Defender of the Faith.” She did fancy herself something of a theologian. We all know her characteristic doctrine of real presence: “What his word did make it, I believe and take it.” This statement, though unexceptionable, is hardly explicit. Ever since Elizabeth, Thirty-Nine Articles and all, Anglicanism has existed on the strength of compromise and ambiguity if not of ambivalence. Some have tried to show this way as a glorious way. It is really terribly difficult to think of compromise, ambiguity, ambivalence as prime Christian virtues when “straight is the way and narrow is the gate.”

Again, what eventuated was better than its origin. In spite of? Because of? compromise, ambiguity, ambivalence, the Anglican way has been in a curious sense a way of unity. In this communion, what has been separate and warring in the divided Christendom in the West has been together in some sort of fellowship within one church. The sheer fact of its togetherness may be the most important fact so far about Anglicanism. That is not to say that catholic, evangelical and humanist traditions have found a unity in Anglicanism, but they have found at least an association.

One of the problems of Anglicanism, perhaps the prime problem, is the fact that our tradition has been too great for its members. It is rare indeed to find an Episcopalian who thinks of himself as belonging to the whole Episcopal Church. He is High Church, Low Church, Flat Church. Strangely, this kind of partnership is not only the consequence of narrowness but also of half­remembered grandeur. The various elements of Anglicanism have surfaced as strong movements in the course of its history, movements with saints and prophets.

The High Church element had a golden age in the Caroline divines — Lancelot Andrewes, John Cosin, and the rest. Most High Churchmen would think first, but not necessarily better, of the catholic revival in the Oxford Movement, and its “ritualistic” sequel. The High Church party has its saints, even its martyrs, but it has had a strong habit of aloofness, and a curious disparagement of its own family. It valued episcopacy, but hated its bishops. It has had a habit of imitation of Rome which may make some Anglican churches the last refuge of the Counter-Reformation. Paradoxically, the same habit when updated produces a strangely Calvinist-looking liturgy since Roman liturgy as an act of reparation seems to be becoming increasingly Calvinist. This is what comes of this kind of crush: you may end up doing reparation for sins you have not committed.

The evangelical tradition had its mighty reformation prophets and the tremendous upsurge of the evangelical revival of the 18th century. Sadly it lost its greatest strength in the secession of the Methodists. But it has continued perhaps stronger in the Church of England than here, a witness to the centrality of the word of God, the necessity of conversion, the urgency of personal religion. The problem with the evangelical, basically, has been that in later Anglican history he has not responded strongly to the greatest evangelical movements on the Continent. He has been too distracted by paranoid delusions about Rome and Romanizers to realize the power, say, of Karl Barth. One of the greatest tragedies in recent years has been the failure of Anglicans, apart from notable exceptions like Sir Edwyn Hoskyns and D.R. Davies, to thrill to the affirmation of Barth, [Emil] Brunner, [Karl] Heim, and the other prophets, when this so obviously was a word from the Lord for us. The Low Churchman has too often been engaged in a concern about not doing certain things rather than about the utter urgency of the Gospel and preaching of the Gospel. In fact, the dereliction of our church in the matter of preaching may be attributed largely to the failure of the evangelical party to have something to preach.

There is, of course, a third element in Anglicanism sometimes called liberal, sometimes broad church; perhaps best, humanist — Christian humanist. This tradition also has had its moments. It is a somewhat rarefied calling, because it is basically possible only when some learning is possible. We remember — or do we? — the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century, the mighty contribution of Bishop [Joseph] Butler to the rationality of Christian believing, the Latitudinarians of the eighteenth century, in recent times the vivid figures of Bishop [Hensley] Henson and Dean [William] Inge. We like to remember that Oxford and Cambridge are Anglican institutions in their ethos and orientation.

It used to be possible to say that the essential characteristics of Anglicanism is “sound learning.” It is not quite so certain now. But there has at least been a concern for the truth. Not everything goes in our church. You simply cannot be a fundamentalist here, and you are not supposed to harangue people in a sentimental fashion as a substitute for thought. There is a tradition of liberal learning and liberality of mind that is by no means a partisan thing. But it may be true, as Dean Inge suggested, that a Christian cannot simply be a liberal theologically. He has got to be a liberal something — a liberal Catholic or a liberal Protestant, or, better, Catholic Humanist, an Evangelical Humanist. Or still better, an Evangelical Catholic Humanist. It may be that in the attempt simply to be liberal that this third element in Anglicanism has its great failure. It has attempted to be a partisanship, or a school of thought, when in reality it should be a spirit informing other loyalties. I suppose at this point now the one “in” word which focuses this concern is “openness.” The Christian Humanist is one who knows that because he is a Christian nothing is alien to him. Indeed, what truth there is in the secularization of Christianity really belongs to this tradition of Christian Humanism.

Catholic, Evangelical, Humanist — all in one place but not with one accord. We have not only been a church of unfulfilled unity; we have been a church of divisiveness. There have been prophets of unity among us, but they have had a strangely difficult time. The greatest of these was the nineteenth-century theologian Frederick Denison Maurice. Through a lifetime of unremitting passion and unrewarded achievement, he strove for the unity of his church:

“The desire for Unity has haunted me all my life through; I have never been able to substitute any desire for that, or to accept any of the different schemes for satisfying it which men have devised.”

What Maurice saw so clearly was that each of the schools of Anglicanism required the other for its completeness. He believed that this was possible and necessary and the true destiny of our church. But this is a destiny which has never been fulfilled.

The time is now late for Anglicanism. We have had four hundred years of the Anglican experience of living together in compromise, ambiguity, and ambivalence. One fact is terribly apparent: even though we may claim these four hundred years of experience as ground for acting as a bridge church, the Archbishop of Canterbury has remarked that people seem to be meeting each other without our bridge. We are being noticed as much as the man in The New Yorker who does not read the Philadelphia Bulletin. Nobody seems to be aware of the fact that we have had this marvelous togetherness; indeed, that Anglicanism has been a micronism of ecumenism for all this time. It is late, terribly late, but not too late. [Terwilliger uses the term micronism rather than the more common microcosm — RJM.]

There are some who would say that we should not seek to find at this dale any vocations for our separate traditions. It is a moment to meld, to lose even our residual identities. This might be more convincing if it were truly apparent that the gifts of God in our several traditions were being gathered into a greater whole. Quite the contrary: it appears that there is unholy disintegration at work even within ecumenism. In fact, there is some evidence in various schemes of union that our Anglican disease is contagious. We may have bigger and bigger though not greater and greater coming churches, based on less and less apprehension of what God has shown of himself.

A certain case could be made for the claim that the present trend in ecumenism is for the faults of Anglicanism to be spread throughout Christendom. If we have been guilty of these sins in our own life it is time to confess them, to warn others of the dangers of our ways, and in a real conversion to manifest our true vocation.

What is that true vocation, or our new vocation? It cannot be sought in our origins, except to say that what eventuated was better than the cause and, therefore, can rightly be claimed to be the work of God. The real meaning of any thing is not to be found in how it began but in its destiny. The Biblical meaning of things is not logical but eschatological; not what they are, but what they are for. What then is an Anglican to become? Perhaps we can apprehend the answer personally better than institutionally. The purpose of Anglicanism is not just that catholic, evangelical, and humanist elements in Christianity should be gathered together in one institution; not in one church but in one churchman. The unity of the church can exist in each of its members. Despair though we may of any financial unity, we need not despair of it within ourselves. Meeting an Anglican who has this unity within himself is the greatest witness to this vocation.

This may mean a reconception of Anglicanism. We learned long since that we are not a confessional church in the sense of peculiar doctrines of our own. In fact, we may need to reconceive ourselves as a place of meeting. We must face it that we have produced almost no theology of importance within the past decade. We have been contributing some negative impulses, but we have not been creative and affirmative. This, however, is not characteristic of other Christian communions, where fascinating things in a peculiar kind of separateness have been coming to pass. These phenomena need to be integrated. There is the Western impact of the Eastern Church, the rediscovery of the validity of the patristic hermeneutic, the unity of body and soul in sacramental and mystical experience, the revival of the Christian hope of cosmic redemption. We also have the tremendous ferment about liturgy, the emergence of the utterly new and dynamic Thomism in Karl Rahner, the provocative theological experiments of the theologians of the Low Countries, the curiously Eastern evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin. And now, with the fading of [Rudolf] Bultmann, the Theology of Hope comes surging as a “theology which takes history seriously, a theology of revolution, and a theology of eschatology.” Anglicanism does provide a forum for encounter for all these impulses. It can be not simply a place of confrontation but even an agent of interpenetration. But this requires that the various powerful new insights should be first known, then appreciated, and related to each other. To do this we must be willing to commit ourselves to every valid affirmative contribution with verve.

Committing yourself is a way of finding out who you are. A man finds his identity by identifying. A man’s identity is not best thought of as the way in which he is separated from his fellows but the way in which he is united with them. Anglican identity cannot now be found in Anglican uniqueness but in Anglican affirmation of others’ affirmations. Anglicanism must manifest the ability to say “Yes” with enthusiasm. Perhaps the time has now come for a new kind of Anglican, even an enthusiastic Anglican. It is only by enthusiastic acceptance that the great new Christian insights can be drawn in and drawn together in this our place. This may be the particular vocation of American Anglicanism. It may be bad form Britishly to be enthusiastic, but it is not bad-form Christianity. The Episcopal Church in this land has too long been spiritually colonial. There is every evidence that the time may now have come when the tired Church in England needs the injections of new vitality and new ideas which should be ours to give.

If we can come to the point of enthusiastic affirmation of the great new impulses of the Spirit which are manifest at this moment in various traditions and in various lands, we may actually function as a place of meeting and integration for the whole church.

It has been said that certain cities, for unknown and mysterious reasons, are creative environments where the human mind and its works flourish where there is a marvelous stimulation. Such was Athens, such was Florence, such is Paris, such also is New York. Should we not dare to hope that Anglicanism should be such a “creative environment” out of which can emerge a new flowering of Christian belief and life for the future?

Since identity comes from identifying, consider two particular identifications which Anglicans should find natural to make. These are with Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. Is it because we follow the pattern of our economic and sociological affinities rather than the pattern of our Christian affinities that we do not make these identifications immediately?

Orthodoxy has the key to the understanding not only of mystical religion and the glories of worship, but in its doctrine of God and in its wonderfully organic understanding of the church. It can even be said that the recent flap about the Death of God might not have occurred if we had known something about the Eastern tradition of negative (“apophatic”) theology. The Eastern doctrine of the Trinity of God in all its concreteness is more vivid and more convincing to modern man than the abstractions of Western Trinitarian theology. The Eastern ways of perpetual prayer are more practical for the secular city with the necessity of prayer on the run. The theology of transfiguration of the body, the theology of icons, can provide the theology for Christian art, now so tragically disappearing. There is an old alliance between Orthodoxy and Anglicanism which needs to be actualized once again.

Lutheranism has an amazing similarity to Anglicanism. It even has churchmanship difficulties. There is an old alliance here as well — witness the Thirty-nine Articles. It is shocking how little Anglicans are aware of the powerful theological contribution now being made both on the Continent and in America by young Lutherans. This is not a reductionist business, but in the great tradition of biblical and liturgical theology to which we are also committed. Men such as [Helmut] Thelicke, [Gerhard] Ebeling and [Wolfhart] Pannenberg have been engaged in vivid contemporary renditions of the Gospel. Two of the very best theological periodicals for the preacher, the liturgical preacher in America, are Una Sancta and Dialog. A real alliance with Lutherans is now both natural and necessary.

Western Christendom at this moment has special need of strengthening in two areas in which Anglicanism has long been concerned: history and aesthetics. Our church has been sought because of its historical tradition. It has boasted of its continuities. It has gloried in its ancient monuments. It has valued “tradition.” Too frequently its historical sense has been not realistic but nostalgic. Indeed, many people have sought the Episcopal Church in America because it was an easy way to escape out of their own century. The experience of our costume drama on Sunday morning can give some of the same satisfactions as reading a romantic historical novel. It is now too late for Neo-Gothic escapism. History is necessary to us. Anamnesis is the ground of faith. For a Christian, “Do this in memory of …” is a historical religion. An amnesiac Christian is a contradiction in terms. But the memory, the history, must be true memory, true history. And what matters in that memory and that history is the thrust of life sent forth from Christ by the power of the Spirit through the centuries to us and through us. Indeed, the process of this sending forth involves us too. Tradition is something we do, not something we have. It is obedience to the vocation of passing on life. It is generation; it is regeneration.

Our world seems to be in the midst of a revolt against the past, and yet we wish to speak of hope for the future. There is no hope which is not based upon memory. The problem of anti-history exists within the church, which has been infected by the amnesiac disease of the secular mind. This is a time when the affirmation of Anglicans and the importance of the great continuities, and particularly of the vitality of Christian history within history, must be made in a virile and vigorous way. An Anglican should be a messenger of hope who bases his hope not on a Utopian dream but on the power of the ongoing thrust of life through centuries of Christian realization.

An Anglican also has now a special vocation in aesthetics. This is a bad time for beauty in the church. Christian art has almost passed out of existence. The Roman Church is developing an increasingly Puritan liturgical practice. Christian worship, sometimes weirdly in the name of the liturgical movement, is becoming not only vulgar but trivial. This condition is serious, not because it offends sophisticated taste but because it subverts incarnational religion. When God comes in bread and wine, in body and blood, this is a moment for glory, and it must be made glorious.

On Pentecost I was present at the Eucharist in Notre Dame, Paris, where I learned this all again in the power of an immediate experience. Here was one of the great churches of Christendom, with the Christian liturgy celebrated in the language of the people, complete with a real preaching. The service was magnificent, not in elaboration of ceremony, which was indeed remarkably austere, but in the joy of singing and in the utter reverence of the celebrants of the liturgy. The Feast of Pentecost had drawn literally thousands to that altar, and it was utterly obvious that everyone was enjoying it. There was in this Eucharist a sublimity which revealed the supernatural nature of the act. This was a moment of revelation to me, not only of the great conversion of the Roman Church, in which we all rejoice, but also of what must be the true function of liturgy at this moment. To say the least, glory is the best form of the communication of the Gospel. I saw again what Anglicans have witnessed to for four hundred years, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

We have come a long way from boasting about steering “halfway between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid sluttery of fanatic conventicles.” Now we have our great and maybe final opportunity to effect our true vocation and to give it to the whole church.

Come, Holy Spirit!

Richard Mammana Jr., a former editor of The Anglican, is the founding director of Project Canterbury (


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