Of recent times there has been public discussion about the disunity of the church. Not the disunity between denominations, but the disunity within denominations.
Roman Catholics are struggling to maintain unity. Many members disagree with the Pope’s rulings on issues like birth control and the celibacy of the priesthood. The Roman Catholic answer to disunity is institutional – everybody living under the authority of the one Pope.
Because Anglicans have sufficient problems with our own unity we do not often comment on Roman Catholic problems. In recent years, Anglicans have been at loggerheads with each other over fairly fundamental issues. Many would see the worldwide Anglican Communion unravelling before their eyes. But what is the nature of Anglican unity?
The rights of nations, dioceses and parishes means that Anglican unity is not institutional like Roman Catholicism. There is no one common organisational connection between us all.
We are united in a common heritage derived from England and its national church. But different people value different elements of that common heritage as being of the essence of Anglicanism. Some value the unifying effect of the Book of Common Prayer. Others find our unity in the universal recognition of common orders of bishops, priests and deacons.
Yet the necessary updating of the Book of Common Prayer in the latter part of the twentieth century led to such alternatives that there is no liturgical unity. And the divisive issue of ordaining women as priests has meant that the orders of ministry are no longer universally recognised.
Some find our unity in “inclusiveness”. So, Anglicanism becomes the denomination that is united in diversity. We are supposed to “include” all manner of Christians without limit. But naturally everybody has limits – be it excluding Jehovah Witnesses or unrepentant racists. Anglicans just differ as to where to draw the line of exclusion.
The unity that the Bible teaches is a unity in the Gospel message. Christians are to live by it, and to agree with each other over its content. Paul wants the Philippians to be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”. So he urges them to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. He appeals to the Corinthians “that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
This kind of theological unity is also what is expected in Anglicanism. In every Prayer book is printed the 39 Articles. The stated reason for these Articles is “For the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishment of consent touching true religion.” All our clergy are to submit to “the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense.” Theological diversity or “inclusiveness” is not meant to be the hallmark of Anglicanism but agreement on the gospel truths is.
The Articles say what they mean and are to be read and subscribed to as they stand. In the nineteenth century Tractarians perverted the articles by reinterpreting them. In the twentieth century Liberals tried to deconstruct them into oblivion. But this Prayer book statement on how clergy are to submit to them, shows that these strategies were recognised and rejected as long ago as the seventeenth century!
Sadly, Anglicans are no longer united by a common mind expressed in these Articles of Religion. Many leaders in the worldwide Anglican community do not submit to them as being true. Yet those who genuinely subscribe to them have every right to claim to be Anglican, for there is no other official declaration of what Anglicans should believe.
Within the Diocese of Sydney, Anglican ministers are expected to believe and preach the theology of the thirty-nine articles. For we still subscribe to them. It is the common commitment to this gospel understanding that unites us.
Only by agreeing in the message of the Gospel will Anglicans return to Christian unity.