Toward the end of his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury (though it may have been just after the end), Rowan Williams was interviewed about his beliefs, and in particular his understanding of the nature and purpose of the Church of England. He said something quite bold, if not ecclesiologically courageous: “The Church of England is the Catholic Church in England.” It was passed over without comment, as if the interviewer were unaware of the rarity of the articulation of this dogmatic belief, or perhaps it simply wasn’t taken seriously. The interview, which was televised, appears to be untraceable. There is no record of it anywhere. It wasn’t imagined, but it appears to have been filed away in ecclesial-broadcasting oblivion.
This is a pity, because the assertion that the Church of England is the Catholic expression of Christianity in England would be greeted with incredulity or scorn by most Roman Catholics. The politest riposte would be: “No-one really believes that about the Church of England any more”, at least not since the Victorian era and the efforts of the Oxford Movement. And yet Catholic and Reformed remains the dogmatic belief of the Church of England about itself, and all Christian denominations have a right to believe and teach what they want about themselves, including the Roman Catholic Church, which believes that it is the one, true church, and that the Church of England isn’t a proper church at all.
But it is, by virtue of its continuity of the succession in the laying on of hands at episcopal ordinations, which remains unbroken from the pre-Reformation era. It isn’t all about radical doctrinal departure and discontinuity in worship and belief: there is the enduring medieval structure, the ancient model of ecclesial governance, and the sacred cathedral foundations. These things remain.
But the Church of England is also reformed and reforming, principally because Christianity is a contextual faith, morphing to cultural variations and changing social mores. All global Christian denominations adapt: gospel traditions endure, but to be static and unchanging in praxis is to die. As one generation transmits the faith to the next, there is movement: the receptor is different from the giver, and re-reception is a dynamic process of sifting, discerning and proclaiming in a new context. As one bishop observed:
Development must occur. It happens every time the gospel is preached, announced and expressed. Every time a preacher opens his or her mouth, he or she clothes the Word in new words. Most of these new formulations are ephemeral. But some become established, because they serve the needs of the Church in changing circumstances… New formulations are constantly being made, of which some will prove necessary and be accepted as true (Bishop John Hind, Seeking the Truth of Change in the Church, 2004:47).
People may not like the nature of change in their denomination: they rail against the heresies, or leave. We have seen it in the Church of England over women’s ministry, and are seeing it again in debates about sexuality. Roman Catholics saw it at the Second Vatican Council, and are seeing it again in the doctrinal tensions between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict. There is continuity, and there is development. These things remain.
And they must, for without catholic foundations, there is no truth; and without change, there is irrelevance, incongruity and insignificance. We can differ and demur at what constitutes primary truth, but in the Church of England it is possible to be both conservative and progressive in a perpetual via media paradox: there is more than one way of being part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.