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franciscan - January 2000

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Anglican Identity in England

by David F Ford

I have seen the Church of England in recent years from various angles, ranging from being a Churchwarden in inner-city Birmingham, through a variety of parishes, several diocesan conferences for clergy and laity, General Synod, the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and now St Bene’t’s in Cambridge. I have been struck again and again by the gap between, on the one hand, the perceptions gained through that close involvement and, on the other, impressions coming through the media and casual conversations. I was usually encouraged by what I saw and learnt directly of the Church of England, whereas most of the other impressions were largely unappreciative. I do not think this is just because of ‘media bias’ or prejudice. The reasons are deeper – something to do with the nature of the Church of England. So I want to try to describe, in brief, my own appreciative conclusions about Anglican identity in England.

A Complex Identity: wisdom through historical experience

The basic point is that it is a complex identity, even messy. This gives endless scope for criticism and misrepresentation, but it can also be appreciated as a strength with considerable potential. It cannot be understood without a little history.

The history includes appreciating the Church’s first millennium and a half. In particular, it is a classic and I think enduringly important characteristic of Anglican tradition that we identify strongly with the early Church during its first six centuries or so. I would argue that any vision for the future which disowns or plays down this formative period is unwise. That does not exclude fresh interpretations and critiques. But they need to lead us inside the dynamics of the shaping of the church and its theology, in all their messiness and their religious, ethical and political complexity. It is about a wisdom formed in and through the contingencies of history.

If I were choosing just one lesson for us to learn from this period, it would be what Averil Cameron and Frances Young both stress in their fine studies: how the church engaged with all dimensions of the Roman Empire’s culture; how it used multiple strategies, and was inventive and often opportunist in its communication; and, above all, how its permeation of the Empire was closely tied to the immense amount of energy, resources and dedication it applied to education - learning and teaching the faith - at all levels.
The Reformation period, up to the seventeenth-century Anglican settlement, is the most critical one for what is most distinctively Anglican. I think it is hard to over-estimate how crucial this still is. The Reformation, together with the horrendous religious wars that followed it, was the founding trauma of modern Europe, and in England included the Civil War and the execution of Charles I. In this period, Christianity not only discredited itself but failed to ensure the flourishing of societies. Large parts of Europe were devastated. We live in the aftermath of this failure, in which Christianity has been tried and found not only wanting but destructive in the public realm. Christianity gave rise to fragmentation, dissension, confusion and war as never before in its history.

But that was not all. There was at the same time an intensive attempt, on both the Protestant and Catholic sides, to re-identify the heart of Christian faith, to reappropriate its basic dynamisms. All parties tried to refashion history in conformity with their ideas - Lutheran, Calvinist, Puritan, Roman Catholic. Anglicanism was a response to this lively and deadly conflict. It was a settlement, a Catholic and Reformed Christianity allied with historical realism. Anglicanism is a Christian response to Christian failure and to Christian renewal. We do not go for complete theological blueprints: they run the risks of the Thirty-Years’ War or the Civil War. We make settlements; settlement after settlement. I do not claim this is unique to Anglicanism; it is obviously a dimension of every church. But there is something to be learnt for the future from the way that, at its best, our Church has tried to learn from the traumas of history, from conflicts between rival ways of ordering the church, and the need for settlements which value the flourishing of state and society and try to repair damaged history. There is a great deal to repent of, but it is important to try to become somewhat clearer than we usually are about what there is to be grateful for.

Last year’s Lambeth Conference brought home to me the urgency of this need. There was quite a poignant gap in the Conference between, on the one hand, the widespread sense of Anglican family feeling, especially seen in the celebrations of the eucharist, the Bible studies and the small group discussions and, on the other hand, a striking inability to articulate it in convincing ways. In the absence of convincingly Anglican ways, true to the complex interweavings with history that have made the Communion what it is, other more articulate theologies, together with what I would call well-packaged ideologies, rushed in to fill the vacuum. In the process, there was an uneasy feeling that something precious was not being done justice to.

A Complex Identity: three points for the future

So what needs to be said today about this identity? I will suggest a few basic points with the future of the Church of England in mind.

1. God is the secret of the common good, salvation, peace and any worthwhile future; and our first call is to worship God, to love with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength the God who loves us, and to invite others to gather with us. Right worship is connected with a good society; we should not be surprised if a society which focuses its desires on things other than God goes wrong; but we should be all the more dedicated to worship and prayer on its behalf, and to summoning it to worship for its own good and for the good of all. It is right that we continue to put such an immense amount of time, energy and resources, in buildings and clergy, into regular worship.

2. We still need to try to make settlements for the common good and to mend damaged histories, both personal and social. Each family is a settlement; so is each school, each parish, each city or county council, each business, each diocese; each life. Well-ordered, faithful lives in well-ordered, just institutions, constantly shaping appropriate settlements and trying to improve things incrementally: that is not a sensational slogan, but it is one of the deepest needs if church and society is to flourish. We need to seek constant renewal of the wisdom that leads to such settlements in all the changes and overwhelmings of our time. Anglicanism was born to meet such a need in overwhelming times.

3. The identity of our Church, which is centred in worship and tries to serve the common good, has many dimensions. We need to have a fresh start in sustaining and renewing this complex identity. I see this as an ecology in which every level is vital, but some levels are far more vulnerable (and their importance far less obvious) than others. My own experience in the church has been of a series of ‘conversions’ to one level after another - parish congregation, small group, local community, diocese, nation, and global communication. And I have found myself convinced of the crucial importance of institutions of various sorts for the church to fulfil its two basic types of task: building up worshipping communities; and doing ‘chaplaincy work’ that serves the flourishing of individuals and institutions in the contingencies of life and death.

Plus One More

There is a further point which has increasingly impressed me as perhaps the single most urgent matter if the worship, faithful lives, and various institutional levels are to thrive. It is the one noted above concerning the early centuries of Christianity: the priority of teaching and learning the Christian faith.

In a knowledge-based, information-rich ‘learning society’, permeated by many media, a church like ours, which is so interwoven with society and tends to be suspicious of rigid boundaries, needs to be especially alert, thoughtful and creative in how it teaches and learns the faith. How do we and our children ‘learn Christ’ today? How can we be literally disciples, mathetai, learners? How can we have educational settlements that improve the situation in every family, home group, parish, school, diocese and university?


The Christian version of futurology as we enter the new millennium is not to speculate about this and the other points in terms of trends and numbers. It is rather to do two things. First, to pray about them - both in gratitude that appreciates what has been given, and also in urgent intercession. Second, to be learners who lead faithful, worshipping lives in the church and for the world. That is what will make most difference in the third millennium, as in previous ones. §

Dr David F Ford is Regius Professor of Theology in the University of Cambridge.


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