In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there is a powerful scene where a revolutionary sect asks, “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Recognition slowly dawns that the answer is actually “quite a bit!” When we truthfully explore the origins of the Ecclesia Anglicana we face similar acknowledgement for there are several influential strands which typically sit in paradoxical tension with one another. In our understanding of Anglican history, we do well therefore to be open to ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’ perspectives. This is certainly apposite to the enduring influence of both ‘Roman‘ and ‘Celtic’ forms of early Christianity. Sometimes juxtaposed as two competing elements, each continues to shape the nature and dynamics of Anglican spirituality in distinct, but also complementary, ways. Indeed, recent scholarship even questions the terms ‘Roman’ and ‘Celtic’ (some preferring ‘Insular’ to ‘Celtic’) as a designator. It points out that the various early British and Irish Christian traditions were closely linked, rather than a simple, coherent, entity. Nor were ‘Celtic’ Christians isolated from others, as if in a form of spiritual Brexit (a problem with the alternative designation ‘Insular’). For, as Patrick Wormald put it: “One of the common misconceptions is that there was a Roman Church to which the Celtic Church was nationally opposed” in some rigid sense. Nonetheless, if we are generally wise to use inverted commas, historically they reflect enduring creative tensions between the local and universal, between Christ and culture, and between different emphases in mission, prayer and order. Appreciating this rich mosaic more fully enables greater depth in our vocation and spiritual life today..
It is puzzling occasionally to hear the idea that ‘Henry VIII created the Anglican Church’ (albeit far more outside England than within it). It Like much else that is Anglican, the reality is both less dramatic and also far more complex. Henry VIII did indeed have a significant role in one stage in the development of what, much later, became known as Anglicanism. However the formative factors are so much broader: some much older and some much later. No one figure or aspect has ever been wholly dominant in the origins and character of Anglicanism. It is rather a particular way in which many different people have shared the love of God as Christians, at different times and in different places. Like all healthy Christian traditions, it is also always ‘a work in progress’: an invitation by God to become more fully the Body of Christ on earth.
Here are a few key thoughts on Anglican historical development which may place Henry VIII and the Anglican Church in context...
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it." (1 Corinthians 12.26) - this is part of the reality of our contemporary lives in the one world we now inhabit. It is very difficult not to be affected by the sufferings of other parts of the world, particularly if we share in Christian relationship. The situation in Iraq is a particularly grave one. As the Archbishop of Canterbury observed recently:
what is happening right now in northern Iraq is off the scale of human horror… we cry to God for peace and justice and security throughout the world, and especially for Christians and other minority groups suffering so deeply in northern Iraq.
It is therefore a sad but important duty to share in prayer and solidarity with those who suffer. As we do so, so much of scripture also comes alive in a powerful manner and we are drawn back to the cross and mercy-power of God.
Yesterday, in St Luke's Church, we shared a particularly poignant Prayer together with other Christians. The initiative was from a young Christian, Courtney Heyward, from another (independent Evangelical) church, who has been touched to the heart by the situation in Iraq. It was a reflective occasion, with readings from scripture interspersed with times for silent or shared prayer. Stones, or 'prayer rocks', were given to everyone present to hold as we prayed, reminding us of the hard things endured by others (including the burying of loved ones by the side of the roads of flight) and of the rock of God's love at the heart of all things. Towards the end of the gathering, each of us laid our stone at the foot of the cross and lit a candle of hope. We also shared some ways in which we may offer practical support to the persecuted, including giving to appeal funds and advocating for the needs of refugees. May God's mercy and strength comfort, turn the hearts of those who inflict terror, grant wisdom to those in leadership, and renew all who suffer.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.