The meaning of a name

John Shepley examines the names Anglicans call themselves, the intellectual baggage and pretensions that they carry with them, and what they can teach us about Anglican ecclesiology

 

The Church of England, The Church in Wales, The Scottish Episcopal Church, The Church of Ireland, The Anglican Church of Canada, The Anglican Church of Australia, The Church of the Province of Southern Africa, The Episcopal Church. What’s in a name? What can we learn about the ecclesiology (or lack of it) of our embattled Communion from the names Anglicans call themselves?

Claim of imperial status

‘The Church of England’: the name might at first be thought to be a simple translation of the medieval Latin term ‘ecclesia anglicana’. But it is both more and less than that. Inseparable from the name is Henry VIII’s claim of imperial status: England was claimed to be an Empire in the sense that it was in every way, spiritually and politically, autonomous. (The oath sworn by bishops on their appointment, acknowledging that they receive both the spiritualities and temporalities of their office directly from the Crown, puts the matter succinctly.) The Church of England is less than ‘ecclesia anglicana’ because she is effectively cut off from the communion of the Church Catholic; more because she, or rather the Crown, claims a unique and unparalleled sovereignty.

Cuius regio, eius religio. The name ‘Church of England’ carries with it the intellectual baggage of the Reformation and of early modern politics. It assumes one church in one realm. That makes sense only if other churches and religions are in some sense outlawed or penalized. However much the modern, ‘inclusive’ view of Anglicanism with its dogma of a comprehensive ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ may seek to deny it, the very name implies penal laws, Test Acts and all the apparatus of religious oppression.

Autonomy and sovereignty

As Colin Buchanan has explained in this paper, it is from these early modern origins that the contemporary Anglican doctrine of provincial autonomy ultimately derives. But of course there is more. With the notion of autonomy goes the concept of sovereignty. But where Church and State are formally separated, sovereignty (which was formerly used to suppress alternative bodies and opinions) can only be exercised over actual members. So, as we have seen in the United States, changes of doctrine or order result in the paradox of a sovereign church persecuting its own. ‘Sovereignty’, in these circumstances (as we will probably see in England with dissent over the ordination of women as bishops) is primarily expressed in claims to possess or retain real estate.

The name ‘The Church of England’ expresses, at one and the same time, the identity of Church and State and the sovereignty of the Crown in both. But what of ‘The Church in Wales’? Why not ‘The Church of Wales’? Here the definite article carries the weight. Disestablishment was effected largely against the will of Welsh Anglicans and in response to pressure from other denominations. ‘The Church of Wales’ might have seemed overly assertive of privilege at a time when Anglicans were a minority of the principality’s Christians. They were, in fact, ‘A Church in Wales’, but the indefinite article did not match their pretensions. Claims to be authentically Welsh (and not a consequence of the English political hegemony), to have inherited the mantle of Dewi Sant (unlike the Romish interlopers), and so to continuity with the Church of the ages (unlike the many ‘chapels’ with roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) were all summed up in three letters. ‘The Church in Wales’ expresses with simple eloquence the observable tendency of Anglicanism, when disestablished, to see itself as (and strive to become) the Church of the Establishment. 

Scotland and Ireland

The history of the Scottish Episcopal Church is both longer and more complex than that of The Church in Wales. If association with the Crown and with the nation state has determined the ecclesiology of the Church of England, an adversarial relationship has affected Anglicans north of the border, where the Crown relates to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the state has intermittently persecuted the Episcopal Church. The name, then, asserts two things: Scottishness (= not English) and episcopacy (= not Presbyterian). As the moniker of a self-consciously minority church it has a certain rugged resilience.

The Church of Ireland has clung tenaciously to a name calculated to give offence to the majority of the island’s inhabitants and to recall a foreign hegemony. It has also been tenacious of the real estate which is coming to have increasing importance for the self identity of other Anglican churches. What would the Church of England be without its tenure of ancient cathedrals and parish churches? To bolster its own self-image the Church of Ireland manages two cathedrals in the same city!

Two distinct meanings

The Anglican Churches of Canada and Australia have adopted terminology which has also become popular among American ‘Continuers’. In both cases the name indicates a pride in and identification with the national aspirations of the former Dominions (the Anglican Church of Australia was first known as ‘The Church of England in Australia’). It is the use of the adjective ‘Anglican’ which merits attention. It first appears in English usage around 1650, and is clearly a coinage based on the earlier ‘Gallican’. (Anglicanism is a nineteenth-century creation and probably owes a good deal to a growing awareness of Tractarian studies of the Caroline Divines.) Anglican now has two distinct and divergent meanings.

‘Continuing Anglicans’ use the term to signal adherence to traditional formularies (the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the interpretation of those in the light of the practice of the undivided Church). The national churches which so describe themselves, however, seem to be moving rapidly towards a radical redefinition of its meaning. Mrs Jefferts-Schori, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, has recently come up with a useful summary: ‘The willingness to live in tension is a hallmark of Anglicanism,’ she claims, ‘beginning from its roots in Celtic Christianity pushing up against Roman Christianity in the centuries of the first millennium. That diversity in  community was solidified in the Elizabethan Settlement, which really marks the beginning of Anglican Christianity as a distinct movement.’

The Anglican Church of Canada has clearly already made the shift to the new meaning. The Anglican Church of Australia is still in process of transition. ‘Anglicanism’ in this new sense embraces the paradox of claiming to be comprehensive, whilst persecuting those who are thought not to be so.

The Church of the Province of Southern Africa has eschewed such overtly denominational language. Like the extravagantly named ‘Nippon Sei Ko Kwai’ (Holy Catholic Church of Japan) its title implies that it is merely a part of larger entity. For a Church founded in 1847, this notion might be thought to be somewhat problematical: of what larger entity was the ‘province’ at its inception a part? In 1847 the Anglican Communion was itself still merely notional, with no inter-provincial structures, and so arguably no recognizable identity. Its largest body outside the British Isles (the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, as it then was) did not think of itself as a ‘province’, but as an independent Church in its own right (as remains the case).

‘Province’, then, is more a question than a name. Does the larger entity to which the name makes its appeal exist in reality? Time alone will tell. Attempts to regularize the Anglican Communion by means of a covenant between its constituent parts can best be understood as an attempt to give substance to its implications. Meanwhile the South African Church has moved significantly in the direction of the polity and self-understanding of the North American churches.

Lacking in modesty

TEC is in name, as in almost all else, a special case. Theirs is a title which has shrunk in size and greatly magnified in pretension over the years, ‘The Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America’ neatly located it on the smorgasbord of American denominations. But AngloCatholics disliked the adjective ‘protestant’, and dropped it. As the church expanded to territories beyond the United States the geographical allusion was also lost.

Now as ‘The Episcopal Church’ (in sixteen countries, as we are frequently told) it lacks all coherence and modesty. ‘An Episcopal Church’, yes: ‘The Episcopal Church’, never! The story of how a church which, under the guidance of William White (who, rather than Seabury, was its real Founding Father) very nearly chose to be non-episcopal – and whose bishops do not even have a casting vote in the Conventions of many dioceses – came to claim a nominal monopoly on episcopacy, is a strange one indeed.

But the overt imperialism of the definite article is undeniable. Rather than the modesty of ‘The Church of the Province of...’, which assumes a greater whole to which the part is responsible, TEC supposes that it is the whole. The radial chapels of the cathedral of St John the Divine in New York are dedicated to the patron saints of the various ethnic Christian communities who emigrated to the United States in former times (regardless of the faith which those communities cherished and expressed). They are even constructed in a pastiche of the architectural styles of those nations. The National Cathedral in Washington sports a mock-up of the Bell Harry tower at Canterbury.

These architectural solecisms are not by way of compliment. It is clear that long before they began calling themselves ‘The Episcopal Church’ American Anglicans had come to think of themselves as the totality of the Communion and the epitome of the Church Universal. ND

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