The Historic Anglican Recognition

of 'Change and Alteration'

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 49:3 - Jul 2008

The first article in this issue sets out the 'Responses of the Modern Churchpeople's Union to the Idea of an Anglican Covenant'. We are most grateful to Jonathan Clatworthy and Paul Bagshaw for setting out so clearly the position of the MCU and of other liberal Anglicans and we also thank all those who contributed to the email discussion which led to these documents. These responses have now been fed into the wider UK discussions about a Covenant prior to the decisions which will be made at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. We record them here as a historical record of our position.

The Historic Anglican Recognition of 'Change and Alteration'

The genius of Anglicanism has always been its capacity to hold together in one Church people with a wide variety of different perspectives. It has also greatly benefited from finding the means to adapt itself to new learning and to make changes in response to new situations. A classic presentation of this in relation to liturgical change can be seen in the Preface to the 1662 Prayer Book:

It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it. For, as on the one side common experience sheweth, that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established (no evident necessity so requiring) sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued; . . . On the other side . . . it is but reasonable, that upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein, as to those that are in place of Authority should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient.

The principle that 'changes and alterations' should be made 'according to the various exigencies of times and occasions' applies far more widely than in liturgy alone and during the 19th and 20th centuries the Anglican Church has greatly benefited from being able to adapt itself to new social and doctrinal issues, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood. It would be tragic if it felt it could not go further and abandon all discrimination against women. The Church's progress on this and other issues was held up for many years by the provision that a two thirds majority in each of three houses is required for any variation from the status quo. It is now proposed that all innovations must also be acceptable to other Anglican provinces and since just one Anglican province could object to developments elsewhere, all such changes could in future have to be made at the speed of the slowest. This will cripple the Church's response to a rapidly changing world.

What would have happened if procedures recommended now had been in place 150 years ago?

If one looks back over the history of the past 150 years one can see how crucial it was that the Church was able to accept new ways of looking at the Bible and Christian doctrine in the light of historical and literary criticism and of the new findings in geology and evolution. Take for example the debates over Essays and Reviews and of Bishop Colenso's study of the Pentateuch. What was central in both these debates was the validity or otherwise of that kind of Biblical criticism which is presupposed today in all serious academic study of the Bible. The judgement by the Dean of Arches in 1862 in relation to Biblical criticism was rightly described by Owen Chadwick as 'the most momentous single judgement of that series which enabled Anglican clergymen to adjust their teaching in the light of modern knowledge.'[1] However taking account of the views of the then Bishop of Capetown and of other missionary bishops in relation to Colenso it is inconceivable that a favourable verdict towards the literary and historical study of the Bible would have been reached if the decision had been left to the world-wide Anglican Church at that time.

This would have been even more the case in relation to the further appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1864. This appeal related to H.B. Wilson's rejection of the doctrine of everlasting torment in hell and his belief that any truly national Church must be 'multitudinous' (we would say today 'pluralist') in its doctrinal teaching. It also related to the validity of Rowland Williams' reinterpretation of the doctrine of the atonement. That both Wilson and Williams won their appeals was absolutely crucial to the success of the Church of England in continuing to hold the allegiance of educated and thoughtful men and women for most of the 20th century.

An analogy with an earlier controversial ordination and consecration

The present crisis is focused the election of Gene Robinson to the see of New Hampshire. The consecration of an openly gay person is unacceptable at the present time to some other Anglican provinces. But I suggest it would have been equally unacceptable to such provinces in the early years of the 20th century that the Archbishop of Canterbury ordained William Temple in spite of the fact that he had told his own Bishop that that while he could 'tentatively assent' to the doctrines of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus he needed to make clear that he did so with a greater emphasis on 'tentativeness' than on 'assent'.[2] Some Anglican provinces might also have objected to Temple's claim in 1912 that the Chalcedonian definition of the divinity and humanity of Christ demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of Patristic theology.[3] Even more so of course could have been the overseas reaction in 1917 to the nomination of Hensley Henson to the bishopric of Hereford despite the fact that he had questioned the virgin birth in three books. Moreover although Henson agreed to allow the Archbishop to report that he accepted the Creeds 'ex animo' this did not mean that he had in any way retracted his opinion of the virgin birth. 'On the morrow of his consecration' he explicitly insisted that there was nothing in any of his published works of which he wished to recant.[4] However it would have been tragic if the Church of England had been denied the services of William Temple and Hensley Henson and all the many subsequent bishops who shared their perspective.

An analogy with Lambeth teaching on contraception

In 1920 the bishops at the Lambeth conference of that year solemnly declared 'We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception'.[5] Fortunately there was no idea then that a recommendation from one Lambeth conference should be thought to settle the Church's position on a particular moral issue. So in 1930 the Lambeth Bishops were able to vote by 193 to 67 in favour of 'other methods besides self control' for limiting parenthood. The 1958 Lambeth conference went further and emphasised 'the duty of responsible parenthood.'[6] This example suggests that the Church today is unwise to suggest that the views of a majority at the 1998 conference ought in any way to close down discussion for the future. It would also be ironic if the Anglican Communion came to so strong a consensus against the ordination of homosexual clergy that it would rule out in the future the succession to Canterbury of a person like Rowan Williams, on the grounds that as a professor he had written in defence of a Christian understanding of homosexuality,[7] and that as a Diocesan he had knowingly ordained a gay priest.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion

At the heart of the discussions at Lambeth 2008 is the relationship between the Episcopal Church in the United States and other liberal provinces, with the rest of the Anglican Communion. It is therefore extremely valuable to have a really well informed contribution from two theologians of the Episcopal Church into the present situation. The Revd Dr Barney Hawkins is the Executive Director of the Center of Anglican Communion Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary; while the Very Revd Dr Ian Markham is the Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary and our Associate Editor in the United States. Their contribution traces the background to the present controversies and how the Episcopal Church has sought to give a positive lead on the moral issues of our day.

Science, Philosophy and Religion Today

The third article in this issue looks at the way in which over the past 40 years science and philosophy have become more favourable toward belief in the existence of God. This is exemplified by examining, the book the Agnostic Inquirer, by exploring The Craig-Flew Debate, and by noting that even the militantly atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges that there could be an 'interesting case for a possible very, very deep reason why we might believe in some sort of grand fundamental intelligence underlying the universe.'[8] (Though not, Dawkins insists, 'the bronze-age God' in whom so many Christians seem to believe.) The tragedy is that at a time when someone of the stature of Antony Flew can say that 'the case for God is now much stronger than it ever was before' Christian exclusivism, fundamentalist doctrines about hell and substitution atonement, and the prevalence of homophobia and discrimination against women inside the Churches, so offend contemporary intellectuals that the 'interesting case' that can be articulated for the divine logos is scarcely heard outside the environs of contemporary philosophy of religion.

The Challenges Facing the World Today

The fourth article on 'The Need for Sustainable Security' is from the 2007 MCU conference on Violence: a stubborn pandemic. It is by Professor Paul Rogers of the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford. The article presents a wide-ranging over-view of the many challengers facing the world today including the proliferation of modern weaponry, the potentially devastating effects of climate change on the poorest countries of the world, and the ever-deepening socio-economic divisions. He shows the risks these developments bring to peace and the urgency of the need to find some sustainable security.

Do the Values learnt through Ministry in Secular Employment apply in Retirement?

Dorrie Johnson's ministry was lived out while working in secular employment. She articulates in her article the theology that underpinned this distinctive ministry. Now that she has retired she has sought to show that the same kind of theological values are needed as we think through the implications for our Christian thinking of our life in the retired mode. This is an important theme when we reflect that for the large number of clergy who were ordained in their 'maturity' their years of retirement may form as significant a proportion of their life as that actually worked in their 'officially active' ministry.


  1. Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church (London: Black, 1970), part 2 p. 81h. [back]
  2. F.A. Iremonger, William Temple (Oxford: OUP, 1948). [back]
  3. W. Temple, 'The Divinity of Christ' in B.H. Streeter, Foundations (London: Macmillan, 1912) p. 230. [back]
  4. Hensley Henson, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life Vol. 1 (Oxford: OUP, 1943), p.269 and Owen Chadwick, Hensley Henson (Oxford: OUP, 1983). [back]
  5. Cited in Charles Gore, Lambeth on Contraceptives (London: Mowbray, 1930), p. 1. [back]
  6. J.T. Noonan 'Contraception' in John Macquarrie and James Childress, A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics (London: SCM, 1967). [back]
  7. Rowan Williams, The Body's Grace, a speech to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Association in 1989. [back]
  8. BBC talk given 16 March 2003, retrieved 28 August cited in Menssen and Sullivan The Agnostic Inquirer (Eerdmans, 2007), p.117. [back]

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.