The Annual Gloucester Lecture 6 October 2001

New Wine in Old Bottles

by the ©Very Reverend Nicholas Bury
Report by David Green, October 2001

Christ’s parable was neatly brought home to us by the Dean of Gloucester, the Very Reverend Nicholas Bury, as we began to grasp its modern significance in relation to the immense changes which the Church of England encountered, long before the Millennium. Nicholas Bury illustrated so well how close the ‘bottle of wine’ had been to bursting. He began his lecture by reading Sir John Betjeman’s witty poem ‘Septuagesima’:-

Septuagesima – seventy days
To Easter’s primrose tide of praise.
The Gesimas – septa, sexa, quinc
Mean Lent is here, which makes you think.
Septuagesima – when we’re told
To ‘run the race’, to ‘keep our hold’,
Ignore injustice, not give in,
And practise stern self-discipline;
A somewhat unattractive time
Which hardly lends itself to rhyme.
But still it gives the chance to me
To praise the dear old C. of E.
So other churches please forgive
Lines on the church in which I live,
The Church of England of my birth,
The kindest church to me on earth,
There may be those who like things fully
Argued out, and call you ‘woolly’
Ignoring creeds and catechism
They say the C of E’s in ‘schism’
There may be those who much resent
Priest, liturgy and sacrament,
Whose worship is what they call ‘free’
Well, let them be so, but for me
There’s refuge in the C of E.
And when it comes that I must die
I hope the vicar’s standing by —
I won’t care if he’s ‘low’ or ‘High’
For he’ll be there to aid my soul
On that dread journey to its goal,
With sacrament and prayer and blessing,
After I’ve done my last confessing
And at that time may I receive
The grace most firmly to believe,
For if the Christian faith’s untrue
What is the point of me and you?

The lecturer then proceeded with a wonderful description of the birth of the Anglican church as shown in the very fabric of Gloucester cathedral: stressing that Gloucester was originally a Benedictine abbey with an unbroken history of prayer; that the partly smashed reredos in the sanctuary was a mark of the iconoclasm of 16th century protest; that some lovely memorials had been created by and for the Oxford movement members; and also that plainsong chants were still today to be heard here and that a modern embroidered tapestry with an image of the Virgin now hung over the reredos. All these things spoke of the healing quality of time or that the wheel had turned full circle.

We were brought up to date by the fact that today’s cathedral chaplain is an ordained woman who could celebrate eucharist besides the tombs of clerics who would have found this ‘bizarre – even offensive’. We were treated to a thoroughgoing assessment of the history of Anglican thought and the story of our national church from its beginnings in the rejection of the Papacy, the translation of the Bible into English and the acceptance of he Pauline doctrine of justification by faith from the Lutheran influence.

The nature of Anglican thought, we were assured, had the infuriating reputation of being imprecise. Our national protestant church had produced no theologians of the calibre or productiveness of a Luther or a Calvin and a debate had arisen as to whether the Reformation had proceeded far enough. With the Tudor reestablishment under Elizabeth, the church was said to be moderate and inclusive, and those two words have proved to apply to its nature ever since. In the 17th century that wonderful priest and poet, George Herbert praised the Church of England as a ‘middle way ….neither too mean nor yet too gay.’

Anglican thought, we were reminded, is rooted in orthodox trinitarianism and this is confirmed by the 39 Articles. Moreover, it has always been sustained and informed by the Book of Common Prayer – the creative compilation from several sources by the genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Anglicans continue to revise this book amid opposition from some quarters – for its exclusive use is prescribed by canon law. The prayer book always functioned both as a public prayer manual and as a set of norms for teaching. Anglicans regularly profess that their church is one part of a Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – believing in the catholic faith and celebrating the catholic sacraments and handing on the apostolic ministry subject to the Gospel.

Anglicans also justified the threefold order of Bishops-Priests- Deacons, though they denied the necessity of being in communion with the Pope. Our speaker also outlined the whole problem and structure of authority within the church and it was remarkable how loose, open and inspired the framework of the English church had remained over the centuries, especially during the testing times of the last two.

We were told of thinkers like the pragmatic Richard Hooker in the late 16th century, who had steered such a positive line in his writings between the extremes of belief and practice. Hooker died in 1600 and in the following century his influence was widely acknowledged and strongly contributed to the growing sense of a distinctive Anglican tradition; in fact, a critical edition of Hooker’s works was published by John Keble. The term ‘Anglicanism’ was coined at this time, and Anglicanism has tended ever since to be a construct, a selection from the broad stream of English theological thought and spirituality. The revivals of the 19th century were to be expected after the lowest period of the church’s history – the previous century’s rather arid rationalism. However, the sacramental edifice of the 17th century was not found entirely to be lost.

The time came for the Anglican church to spread its wings and become a worldwide communion. The first American bishop was installed in 1784, and in 1867 the Archbishop of Canterbury called the first Lambeth conference. Here again, the free, unstructured nature of the English church became evident, since no official meeting of bishops has ever been called. The bishops continue to arrive at Lambeth by invitation only from the Archbishop who does not even consult the titular head of the established church in doing so.

Nicholas Bury developed his theme toward the severe problems and controversies which have beset all modern Christian liberal and orthodox organizations. One of these problems is biblical criticism, the ongoing debate in historical/critical bible studies. Here we were struck by the wording and spirit of the encyclical letter originated at the 1897 conference which declared: ‘A faith which is always or often attended by a secret fear that we dare not enquire lest enquiry should lead us to a result inconsistent with what we believe, is already infected with the disease which may soon destroy it.’

Biblical criticism has not gone away, but the openness of Anglican thinkers is remarkable in the way it allows the church to weather all storms – and tempests there certainly are. Several doctrines have come under sharp attack in recent years and our speaker assured everyone that, since the disbelieving days of the mid 20th century, traditional Trinitarian and incarnational belief had been fully reasserted.

Other difficulties were brought to mind. The dissension concerning the 39 Articles which has raged from the 1860’s to this day and their removal from the church’s printed matter. This had the result that some alternative stated basis of the church communion had to be sought. The prayer book was always there to provide inspiration and in recent years some other fine documents setting out belief have been published (1987-1996). Liturgical revision has also proved a stumbling block over the years and though new forms have found some acceptance at home, there was a need for revision to the liturgies of Anglican/Episcopalian congregations in other parts of the world.

Other problems relating to spiritual authority have also surfaced in our own day. The deeply embedded tradition of Christian patriarchy has been tried by the Women’s Movement and the attendant feminist awakening. Again, the Anglican church has risen to this challenge though not without much anxiety and soul searching. By 1978 however, the ordination of women to the priesthood became fact and by 1998 ordination to the episcopate was accepted as inevitable by the General Synod.

The bottle has been ready to break, or so it has seemed on several occasions. The new wine can be explosive in nature. But the story is not over. The continuing debate about same-sex relations has exposed once more the problem of authority and all the churches, not just the Church of England, are caught up in the toils of the same argument. The Ecumenical Movement was the last of the modern controversies to which the lecturer drew our attention. The notion of the constitution of a comprehensive Christian church has met with all kinds of difficulty. While a body of Anglicans realized that they found it difficult to justify retaining ancient traditions such as the episcopate, they still clung to them, and their insistence had irritated ecumenical partners, Again, the unstructured character of Anglicanism had provided problems and puzzles for its own thinkers.

In recent times, an agreement (Porvoo) had been reached on the understanding of the episcopate and published in a document jointly produced by Anglicans of the United Kingdom and Ireland and the Lutherans of the Nordic and Baltic countries. It had not, however, been endorsed by the Lambeth conference.

Our speaker closed with the affirmation of his view that, in spite of the testing days of the closing decade of the 20th century, Anglican thought continues to be vigorous and productive.

We are very grateful to Nicholas Bury for all his insights and their lucid exposition. We learned a lot and with learning comes a deeper understanding and appreciation of the problems facing the Established Church. Many attended sung evensong in Gloucester Cathedral quire following the lecture, and prayers were led by Canon Norman Chatfield. Twenty one guests stayed for supper in the Undercroft Restaurant.

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