The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume IV
Global Western Anglicanism, c 1910-present
- ISBN: 9780199641406
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: February 2017
What, precisely, is Anglicanism, that a history of it may be written? The several contributors to the recent Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies (2015) returned again and again to the means by which Anglican identity might be defined. For the writing of history, are there certain markers of Anglican thought and practice that might form the unit of analysis (“Anglicanism” as a system of ideas rather than an institution)? Is the history of Anglicanism in fact the history of the relationships between the autonomous and (largely) national provinces of which the Anglican Communion is composed, and the global institutions in which those relationships are partially embodied? Or, is the history of Anglicanism actually a set of parallel histories of individual churches in their local, national, and regional contexts?
For the most part, the volume under review takes the last of these three approaches, while paying careful attention to the interactions between individual churches and larger trends in political and cultural history to which they all were required to respond. The approach taken is to combine three geographic surveys (of Britain and Ireland, North America, and Australasia) with two chapters on the global institutions of the Communion, and nine thematic chapters. The majority of the contributors are based in the UK (nine in all, including the editor), with four from the US and one apiece from Canada and Australia. While each chapter may be read in isolation, when read together several themes emerge from their interplay.
Placed first, Mark Chapman’s survey of developments in Anglican theology points to a profound intellectual fracture in the second half of the century which underpinned some of the more spectacular issues in which Anglican divisions presented themselves. Between the world wars it was comparatively easy to write as if a synthesis of theology, philosophy, and “modern science” were possible, and that axioms for the ordering of society might be derived from it: easy, because the writing could be done in a nation that still dominated an empire and also the worldwide church that had spread within it. After 1945, as the dispersal of the colonial empires came to completion, Anglicans in the West had to reckon with the shift in the balance of power that this implied, and the new ways in which attention would need to be paid to local cultures and forms of knowledge. A fine essay by Sarah Stockwell explores the direct involvement of the church in that process of decolonization; two chapters, by Colin Podmore and Ephraim Radner, deftly outline the consequences for the development of the global apparatus of the Communion.
At the same time, the turn amongst philosophers to a radical questioning of the stability of meaning in language further intensified older debates about the nature of biblical authority and the means by which the churches should first understand and then respond in matters of ethics. The growing polarization of the church between liberal and conservative wings (after perhaps 1970) was in many ways consequent on this, and the essays here on the position of women (Cordelia Moyse) and that by William L. Sachs on sexuality (by which is largely meant homosexuality), explore the two issues in and through which opposed understandings of truth have presented themselves by proxy.
The third overarching theme is that of the weakening grip of all the churches of whichever denomination on the allegiance of the public. The precise patterns of this secularization are a matter of lively debate but the general pattern is clear: by the end of the century there were many fewer Anglicans (as a proportion of the population) in each of the nations under examination. The essays on nationalism and the state (Matthew Grimley), the impact of war (Michael Snape), and the “sociology” (by which is meant ethnicity, class, and education) of Anglicanism (Martyn Percy) all in their different ways explore the consequences of this decline. The ecumenical movement, motivated in part by a consciousness of the growing weakness of each individual denomination on its own, is described by Paul Avis.
There were of course other Anglicans than those of the West; readers will need to await a treatment of African and Asian Anglicanism in volume 5 of this series, due to appear in print in early 2018. The division between the two volumes is defensible—indeed, it is perhaps the best division that can be made if one must be made—but there are several occasions here where the dictates of the theme require the authors to trespass outside the scope of the volume. This is no great difficulty, but the volume is also let down in places in the execution of particular chapters. Many are fine examples of their type, in particular those by Avis, Grimley, Moyse, Snape, and Stockwell. Others are chaotically organized, with, in one case, a verbatim repeat of three sentences on consecutive pages. The chapter on “global poverty and justice”—perhaps the most difficult to produce due to the relative lack of secondary literature—is nonetheless poorly done, lacking analytical precision and awareness of context, and based on an inadequate range of sources. The geographical survey of North America is too concentrated on the US and on the period since 1970; that for Australasia loses all sense of thematic coherence in a chronological procession of events. More generally, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada feature less than does the US, which in turn is less prominent than Britain. English material also predominates over Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. This is understandable given the relative weights of the published literature on each country, but as one reads there is often a subtle slippage where an English example is made to do duty as a representative of the whole. Careful attention is required to keep in mind the magnification at which the matter is being viewed, as the authors zoom in and out between the local and the general.
These cavils aside, this volume is a valuable first synthetic account of Anglicanism in the West in a crucial period. Although surely priced beyond the means of most private readers, no serious library for history or theology will want to be without it. A question remains over the longevity which the book may expect, given the implicit intent of monumental series such as this that they may stand for a generation or more. Readers who take the volume as a whole may be struck, as this reviewer was, by the cumulative weight given to the issues that have so troubled Anglicans in the last two decades, human sexuality and the ordination of women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this focus is most pronounced in some of the chapters written by those who are both historians and clergy. We will need to leave it to the reader of 2037 to determine whether these were really the most significant issues in world Anglicanism in the twentieth century when viewed from a greater distance.
Peter Webster is an indepedent scholar and consultant.Peter WebsterDate Of Review:September 24, 2017