When I was an Anglican I believed that the Anglican Church was truly the church of ‘Mere Christianity’ and that we had unity in essentials and variety in inessentials. After all, it did look that way. We had Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics and Charismatics and Traditional Prayer Book Anglicans and Liberals and Conservatives and Liberal Evangelicals and Conservative Evangelicals and Liberal Anglo Catholics and Conservative Anglo Catholics and Liberal Charismatics and Conservative Charismatics and Charismatic Evangelicals and Charismatic Anglo Catholics and on and on and so forth and so on.
It seemed to me as an Anglican that this variety was a good thing, and that, although it was sometimes confusing and we often quarreled, that beneath it all we had unity of belief in the essentials. Then I began to look more closely and realized that underneath the different styles of worship there were actually different (and contradictory) theologies. How could it be that two men could be ordained by the same bishop to celebrate the Eucharist, but one man believed that the bread and wine were no more than a symbol, and the next man believed that he was confecting the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ? How could one man put the leftover bread from communion out for the birds and the man in the next parish reserve it reverently in the tabernacle to be used for Eucharistic Adoration?
In fact, the only unity that existed was a shared belief in a core doctrine of Anglicanism: stated succinctly it is this: “That there is no such thing as objective theology.” I first heard this phrase used seriously at an Anglican Clergy Fraternal by my Rural Dean. I heard what he said, and then noticed that all my brethren were nodding their heads in solemn agreement. It was one of those “Aha!” moments for me. “So this is why they can all agree to disagree! Because (unlike myself) none of them actually believe that there is such a thing as objective theology!”
The classic Anglican position therefore, is that all the different stripes and types of Anglican actually make up a kind of rainbow coalition. They glory in not having a centralized authority. They actually like the tense co-existance that comes from not having an objective theology. Because there is no objective theology, tolerance becomes the main virtue.
I realize that there are probably a good number of Anglicans who do believe in an objective theology, but put them together with other Anglicans and they will soon start to squirm. They will squirm for two reasons: because they have to put up with all the other Anglicans who do not believe in an objective theology, and because they will have to put up with the other Anglicans who do believe in an objective theology, but who they disagree with. So an Anglo-Catholic who does believe in objective theology will bristle at the Liberals who do not believe in an objective theology and with the Evangelicals who do believe in an objective theology, but the theology they believe in is Protestant through and through.
I came to realize that the Anglican Church was not a church with infinite, Spirit-led versions, but simply a confederation of contradictions–held together by a shared history and national or cultural allegiance more than anything else.
The curious thing is that the Anglicans (glorying in their diversity) sometimes blame the Catholic Church for being some sort of dictatorship that enforced uniformity at all levels. If these people could be Catholic for six months they would soon realize how ridiculous such a charge is. My experience is that the Catholic Church (in styles of worship and spirituality) is just as diverse as the Anglican Church, and when the styles and traditions of the different ethnic and national groups are thrown in that diversity becomes even greater. Furthermore, this diversity according to national customs and ethnic traditions (and this includes the wide diversity expressed in the Eastern Rite Churches) is encouraged.
The difference is that underneath all the diversity and expansion of the Catholic Church worldwide there is a rock. There is shared foundation of authority which provides unity. There is a unity of theology and a unity of form. When I say there is unity I do not propose that there is uniformity. The unity is the foundation for our whole life together.
Here is how it works: In the town where I live and work here in the USA we have extreme diversity in the Catholic Church. We have one parish with Anglican style hymns, formality and fine music and good ‘Evangelical’ style preaching. In another huge parish the style is informal with praise and worship music and family-pleasing liturgies. A third parish has a Franciscan friar who works with the African American community. He works hard to establish justice as he works with the poor. The liturgy at his church has gospel music and a down to earth ‘relevant’ style. At yet another parish a young priest who loves the Latin Mass has just been appointed. Add to this mix a huge Hispanic ministry in four of the churches, an active and vital Vietnamese ministry and other traditions from around the world and the church here is anything but uniform. So uniformity is not enforced, but unity is enjoyed.
Of what does this unity consist? As you can imagine there are some real disagreements among the clergy, but beneath all of this diversity and disagreement there are some truths that are very fundamental to our lives. We all know who the pope is. We all know that the authority comes from the church to the bishops to the priests. We all know what the Catechism teaches. We all know what a sacrament is and who may celebrate that sacrament validly. We all know what the church teaches about marriage and sexuality and morality of all kinds.
We may not all agree with that teaching. We may debate it. We may rebel against it. We may dissent from the teaching–but my point is that the teaching is there. The rock is there. Whether it is a stumbling block or a stepping stone is up to us.
In Protestantism, on the other hand, there is no rock. There is just the shifting sand.