Shades of the Gorham controversy! You remember that. No? Great jumping dust bunnies: must Google do everything for you? In 1850 a secular court reversed an ecclesiastical court’s finding that one George Cornelius Gorham was unfit for a post in the Church of England because he denied baptismal regeneration. Not only did the state interfere in church matters (which should not have been thought all that strange given that the British monarch is the de facto head of the church in England), but it permitted a broadening of interpretation of what baptism meant. Evangelicals and Calvinists were delighted, as Gorham’s opinion apparently mirrored their own. High-Church types, who saw the CofE as a branch of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church, not so much, as baptismal regeneration had been the traditional understanding of what the sacrament in fact did—conferred the Spirit, washed away sins, and made you a child of God and a servant of Christ. Henry Manning and other members of the Oxford Movement threw up their hands, donned their water wings, and swam the Tiber, where baptism was one thing only and not a matter of mere opinion.
Fast forward. Really fast. More. More. Stop. (Oh, you went too far. Why don’t you listen?) Reports are that a movement is afoot to abridge and amend the baptismal language currently found in the Book of Common Prayer. Whether this would be a matter of employing colloquial language; dumbing down the theology, with its supposedly antiquated talk of sin, death, and the devil; or leaving Christ out of it altogether, offering a “spiritual but not religious” initiation into the glories of Erastianism, remains unclear. But given that the CofE has only one thing that holds together, however tenuously, its various factions and wings, namely the Book of Common Prayer, messing with its initiatory sacrament will be seen by many as just one more hammer in the already overstuffed coffin that is organized religion in England.
Let’s face it: if anyone thinks that “earthing” the language of baptism will miraculously enthuse millions of unchurched Britons, I have a birth rite to sell you for a mess of porridge. I have no idea what the average Anglican vicar or bishop believes about baptism. I’m sure there are as many opinions as there are prelates. And so I guess this should not be seen as all that scandalous. And that’s the problem. Nothing, apparently, is sacred. In a church. Including what it means to be a member. Of a church.
It’s easy to mock this kind of stuff, but frankly, it always makes me sad. Think what you want of Hank 8’s break or Betts I’s compromise, the Church of England has produced some of the more outstanding and astounding Christian thinkers, artists, and witnesses of the past four and a half centuries: consider Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker and the translators of the King James Bible and George Herbert and John Donne and John Wesley and Samuel Johnson and William Wilberforce and Christina Rossetti and the G.K. Chesterton who wrote The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday and and C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and John Stott and Alister McGrath and N.T. Wright.
To those who insist that this theological insanity/inanity is the result of a rebellion against authority, true enough. Had the church in England remained faithful to Rome, what’s happening regarding faith and morals would not be happening regarding faith and morals. But I do wonder if the above-mentioned greats would have been permitted the freedom to express their faith exactly as they did (and do) if they were members of a more controlling institution obedient to a universal bishop. Freedom is never free. It costs, even kills when used recklessly. But it can also give life where before there were ecclesiastical chains.*
If that’s not offensive enough, try this: I believe the solution may be not more authority but less. Given that the one book that historically had bound Anglicans together, that of Common Prayer, is so easily mangled, well, can anyone spell anti-anti-disestablishmentarianism? Let those various factions finally stand on their own. We’ll see whether the High Church or the Broad Church or the Low Church survives if each must rely on the tithes and offerings of its congregants and not the public coffers.
Bet on the evangelicals. Just not with real money. They hate that.
(*Yes, yes, I know: the CofE in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was hardly a model of open-minded inquiry and freedom of conscience. It, too, knew how to rein in—and drive out—dissidents. The Puritans come to mind. But after the Armada invasion and Guy Fawkes, on the one hand, and Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads on the other, religious violence was dreaded precisely because it had comprised all-too-real chapters in the nation’s history.)