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AFTER ROWAN/ The Coherence and Future of Anglicanism (3)

JOHN MILBANK comments on the relationship between Catholicism and Anglicanism, the problems in the Anglican church and the future of Anglicanism after Rowan Williams. Part 3 of 3.

Westminster Abbey Westminster Abbey

This is the third of a three-part article. Part 1

The Anglican legacy
For the future venture of the Church on earth in time may depend considerably upon the partnership with Catholics and the Orthodox, as explained in the second part of this article. Here it should be noted that the Anglican legacy is perhaps more crucial and coherent than is sometimes realised. With English Catholics, Anglicans share common pre-Reformation roots that stretch back to the Venerable Bede. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently stressed on British TV, it was Bede who gave to the English a strong sense that they were another chosen people, who would enjoy God’s favour only if they obeyed his laws and sought justice. It was the same Bede who continued the originally Celtic concern with geography, history and the study of nature.  Likewise in Anglo-Saxon England, boosted by King Alfred’s translation of the Christian neoplatonist Boethius there developed the most impressive early vernacular literature in Europe which, through Alcuin, helped to sow the seeds of the revival of humanistic learning in the Carolingian empire on the continent.

These four elements – of Christianity, constitutional justice, empiricism, Platonism, and the careful but imaginative use of words -- have ever since characterised the English legacy. Yet for all Bede’s veneration of Celtic ways, he insisted, and the British inherited from him, on a fervent loyalty to Rome and Roman ways, so that up to the time of the Reformation English characteristics were inseparable from the English people’s interpretation of the Latin legacy, including Latin Christian art and architecture.

It was perhaps the breaking of that link which helped to give later England at her worst an imperial arrogance serving only herself rather than the transmission of European values, and a Promethean recklessness in the treatment of nature and human labour. After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 a ‘whig oligarchy’ came to forge much of the modern English legacy. This was based upon a dubious metaphysical and political Newtonianism, semi-Arian in character and often bound up with the dominant currents within Freemasonry – as recent historians have so strongly emphasised. For this ideology, a powerful central government operating through oligarchic and secretive influence permits the operation of as automatically self-adjusting free market stimulated by tempered self-interest – just as Newton’s limited but panentheistic god influenced the universe through ‘active principles’ like gravity, but still left the atomic units of a dead nature free to organise themselves through the automatic working of mechanical laws.

The worst part of the Anglican legacy was the surrender of too many ‘latitudinarians’ to just this whiggery (even though there were decent whig supporters of a more qualified stripe). It is ironic that it is often this image of bumbling if well-meaning pious wordliness and complacently sacralised compromise that has given Anglicanism its popular journalistic identity.