Book Review: The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume IV

on Mar 23, 2018 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

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The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume IV: Global Western Anglicanism, c. 1910-present

The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume IV: Global Western Anglicanism, c. 1910-present. Edited by Jeremy Morris. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017, 424 pp. $142.50.

Reviewed by Matt Rucker



The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume IV is the first of two volumes detailing twentieth-century Anglicanism, dealing specifically with the “Western” provinces of the Anglican Communion, “principally the three regional areas of North America, the British Isles, and Australasia” (1). This valuable collection of essays by some of the leading minds in the Western Anglican world brings clarity to the effects of the deeply transformative twentieth century on the Western Anglican Communion. The division of the volume is threefold. First is an expansive thematic survey that comprises the bulk of the volume, which explores questions of Anglican identity in light of the tremendous geopolitical and social shifts experienced by the West in the twentieth century. The second section highlights institutional developments in “inter Anglican structures,” and seeks clarity in regards to the meaning of the phrase “Anglican Communion.” The third segment is a collection of regional surveys of “Western Anglican” regions: Australasia, North America, and the British Isles.

The thematic essays feature two primary thrusts. On the one hand, a tremendous amount of detail is given in these essays to questions surrounding “new social history” such as the “changing role and status of women” in the church, the “category of race,” and concerns with “minorities constituted by sexual preference” (18–19). On the other hand, more traditional themes such as liturgical developments, Anglican theology, and the role of the Anglican Church in the geopolitical climate of the twentieth century are given attention as well.

Here the content of the volume is at its most expansive. To find a controlling theme throughout these essays may be as daunting as composing such a vast collection of them in the first place. If there is one, it is perhaps volume editor Jeremy Morris’s reflection in the series introduction that twentieth-century Anglicanism has experienced “a movement from a dominant central perspective to multiple local contexts, from cultural and social cohesiveness to multi-layered ecclesial conflict, and from agreed and consensual views to complicated, contested claims” (15).

The themes of contestation and complexity stemming from cultural, social, and ecclesiastical shifts are explored further in the section detailing the institutional developments of the Anglican Communion in the twentieth century. Colin Podmore traces a detailed history of the various meetings, gatherings, and conferences that have given the Anglican Communion its “structural expression,” and argues that the instruments of communion are experiencing tension not primarily because of new issues, but instead because of ecclesiological differences already present at the time of their formation (301).

Ephraim Radner next undertakes the monumental task of sorting out the meaning of “communion” for Western Anglicans in “The Anglican Communion and Anglicanism.” He seeks to outline the ways that “ecclesial and cultural conflicts among Anglicans” have “led to the realignment of local and national churches” as “rival structures” with differing understandings of what “communion might be” (303). The term Radner uses to describe this phenomenon is “communion replacement,” and it is specifically applied to those churches in North America and England who ceased taking part in the “major organs of the Anglican Communion’s self-defining life,” or the Lambeth Conference (305). For Radner, the dissolving of the bonds of communion at the level of both conferences and regular gatherings points to the fact that the communion was nothing “other than an evolving set of ecclesiological claims held by churches gathered by blurred parameters,” which were essentially “a common set of legal principles of order that provided a pragmatically distinct family resemblance” (325). That the bonds formed by nothing more than a family resemblance would be severed by the momentous changes taking place within the western provinces of the Anglican Communion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the argument continues, is not surprising.

These changes resulting in the recalibration of the Anglican Communion in its Western Provinces are detailed further in the three regional surveys concluding the volume. Each survey highlights the shared struggles of the regional churches to adapt to changing attitudes towards race, ethnicity, and gender while remaining “emphatically Christian.” Additionally, issues specific to each region are explored. Australasian Anglican churches had to learn to “take seriously” the loss of the Anglican Church’s identity as the British church in each region in light of “new developments in national identity” for Australia and New Zealand (360). North American Anglican realignment, and the “relative and absolute numeric decline” of Christianity in Britain and Ireland conclude the regional surveys and the volume (435).

Perhaps a deficit inherent to a volume such as this one is the inevitable inability of certain essays to appropriately compliment others. This shortcoming is most evident in the somewhat incomplete and, perhaps contradictory, narratives of the various realignments in Western Anglicanism over questions of historical orthodoxy. The essays that trace these complicated developments all rightly highlight the role of differing conclusions regarding human sexuality, gender, and other societal questions within the Anglican Communion as a reason for the recent dissolution of communion. Yet, one ought to ask if something is missing from narratives that merely highlight disagreements over social questions as the root cause of the realignments within the Anglican communion without addressing deeper divisions over historical orthodoxy that surely played a central role in those realignments. Mark Chapman points to the kinds of deeper disputes, which any discussion of recent tensions within the Anglican Communion is insufficient without, in his essay “The Evolution of Anglican Theology.” In it he describes a series of christological crises within Anglican theology, which began prior to the twentieth century, leading to a call for “Anglican academics” who expressed a low Christology in their publications to “resign their orders” (36). At the very least, this clearly points to the fact that questions of Christology were at play in the developing tensions within Anglicanism that led to the splits of the coming decades. Yet, such developments feature little in the various essays detailing these events throughout the volume. Such contentious American figures as James Pike and John Spong are mentioned, but these brief references fail to express the degree to which their theology had departed from even the most basic expressions of historic orthodoxy. For these reasons, the explanations of the growing rifts within Anglicanism are helpful, but not entirely sufficient.

With that being said, this is on the whole a commendable volume. It is without question helpful for those hoping to research the expansive history of twentieth century Western Anglicanism, at the very least because of the select bibliography concluding each essay. It is certain that not all Western Anglicans who read this volume would agree with it in its entirety, which should hardly be surprising given the contentious state of the Anglican Communion as it is presented in the volume. Yet, it certainly accomplishes its goal of crafting an “extensive, analytical investigation into the history of Anglicanism,” within the context of the modern West (xix).

Matt Rucker, MDiv Senior, Trinity School for Ministry