The Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, the Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer, reviews “A Church Observed: Being Anglican as Times Change”, a new book by Andrew Norman.
How can we get to know, in the words of Bishop John Hind, “the bewildering diversity of Anglicanism”? One way is to visit as many Anglicans as possible across the world, and another is to read about the history of the Communion, such as in the recently published and magnificent five-volume Oxford History of Anglicanism. But for most people these are not realistic options.
Andrew Norman’s A Church Observed comes to the rescue. Using his own life and work within the Anglican Communion as a connecting thread, Norman describes a cross section of Anglican communities and churches, from his grandfather Fr Harry Nobbs’ ministry in Canada through to his own recent post as principal of Ridley Hall in Cambridge.
On the way we travel with him via Nobbs’ ministry’s in the Western Isles of Scotland, Glasgow, Durham pit villages and Essex, then to Norman’s farming background in Sussex, school life at Ardingly College and undergraduate life at University College Oxford, then a gap year travelling in Nigeria with tense encounters with police and immigration officials, work in the business world, chaplaincy in Paris (on two occasions), some years at Lambeth Palace as Archbishop Rowan’s secretary for ecumenical and Anglican Communion affairs, and then the move to Ridley.
This varied journey becomes the hook on which Norman hangs the recent history of the Church of England and of wider Anglican life. The book skilfully summarises a wide range of developments including Reformation origins, Nineteenth century revivals, the failure of Church of England chaplaincy during the First World War, the rise of the ecumenical movement and evolving relationships with Rome, evangelistic missions in Oxford (with David Watson) and Huddersfield (with Michael Green), urban strife and the response of the C of E in the report Faith in the City, liturgical revisions and the arrival of Common Worship, important visits by Archbishop Roman to Polynesia and China and, looming increasingly large, sharp divisions over sexuality and bishops across the Communion, Lambeth 2008 and the ill-fated Anglican Communion Covenant.
With his move to Ridley comes description of the fresh expressions phenomenon and pioneer ministry in the C of E and its moves towards ordaining women to the episcopate under Archbishop Justin Welby. The story ends with the Primates in Canterbury in 2016 unanimously agreeing “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ.”
The whole story is told in an engaging and informative way. The lightness of style should not obscure the scholarly basis of the book, which is well referenced with 30 pages of notes and 20 pages of bibliography (plus some appendices). Each chapter summaries its key findings in a few final paragraphs.
The penultimate chapter summarises what the main drivers of change in recent Anglicanism have been, and the final chapter presents Norman’s take on its abiding characteristics, “the kind of circuitry required to generate vibrant Anglican activity across the world.” The book is a triumph of synthesis. While it cannot be comprehensive (eg, there is not very much about ordinary “middle of the road” parishes), and while it inevitably presents a personal take on Anglicanism, it covers a breadth of Anglican national and global developments that is hard to find described elsewhere. It is also very accessible, with each element of the story introduced and explained without assuming prior knowledge.
How will Anglicanism fare in the years ahead? Reading the book certainly raises the question. It mentions the decline in attendances in the Church of England at several points alongside remarkable growth in many other parts of the world. Is, then, the C of E to become an increasingly congregational and marginal association, or will it retain a society-wide role? On the other hand, are growing churches in other parts of the world going to take on society-wide ministries or will they remain congregationally focussed?
Norman does not answer these questions but his book is very much a ‘half full’ rather than ‘half empty’ portrait of where it is at the moment, and so instils a sense of hope. Highly recommended.
- A Church Observed: Being Anglican as Times Change is published by Gilead Books Publishing.