Unity is a fond thing


Soon after General Convention I wrote a piece for the Episcopal Café where I argued that the defining characteristic of the Episcopal Church (and other Anglican churches) was our decision that learning to pray with one another was more important than enforcing confessional purity and shared understandings of key theological points.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch makes the same point, but in a much more careful and scholarly way in a new book on the History of Christianity: The first three thousand years. There’s a BBC series of the same title that he’s just finished filming and which I expect will be shown here in the states sometime later this year or earlier next.

From an article about the new book and the series in the Church Times, written by William Whyte:

“[…] Rather than revealing a clear, unified, and coherent Christianity, this is an account of the many different Churches and creeds that the Christian faith inspired. Professor MacCulloch’s account of Christianity shows it as a debate from the beginning: a constant argument between Greek thought and Jewish ideas, between hierarchy and equality, order and inspiration. Indeed, for him, ‘the history of Christianity is a history of division.’

This is not, however, a problem for Professor MacCulloch — much less something to be mourned. He rejects what he calls a ‘neurotic obsession with unity’ in favour of a celebration of diversity: a history that reveals the ways in which the Church has changed and accommodated itself to historical circumstance.

Small wonder, then, that Professor MacCulloch is so dismissive of those who have tried to enforce unity, and especially doctrinal uniformity. ‘Confessional purity’, he argues, ‘is always a chimera.’ Take, for example, the Council of Chalcedon — the critical meeting of 451 which defined the two natures of Christ. This was, he argues, ‘a catastrophe, a disaster’. As he points out, fully two-thirds of the Church refused to sign up to it, and the ensuing battles ensured that the unity it was in tended to enforce was never — and could never be — achieved.

IT IS for that reason, too, that he is so keen to celebrate the Church of England — at least as it evolved from the 18th century onwards. ‘Born of an almost risible historical accident’, Anglicanism can never claim to be a confessional Church: it is a compromise between different theological positions.”

Read the full article here.

I am so getting this book.

And I’m thinking we need to raise up an Apostle of the Book of Common Prayer too. I’m worried that too many Anglicans are unaware of the critical definitional action that praying together out of the BCP is for us.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D. Neurologist says

    I could not agree more. Recently, some of us at Trinity Cathedral have been giving away inexpensive copies of the Bible as an evangelistic tool. While I am all for the Bible, biblical interpretation is at the heart of so many of our current controversies, and we are still fighting the “sola scriptura” tendencies of the Protestant reformation. What first drew me, 30 years ago, to TEC was not the bible, not “mission” or liberal/conservative ideas, but the Book of Common Prayer. (I still have that first 1979 BCP, and I carried it with me through many difficult times over the years) The BCP is such a defining part of our lives as Episcopalians/Anglicans. If we are giving away “evangelistic” texts, I would vote for either entire or excerpted BCPs as more likely to bear fruit of conversion and to say more of “what we are about” as Episcopalians.

  2. I wonder if we could make a point of giving both when we do that…
    I’m happy with the idea of giving away Prayer Books – I’ll buy a case for us to use. I do think we will have to do some explaining though so that people understand why we take this all so seriously.
    I suppose I could speak to the preacher about that couldn’t I?

  3. Christopher says

    He is a fine historian. I’ve just put up a post making a similar point.

  4. I read your new post earlier this morning Christopher, and I was just about to link to it. Thanks for making explicit the details of what our sort of common prayer means.

  5. We have discovered in Europe the evangelistic power of the Book of Common Prayer through our bilingual editions (see tec-europe.org). And it works in other languages as well as English, of course!
    You’re right Nick–we need a BCP evangelist. Or thousands…
    Pierre Whalon
    Bishop in charge
    Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

  6. Dean Knisely, From the Ten Articles of 1536 to the 39 Articles adopted in 1801 by PECUSA, they seem to me to be a statement of unity as well as an Anglican confession. Any thoughts? Thank you for your blog, great topics. Greg

  7. Hi Greg – I don’t know that the 39 Articles were ever considered a mandatory thing within the Episcopal Church. Certainly, since the 1928 Prayerbook days, they’ve been considered part of the history of our shared faith, not something that we must normatively believe.
    I do understand that the situation is different in England, where even today ordinands must promise to honor the articles as part of their ordination vows. But in conversation with English clergy, I’m told that the articles, practically speaking, have much the same role for most English clergy as they do for clergy in the Episcopal Church.
    I do seem to recall being taught that the tension in the earliest days of the Anglican Church over whether or not we would eventually become a confessional church was resolved formally during the restoration of the monarchy. But I’m not nearly a good a historian as I am a theology buff (which ain’t saying much), so you might want to take my memory with a grain of salt.
    Let me ask around a bit and see what I might find out.

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