By Alan Hayes - The Itinerant Churchgoer, Professor, Diocese of Niagara
Published: June 2009
Related Topics: Ecclesiology, General Theology, Leadership
Fifty years ago the pope announced the Second Vatican Council. That changed Anglicanism forever.
That's my conclusion after completing a little historical project. I went through every issue of the Canadian Churchman (now called the Anglican Journal) between 1959 and 1967 and every General Synod journal between 1950 and 1969 to gauge the impact of Vatican II on Canadian Anglicans.
Some readers may remember what the Church of England in Canada was like in the 1950s. Union jacks on church walls, toasts to the queen at church dinners, and loyal addresses to the queen at synods. On Sundays, sixteenth-century liturgy, sentimental Victorian hymns, and lots of prayers for the queen, culminating in an earnest "God save the Queen." An English accent gave clergy an edge for the best pulpits and the best salaries. Anglicans had a reputation for being—how do I put this delicately? Kind of stuffy.
In most places, that ethos couldn't and didn't survive the 1960s. There were lots of reasons why stuffy quaint anglophilia could no longer serve as the defining characteristic of Canadian Anglicanism. Maybe sometime I'll talk about those reasons. But for now, let me focus on how Anglicans tried to build a new identity for themselves.
Some advocated "secular theology". Others liked Billy Graham. A charismatic renewal broke out in several parts of the Anglican world. Many gushed over interpersonal training groups. Several envisioned a non-institutional religion. ("People are leaving the church and going back to God," said the comedian Shelley Berman.) Some of these alternatives had friends and supporters in Very High Places. But none took hold.
A global Anglican Congress brought thousands of people to Toronto in 1963. The archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Ramsey, gave one of the most brilliant Anglican orations of the twentieth century. People for a few weeks felt a huge sense of renewal and a great enthusiasm for mission. But, afterwards, there lacked the leadership in Canada and elsewhere to build on it. Within a year or two, all that was left of the Anglican Congress, so far as most people in the pew were concerned, was documents gathering dust on a shelf.
So many false starts! But then between 1962 and 1965, Vatican II happened. "Hold onto your hats!" said George Luxton, the Anglican bishop of Huron, in the Canadian Churchman. He had gone to Rome, checked in on the Vatican Council, and secured an audience with the pope. He was blown away by the Roman Catholic Church's new and totally unexpected spirit of self-criticism, its re-thinking of Christian basics, its ressourcement (its return to essential sources, especially Scripture), and its aggiornamento (its passion to come to faithful terms with the modern world). Luxton wanted Anglicans to follow suit, and he wasn't the only one.
The main Canadian Anglican interpreters of the Council were George Wheeler, a Wycliffe graduate, and Eugene Fairweather, a professor at Trinity College. Both had taken courses at St. Michael's College, the Roman Catholic university in Toronto. Both went to the Vatican Council and were transformed by it. (You can read Fairweather's diaries in the Trinity archives.) They both wrote scores of articles and spoke at scores of church events.
The Toronto School of Theology was formed in 1969, and as a result, students at Trinity and Wycliffe, which trained most of the country's Anglican clergy, began to take many of their courses at St. Michael's and Regis Colleges, which happened to have some of the most brilliant Roman Catholic theologians in the English-speaking world. Anglicans and Roman Catholics started formal dialogue groups. Anglican leaders read and digested the Vatican II documents, which were passionate, intelligent, and persuasive. The fruits of Vatican II were ripening in the Anglican climate.
In the 1960s, under a kindly but weak primate, Canadian Anglicans accomplished rather little that was good (but quite a bit that was bad). But between 1971 and 1986, when Archbishop Ted Scott was primate, it was time to "hold onto your hats". Vatican II blew in strongly.
It was most obvious in liturgy, where Eugene Fairweather and two of his students (William Crockett and David Holeton) were among the dominant architects of the Book of Alternative Services. Indeed, the Eucharist in the BAS isn't easily distinguishable from the Vatican II mass. But you could also see the influence of Vatican II elsewhere in Canadian Anglicanism: in the Church's recommitment to social justice, in reforms of theological education, in huge new opportunities for lay ministry, in the reinvigoration of Anglican monasteries and convents, in the flourishing of ecumenical agencies, and in new ventures of inter-faith dialogue.
I think you could see it too in the ordination of women. Of course Vatican II didn't endorse the ordination of women, but it did open the way for nuns and sisters to take higher theological education and assume more visible roles of ministry. One who did was Sister Anne Anderson, C.S.J. (Hamilton), who in January this year became the first woman president of St. Michael's College.
The excitement stopped pretty abruptly in 1986, among both Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The church historians I talk to aren't agreed on the reasons. It may have to do with the explosion of clergy malpractice issues, church sexual abuse scandals, and then residential school revelations, all of which sapped the Church's energy and damaged its credibility.
But by 1986 the Anglican Church of Canada had become, in its liturgical and missiological core, a Vatican II institution. To my mind, this was better than any alternative that was realistically open to it. But, as a downside, with the old markers gone and the new markers borrowed, it became very hard for people to figure out what it meant to be an Anglican. A huge number of books came to be written about Anglican identity, starting with Stephen Sykes' The Integrity of Anglicanism, but most were deconstructive and came to uncertain conclusions.
And now, in 2009, the Anglican Communion gives a very good impression of falling to pieces. Some of this gets blamed on debates about sexuality, but, if you've followed me so far, you'll know that I see deeper and more enduring causes than that.
What's the way forward? If our problem is what I suspect – that we're depending on a Vatican II theology which was never really ours to begin with and which is now showing signs of age—then the way forward is theological too. We need to rediscover, together, the faith of our Church. We need to agree on what we stand for, and we need to discern our distinctive theologically grounded mission. I doubt that techniques of church growth or strategies of relevance will move us ahead until we've had our own Anglican Vatican II, and that will mean prayer, self-criticism, ressourcement, and aggiornamento.