The great Whig historian GM Trevelyan was once asked if he was a pillar of the Church of England. “No,” he replied, “I am more of a flying buttress — I support it from the outside.” I know how he felt. Brought up as a Presbyterian, confirmed in the Church of Scotland and schooled every childhood Sunday in its doctrines and practices, I am an outsider in the Anglican communion. And as a wilful, wayward and far too often selfish human being I am in a poor position to pass judgment on any religious issue.But just as migrants can see virtues in their country of adoption that natives have either taken for granted or forgotten, and new arrivals can be enthusiastic about customs, ceremonies and habits that the born and bred feel faintly embarrassed by, so I feel an admiration, a respect, even a love for the Church of England that perhaps only a non-Anglican can freely confess to. Because there is a gentleness and grace, a habit of listening and an ethic of understanding to Anglicanism which makes enthusiasm almost anathema. The C of E is the Church Moderate not Militant and it is rare that anyone is fierce in defence of gentleness.
More than that, the spirit of Anglicanism, the attempt to accommodate doctrinal difference, to keep open as many paths to grace as possible, can easily be caricatured and mocked as insipidity mixed with pusillanimity, an attempt to conjure up a vague aroma of goodness without any strong meat of conviction to give the broth body.
And, to be sure, the Anglican communion has laid itself open to criticism with the way in which some questions, most notably homosexuality, have been handled in recent years. Neither biblical literalists nor modern liberals can be at all happy with the church’s complex and convoluted attempts to accommodate difference. And very few of us can consider it a good use of the church’s time and its leadership’s energy to spend so many hours agonising over the details of how people choose to love each other when there is a crying need to confront pain, loneliness, greed, addiction, despair and hatred — all the dark energy unloosed in this world and driven by the absence of love.But it is precisely the painstaking way in which leaders of the Anglican communion try to respect different views and honour the sincerity with which they’re held that makes me admire them. It’s the willingness to believe the best in others, and hope that through imagination and empathy an agreement can be reached to serve the greater good, which is the special joy and treasure of the Church of England.