Because it is riddled with the English class system, being an Anglican can be as daunting as one of those dinner parties where each place is set with a dozen pieces of silverware.
Where do you start?
Like England itself, the Church of England is full of quaint customs and eccentric social habits. In addition, the Anglican Church is a maze of differing theological opinions.
You not only have to negotiate the three classic categories of Anglican: Evangelical, Liberal and Anglo-Catholic, but nowadays you have to find your way through the multitude of sub groups within those divisions. So it is not good enough to know whether a person is an Anglo-Catholic.
You also need to know whether he is Charismatic Anglo-Catholic, Traditionalist Anglo-Catholic, Liberal Anglo-Catholic, Radical Anglo-Catholic or Activist Anglo-Catholic. When you consider his worship he may be happy clappy Anglo-Catholic, Cathedral Music Anglo-Catholic, Gregorian Chant or TaizÈ Music Anglo-Catholic.
The same permutations exist for the other two main headings, and when you add the class system, you can see that to be a member of the Church of England today is an ecclesiastical form of white water rafting on a surfboard.
The athletic fellow who has to oversee this extreme sport is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Catholics should understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not simply an Anglican pope. He is really only the Bishop of an English diocese, but tradition has landed him with the job of being the leader of the Church of England and the symbolic head of that worldwide collection of independent national churches called the Anglican Communion.
Evangelical missionaries founded some of these churches; Anglo-Catholics founded others. Furthermore, the evangelical Anglican churches in the Third World are enjoying huge growth. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria alone, for example, than in all of Great Britain and the United States put together.
In an attempt to please everyone, the English government (acting for the monarch) chooses an Evangelical then an Anglo-Catholic to be archbishop in turns. This seems like a good idea, but the effect is that both halves of the church take it in turn to be infuriated and insulted by their leader. George Carey, the outgoing Evangelical, alienated the Anglo-Catholics when he approved women's ordination 10 years ago.
As a result nearly a thousand Anglican priests left to become Catholics.
Now it is the turn of the Anglo-Catholic Rowan Williams. He seems fairly conservative in his t h e o l o g i c a l approach, but he is reported to be soft on the homosexual question, and this has upset the Evangelicals. They don't like his Catholic theology and style, but they would be willing to live with that. What they really don't like is that he seems to be pandering to the homosexual lobby. The hearty Evangelicals have always accused the effete Anglo-Catholics of being pink. Now they have to put up with an Archbishop of Canterbury who is on their side, and they're hopping mad.
Archbishop Williams is no lover of the Evangelical fringe. He has poked fun at them by saying they are tambourine bangers who love to sing “Blessed Assurance.”
In return, even before he has taken office, they have called for him to resign; threatened to withhold their financial contributions and have started a campaign to have their own church within a church. In the end, it will all die down and they will have to live with one another. The Evangelicals will have to put up with an Anglo-Catholic who they consider to be limp on sexual morality, and the new Archbishop will have to put up with a loathsome group of enthusiasts that make up the majority of his constituency.
From a Catholic point of view, Williams will be better than Carey.
One always got the impression with George Carey that he was out of his depth. The problem was not so much that he disagreed with Catholicism, but that he didn't really understand it. Like his evangelical predecessor, Donald Coggan, Carey kept fouling the ecumenical atmosphere by calling for full intercommunion between Catholics and Anglicans. Anglo Catholic Archbishops of Canterbury like Robert Runcie and Michael Ramsay were far more diplomatic. They understood and respected Catholicism and therefore made historic contributions to ecumenism.
For Catholics, Archbishop Williams has much to commend him. Unlike Carey, he is a first rate scholar. Unlike Carey, Williams also understands and loves Catholic spirituality. He has written an excellent book on Teresa of Avila and in his student days considered becoming a Catholic Benedictine monk. Williams also has a deep appreciation for the ancient theologians of the church, and therefore has a deep respect and love for both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology. Catholics may not agree with his stance on moral matters, and we may want to challenge him on some points of theology, but at heart we will find much that is agreeable in the new Archbishop.
The formal relationships between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church have cooled during Carey's time. From a Catholic perspective, when they ordained women to the priesthood, the Anglicans acted unilaterally and placed some pretty big boulders in the path to unity. Williams might be able to chip away at the boulders. But I suspect the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be content to simply keep the relationship with Rome warm, while seeking to build bridges with the Eastern Orthodox.
Maybe that is why he sports such a splendid beard. If the battle with the Evangelicals becomes too tiresome he could take a quiet holiday to Athens, adopt a suitably Greek name-and pass himself off as a patriarch.
Dwight Longenecker used to be an Anglican priest. He is the editor of a book of British conversion stories,
The Path to Rome. His new book is More Christianity.