This is not only the title of a famous movie, but it is also the way in which both societies and the Church seem to function best. It is what the framers of our American Constitution intended. That is, they built the future of this country on an idealized version of the Roman and Greek past. They looked to the ancient democracies of both Rome and Athens for the principles which they wrote into the American constitution. I wonder, since the majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were Anglicans, if they realized just how great the contribution of historical Anglicanism was to the manner in which they framed the Consitution of the United States. As strange as it may seem, the Constitution of this country has as its foundation what was the constitution of the English Church from the eighth century to almost modern times.
But the real point of this posting as we approach another meeting of the Lambreth Conference later in this year is to quote from another Lambreth Conference over a century ago. I found the quote in The Rev'd F. W. Puller's The Continuity of the Church of England Before and After its Reformation in the 16th Century. The Conference in 1867 said,
"We do here solemnly record our conviction that unity will be most effectually promoted by maintaining the faith in its purity and integrity, as taught in the Holy Scriptures, held by the primitive Church, summed up in the Creeds, and affirmed by the undisputed General Councils."
Now it seems to me that this is wonderfully close to what Elizabeth I said in her famous letter to the Emperor Frederick and what was ordered in the English canons of 1571. Unfortunately, it is only what a very few of us find in the actions and words of the archbishops and bishops of establishment Anglicanism in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and, of course, the United States. Instead various of the prelates of these great countries seem more to be applying to be accepted by Unitarian Universalists than expressing their belief and conformity to the formularies of classical prayer book Anglicanism - and this in a time when American evangelicals are beginning to look to the past, to the faith and practise of the primitive Church as a cure for their own ills.
So what is to be done? How do we address this present crisis?
The answer, it seems to me, is the same as always: we go back to the future! This is what the Church of England did at the time of its reformation. It went both to Holy Scripture and to the writings of the "earliest bishops and Catholic fathers" to find a way to navigate the intellectual revolution of that time. And, surprise, it worked! Oh, not without difficulties as there were many in England and without that would have prefered that England choose the path of the Continental "deformers" who chose a path much closer to Islam than to the traditional practise of any part of the historic Church, but it did work. Not only did it work for 17th and 18th centuries, but it proved itself capable of continous self reform and also of being carried into countries and civilizations far from that of its English origins and adapting itself to them without losing or diluting the central principles to which it adhered.
And now it appears that we are going to have to do it all over again. Cleanse, renew, revive! With our precious Lord we are going to have to drive the money changers out of the temple to make sure that it - and we - remain a house of prayer. We are also going to have to remember that it is and will remain impossible to substitute secular politics for the Gospel of our Lord and have any claim left for the Church.
And this is the perfect time to begin, and begin and begin. Lent. The perfect time for a little 'Spring cleaning' not only of our households but of our souls. And how should we begin? By reading, of course, as if there were any other course open to those who are people of The Book. We must read and re-read the Bible as if it were entirely new to us. And to this we need to add the fathers and the other works of the earliest Church. We desperately need to have, as C. S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to Sister Penelope's translation of St Athanasius's work on the incarnation, "the wind of the ages" blowing through our brains. We need to test the thinking of our own age on the gospel and the Church with and against the thinking of the saints of the Church's springtime. We need to hear them more than Rowan Williams or N. T. Wright - or even minus Katherine Jefferts Schori.
So let us take this Lent and read the offices, Daily Morning and Evening Prayer as we find them in the traditional prayer books with their offerings of the Psalms, Holy Scripture and the Canticles. And let us add to them some serious reading of the earliest fathers, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Polycarp while turning off the radio, the TV and what passes for polular music. Let us make a little room for quiet in our lives and in our prayers and see if what we have that passes for the Church can not make it back to the future.