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Hallo again to all.

It is not at all uncommon to see, on the website of a church that has felt the need to break away from its former province, a sentence like this one:

'We are committed to the authority of Holy Scripture and the teaching of Christ's Holy Church, especially as expressed by our Anglican forefathers.'

or this one, from a church in a former English colony:

'Whereas, our Anglican forefathers ... were communicants of the Church of England and practiced and planted their faith by the use of the Book of Common Prayer'

Never mind the utter lack of references to foremothers (is there such a word?) in their rhetoric. Having spent some time reading the justifications published by churches that define themselves by having broken away from something, we got to thinking about just who their, or our, forefathers might be and what they might have believed and believed in.

Like many people, we have one father, two grandfathers, four great-grandfathers, eight great-great-grandfathers, and so on. We are very lucky to know who all eight of our great-great-grandfathers were, and to know something about their lives. We know, for example, that they were born:

1831, in London; 1839, in Yorkshire; 1821, in Hampshire; 1830, in Staffordshire; 1836, in Caithness; 1842, in Renfrewshire; 1828 in Maine; and 1825, in Maine.

That particular collection of eight forefathers was born between 1821 and 1842, which seems quite recent in the grand scheme of things. We have a very hard time imagining that the eight of them (their homes ranging from the northernmost tip of Britain [Caithness] to its southern edge [Hampshire] and off in the colonies) would be much in agreement about churchly matters. We wonder, for that matter, how many of them even attended church (though all eight of them were married in churches, to women from Middlesex, Sussex, Warwickshire, Caithness, Lanarkshire, and Maine). All of them were married while John Sumner was the Archbishop of Canterbury (we'll wager that you had to look him up, too).

We imagine that the church websites referring to 'forefathers' weren't talking about such men, born during the heyday of the Oxford Movement, but were making vague references to holy men in hair shirts kneeling for hours on the ground in prayer in spare Norman churches. Should we try to guess just how fore were the fathers they referenced? There weren't any Norman churches in England in which to kneel until 1067, so let's try 1350AD as their approximate degree of foreness. There hadn't yet been any nasty reformations and the price of indulgences had not yet gotten out of hand. Edward III was king of England, Innocent VI was about to succeed Clement VI as Pope, Jean II was just starting his reign as King of France, and it would be two more centuries before there would be a Kingdom of Spain.

We actually do know the identity of a couple of our ancestors who were alive in 1350. They were wealthy enough that their names got written down (presumably to ensure continuing payment of taxes). This lets us count generations. There are 20 generations between us and our forefathers who went to church on Easter 1350 (28 March).

Our list of eight forefathers went back three generations. The numbers double with each generation. After 4 generations there are 16 of them, after 5 generations there are 32, and so on. After 20 generations there are 1,048,576 forefathers. Let's round that to an even million because surely at least 48,576 of them had no idea what Christ's teachings were.

We giggle at the thought of unified belief among a million forefathers. But the mathematics tells us that the not-quite-so-fore fathers in between (generations 19, 18, 17, and so on) make up another million. So there are two million men who must have set a holy example when they 'expressed the teaching of Christ's Holy Church' and 'practiced and planted their faith'. All in perfect lock-step, of course. Of those two million forefathers, we figure that twenty thousand of them were robbers and murderers (despite later efforts to send English criminals off to Botany Bay), that a hundred thousand of them often fell asleep in church, a hundred thousand of them cheated on their wives, and thirty thousand of them were homosexual. We figure that most of them weren't planting their faith, they were planting wheat and barley and oats.

Every last one of our forefathers is dead, all two million of them, so we can't send them an email to ask them about their faith. And any genealogical researcher will tell you how much people lie when re-telling family history. For example, in our database that has information about dead ancestors in it, nary a soul admitted to having unmarried parents save for a 14th-century duke who married his sweetie decades after his children were born.

We'll stick with the Lambeth Quadrilateral. It's so much easier than interviewing millions of dead forefathers, and so much more likely to be aligned with God's wishes.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 6 March 2011

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