It has been called "the Tory party at prayer." It is, a woma communicant told a Daily Telegraph correspndent, "the religious expression of that tremendous English reserve which means you don't smile anyone on trains."
Yet it still provides the religious home for some 30 milion Englishmen and for as many more worshippers throughout the world.
It is the Church of England, split off form the church of Rome in the 16th century by Henry VIII and now, apparently, heading along the road to reconciliation and eventual reunion with Roman Catholicism.
That, at least, is the desire of its new leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. At a luncheon for American journalists, he described himself as a "Liverpool Scot" -- and, more significantly, as a "radical Catholic."
Nobody expects sudden shifts from the 450-year-old church. And the amiable archbishop, who from relative obscurity as bishop of St. Albans has been spotlighted as head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, talks of "the middle way" between the "shoals" and "elephant traps" besetting church policy.
Tall, slow-paced, discursive, he is a tennis-playing, pigkeeping football lover with a chatty disposition, a philosophical turn of mind, and a tolerance so genial that his maid reportedly calls him 'Bish."
He is also straightforward, shying away form platitudes and humorously describing himself as "poised rather uneasily between the cliche and the indiscretion."
But he has made his position clear: The church, under his shepherding, will continue to seek greater unity with Roman Catholicism in such things as theological dialogue, cooperation in the face of common problems, and Eucharistic hospitality (taking communion in each other's churches).
His March 25 enthronement ceremony gave a prominent place to the Catholic Archbishop of Westminister, Cardinal Basil Hume -- the first time since the Reformation that a Roman Catholic cardinal has attended an enthronement.
And he has already met Pope John Paul II in Ghana for a 45-minute tete-a-tete. He thinks this is a first, since similar Anglo-Roman meetings in the past have been formal affairs builging with official delegations. He describes the Pope, whom he obviously admires, as "less interested in ecclesiastical negotiations or theological dialogue than in common witness and in human dignity," although he would not call him "anti-ecumenical."
Not all Anglicans applaud his Rome-ward view. Leading a pilgrimage to the Roman Catholic shrine at Walsingham, in Norfolk, the archbishop was recently met by members of the Protestant Reform Society, whose placards read "Pray to Christ and not to Mary." Such resistance is not surprising in a country that coined the phrase "Popish plot" and in its history has executed sundry Catholics including Mary, Queen of Scots.
But many Anglicans see themselves as "part of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic church," says the archbishop in words from the Book of Common Prayer.
"I want a church which doesn't see Christian unity as an end in itself, but as an agent in the service of the unity of mankind," he says. That may mean some significant changes. If the church is going to "find its soul," he says, "it may have to do a lot of dying."
But he is well aware that the Angelican Church embraces a mixed bag of traditional, prophetic, and experiential strands. He respects it refusal to define the meaning of faith precisely -- noting that "religion is caught, not taught," and that the church can afford to be "very woolly about belief."
There are several reasons behind his quest for unity. The Catholic Church in England, he notes, has typically appealed to the working classes, which the Anglicans have never done. With attendance dwindling at services, some consolidation might be in order -- although the Archbishop is quick to point out that the number of people seeking ordination and adult conformation is growing.
There is also, observers note, the vexed question of a wife for Prince Charles. The world is notably short of Protestant princesses, although suitable partners among Catholic royal families might be found. And in a church whose temporal head is the king or queen and that still has 26 seats reserved for its bishops and archbishops in the House of Lords, that is no small matter.
But relations of church and state are complex. Some observers feel the church can only benefit from the worldwide spirit of religious fervor if it is removed from politics.
There has already been slight movement in that direction: Archbishop Runcie, unlike is predecessors, was appointed by the church rather than by the prime minister's office. But the archbishop, who ranks immediately below the Royal Family and above the prime minister in the nation's hierarchy, prefers bridge-building to such disruption. Because it would be disruptive, he argues against ordination of women -- although with less than fiery conviction. He notes it would "put back the cause of mutual recognition of orders" because it is opposed by the Roman church and the Greek Orthodox Church, with whom he also seeks greater unity.
Would the Church of England, given its political ties, be prepared to owe allegiance to Rome? Archbishop Runcie speaks of a primacy of love rather than of jurisdiction. That, he says, is the kind of relation he himself has with the Episcopal Church in America, which does ordain women, and with the other 23 independent Anglican churches around the world. He will meet the primates ("it sounds rather zoological," he quips), or archbishops of these churches, in Washington next May.
And while he looks forward to the tour of the United States following that meeting, he gives the impression of a man reluctantly dragged into politics. In his best homiletic style, he notes that "there are no shortcuts in the long haul of loving rather than power ruling the world."