What might it look like in coming years for Anglican evangelicals to remain committed to the biblical gospel, to all that is best in our Anglican heritage, and to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ?
There will be times when our differing contexts will mean that we will make different judgments about precisely when and how to act for the sake of the gospel. There will be other occasions when differences of temperament, or priorities, or convictions will mean that we will disagree about what the practical outworkings of our commitments should be. What might godly wisdom look like for different churches, and in different contexts? And how can we continue to honour and support one another, working together for the gospel, even when we make different principled and pragmatic decisions?
The major doctrinal principles that Anglicans (ought to) confess are defined by Canon A5 of the Church of England:
The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.
Canon Law thus defines Anglicanism theologically—in terms of the Reformation principle of the supreme authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and in terms of the Reformation doctrine that is found in the Bible and expressed in the Articles, Prayer Book, and Ordinal. The Jerusalem Statement (section 3) also recognises this as ‘the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, which defines our core identity as Anglicans’.
Let’s spell out these commitments in a little more detail.
Sola Scriptura and the Witness of the Church
Anglican Christianity has a healthy respect for all that is best in the traditions of the Church. Roman Catholic (and evangelical) misunderstandings notwithstanding, sola Scriptura has never meant just ‘me and my Bible’ (nor just my favourite evangelical pope and his Bible). The Bible did not drop from heaven in 1517, nor, worse, in 2019. Vicars of large churches are not de facto Doctors of the Church. And evangelical networks are not ecumenical councils.
The 16th century reformers did not try to create something new from scratch, but rather sought to reform the existing English Church, removing what had become corrupt, but keeping what was good. As they did this, they recognised that the creeds and councils of the Church, and the writings of great theologians, provide helpful guidance, like expert witnesses in a court of law. But although these have a subordinate authority over us, they are norma normata (normed norms).The judge in all matters is God speaking through his written word, the Bible. Sacred Scripture is the norma absoluta (absolute norm), or norma normans (the norming norm that stands behind and over all human creeds and confessions).
In the words of the Articles: ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.’ (Article VI).
Put simply: as Anglicans, we are Bible people. This is not just a theoretical commitment, but by God’s grace it must be demonstrated as we and our churches seek to devote ourselves to reading, learning, trusting, loving, obeying, and teaching the whole counsel of God from the whole of Holy Scripture.
So, we are utterly committed to the Bible. But as Anglicans, we recognise that it is right to read the Bible in a certain way: shaped by the gospel as it is outlined in the ecumenical creeds and in the 39 Articles of Religion.
The 39 Articles and Biblical Doctrine
The 39 Articles (1571) were designed for ‘the avoiding of diversities of opinions’ in order to ‘conserve and maintain’ the Church of England ‘in Unity of true Religion and in the Bond of Peace’. They are not a comprehensive statement of every aspect of Christian doctrine, nor do they cover every point of dispute in the 21stcentury Church. Rather, they outline certain gospel essentials, and address certain issues of Church order and controversy in the 16th century.
Some of the Articles articulate the great truths that unite all catholic Christians—the Trinity, the Person of Christ, his bodily resurrection. Others articulate a clear Protestant understanding of doctrines such as sola Scriptura, original sin, free will, justification by faith alone, and the place of good works. When it comes to intra-mural Protestant debates, the Articles teach a moderate Reformed understanding of predestination and election, and a Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran or Anabaptist/Baptist) understanding of the sacraments as effectual signs of grace by which God works invisibly in us as they are received by faith.
In part, the wisdom of the Articles is the way they set the boundaries of acceptable belief. For example, they are careful to exclude errors that undermine the biblical gospel, such as doctrine of purgatory, or the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice in which Christ is once again offered to God by the priest. But they also leave room for disagreement on non-essential matters.
The BCP and Gospel Worship
Part of the beauty of Anglicanism is that among our formularies is a pattern of prayer. As Christians, we don’t just believe certain truths about God and the gospel. Rather, through the gospel we are called together into a living relationship with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Thus, as Anglicans we are committed to gathering together to hear God speak through Scripture, and to respond in prayer and praise.
Cranmer’s design in the Prayer Book was to saturate the English people in Scripture (by having us read the whole Bible together every year), to train us (through prayers and canticles) in how to focus our Bible reading on the mighty acts of God in Christ, and to help us to respond to God’s loving kindness in prayer and praise.
Cranmer’s genius was in crafting richly scriptural liturgies, rooted in and reforming the best traditions of the Church, and expressed in the vernacular language of his day. To most people today, his language will seem quaint, even incomprehensible. We therefore do well to imitate Cranmer’s desire to express our prayer and praise in the vernacular of our own day, rather than slavishly following his own liturgies in our services.
However, although there is room for local adaptation that takes our context into account, as Anglicans we should not feel free to create orders of services to suit our theological whims or personal preferences. Our Anglican liturgical heritage still provides godly wisdom and rich resources for helping us to pattern our corporate prayer and praise according to the gospel.
The Ordinal and Episcopal Oversight
One of the marks that distinguishes Anglican churches from other Churches in the Reformation traditions—even those who are very close to us in core beliefs—is our episcopal polity.
It is sometimes argued that the Articles are essentially congregational in polity, on the basis that Article XIX defines the visible church as ‘a congregation of faithful men…’. However, whilst local churches are indeed churches, in the sixteenth century the word congregation did not have such a restrictively local sense as it does to 21st century ears. This should be obvious to anyone who has read the whole article, which goes on to refer to ‘the Church of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria’ and ‘the Church of Rome’—hardly a reference to local congregations! Similarly, when Article XX says that ‘the Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith’, it cannot mean the local congregation. If it did, the existence of the Articles, to unify the entire Church of England, would make no sense, nor would the requirement for clergy to subscribe to the Articles, and promise to use only authorised liturgies.
In any case, The Ordinal commits Anglicans to ‘these orders of ministry in Christ’s Church [N.B.: again, this cannot be a reference to the local congregation]: bishops, priests [i.e., presbyters], and deacons.’ And it is designed so that ‘these orders may be esteemed, and reverently used, in the Church of England.’
It is sadly all too true that English episcopal leadership has too often hindered gospel ministry in dioceses and local churches. The Ordinal itself recognizes that it is perfectly possible for a bishop to be a wolf and not a shepherd—no surprise given that one of the appointed lessons for a bishop’s consecration is Acts 20:17-35.
However, the answer to this—at least if it is to be an Anglican answer—cannot be one of ignoring our episcopal polity and functioning as independently as possible from the bishop and the diocese. Perhaps some would prefer a congregational or independent polity. In that case, there are perfectly respectable evangelical alternatives in the FIEC and other bodies; however, Anglican churches and clergy are not, and never have been, independent.
Rather—however complex the practical outworkings may be—the foundation of the answer must be to recognise the value of faithful episcopal leadership, to grasp that ordained ministry in Christ’s Church is primarily a ministry of Word (which includes faithful administration of the sacraments) and prayer, and to work and pray—whether within the Church of England, or outside its structures in alternative Anglican bodies—for bishops who will teach the faith, and refute false teaching both within their dioceses, and among their episcopal and archiepiscopal brethren.
The Gospel Imperative of Mission
Finally, although it is not explicit in the definition of Canon A5, authentic Anglicanism is shaped by a zeal for mission. This is an obvious and natural outworking of our commitment to the Bible and the biblical gospel. And as Anglicans we recognise that it is vital, not least at a time of rampant unbelief in our nation, that ecclesiastical structures should support and enable, not hinder or inhibit mission.
At its best, the history of the English Church is a history of great missionary zeal and sacrifice. There would be no Church in England were it not for the early Roman and Celtic missions to the British Isles. In the 16th century, at the heart of the English Reformation was a desire that all in England should come under the sound of the biblical gospel, and that Christ should be glorified in salvation. The same desire fueled the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, which was led largely by Anglican clergymen, as well as the nineteenth century world missionary movement, which over time led to the formation of the many Provinces that now make up the global Anglican communion. At each stage of the gospel’s progress in England and around the world, men and women gave themselves, often at great personal cost, to mission and discipleship.
Although we serve in very different contexts, I take it that Anglican evangelicals still share this desire to proclaim the Lord Jesus, that his name might be believed on, honoured, and adored. The outworking of that desire will sometimes look quite different in our different ministries, institutional affiliations, and congregational lives. And that’s okay, because none of us has anything close to a monopoly on what is wise or true. It is Christ by his Spirit—and not the preferences or personalities of our particular circle—who unites us to one another in his own body, just as he is the one, by his sanctifying Spirit, who separates us from those who oppose or deny him. Therefore, with Paul, we can rejoice that we are united in partnership in the gospel, and rejoice whenever and wherever we see Christ preached.
To him be all the glory!