Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Essence of Anglicanism

Over at Musings of a Hard-Lining Moderate, Carson T. Clark asks "What is the Essence of Anglicanism; or What, Exactly, is Required for Anglicanness?" He quite rightly notes that giving a definitive answer to such questions is difficult (perhaps impossible?) given the diversity of faith and practice that can all lay claim to being "Anglican." He writes:

... some Anglicans are basically Catholic without the Pope while others are so Reformed they’d make the Puritans blush. Some think it’s not Anglicanism without bells, smells, and vestments. Others prefer electric guitars, projection screens, and priests who wear blue jeans. Some love homilies. Others want full-blown exegetical sermons. Some insist upon using words like “sacristy.” Others say, “For the love! It’s a closet with a sink where they store the robes. Get over yourself.” Some speak in tongues. Others don’t speak a word unless it’s directly out of the Book of Common Prayer. Some worship in cathedrals that are a thousand years old. Others worship in incomplete houses. Some think the Thirty-Nine Articles should be seen as the official, enduring statement of belief. Others think it little more than a historical document, a relic of the past. Some believe all seven ecumenical councils are authoritative. Others affirm the first four alone, or even hedge away from acknowledging any ecclesiastical “authority” outside of Scripture. Some see the Archbishop of Canterbury as the spiritual leader of the global communion. Others believe Anglicanism has no central leader. Some ordain women. Others have built their identity around not ordaining women. Some use the title “pastor.” Others are adamant that office be called the priesthood. Some believe geographical dioceses are the bedrock of Anglican polity. Others think that model is outmoded.

Carson proposes the following seven markers of Anglican identity that provide unity in the midst of this diversity:
  1. Sacramental Theology
  2. The Bishopric
  3. Historical Orientation
  4. English Culture
  5. Scripture's Authority
  6. Prayer Book
  7. Via Media
Take a look at how Carson unpacks each of these seven markers and see what you think.

I'm a little surprised that the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds are not included in this list (perhaps they get included within #6?). Unlike the Reformed churches, Anglicanism has tended to be more of a creedal than a confessional tradition. And so, writing as an Episcopalian in his book Understanding the Faith of the Church, Richard A. Norris kicks off the very first chapter by claiming: "The church's creeds are the starting point for our enterprise of understanding the faith."

Regardless, Carson has a written a thought-provoking article. I encourage you to read it all.


Robin G. Jordan said...

As J. I. Packer observes in The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today, a lot of the confusion regarding Anglican identity today is traceable to the 19th century Tractarian movement that sought to change the identity of Anglicanism, which had been very clearly Protestant and Reformed for 300 years. Since that time various groups and individuals have sought to redefine Anglicanism to reflect their own particular emphases. Each time they have moved further and further away from Anglicanism's Protestant and Reformed theological identity. Carson's proposal would do the same thing. Packer goes on point out that while it is open to argue that a new concept of Anglicanism is needed as does Carson, it is also open to argue that is not so at all, and argue that "our real need is to lay hold afresh of the old concept from which we have drifted..., to grasp again the breadth of the old concept..., and to deepen it in the face of the vast complex of relativist and pluralist theologies" which are presently affecting the Church.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robin. Interesting observations drawing on Packer.

I do think there are tendencies within various parts of the Anglican world to (consciously or unconconsciously) "redefine Anglicanism" in ways that suit the preferences of particular individuals and groups. I wonder, though, if Packer's understanding of true Anglicanism as a "Protestant and Reformed theological identity" is not too narrowly defined

I'm reminded of Lancelot Andrewes summary statement: "One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of the Fathers in that period determine the boundaries of our faith." There's no mention here of anything Protestant and Reformed.

Or what about Jeremy Taylor who, in a 1657 Letter to a Gentlewoman Seduced to the Church of Rome laid out the reasons for the sufficiency of Anglicanism in a way that echoes Andrewes?

Carson T Clark said...

Two thoughts:

1. I find it... convenient?... when anyone from a sub-tradition of Anglicanism sees his or her sub-tradition as *true* essence of the the tradition, trying to define it accordingly. I have the same gut response when Lutherans claim to be the true Protestants or the Orthodox claim to be the true church. It seems downright silly.

2. Even if I were to concede that Anglicanism was essentially Reformed before the Tractarian movement, the plain fact of that matter is that's no longer that today. Whether or not one agrees with their theology and practices, the Anglican tradition now includes groups ranging from Anglo-Catholic to Anglo-charismatic. That's simply the reality on the ground.

Rick said...

But are all these really valid and/or healthy if they still welcome a Bishop Spong?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Rick. There's no question in my mind that tolerating folks like Spong is a sign of a serious problem. But I'm not sure that such tolerance is the same as welcoming or approval. It could be more about a genuine (if misguided) desire to be "inclusive" and "non-judging." But even then, allowing a Spong to serve as a bishop, representing the faith of a Church which he openly rejects and at times even ridicules, is deeply disturbing.

I've written elsewhere that "the Episcopal Church has been infiltrated by both bad and heretical theology. It may not be as pervasive as the more stringent doomsayers cry, but it's there and, left unchecked, will spread and come to seem more and more 'normal.'" I still believe that's true, even as I continue to believe that we do well to avoid falling into the fallacy of converse accident, which is "the fallacy of considering certain exceptional cases and generalizing to a rule that fits them alone."

Robin G. Jordan said...


One or two seeming exceptions, taken from the seventeeth century Caroline High Churchmen, do not invalidate Packer's observation. One also does not need to use terms like Protestant or Reformed for a theological outlook to be Protestant or Reformed. You know better than that.

The historical evidence supports Packer. The English Reformers were undeniably Protestant and Reformed. The Caroline High Churchmen were a small group of clergy that enjoyed royal patronage. As far as representing the typical curate and parishioner of the period, such claims are highly debatable. The evidence from the seventeenth century include the 1640 Canons, Bishop James Ussher's Body of Divinity, the Westminister Confession, Bishop John Cosin's own last testament, the Coronation Oath Act of 1688, and numerous other documents.

The Puritans cannot be excluded from the evidence as they were a part of the Church of England until the Great Ejection and even then a number of them conformed and accepted the 1662 Prayer Book.

Stephen Hampton has shown in Anti-Arminians: The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George, that the Reformed tradition continued to thrive after the Restoration.

Rick said...


Thank you for your response, including your concerns. Anglicanism has much to provide to wider Christianity, but it must stand by those words it says it adheres to. Too many see them as just words, with little or alternate meanings. The strong, orthodox beliefs of such giants as Lewis, Stott, Packer, Wright, Lightfoot, etc... should be the ones people think of when they think of Anglicanism.

Again, thanks.

Bryan Owen said...

Carson, thanks for commenting here. I think that what you have said is a good rebuttal to those who try to make a sub-tradition into the "true" essence of Anglicanism. Some "Low Church" folks try to do that by citing how Protestant and Reformed the English Reformers were, while some "High Church" folks sometimes try to do that by arguing that groups like the Tractarians represent "true" Anglicanism. Perhaps they're both right!

Peter Carrell said...

Isn't the true essence of Anglicanism obedience to Jesus Christ? If we are doing anything which is disobedient to Jesus, shouldn't we stop doing it?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Peter. I'm certainly not going to argue against obedience to Jesus Christ as essential to true Anglicanism! But I would also add that obedience to Jesus Christ is essential to any authentic expression of Christian faith and practice, and thus by itself does not tell us what differentiates Anglicanism from other Christian traditions. Nor does affirming the non-negotiable centrality of obedience to Jesus by itself tell us which expressions of Anglicanism are more authentic and faithful than others.

I can imagine, for instance, a proponent of Reformed Anglicanism and a proponent of Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism agreeing wholeheartedly with your comment. And yet I can also easily imagine that they could be at odds with each other over what that obedience actually looks like in practice. So much so, in fact, that the one could charge the other with "adding" to or "subtracting" from the faith in ways that compromise obedience to Jesus Christ.

Kurt said...

“The Puritans cannot be excluded from the evidence as they were a part of the Church of England until the Great Ejection and even then a number of them conformed and accepted the 1662 Prayer Book.” Robert Jordan

Fortunately, things evolved differently here in America. The Puritans excluded themselves from the Anglican Church from the very beginning in Plymouth, Boston, New Haven, etc. Both the Low Church Latudinarian Bishop White, as well as the High Church Bishop Seabury, found Calvinism distasteful, and the eventual exodus of the Cumminsites was met with great relief in the 1870s by both Low Church Latitudinarins and High Church Catholics alike.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Kurt said...

Oops! I mean Robin, of course!