At the Reformation the Church of England became protestant in order to become more truly and perfectly Catholic.
William Van Mildert, Bishop of Durham 1826-36
Anglicanism, or the Church of England (CoE), is a church with an uncertain future. It has rightly drawn ridicule from both believers and unbelievers alike for its actions in recent years. Finding itself hemorrhaging members and increasingly factional over a range of issues. I was raised in it yet walked away from it for a time because I saw it as fundamentally compromised. Yet despite that I have found myself increasingly convinced of a form of Anglicanism in recent years for two primary reasons.
Anglicanism is Catholic in the sense that reciters of the Nicene creed believe in ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’. We Protestants are quick to assert that ‘Catholic’ means universal and that is true, however one of the things I struggled with in an Evangelical background (which I still believe in) was that the faith I encountered felt no older than the 1960’s that birthed it. Strictly speaking Catholic means those practices and beliefs that have always been present in the church and shared for a continuous period of time, Anglicanism can still in this light call itself ‘Universal’.
Having travelled England and the British isles I am increasingly challenged by the detritus of Christian history in this land that even the reformation wasn’t able to remove from the face of the country God placed me in. We have such a rich inheritance left behind by those who went before us that I am confronted by them and challenged by their lives and sacrifices in the name of the Gospel that I want to find myself in their company.
As a Protestant I am guilty of believing any useful Christian history starts from the Reformation onwards. Yet Anglicanism I believe is one of the few Protestant churches that can claim the uninterrupted heritage of the Church in some form as their own in a thoroughly unique and powerful way, and I think all Protestants should want to get to grips with it with gladness.
The reformation when it came to England had a focus on removing erroneous unbiblical beliefs and practices that had emerged in the church. The Anglican church shared in the reformation that swept throughout Europe and as a denomination has carried it far beyond the borders of the British Isles. The sacrifices of figures like (a hero of mine) William Tyndale and the coming into existence of the Bible in English happened within the context of what is now the Anglican Church.
I believe in a Church that first and foremost is devoted to following God through his revelation in the light of scripture. That despite how wondrous, exciting and beneficial following those who’ve gone before us is I recognise that scripture alone is our final authority. Whilst the traditions and history of the Church is an anchor for us it is not infallible and should not be beyond reproach. Should the church fail to act in the light of the Gospel message preached by Jesus and his followers that has worked its way to us through the ages the Bible alone is a prophetic voice calling it to account. The cult of the saints, transubstantiation, the belief in purgatory and priestly indulgences are all examples of things in the history of the church which do not have their roots in scripture which we subsequently reject.
I have found Peter J. Leithart’s ‘The End of Protestantism’ an interesting piece related to my thinking on this, whilst I don’t agree with everything I think he does get a lot of things right in it. Protestantism has always been (up until recently) a scholastic movement which is increasingly defined in some cases by ‘what it isn’t’ (Roman Catholicism) rather than what it is. I come from an Evangelical background, but I would actually take the sermons in the tradition of the Apostolic fathers over the pop-psychology I hear in many Evangelical church sermons today. We need to look increasingly beyond our own individualistic salvation to that of a vision big enough for not just us but all of society and this is something I feel the tradition of the faith can help us in our efforts to once again baptise the nation as we look at both the successes and failures of those before us.
Now I’m not going to pretend the Church of England has got its act together. I’m still deliberating a lot of this and have echoes of Stott vs Lloyd-Jones in the 60’s doing the rounds in my mind. One day I wake up on the side of Stott and the other Lloyd-Jones but regardless I am convinced that a Christian has a commitment to be Catholic and simultaneously Protestant. I need to fight for the church and I honestly feel that my attempt to understand classical Anglicanism, whilst unpopular today, is a Christianity at its most authentic.
The reality of the Church of England is that it is compromised socially, morally and theologically. Compromised is the right word because it tries to create space for conflicting theologies and visions of the church pretending they can all coexist. Being together is better than being truthful in many instances which unsurprisingly compromises its witness.
Being part of the establishment of the country also comes with pressure to conform to the society around it and not the Gospel as historically (and Biblically) understood. This also gives the church its own coloured history and personally I think it’d be good if disestablishment happened sooner rather than later. On governance every insight I’ve had into Church runnings in the CoE makes me feel a little bit sick at how convoluted and political it all seems. It is also particularly lost to the working classes in our society, it’s a middle and upper class church and that needs to change.
Now do I attend a church that necessarily matches up to the ideal I’ve discussed? No, I attend my local parish church that operates largely in the tradition of Holy Trinity Brompton. A tradition which is increasingly typical of growing Anglican churches in London that don’t really feel all that Anglican. They do good work and pull numbers but for several reasons I think they really lose out in some key areas which raises questions for me about their sustainability in the long term.
My own ideal is a low church set up that is Evangelical in conviction, expositional in its teaching, interested in explicit Discipleship and investing in the life of the community and with a place for the Book of Common Prayer in its services. Easily accessible to everyone but with clearly defined membership for those committed to the church and regularly celebrating the sacraments.
My only point of contention with classical Anglicanism on this is the idea of infant baptism, it is a well established occurrence I know but I personally advocate believers baptism. The idea of baptising someone unable to make the choice themselves seems meaningless to me. The closest anabaptist in me can’t help it.