Updated: Feb 8, 2021
What does it mean to be Anglican? If our Anglican futures are to be Anglican futures, what fundamental commitments will they need to uphold and express?
As we’ve noted in a previous blog post, we will not always make the same practical decisions in response to the challenges of remaining faithful Anglicans over the coming years. Despite all that we hold in common, our differing contexts, temperaments, priorities and convictions will mean that faithful Anglicans will make different judgments about precisely when and how to act for the sake of the gospel. All of us will therefore need to keep asking how we can honour and support one another even when we make different principled and pragmatic decisions.
In order to do this, it will be vital that we stay focused on what really matters. And so it’s helpful to remind ourselves what being Anglican means. As we think, pray, plan and act for the future, what will be necessary if we are to be loyal not just to one another, but also to the biblical gospel and all that is best in our Anglican heritage?
We’ll seek to answer that question over a couple of blog posts.
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’.
Sadly, we must recognise that in the UK, these convictions are often honoured in the breach, rather than in their observance. So perhaps it would be helpful to spell them out 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 2020. 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 39 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 of Religion (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 21st century 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 many non-essential matters.
In our next post, we’ll think about the place of the Prayer Book and gospel worship, the Ordinal and episcopal oversight, and the gospel priority of mission. For now we’ll close with a few questions for reflection, arising from what we’ve just seen.
1. Do you agree with what’s been said here? Why, or why not? How would you understand what it means to be authentically Anglican?
2. Does the Bible play this central role in your life? In the life of your local church? In the life of your deanery and diocese? In the words of the Prayer Book Collect for the second Sunday in Advent, are you prioritising time to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s promises in Scripture? Could you make this collect a regular prayer for yourself and your church?
3. Do you think the 39 Articles are a good description of essential Christian beliefs? Do they play a live role in your understanding of what it means to believe the gospel? Where do you struggle or disagree with what they teach?