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Anglican Ecclesiology and the Gospel

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Posted by Mark Smith, 15 Nov 2018

Mark Smith reviews John Fenwick's book 'Anglican Ecclesiology and the Gospel' for a recent edition of Churchman

John Fenwick
Anglican House, 2016 557pp £19.99pb ISBN: 9780997016765

anglican ecclesiology and the gospel book cover

This hefty tome fulfils several functions. It is, firstly, an introduction to the history and theology of the Free Church of England—a body that split from the Established Church in the mid-nineteenth century out of concern at the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, but whose ministerial orders were formally recognised by the Church of England in 2013. It is, secondly, an ambitious attempt to articulate a richly Anglican ecclesiology, both Catholic and Reformed, precisely by reflecting on the distinctive contribution of the FCE. It is, thirdly, a political treatise, which seeks to shed light on the way ahead for the faithful remnant in the Church of England, as controversies over sexuality grow and deepen.

Bishop John Fenwick, the current Primus of the FCE, writes with clarity, verve, and an eye for the homely anecdote—though these gems are normally hidden away in the (often substantial) footnotes. The volume opens in confident style with fifteen pages of commendations from the great and the good—including Jim Packer, Michael Nazir-Ali, and Foley Beach (who, in February 2016, brought the ACNA into full communion with the FCE). Moreover, Fenwick even anticipates, in his first chapter, the kind of criticisms that might be levelled at his book, especially from “those who identify themselves as Evangelicals.” Fenwick recognises that “there is not total agreement even between Evangelicals themselves on many of the issues discussed here,” and so asks for “a generous hearing.”

The case made in the 500 pages that follow can be briefly (though inadequately) summarised. The genesis of the FCE is narrated, and its ecclesiology is characterised approvingly as “Evangelical Catholicism.” It is argued that “catholic” and “evangelical” ecclesiological emphases can be fruitfully brought together through a focus on apostolicity. The apostolic deposit is revealed in Holy Scripture, and is based upon the substitutionary death of Christ and the justification of the believer by faith (Fenwick slurs slightly over “alone”). Tradition (with a capital T) has a positive role to play, as the means by which the Church’s faith is passed on from generation to generation. Thus, by keeping a crucial place for both Scripture and Tradition (the latter in submission to the former), Anglicanism can claim to be truly catholic and truly evangelical.

Fenwick then focusses on the centrality of the ordained ministry, and the sacraments, in the Church’s life. The apostolic tradition is preserved through apostolic succession, as bishops proclaim and transmit the definitive written witness to Christ. A “high” view of the church’s ministry is defended, through an appeal to the Reformers, including the distinct role of the priest (or presbyter) in the church’s life. The ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate is rejected in the strongest terms. With regard to the sacraments, Fenwick caustically notes that “today the main challenge is not posed by ‘Catholics’ who believe too much concerning the Eucharist, but by ‘Evangelicals’ who believe less than Scripture and the Anglican formularies teach.” The believer feeds upon Christ spiritually, rather than physically, at the Lord’s Supper, but he nonetheless really feeds upon him. The Eucharist is not a re-sacrificing of Christ, but it is an exhibiting of that one sacrifice of Calvary. On the question of Eucharistic vesture, Fenwick explains (choosing his words carefully) that “the Free Church of England lines up with the GAFCON majority.”

All this then, contributes to Fenwick’s vision for “Evangelical Catholicism”—which is, for him, authentic Anglicanism. Fenwick’s approach is warmly ecumenical (emphasising areas of overlap and shared concern with Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches), but his main target in writing becomes clear in the final chapter. To all those concerned by developments in the Church of England, Fenwick offers the FCE as a lifeboat—as “the equivalent of the ACNA in the UK.” Because the FCE is recognised by the Church of England, its right hand of friendship avoids the ecclesial chaos and “tragedy” that would result if an “overseas Archbishop were to consecrate a bishop for a certain constituency in the UK.” Indeed, Fenwick considers that moving to the FCE might do English
conservative Evangelicals a lot of good, and correct their drift “away from normative Anglican identity.”

It is hard to review this book, since its scope is so wide, its learning so deep, and its political intention so provocative. It is perhaps best seen as the product of a considerable division between the theology, ecclesiology and church practice of evangelical Anglican conservatives on the two sides of the Atlantic. Fenwick wants the Free Church of England to be equivalent to the ACNA for the Church of England—a safe, sound, and ecclesiologically-robust lifeboat to which the faithful remnant can flee. The problem is that the FCE/ACNA style of conservative Anglicanism that Fenwick commends is far more liturgical, sacramental, episcopal and self-consciously “catholic” than the kind of low-church semi-conformity that exemplifies much of the Reform constituency in England. And if Fenwick helpfully highlights some lacunae in the theology and practice of the latter, he also seems far more at ease with the worrying whiffs of quasi-Roman teaching that lurk in the shadowy corners of his book—and that, indeed, sometimes emerge into plain sight. In short, Anglican conservatism has become embodied in two very different church cultures, neither of which now looks authentically Anglican to the other. If this fact, at a purely human level, threatens to hole Fenwick’s lifeboat beneath the waterline, it should nonetheless prompt some urgent self-reflection among both parties.

This review first appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of Churchman.

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Mark Smith is Chaplain of Christ's College, Cambridge

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