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Theology Thursday: Refining the Reformers

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Posted by Kirsty Birkett, 16 Apr 2015

Just what is Anglican ecclesiology? Is the Church of England actually a church, in biblical terms? Just what do we mean, as Reformed Anglicans, by terms such as church, congregation, visible, invisible, or universal? It is not just a matter of terminology – the status we give the denomination also impinges upon what we think of bishops and their authority, and who is thereby entitled to be a bishop, as well as the process by which official doctrine should be determined, not to mention what should happen with our money.

Melvin Tinker discusses Anglican ecclesiology in his article ‘Refining the Reformers’. This article is in response to a previous one (‘The Anglican Understanding of Church’, Churchman 115/3, 2001), and should probably be read in conjunction with it. Both articles are written conscious of the context of Australian discussions of what church is, since the ‘Knox-Robinson’ thesis was developed, bringing to prominence the biblical usage of ekklesia as primarily a local gathering.

The Australian discussion never claimed that usage of ekklesia was the only relevant issue in understanding church, although caricatures or simplifications of the position can seem to assume so. It does, however, call us back to establishing a biblical understanding of church, which is precisely what the Articles also call us to do.

Tinker takes us through New Testament discussion of ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ (Heb 12:22-24) and how that relates to the credal faith in ‘one holy, catholic church’ – he does not specifically discuss what makes it ‘apostolic’, although his emphasis on hearing the word of God as characteristic of what to do in church suggests he would see apostolic as defined by the content of teaching. Other characteristics of church he brings out are holiness, brotherly love, praise and prayer.

The Reformers did not all agree upon, and did not all fully develop, one ecclesiology, which is why Tinker thinks there is room to ‘Refine the Reformers’. Whether this means that the Articles need further development is not entirely clear – in any case the Articles do not claim to be comprehensive, but a summary of Scripture.

Tinker’s paper is well worth reading to recap these issues at a time when our ecclesiology is so important in the light of developments in the Church of England. Just what is this organisation to which we have loyalty? A clear, biblical understanding of the nature of this organisation must underpin our efforts within it.

Tinker, Melvin. “Refining the Reformers: A Theological Response to ‘the Anglican Understanding of Church.’Churchman 116/2 (2002): 137–50.

Kirsty Birkett teaches Pastoral Counselling and Youth and Children's Ministry at Oak Hill College

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