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The Anglican Doctrine of the Visible Church

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 1 Jun 2020

Lee Gatiss unpacks the Anglican doctrine of the visible church, which has been misunderstood by those who force their own theological frameworks onto the Anglican formularies.

There has been some confusion amongst evangelicals recently about Anglican polity. Some have claimed that Anglicanism is rightly understood as being Congregationalist, such that authorities outside of the local parish gathering can be safely ignored (such as bishops, especially those who are unorthodox).

In this in-depth talk, I examine such claims about the structure and leadership of the church and especially Article 19’s teaching that ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’ This simply does not mean what some have taken it to mean, which I demonstrate by looking at the historical and polemical context and how such statements were used by other Reformers at the time. Some have badly twisted the Articles because they have forced their own theological frameworks onto them and imported meanings into key terms which would have been foreign to those who wrote them. Just as we object to those who do this in biblical interpretation, so we should also object when it is done to other theological texts, especially those which define confessional Anglicanism.

I also look at how Congregationalism was a small minority opinion in the 16th and 17th centuries even amongst the Puritans, and at how its bitter divisiveness led to the failure of attempts to reform and renew the church. The talk also looks at the Anglican doctrine of “the marks of the church” and the often neglected aspect of godliness within that. Churches can err in their doctrine and ritual, but also in their “manner of living”. Hence the vital nature of church discipline for the Reformers, and for us today.

The talk concludes with 10 challenges which a proper understanding of Anglican ecclesiology brings for us today.

This talk is based on a much longer scholarly article published in Evangelical Quarterly 90.1 (2020):25-49, which interacts with Thomas Cranmer and the English Prayer Books, William Tyndale, John Jewel, John Ponet, and Alexander Nowell as well as the writings of John Eck, Cardinal Bellarmine, Martin Luther, the Augsburg Confession and statements about the church parallel to Article 19 made by Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Huldreich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Reformed confessions, which are placed against the background of evangelical discussions of the structure and governance of the church and the meaning of the Thirty-nine Articles from the early modern period (e.g. Thomas Rogers, Richard Hooker, Thomas Hooker, and the Reformation Legum Ecclesiasticarum) as well as more recent evangelical reflections from David Broughton Knox, Alan Stibbs, Colin Buchanan, Donald Allister, David Banting, Melvin Tinker, Nathan Buttery, Peter Sanlon and Gerald Bray.

Dr Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and a lecturer in church history at Union School of Theology. He is also Adjunct Professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture volume on the Pastoral Epistles.

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