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The Marks of an Anglican Church

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 5 Sep 2019

Lee Gatiss considers 10 challenges posed by the Anglican doctrine of the church

In a recent blog, I examined Protestant and Catholic disagreements about the doctrine of the Church, at the time of the Reformation. In such a context, what are the marks of the church, according to the Church of England?

Article 19, as we have begun to see, has several things to say about this. “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.” The visible church is a group called out from the world, as Bellarmine said. All Englishmen are not necessarily Christians. The church is a certain group, called out or set apart from the world.

As the Homily for Whitsunday, probably written by Bishop John Jewel (1522-1571), puts it, “The true church is an universal congregation or fellowship of God’s faithful and elect people.” This fellowship of the elect “hath always three notes or marks whereby it is known — pure and sound doctrine, the sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline.”

Bishop John Ponet (1516-1556) was essentially the mouthpiece of Cranmer’s circle of reformers, and gave us a basic commentary on the doctrine of the Articles in his officially-sanctioned catechism. He asks how the true church “may severally and plainly be known asunder from each other fellowship of men?” The answer is “That congregation is nothing else but a certain multitude of men: which, wheresoever they be, profess the pure and upright learning of Christ, and that in such sort, as it is faithfully set forth in the holy testament, by the evangelists and apostles: which in all points are governed and ruled by the laws and statutes of their king and high Bishop [in the Latin, Pontificis] Christ, in the bond of charity: which use his holy mysteries, that are commonly called sacraments, with such pureness and simplicity (as touching their nature and substance) as the apostles of Christ used and left behind in writing.”

So as D. B. Knox explains it, “Article 19 gives the marks by which a Christian assembly may be distinguished from assemblies called for other purposes.” Such a group confesses pure, biblical doctrine and is governed (as the Belgic Confession would agree) by one king and Pontiff — not the Bishop of Rome, as Bellarmine and Eck would say, but Christ. As the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum clearly put it, “the error of those who want the universal church of the whole Christian world to be governed by the bishop of Rome alone is intolerable.” Why? Because the church is the company of all the faithful (“omnium coetus sit fidelium”) in which the Bible is sincerely taught and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command (2:21).

So, Article 19’s definition of the church was used by contemporaries as the answer to Rome’s claim to universal sovereignty. It shows both that the Church of England does not need to be under the Pope’s jurisdiction to be a true church, and also implies that the Church of Rome itself is not the true or infallible church (as indeed, the Homily for Whitsunday says explicitly), although there is some perhaps deliberate ambiguity in the Article itself about whether Rome still has some necessary marks of a visible church.

According to Bishop Ponet, “The marks therefore of this church are: first, pure preaching of the gospel: then brotherly love, out of which, as members of all one body, springeth good will of each to other: thirdly, upright and uncorrupted use of the Lord’s sacraments, according to the ordinance of the gospel: last of all, brotherly correction, and excommunication, or banishing those out of the church, that will not amend their lives. This mark the holy fathers termed discipline.” The noteworthy addition to the usual list here is “brotherly love.” How the church lives is as important as what it officially confesses.

That is why, resonating with Calvin and Bucer, our Article 19 is keen to point out that “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” Errors in their manner of living (not only in a general lack of godliness, but also perhaps in enforcing unbiblical celibacy upon clergy) are hugely important. The Anglican doctrine of the church naturally agrees on this point with the wider reformed tradition on the subject.

It is also worth pointing out that another aspect of Reformed reflection on the church is also present in the Anglican Articles. In the church, the sacraments are to be “duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” What that means is fleshed out in further Articles:

* It means not ordaining rites and ceremonies that are “contrary to God’s Word written” (Article 20).

* It means having lawfully called and consecrated preachers and ministers (Article 23, Article 36), who may be married (Article 32), and who speak in a language understood by the people (Article 24).

* Sacraments “duly administered” also means properly using the sacraments for the purpose they were instituted (Article 25, Article 28), including baptising infants which is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ” (Article 27), and giving communion in both kinds to all Christians (Article 30).

* It also means the ministers who administer the sacraments must be subject to discipline if they fall short (Article 26), and must also discipline others (Article 33), while not offending the common order of the church in their attitude towards traditions which are in themselves not repugnant to the Bible (Article 34).

So Anglican polity recognises discipline as an essential mark of the church. This may not be spelled out as such in one single Article (Article 19), though some such as Griffith Thomas, take it as implied by the idea of sacraments being “duly ministered”, and the rest of the Articles make it abundantly clear. They also recognise a duly ordained ministry as a key component of a biblically ordered church or congregation, just as Luther, Bucer, and others did, while being very clear that “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England” (Article 37), contrary to the Roman Catholic definition and doctrine of the church.

This is all reflected, of course, in the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, which are seen in this historical and polemical context therefore as entirely Protestant and Reformed in the way they speak of and order the church.

So what are the marks of an Anglican church (or denomination)? A group of people, with lives marked by an intention to be faithful and loyal to the holy God in their lives, who listen to his word and celebrate his sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper in a disciplined and orderly way under the properly constituted and accountable leadership of Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons. This is the kind of healthy congregation that we ought to be pioneering, establishing, and securing, the goal of all our reforming and renewing activity within the Church of England.

This is all a particular challenge for:

1. Those who think that there is no Anglican doctrine of the church and we can just make it up as we go along. Anglican ecclesiology is biblically based, historically rooted, and carefully defined.

2. Those who think that Anglicanism is basically Roman Catholicism with a few twists. It is, rather, a form of confessional Protestantism, with a Reformed flavour.

3. Those who think Article 19 says everything there is to say about Anglican polity. What it says ought, rather, to be read in the historical context of the words and ideas it uses, and in the context of the other Articles and formularies from the time.

4. Those who think that Anglicanism is the same as Congregationalism. A misreading of the word “congregation” in Article 19, which we have shown to be false, might give this impression on an atomistic and superficial reading. Yet the Article is not saying the church is just the local meeting, and there are clearly confessional and institutional accountability structures built into authentic Anglican polity, over the minister. It is precisely because we are not actually Congregationalists (who give significant powers to the congregational meeting), that it is dangerous to ignore and sideline these wider accountability structures, since ministerial accountability can thereby be seemingly removed altogether. So what we could end up with is a strange hyper-Congregationalism focused on monarchical Presbyters, who can potentially become tyrannical mini-Popes, free from any restraint either from above or below.

5. Those who have forgotten that holiness of life is a key part of being the church. Churches can err in their ceremonies, their doctrine, but also in the “manner of life” which they present to the world. To bless what God has not, is as bad as teaching what God has not; to institutionally tolerate an unholy lifestyle is as sacrilegious as trampling on the sacraments.

6. Those who think that church is defined purely institutionally. Clearly, the Anglican view is that the church is defined doctrinally, sacramentally, and morally and, in the Reformation context, by actually rejecting an institutionalised view that went beyond basic “good order.”

7. Those who have forgotten that discipline is important to maintain a true church. We must have systems and mechanisms for removing doctrinally or morally deficient ministers, and those who are simply incompetent (Article 26). For where the word of God is not purely taught, the sacraments will not be duly administered, and people will err not only in word but in deed.

8. Those Anglicans who think bishops are not important, or that ordination is nothing (“a prayer meeting which recognises Bible teachers”). This is not a classically Protestant, never mind an Anglican view, if Anglicanism is defined confessionally. There can be a church without duly ordained ministers (see Acts 13-14), but duly ordained ministers are necessary for the church’s wellbeing (see Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5) as I argue in a recent talk. To justify episcopacy would take another article, but clearly it is part of the Anglican doctrine of the church as defined by the Articles and Prayer Book.

9. Those who do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper in accordance with Christ’s institution. As the Articles say, “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them” (Article 25), and “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped” (Article 28).

10. Those who do not believe in infant baptism, since to “duly minister” the sacraments “according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” must surely include the baptising of infants of believers, which is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ” (Article 27). To deny this is to deny a key part of the definition of Anglican polity. It may be a legitimate disagreement within the context of Christianity as a whole; but it cannot pretend to be Anglican, according to the Articles.

No doubt the Anglican doctrine of the church is challenging in other ways too. But this is just to sketch out some initial implications for today, as we seek to recover a genuinely Anglican ecclesiology.

Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and author of Light After Darkness: How the Reformers Regained, Retold, and Relied On the Gospel of Grace (Christian Focus).

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