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Why I Am An Anglican: Simon Austen

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Posted by Simon Austen, 25 Oct 2018

This article is reproduced from the 2006 Orthos booklet, 'Why I Am An Anglican', originally published by the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, and now available on our Resources page.

‘Anglicanism’ is a notoriously amorphous word. Whilst once it may have generated a consensus of understanding as that which came out of the Protestant Reformation, the emergence of higher criticism and the reaction of the Oxford movement in the nineteenth century sowed the seeds of our contemporary confusion. The three parties which emerged in the years that followed, catholic, liberal and evangelical, changed the character of Anglicanism such that ‘Appeal could now be made only to a consensus that remained extremely vague and eluside, a matter of ethos, approach, tacit rather than explicit, an unwritten understanding between members of a common fellowship.’[1]

The legacy of this history is that Anglicanism is now seen as ‘a body without definition’ [2] and ‘The Anglican way - almost the hallmark of Anglicanism - is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated.’ [3]

Perhaps in this climate there are persuasive reasons to abandon Anglicanism and pledge allegiance to a denomination with greater theological conviction and clearer direction. But three anchors hold me to the Church of England: history, theology and governance.

The Church of England has, for over four hundred years, enabled gospel proclamation and biblical teaching in England. It is true that our history is chequered. At times the landscape has been very barren and the future very uncertain. In the 1870s J. C. Ryle wrote, ‘the clouds are gathering round the Church of England; her very existence is in peril. Conflicting opinions bid fair to rend her in twain. A strife has arisen within her pale in the last thirty or forty years, not about the trappings and vestments of religion, but about the very foundation of the Gospel. It remains to be seen whether our beloved Church will survive the struggle.’ [4] But through it all the evangelical conviction, which is the bed rock on which the Church of England was built, has been maintained and has allowed gospel opportunity and access throughout the land.

By contrast, the free churches, whilst exercising faithful ministry, have not benefited from opportunities available through historical continuity. Indeed, in some parts of the world and in some churches, the lack of historic formularies have prevented genuine reformation in the local church, where power resides in those who may be resistant to biblical change.

The theology of the Church of England is defined by the scriptures. Canon A5 states ‘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.’ The Articles likewise affirm the centrality and sufficiency of scripture: ‘Holy Scriptures containesth 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). ‘The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority on Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another’ (Article XX).

It is true that in recent years attitudes to the articles have been more relaxes; they now ‘have only nominal, token authority and cannot be invoked against doctrinal deviations’. [5] But nevertheless, those ordained into the Church of England are required to declare their acceptance of ‘Holy Scripture as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Christ’, belief in ‘The Doctrine of the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it’ and all studies that will ‘deepen your faith and fit you to uphold the truth of the Gospel against error’ (Ordination of Priests).

The doctrine of the Church of England is clearly rooted in the Scriptures and, ultimately, nothing else.

In 664 the Synod of Whitby unified the identity of Ecclesia Anglicana under Papal authority, and despite a variation of opinion at the time of the Reformation, England kept continuity with the early Church and maintained a three-fold pattern of ministry, although the authority of the Pope was rejected. It also recognised that churches without bishops were still churches (Article XIX). Despite the controversies of the seventeenth century, the 1888 Lambeth Conference affirmed the need for episcopacy ‘locally adapted’ as a cornerstone for a reunited Church, understanding that from the Apostles’ time there have been these orders in Christ’s Church: bishops, priests and deacons.

Today a variety of understandings of episcopacy can be found within the Church of England, not all of which find their rationale from the Scriptures—but which, according to the services of ordination and consecration, should do so. Indeed, ‘Proclamation and defence of wholesome doctrine’ is a responsibility of every bishop. The Book of Common Prayer asks the newly consecrated bishop: ‘Will you faithfully exercise yourself in the same holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer, for the true understanding of the same; so as ye may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers? ... Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon others to do the same?’

But some may ask if there is any biblical rationale for a three-fold order of ministry, even if those appointed to the episcopacy are faithful to their promises. Do we need bishops as the Church of England understands them?

The New Testament provides clear guidelines for the selection of leadership in the local church. Those who desire to be an overseer desire a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). Such ‘bishops’ were selected from the local congregation for oversight of that congregation, as were presbyters (Titus 1:5) and has to be both godly and able to teach. The nature of selection and the roles they occupied suggests that the terms were interchangeable. And although they may not have been stipendiary ministers, they were what we might regard as incumbents. Deacons, likewise, were selected from the local church (1 Timothy 3:8), exhibiting the same qualities of godliness, with perhaps less emphasis on teaching (although Stephen was a deacon with a great teaching ministry, cf. Acts 6).

The word ‘priest’ is never applied to teh presbyter, the bishop or the deacon in the New Testament and is only ever found in connection with the whole body of Christ (1 Peter 2:9) or the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles (Romans 15:16), both of which relate to the finished work of Christ. Many of the Reformers understood the word ‘priest’ as an etymological contraction of ‘presbyter’ and did not hold to a sacramental view of priesthood. They only retained the term in The Book of Common Prayer in order to make it clear that deacons were not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even though the New Testament has very little to say about who can officiate at communion. However, as the teaching elder within Anglican congregations is usually the Church leader, it is perhaps appropriate that the right of Church discipline should remain with him, which would thereby limit who presides at the Lord’s supper. He might choose to delegate this authority (something not at present possible within the Church of England), but for the sake of Church order and effective Church discipline, officiating at communion might be limited.

As to the place of bishops, there is biblical precedent for a post-apostolic leader who has responsibility for appointing elders (Titus 1:5) and ensuring the preservation and proclamation of sound doctrine (2 Timothy 2:2). It is possible that these ‘Timothy’ figures may have been nomadic, appointing elders over a wider area than is represented by one church and to that extent would be the equivalent of our modern day episcopacy.

Undoubtedly our terminology is open to semantic confusion, but the theology which underpins it can be found to have biblical mandate. It does mean, however, that the authority of a bishop does not reside in his office, but in his responsibility, which is reflected in the ordinal and should be seen in practice. The present ecclesiological confusion has arisen because the Church of England wrongly tolerates the maintenance of externals whilst allowing a wide variety of theological interpretation in belief and practice. This apparently virtuous tolerance of diversity is far from the historic formularies of Anglicanism and the Scriptures upon which the denomination is based and to which all who are ordained within the Church of England profess agreement.

The alternative to episcopal government is congregational government. In many ways this is very appealing, in that it places the responsibility for Church life within the local body. But in terms of selection for leadership and appointment of presbyters, it can be weak. At worst, it separates the responsibility of appointment from the criteria by which that appointment should be made. This happens when an eldership which does not want to be challenged by the authority of the Bible prevents the appointment of a minister who seeks to uphold it. A congregation is thereby starved of a ministry which might cause it to grow and is left with a ministry which will do no more than confirm the theological position of the eldership. In contrast, the episcopal system at its best allows for a biblically-minded Anglican to be appointed to a church where a biblical agenda has hitherto not been appreciated.

Anglicanism is not perfect and the Lord will build his Church whether or not the Church of England exists, but the grass on the other side of the fence is not as green as it might seem. Our history, our theology, and our governance lend themselves to authentic biblical ministry if rightly understood and rightly executed. That is why I am an Anglican.

1. Paul Avis ‘What is Anglicanism?’ in Stephen Sykes and John Booty (eds.), The Study of Anglicanism (London: SPCK, 1988), p. 410
2. Edward Norman, Anglican Difficulties (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2004), p. xii
3. Ibid, p. xiii.
4. J.C.Ryle, Knots Untied (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1977), p.2.
5. Ibid, p.2.

Simon Austen is Rector of St Leonard's Church, Exeter

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