Many Anglicans today draw their sense of Christian identity from a source other than Anglicanism. We see ourselves as Reformed, Calvinist, Lutheran, Papalist, or Pentecostal before we see ourselves as Anglican, and we form our theology first and foremost from those outside sources rather than from our own tradition. Of course, classical Anglicanism is not opposed to looking beyond itself to enrich its theology. Anglicans make no claim to be the exclusive Church of Christ on earth, nor that we have all the answers. Anglicanism does not tell you that you are damned if you practice your Christian faith in something other than the Anglican way. And yet, if you do not believe that Anglicanism is the best way to practice the Christian faith, not just for yourself but for everybody, than you have to concede either that Anglicanism is inferior to something else, in which case you really should be that something else, or that there is no true way to practice the Christian faith, in which case you are a postmodernist and not a Christian at all.
A lot of modern Anglicans would be surprised to hear somebody say that, and yet the reformers and the divines would not have blinked an eye. Not that they would have characterized what they were trying to do in exactly this way. The task of the reformers especially was to make a defense for the Church of England as a Reformed Catholic church. “Anglicanism” as a way of describing the kind of Christianity practiced in the Church of England was not yet a viable term. It would be several hundred years before there would even be a need to describe exported English Christianity. Nevertheless, the reformers were full-throated in their defense of the Church of England, not just as a good option but as the right option.
The Reformers Thought They Were Right
Take, for instance, John Jewel’s “Apology of the Church of England,” written in 1562, which lays out the basis for the Church’s self understanding. Jewel makes the case for how the Church of England comes to hold the doctrine that she does and why it matters. Having done this, Jewel insists that a church which cannot similarly ground itself is seriously deficient. “We have searched out of the Holy Bible, which we are sure cannot deceive, one sure form of religion,” says Jewel, “and have returned again unto the primitive Church of the ancient fathers and Apostles; that is to say, to the first ground and beginning of things, as unto the very foundations and headsprings of Christ’s Church.” This, Jewels says, is in contrast with the Church of Rome:
Wherefore, if the pope will have us be reconciled to him, his duty is first to be reconciled to God. For from thence, saith Cyprian, spring schisms and sects, because men seek not the Head, and have not their recourse to the fountain (of the Scriptures), and keep not the rules given by the heavenly Teacher. For, saith he, that is not peace, but war; neither is he joined unto the Church, which is severed from the Gospel.
What follows is uncharitable and without nuance, as was much of what Roman apologists wrote about the Church of England, and yet the point is that Jewel believed that the failure of the Roman Church lies in its unwillingness to submit to the witness of scripture and antiquity that seemed plain to him to be expressed in the formularies of his own church. In other words, the problem with Roman Catholicism is that it is not Anglican.
Lest we get the idea that this sort of thing only cuts in one direction, Richard Hooker’s criticism of Calvinist Puritanism provides us with a sound counter example. Hooker celebrated John Calvin, but found that the English followers of the school of Geneva were unable to receive what was good in Calvin’s theology into their own practice, particularly when it comes to orders in the Church. Though Hooker does not wish to be against Calvin, he does criticize the way in which Calvin’s teaching has led the Puritans to be unwilling to accept the possibility of Catholic orders in the Church, thereby placing them at odds with the Church of England. “That which Calvin did for the establishment of his discipline,” says Hooker, “seemeth more commendable than that which he taught for the countenancing of it established.” Furthermore, Hooker does not believe that the Puritans can show from scripture or even from Calvin himself that the laity ought to be involved in decisions of excommunication rather than the bishops and clergy alone (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Preface, II.7). And as we talked about a few weeks ago in examining the Anglican approach to scripture, Hooker is very clear that the Puritan form of the Calvinist approach to scripture, however well intentioned, is decidedly false:
Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of Holy Scripture, each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth… [Puritan Calvinists] grow likewise unto a dangerous extremity, as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary [ie, all things necessary to salvation], but all things simply, and in such sort that to do any thing according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful. Whatsoever is spoken of God or things appertaining of God other than as the truth is, though it seems an honour it is an injury… We must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed. (Ibid, Book II, Chapter VIII.7)
Hooker does not deny that the Puritans are Christians who will receive salvation through their faith. Nevertheless, he is plain in saying that they are wrong in the way that they approach scripture and that his way, which represents what he believes to be the doctrine of the Church of England, is superior.
The Anglican Cypher
So why the reticence today amongst Anglicans to make positive, exclusive claims about what our tradition has to offer? As I mentioned above, I think that part of the problem lies in the fact that many Anglicans see themselves as something else first and Anglican second. This runs up and down the churchmanship divide. I have known Anglo-Catholics who see Anglicanism merely as an anomalous historical reality into which an otherwise pristine (and usually pre-Vatican II) Roman Catholic ethos can be poured. I have also known Anglican Evangelicals who are not at all convinced of the distinctives of the Anglican tradition and see it rather as simply “a good pond to fish from.” In either case, we have gotten used to using Anglicanism for our own ends rather than accepting it as authoritative in its own right.
In the nineteenth century (perhaps even earlier), this openness led to the development of the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic movements within Anglicanism, both of which have antecedents in the Anglicanism of yester-year but neither of which are exactly like what came before. In many ways, Anglo-Catholicism shares more in common with other Catholic traditions than it does with historic Anglicanism. Likewise, Anglican Evangelicalism has taken on elements, particularly in its charismatic expression, that place it more in line with Baptist and Pentecostal theology than with even the most Protestant strands of classical Anglicanism. There is much that these two voices have contributed to Anglicanism, and I don’t want to detract from that in the slightest. In many ways, we are better off for these developments. Still, it has to be said that allowing these movements to develop without balance from the wider tradition has led in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to the disintegration of Anglican identity, which in turn has allowed an equally unbalanced liberalism to take advantage. If Anglicanism is everything, than it is also nothing.
Proclaiming the Truth
If Anglicanism is going to survive–indeed, if it is worth saving it at all–than we must not only re-discover and submit to the core tenets of Anglican theology but we must celebrate it. We must be willing to make bold claims again. The chief element in this recovery, it seems to me, will be reaffirming the magisterial office of the Book of Common Prayer, acknowledging that if what we pray determines what we believe than we really ought to be praying the same thing, consistently, throughout the world and throughout time, even if we imbue that prayer with some local variation in terms of non-essential details such as the style of instruments or the architecture of church buildings.
If all of this sounds dreadfully uncharitable to other Christians, I do not mean it to be. We have a great deal to learn from our friends in other Christian traditions, and we should never assume an attitude of triumphalism or a position of gnostic pride, that we posess the truth that everyone else cannot have access to except through us. All that we teach and practice is available to all Christians, with or without the Anglican label. Anglicanism has never claimed to be more than mere Christianity in its essence. But if it is true that Anglicanism delivers mere Christianity, than it also must be true that where other traditions deviate from that mere Christianity they are in error. Either Anglicanism gives us the true faith that it is worth fighting for, or else it is a false religion that deserves to be displaced by other things. And if it is true, than we had better get ourselves a heck of a lot more excited about it.