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An interview with The Rev. Canon Chuck Collins, Anglican priest, author and Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism

By David W. Virtue, DD
February 15, 2022

VOL: Chuck, you are not a household Anglican name yet, but you have emerged as a serious theological player in the Anglican blogosphere. What prompted this?

COLLINS: Ha! I don't care about being a household name at this stage of my life, and the thought of being a "serious theological player" is a completely undeserved compliment. Thank you! The truth is that Reformation Anglicanism has very serious scholarly proponents, here and around the world, but only a few popular voices. I love this tradition that is grounded in Holy Scripture, and that's preserved in the Edwardian and Elizabethan Settlement, and Anglican's historic formularies. I sometimes describe Anglicanism as a Protestant expression that is thoroughly biblical, theologically reformed, pastorally generous, and liturgically beautiful. I write and speak about these things because the expression that I hear from many Anglican pulpits and seminaries, and even from church leaders, has no real tie to traditional Anglicanism. And I fear that one of the casualties, perhaps the biggest casualty, in the confusion over our identity is the gospel itself: justification by grace through faith alone as God's free gift for undeserving sinners. I simply want to encourage anyone who will listen to continue in a gospel-centered expression of our Anglican heritage.

VOL: By way of introduction, perhaps you could tell us about yourself. Your spiritual journey, your education, family history and some personal theological insights that have brought you to this point today.

COLLINS: Thanks for asking. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, but I came to faith in my early college days by watching a TV preacher one Sunday morning hit me over the head with "Do you know Jesus?" I was something of a hippy and an anti-war protester back then, living in a house trailer out in the desert, and as a philosophy major, a devout follower of Hermann Hesse and Sylvia Plath. But somehow God got through to me that day and changed my life forever. You talk about God being kind to the ungrateful and the wicked! I began to read the Bible and I went back to church to find all that all the old church stuff was suddenly very meaningful. The creed became alive to me! St. Clements El Paso was going through a time of spiritual renewal, and in the course of becoming involved there and with a student group at UTEP, I felt an urging to go to seminary. At the time I was devouring everything I could read by J.I. Packer, John Stott, Leon Morris, and listening to all of Terry Fullam's tapes. I wanted to go to Trinity Seminary in Ambridge, but my bishop said that I had no choice in the matter and that I would study for ministry in Austin. The Seminary of the Southwest would have been impossible had it not been for really grounded evangelical friends that helped me through, meeting my future wife who was finishing her degree from UT, and the exercise of pushing back and wrestling with my progressive seminary professors.

A year into seminary, during CPE, I became sick and was diagnosed with colon cancer. After several operations and chemotherapy and radiation therapy over the next year (and with lots of prayers from my friends and family), I realized that I would not die then and that God had other plans. Ellen and I married (we've been married 42 years now, with four grown children, and seven wonderful grandchildren), and together we have served churches in Texas, Florida, New Mexico, and Arizona. I had two fairly long pastorates: St. Marks on the Mesa in Albuquerque, and Christ Church in San Antonio. While I was rector of Christ Church, I came to the conclusion that I couldn't continue serving a church that I didn't believe in. I loved Christ Church and it was a fulfilling ministry in many ways in a really beautiful expression of evangelical Anglicanism, but the denomination was clearly sick and dying. After ten years there, I took a terminal sabbatical with the agreement of my bishop and vestry, and very soon thereafter I joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and served several churches, most recently Christ Church, Phoenix. I have been really blessed over the years with wonderful friends who have helped me in innumerable ways: Terry Fullam, Frank Williams, Paul Zahl, Fitz Allison, Ben Kwashi, Ashley Null, and others who have shown me the sheer beauty of gospel ministry - grace in practice! Two years ago, I was hired by the Advent Cathedral to join their staff to start the Center for Reformation Anglicanism. I moved to Birmingham only to find that the bishop wouldn't have me because I am "Anglican" and not Episcopalian. I became something of an embarrassment to the Advent and the Advent members on the Center's board were asked to resign. Since then, the Center has been on its own and Ellen and I moved to Houston to be nearer our children and grandchildren. I am working from my home as Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism with a really great group (board). We have identified our ministry: To raise up, train, and support Reformation Anglican leaders and laity for today's church and for the future of gospel ministry in the Anglican Communion. The Center is a ministry that was actually initiated in a discussion I had with my friend Ashley Null over twenty-five years ago, and we are just beginning our work to define how best to speak into the confusion today about Anglican identity.

VOL: You have a blog on the website for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism (www.anglicanism.info/blog), when and why did you start this?

COLLINS: Because I wasn't hearing anyone speaking for classical Anglicanism. Not on a popular level. I was mostly hearing a pick-n-choose buffet of Anglican novelties that have little connection to the touchstone of our formularies: the Thirty-nine Articles, the two books of Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer (1662). I didn't recognize Anglicanism as it is portrayed these days with the "three streams" vocabulary. I also feel that what is sadly lost in the confusion over Anglican identity is the gospel of God's grace to undeserving sinners, justification by grace through faith alone. The Anglican expression that I am excited to subscribe to, the only one I believe that offers the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, has a low anthropology and very high christology, and clearly distinguishes law and gospel. I hope my blog and offerings contribute positively to the ongoing discussion about our Anglican identity.

VOL: I've seen you write on the "three streams" that is so popular in the ACNA these days. This is even pretty prominent on the ACNA website. What are your thoughts?

COLLINS: Yes, the idea that there are three equally weighted traditions (catholic, protestant, and charismatic) that merge to form Anglicanism is certainly well-intentioned, but it is a lie, and it contributes to the confusion about our Anglican identity. It may sound great, but it has no support in our history. I say this fully aware that it was the charismatic renewal in the Episcopal Church that helped me to Christ, and I have a deep love for the catholic tradition of our church fathers. The idea of "three streams" wasn't even invented until the 1950s and it has, unfortunately, been used to divert our attention away from the real source of our Anglican identity: the primacy of Holy Scripture as God's inspired word that contains all things necessary for salvation. This core value of Anglicanism is preserved and spelled out in the traditional Anglican formularies. The institutional Episcopal Church doesn't seem to care about anything unrelated to its prerogative of speaking out for pet social causes (just look at the General Convention resolutions of the past forty years!), and the ACNA finds itself divided between its allegiance to the Anglican formularies (front-and-center in its Constitution and Canons and the Jerusalem Declaration) on one hand, and the "three streams" nonsense on the other. No wonder there is confusion today about Anglican identity! An Anglican can be thoroughly biblical (I.e., Protestant or Reformational) and still have a very high regard for the teaching of the church fathers, and a love for the Bible's teaching about the present work and power of the Holy Spirit.

VOL: One of your major emphases as I see in your writing is the danger you present of "doing" to impress God. Many of us raised in fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and any number of pietistic traditions, even and including aspects of evangelical Anglicanism have spent a lifetime wanting to please God by avoiding sin....and when we do sin, often repeating the same sin, believing God may have quietly left us. What is your response to this?

COLLINS: Yes, there is a lot of bad news preached. The do-more and try-harder gospel that is the normal fare of pulpits today is deadly. Who can do enough? And a diet of moralism never saved anyone. Any "doing" that doesn't come from "done" (what Christ has done for us) is not pleasing to God. This is the message of Article 12. I am certainly not against obedience or spiritual disciplines; that would be crazy. But if they don't come as a fruit and expression of our position in Christ, they are exhausting and ultimately deadly. This is what the four Comfortable Words teach us. Our life in God begins with resting in the completed work of Christ, and it continues as we trust more in the completed work of Christ. This gospel of our justification by the life, death and resurrection of Christ is the "rebar" (Zac Hicks's word) of all our Anglican formularies, including the words of our Sunday worship. We should leave worship feeling unburdened, forgiven, and uplifted to love and serve the Lord, not loaded up with more marching orders that just add to an already heavy burden.

VOL: May I give you an illustration from my family. My mother was probably one of the godliest women I ever knew, and I knew many. She had few peers. By way of background, we were raised among the Plymouth Brethren (open). Mother spent years working among schoolgirls, leading them to Christ. An old friend told me the other day, a retired headmaster now in his eighties, that my mother led revivals in Wellington with some success. My mother was forced to leave New Zealand because her husband had died as had most of her friends and relatives and she moved to Chicago to live with my sister and her husband where she subsequently died. I now lived in Philadelphia with my wife. My mother was in hospice care with my sister and the visiting doctor gave her about three days to live. We flew out to see her. She held my hand and said something extraordinary. "Do you think God will ultimately accept me?" It was an extraordinary statement to make from one who gave her life and spent it in service for her Lord. Can you explain this?

COLLINS: Beautiful, David, and what a beautiful woman! The Bible's teaching about "assurance" is really neglected today. It is wonderful that we are saved by grace through faith. But we sometimes miss that the gospel is about salvation and the assurance of salvation, based on God's faithfulness. Paul writes: "For I am convinced..." (Romans 8:38). We can have confidence in our salvation because it is not based on our obedience or works, or even on our repentance or faith, but on God's promise and his faithfulness. We are saved by God's own righteousness imputed to undeserving sinners like us - and like your mother. We are ultimately accepted by God because of his faithfulness, not ours, otherwise we will live in limbo never knowing if we have done enough. I love that your mom believed and served the Lord, David. I only wish that a pastor or friend at some point in her life explained the completeness and sufficiency of Christ's work on her behalf. God is not mad, but rather delights over his children. The father forgot to be mad at his returning son (in the Parable of the Prodigal Son), and instead showered him with undeserved love and a fatted calf. And with that kind of love, it becomes our joy to obey and to serve him from a changed heart. I love what Charles Spurgeon said:
"I preached morality till I made all the people in my church immoral; but when I began to preach the gospel, the dumb began to sing!"

VOL: it seems to me that generations of evangelical Christians have been taught that trying harder to please God has left them spiritually crippled with failure. As a result, many have left the faith altogether never to return. Even spiritual movements like Renovare and some aspects of Dallas Willard's teaching have focused on trying harder. As a result, many have flipped to progressive/liberal Christianity finding that works salvation more satisfying than the socially irrelevant pietism they had left behind. But that seems like just more of the same "do" but in a different theological context. Your take?

COLLINS: I couldn't agree with you more. There are a million programs and techniques that promise spiritual growth. They are all good, but none of them is a substitute for a spirituality or discipleship that begins with rest. Jesus was clear: Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11, the first of our Comfortable Words). Prayer is great, for example, but prayer that comes from a heart changed to cherish communion with God is life changing. Bible reading is terrific, but it becomes a living transforming word when we seek for and find Jesus there. So often we get the cart before the horse and teach that the spiritual disciplines lead us to find Christ, rather than serve to be an expression of being "in Christ" who has found us. I love Dallas Willard's heart, but if you listen closely, you will see that he sometimes makes obedience to be the way to God, rather than the fruit of being in God. It's a subtle works-righteousness, an easy-listening moralism, that, that sometimes creeps in. We can become spiritually exhausted by a diet of preaching that tells us that God is disappointed in us for not doing more, when all the while he is waiting down the road for us to come to our senses and return to the One who loved us all the while.

VOL: I've noticed that much of your blog features historical figures and movements in church history. Why is that?

COLLINS: Just last week a paper was widely distributed suggesting that we drop Article 29 from the Thirty-nine Articles to accommodate our current practices and beliefs. It's crazy! It didn't occur to the author that we should bend our understanding to be in concert with Article 29! The church that stands for nothing will fall for anything, and I run into clergy and bishops all the time who have nearly given up on study and reading, and who are frankly ignorant of the forces and people who have shaped Anglicanism. If they do read, it's for sermon illustrations or more popular books that just feed what they already know. I am astonished to find clergy who have not read the Homilies, for example, or Ashley Null's book on Thomas Cranmer. I'd love to encourage our leaders to keep studying and learning. I have personally fallen in love with the English reformers that shaped our church, and especially with the period between them and the rise of moralism, Arminianism, and the high church movement. If people who read my blog are encouraged to pick up the Scriptures, or to look more deeply into the Articles, or to read a biography of Katherine Parr, it is all worth it!

VOL: You have been fairly vocal in your criticism of the ACNA theologically. Could you spell out the issues that you see are lightening rod issues that need addressing?

COLLINS: Oh, I hope I haven't been too critical of the church which gives me a ministry and hope for our Anglican future. The Episcopal Church and their expression of Anglicanism has shut its door to me and to the Center for Reformation Anglicanism. I had hoped the Center could be a bridge, but sadly not. In the ACNA Constitution and Canons, and in the Jerusalem Declaration, the ACNA affirms that we are founded on the authority of Holy Scripture and the recognized historic Anglican formularies. Furthermore, it confirms our unwavering commitment to traditional marriage and to the sanctity of life. It's right there in our Constitution! This is Reformation Anglicanism, and the only foundation that gives us a way forward in ministry. I am sure that I am critical of novel ideas that some would introduce into our church - as if they have been there the whole time. And I also find that many in the ACNA are more concerned with structure and programs (discipleship techniques and church planting) rather than the theological foundations that organically lead to mission. I want to encourage the ACNA to deepen its grounding in the theology of the English reformers and the Elizabethan Settlement, all of whom looked to the authority of the Bible and to the early church fathers. This is a rich, reformation tradition that is worth fighting for.

VOL: As I read you, the idea of "do" vs "done" is prominent in your thinking. Could you spell this out in more detail please?

COLLINS: Yes, I believe that Jesus has finished everything necessary for our salvation. Everything! That's our high christology. When he spoke from the cross, "It is finished!" he was declaring that he lived the righteous life that we tried and failed to live and suffered the death we deserve to die - as our substitute. He became sin and a curse so that the devil and death are defeated once and for all. Paul wrote the Ephesians that Jesus has blessed us "in Christ" with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places - "every" must mean every - past tense - already accomplished for our salvation and sanctification. Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6) allows us freedom to live in the light of God's delight in us his children, and the grace to live out of his acceptance and love the life he wants us to live. We do for God and for our neighbor from what God has done for us, and not the other way around.

VOL: You have a new book coming out. Can you tease us with what this is about and what you hope to accomplish with it?

COLLINS: Thanks David. Cranmer's Church: Then and Today is published now in a very limited quantity as a gift from a friend at the Anglican Publishing House for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism. We will see if there is funding to make it more widely available. Our board will decide. Cranmer's Church has input from several of the world's best historians and theologians, and it was written to introduce classical Anglicanism for a popular audience. It includes chapters on our history, doctrine, the gospel, the sacraments, and more. I think it's really good because it is a collaborative effort, but we will see if it has any traction. The Center for Reformation Anglicanism is considering publishing other resources as well to help our people understand that Anglicanism is thoroughly biblical, theologically reformed, pastorally generous, and liturgically beautiful.

VOL: Thank you, Chuck.

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