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By Chuck Collins
April 24, 2023

I want to start by telling you our story in condensed version. For our purposes, let's say we began in 2009. Of course, we all know that we have a much earlier and nobler beginning - like 1534 or 1549, or even 33 AD! But in 2009, drowning and near-dead Episcopalians determined that they could no longer live under the tyranny of "anything-goes." Like Fitz Allison, we saw for ourselves that heresy is a cruel response to sinners looking for God's solution to our human condition, and it was no longer tenable to live in a church that calls evil good, and good evil. We said it wasn't primarily about sex; "sex" was just the battleground the progressives chose to wage this war. It was more deeply about the creedal faith - our core Christian values.

I personally heard two successive Presiding Bishops speak against the uniqueness and particularity of Jesus as the only means of salvation. On the eve of House of Bishops approval of Gene Robinson's consecration, my Episcopalian bishop phoned me responding to my email asking: "What am I to tell my congregation in the morning?" He said, "Don't worry your pretty little head; it'll never happen in our church." But it did, and in a scurry of activity, the Virginia and Windsor Reports, meetings with archbishops in the wider communion, lots of big and small conferences and meetings, visits to Bedford and Plano and other faraway places, the Common Cause Partners came together to form the Anglican Church in North America.

It is obvious to everyone that the ACNA brought extremely diverse groups together under one tent based on our common disgust and grief at what the Episcopal Church has become. Early on we declared our commitment to the things that are still listed in our Constitution and Canons: the primacy of Holy Scripture as preserved and understood in the traditional Anglican formularies, but in actual practice the ACNA welcomed just about anyone and any group that needed a lifeboat in an attempt to secure a critical mass for success.

Even though we started on paper as a "confessional" church in line with what Anglicans have declared for 500 years, very quickly we took a "conciliar" turn, replacing our Anglican heritage for a dream to plant 1,000 churches in five years.

This was the road of least resistance, especially compared to wrangling about the differences in theology that separate us. Only a small group asked what ACNA churches believe. At the time it seemed more important to make as many Anglicans as possible in a flurry of activity to generate enthusiasm for mission and evangelism.

Our own archbishop stood before the first GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem announcing the importance of a conciliar view of Anglican identity, and this easily fed into different iterations of "three-streams" that Chuck Murphy and the Anglican Mission, all in good faith, had been teaching and promoting for years. This, of course, means: equal adherence to the catholic, evangelical, and charismatic/Pentecostal expressions that are popular in our day. This only bothered one soft-spoken historian in Grove City, PA (Gillis Harp) and a few others, that three-streams as a model for the church didn't exist before a 1953 book by Leslie Newbigin (The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church), neither is there any hint of anything other than one strong stream throughout our traditional formularies.

Nevertheless, the ACNA glommed on to "three streams" for dear life, put it on our websites, named churches after this motto, and spoke of it generously as if it had some ancient part in what Anglicans believe. It was convenient, but it is not our history, and it is an unfortunate distraction.

Instead of Anglican identity grounded in Holy Scripture as enshrined and supported in the traditional Anglican formularies (interpreted in their original sense!), we have settled for a hodgepodge Anglicanism with no particular foundation except that one group or another in our history espoused views that we can latch on to today.

It's a floating target depending on the day's winds, and the result is that there is almost no continuity of belief or practice from one Anglican church to another. You have no idea what you are getting when you visit a new Anglican church somewhere. Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart) calls this "sheilaism," named for Sheila Larson a woman he interviewed who insisted that she and she-alone was the final arbiter of her own truth.

This fits perfectly with America's infatuation with individualism and the triumph of the modern self. Anglicanism in America has become a buffet of theological and liturgical options where individuals, churches, and even whole dioceses pick-n-choose what suits their personal tastes, often times with barely a nod to the rock from which we were hewn.

In another effort to support our conciliar definition of Anglicanism in America we rushed to publish the 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer and the Catechism, both clearly with the idea of embracing the diversity within our province and making everyone happy. I suppose some are happy with these documents, but I know more who see them as an act of desperation to bring peace and happiness to a divided church.

What we didn't see then was that theological problems can only be solved by theology. We can't "vote" on Anglican identity in America, we must judge our worship and beliefs by what has gone on before. Cicero was right to say, "to be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be a child forever." The truth is, we have never done the harder work of theological reflection that could deliver us to a firmer and more stable foundation. Now in our early adolescent years as a church, we must do this work or else we will die inflicting small wounds on one another for our provincial pet peeves, eventually draining the life blood from our body.

What gives me hope for our future is the thought - the possibility - that we can recover and reconnect to our Anglican heritage. The only alternative to the buffet approach is what is called Reformation Anglicanism. Ashley Null and John Yates have written and edited a series of books calling the church back to the supreme authority of Holy Scripture, but not just that: to the authority of the Bible as it is enshrine, upheld, and understood by our Anglican formularies. This alone is this church's particular contribution to the Christian church. We really have two options: the status quo which has no particular theological context beyond an amorphous "the Bible is my creed," or we can settle again on what Anglicans believed from our founding and affirmed in our history.

Archbishop Bob Duncan gave a well circulated address at the Convocation at Nashotah House in October 2006 entitled "The Future of Anglicanism" that called the church to reinvest in the authority of Holy Scripture, but he unfortunately failed to connect this to anything in our history like the passion of the English reformers, the Elizabethan Settlement, or the Anglican formularies which constitute the particular doctrines of the Church of England. Such a well-meaning call could have been delivered by an orthodox Methodist bishop or Presbyterian superintendent.

Reformation Anglicanism is the Protestant tradition of 16th century England, the Edwardian and Elizabethan Settlement, that claims that God caused the Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning with the purpose of leading us to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life in Jesus.

Furthermore, it claims that the Bible's authority and essential teachings are spelled out plainly and simply in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the two books of Homilies, and in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with its Ordinal. It is "Reformed Catholic" as William Perkins understood the terms (A Reformed Catholike, published in 1597), but not "reformed catholic" as a term has been coopted for the purpose of excusing tractarian and 19th century ritualistic aberrations. Reformation Anglicanism is generously Calvinistic and resolutely opposed the pelagian and arminian encroachments, as we see plainly in the Thirty-nine Articles.

Until recent times we were clearly confessional and the formularies were the unquestioned standards for Anglican identity in a fragile but steady bond. Evangelicals and Caroline high churchmen were in complete agreement about these. Anglican ordinands subscribed to this authority throughout our history and in many places still do.

Our ACNA Constitution and Canons and the GAFCON Declaration declares this to be true. We are a confessional church before we are missional and church-planting church, no matter how loud the voices are for reversing this order. A missional church that is passionate for reaching the world with God's love comes fluidly and naturally from a church that has a healthy self-identity, and such a church is where new believers in Jesus will be discipled and brought to a lively faith by the tradition itself, and not by accident.

There are a number of ways to explain Reformation Anglicanism, but most importantly, this church subscribes to sola Scriptura (Scripture as the divinely inspired authority for doctrine and worship). Our formularies tell us that the Bible is clear enough for the simplest person to live by, deep enough to challenge highest intellectual abilities, clear enough for everyone to understand essential matters, and it is to be interpreted as a whole, such that one portion is not repugnant to another (I.e., Scripture interprets itself).

The Bible is centrally about Jesus as Article 7 states; Augustine of Hippo famously said, "In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New Testament the Old is revealed." And "tradition" is to be honored, not as a separate and competing authority, but as an interpretative tool for understanding Scripture over time (I.e., the catholic and canonical reading of Scripture). It is no accident that the first homily is "The Reading of Holy Scripture" in which Thomas Cranmer writes, "As drink is pleasant to those who are dry, and meat to those who are hungry, so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy scripture, to those who desire to know God, or themselves, and to do his will" (Gatiss edition).

The English reformers had no greater hope than to get the Bible into the hands and hearts of the English people for their transformation and for the transformation of society.

One cannot read the Bible for more than a day without stumbling into the Bible's primary concern: how can mortal man be right before God and pure before his Maker (Job 4:17)? The central message of Scripture is justification by grace through faith alone. This was the main driver for reform in the Church of England. Richard Hooker, said, "The grand question, which hangeth yet in the controversy between us and the Church of Rome is about the matter of justifying righteousness."

He went on to say that a right understanding of God's justifying mercy "is so repugnant unto merits that to say we are saved for the worthiness of anything which is ours is to deny we are saved by grace." When John Jewel was challenged by his nemesis, Thomas Harding, about his use of "faith alone" (sola fides), Jewel quoted St. Paul that we are justified quite apart from our works, and then he went on to say: "what else then leaveth he but faith alone?" He then followed this with a series of quotes from the church fathers, all whom approved and employed the expression "only faith."

And Thomas Cranmer wrote: "This justification or righteousness, which we receive by God's mercy and Christ's merits embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and counted by God as our perfect and full justification" (Homily 3, Gatiss). And again in the Thirty-nine Articles: "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith" (Article 11).

Announcing the finished work of Christ for our salvation - Jesus who lived, died and rose from the dead - is the Christian gospel and the underlying theme of all Anglican formularies and the central message of our worship Sunday by Sunday. Dom Gregory Dix famously wrote that the 1552 Book of Common Prayer is "the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of 'justification by faith alone'."

Another biblical doctrine recovered in the English Reformation is the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5) which directed Church of England ministers away from the Medieval hierarchal understanding of ministry. Anglicans have never understood that ordination involves some imagined ontological change with the laying on of hands to suddenly make an ordinary Christian into an Old Testament -like sacrificing priest for the people of God.

That idea was a 19th century importation of a pre-Reformation ideal. Reformation Anglicans understand that every Christian has direct access to God himself or herself without the need for a confessor mediary. And "apostolic succession" is the succession of apostolic teaching passed from the apostles as the Bible teaches (2 Timothy 2:2), not some unbroken pipeline of holy bishops. The idea that bishops are today's apostles is a Roman Catholic idea that has no warrant in our history.

We have always upheld the three-fold order of ministry (bishops, priests and deacons) as biblical and helpful for the order of the church (bene esse), not as the essence of the church (esse). Rather, the church is defined in the Thirty-nine Articles as the gathering of the faithful "in which the pure Word of God is preached and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance" (Article 19).

The Archbishop of Canterbury was first among equals, until relatively recent times when he has acquired pope-like status. In fact, as our history shows, Canterbury, bishops, priests, and deacons are only as helpful as they uphold the teaching and authority of the Word of God preached and the sacraments duly administered. It is Anglican theology grounded in Scripture that gives this church its authority, not some invented ecclesiastical order carried over from the Middle Ages. Modern attempts to bring Anglican order apart from our theology (E.g., Instruments of Unity, Anglican Covenants, etc.) all fall flat in the face of our history.

Both doctrines of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers fed into the Reformation's attitudes towards worship. For the first time, worship in the Church of England was in the language of the people with congregational engagement and responses. The Book of Common Prayer abolished the large collection of unbiblical and extra-biblical ideas, including purgatory, the veneration of objects, prayers to the saints, clerical celibacy, and the sacrifice of the mass.

The lectionary was designed to lead worshipers to encounter the whole of Scripture in a year. The liturgy was designed to move communicants each Sunday from our need to God's provision, from law to gospel, from the Summary of the Law and Kyrie to the sermon and the creed. Churches replaced altars (and rails!) with communion tables, preaching gained a new confidence alongside in importance to the sacraments, and ceremonial acts, clerical dress, and architectural decorations were greatly simplified of everything that couldn't be understood clearly by everyone as supporting the message of justification by faith. The sacraments became two in number, and were viewed as God's spiritual and transforming presence in the hearts and wills of those who receive the grace of the sacrament by faith. The blessed bread and wine were not raise up to be seen and worshipped; they were eaten for the reunion of unworthy sinners to a holy and gracious God - Christ's real presence is more real and far more powerful than gazing upon bread and wine on a holy altar.

I believe the ACNA is at a critical junction in which we can either reinvest in our rich heritage or continue to limp along with a buffet of beliefs to choose from. Those who call on the Great Tradition as our authority are doing what the English reformers did who supported everything "Anglican" by the supreme authority of the Bible and the teaching of the church fathers. But to call on the Great Tradition as an excuse to ignore the particularity of our Anglican formularies leaves us drowning again in a sea of untethered ideas and practices. The church that believes everything will fall for anything. With God as our helper, we can again find a firm foundation in the particularity of this church which is thoroughly biblical, pastorally generous, theologically confessional and reformed, and liturgically beautiful. With God's help we can.

Dean Chuck Collins blogs at the Center for Reformation Anglicanism. He can be seen here https://www.anglicanism.info/ and on Facebook

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