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The following is the ninth in a series of essays on Anglican reformation by the Rev. Dr. Jon Shuler

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
May 11, 2020

Is it even possible to imagine that the modern Anglican Family would voluntarily re-evaluate its life and ministry in the light of the Cranmerian standard of "the doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ" as the Church in England first received them? Many would seriously doubt it, both those who have left the family and those who remain. And undoubtedly many do not consider such a reformational journey to be desired. They are content with the religious patterns they have inherited or invented. But what if this phrase is indeed a pointer toward the purposes of God in giving the faith to ancient Britain? What if there really is something called "the faith once delivered to the saints" that is to be perpetuated till there is "time no more"?

In previous chapters of this continuing historical exploration, it has been consistently argued that a deep new reformation is not only necessary for the Anglican Family, but demanded if our stated covenant with God is to be honored. Particularly the covenant of all who have been ordained. Further, we have asserted that it is the will of God that such a reformation be undertaken. Let us return to the journey.

By the end of the fifth century, everything necessary for the life of the Christian Church was long in place in what the Roman Empire called Britain. There were thriving communities of faith surviving, and missionary zeal had not died out. The upbringing of Patrick (d.461) in Cumbria, and the missionary church planting of Ninian (d.432) in Scotland are two of the evidences, though others could be adduced. The Pagan invasions of the Angles and the Saxons had most assuredly wounded many of the faithful communities, and in some places eradicated them, but still the gospel was lived and passed on.

When Augustine arrived in Canterbury, with his forty companions, in A.D. 597, there was Christian worship being maintained in the city, even though there was a pagan king. It must be assumed that the kingdom of Kent, over which he ruled, was largely pagan too. Astonishingly, before the year was out, he wrote to Gregory in Rome to tell him that over 10,000 had been baptized on Christmas day. How is this to be understood?

First it must be emphatically denied by any true believer that this was just an exaggeration. Augustine was a Christian leader, a follower of Jesus Christ, and a faithful Benedictine. To lie was (and is) to be aligned with the devil and all his hosts. To lie to the man who appointed and sent him to the shores of Kent was unthinkable.

Second, we must not dismiss the genuineness of this ingathering by suggesting that it was all because masses of people just wanted to be aligned with only one genuine conversion, that of the king. Anyone who has ever been part of a time of major revival knows better. The reason this happened in A.D. 597 is certainly because the truth of the gospel was being proclaimed and lived, and preached with clarity and conviction under an anointing of the Holy Spirit. What was witnessed in the first century in Jerusalem was witnessed also at the end of the sixth century in Canterbury. Much of the story of the subsequent centuries of faith in Britain is the direct result of this amazing season of grace.

We are left with one explanation and one only if we approach those days through the eyes of faith: God sovereignly came down. The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ was at the center of the lives of the men who formed the Augustinian Mission, and the truth of the gospel brought conviction to a people prepared. The impetus of that great move of God spread out from Canterbury in waves of missionary expansion. It was not restrained to Kent, but soon spread throughout the South East and then north as far as York. There it encountered another dynamic gospel expansion coming from Ireland.

Columba (d. 597) and his companions had set out for the shores of Scotland and established a base on the island of Iona. Their faithful missionary lives had produced a river of converts flowing throughout what is today the border between England and Scotland. Whether the new life in the North was a renewal of older churches still surviving from the first evangelization of Britain, which seems likely, or churches newly planted, grace was being poured out and the gospel was growing in its impact. The revival in the North and the revival coming from the South were both about the truth that is in Jesus Christ. Neither movement was promulgating anything other than "the doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ," but they were culturally distinct, Conflict arose when the two waves met.

The Venerable Bede (d. 735) has left us the story, as he knew it, and it is a significant one for many reasons. The Council of Whitby in A.D. 664 is graven on the historical record thanks to him. But nothing in the story adds to the gospel deposit that had been planted throughout the land. What it does do is show us the painful reality of power and culture, and the growing captivity of apostolic zeal.

The Augustine Mission brought with it all the inherited customs of the church in Rome, as they had developed over nearly six hundred years. They did not preach a different gospel from their brothers and sisters in the North. They did not preach a different Christ, nor minister different sacraments. But they did have the administrative culture of Rome undergirding their way of living, and the Benedictine passion for uniform stability and order added to it. In consequence it is not surprising that their successors reveal the same desire for stable uniformity among all the churches. It is little surprise that Bp. Wilfrid (d. 709), trained in Canterbury and then in Rome, returned with little tolerance for a different date of Easter being celebrated at Lindisfarne, nor the different outward appearance (that is haircut) of men in holy orders. One hopes there were other issues discussed at Whitby, but these are the two that Bede tells us were discussed. What we would today call the culture of the "Celtic" Church was confronted by the culture of the "Roman" Church, and the latter triumphed.

We know that some of those gathered at Whitby did not accept the outcome. They had received the faith from their fathers and were determined to keep it in the way it had been handed on to them. They had no reason to believe that what was done in Italy invalidated what they had learned to do in Ireland. Bp. Coleman, who had defended the Irish traditions returned to Iona and the ways of his fathers. How long the older traditions lived on is known only to God, but what we do know is that for the next eight hundred years the rule and authority of the Roman Church, and especially the Bishop of Rome, would from Whitby increase more and more until it held sway over all of Britain.

A century after the Council of Whitby Christian Britain would begin to experience another long season of conquest and destruction. The Vikings of the Nordic lands wreaked havoc wherever they landed. Yet the faith of Christian people was not crushed, and the church was not destroyed. There had been a strong consolidation of Roman order under Archbishop Theodore (d.690) who created the diocesan structure that has lasted till today. But continuing invasions from the North would transform the Anglo-Saxon culture of England. Gradually a new pattern of social organization, which would later come to be called Feudalism, based in the ownership of land, established itself throughout Britain. A rigid form of social, legal, and economic organization would predominate. The cultural distinctions of this great era would shape the church in many ways, not least the emergence of the geographical parish system. Though this system ensured continuity even under persecution, most would acknowledge that it dampened the missionary zeal that had for centuries characterized the Church in England.

Renewal would come to the faithful people of God from time to time in subsequent centuries, but a pattern was now becoming well established that can be seen to have survived to this day in most Anglican behavior. Geographical boundaries, uniformity of administrative order, and hierarchical decision making would dominate church life. External conformity would be seen as paramount in order to maintain social cohesion. But was the gospel replaced?

If we draw a line here, for the moment, at the middle of the ninth century - before the time of king Alfred the Great - we can answer the question briefly. Men and women of saintly character still appear in the historical record. The church does not lose its place in the center of the culture of Britain, though its vibrancy diminished. But were "the doctrine, sacraments and discipline of Christ" being maintained as they had first been received? In the strictest sense we can surmise that the answer is "yes." But what all the evidence shows us inclines to the view that the organizational system of the church and her ordered life were becoming more and more the pattern that governs all. The traditions of men were overshadowing the Faith and Order of the apostolic era.

Jon Shuler is an Anglican priest who lives in South Carolina. His weekly blog "Canon Fodder" is found at: joncshuler.wordpress.com

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