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

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
November 10, 2019


Before going any further with this series, it would perhaps be good to define our terms. Lewis Carroll famously reminded us that words can be manipulated, but this is not considered a virtue in the Christian community. However, many words and terms currently used in the vocabulary of those who care about the future of the church are being used imprecisely. With God's grace I shall try to be clear and consistent with my meanings.

Let us begin with the phrase heading this series: "New Anglican Reformation."

Some years ago, I was teaching young ordinands in one of the Diocese of South East Asia when the bishop asked to see me in private. After courteous preliminaries he asked me: "What is your definition of a New Anglican?" He was referencing the name of the missionary society that I had then been leading for two decades, the New Anglican Missionary Society (NAMS), but he was assuming the phrase "New Anglican" meant a different kind of Anglican. At the time I said, which was true, "It just means the society was "new" when it was founded bishop, it is not a different kind of Anglican." I have never been able to forget that interchange. If reformation really comes to the worldwide Anglican community will there be a new kind of Anglican? It seems to depend on what we mean by reformation.

In general use the word (especially with a capital) immediately conjures up the cataclysmic season of change in the 16th Century. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines reformation this way:

"the great religious movement of the 16th century, having for its object the reform of the doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome, and ending in the establishment of the various Reformed or Protestant Churches of central and north-western Europe 1563."

In this sense there is no reformation going on among Anglicans. We are having an inter family dispute.

The new Book of Common Prayer released this year by the Anglican Church in North America (BCP 2019) speaks in the Preface of the magisterial Reformation of the 16th century as having been "marked by reform of the received tradition." There is a subtlety in their use here, as most see that reformation as monumental if not radical. I am not cognizant of anyone using the word this way before my lifetime, and generally historians see that reformation as profoundly reshaping the foundational assumptions and practices of the church. A little earlier in the same Preface, the word reform is used to describe various efforts to reorganize the early English Church on the basis of the hierarchical principles of the Roman system. Here we are encountering the use of reformation in the much more contemporary sense (to again quote SOED): "Improvement in form or quality; alteration to a better form; correction or removal of faults or errors; rebuilding." It is in this sense that many today believe reform is occurring among us, but then we are faced with the question: "Improvement in whose opinion?"

When the University of Oxford Press decided to publish its Encyclopedia of the Reformation in 1996, they expanded their definition to include societal transformation in seven categories: church polity; politics; theology; economics; demographics; art; and literature. Here we are facing the reality that the movement which produced an English Church separated from Rome was far reaching in its impact. No movement of modern times has anything like these consequences. Nothing was quite the same in the society of Europe when the battles of the reformation era were over, if it may be agreed that they have ever actually ended. For centuries English pride in being part of that great season of reformation was a defining characteristic of Anglicans. But today that is gone.

There was an English counter reformation, as much as there was a Roman one, and it began to put into historic Anglican life, after the period of the Commonwealth, the seeds of a different theology, ecclesiology, and doxology than would have been easily embraced by the first fathers of the English Reformation. Meanwhile, though the doctrinal clarity about what constituted a Christian had not much changed among Anglicans, not all in England agreed. By the time William and Mary ascended the throne of England (1689) the church of the nation had become the church of the establishment, with the loss of the majority of the Puritans and a significant number of dissenting groups. The Christian witness, first damaged in the 16th century with the separation of Catholic and Protestant, was now further damaged by division among the Protestants. More division was to come.

Soon thereafter the old High Church party would suffer the loss of the Nonjurors, and the subsequent centuries saw more and more theological change as pietist, evangelical and catholic groups coalesced that each sought to define what they meant when they said "Anglican." The rise and ascendancy of liberal theology in the late 19th and early 20th century, which Machen presciently described as "another religion that is not Christianity," and its intrusion into much Anglican thinking, only made the confusion about what it means to be an "Anglican" even more vexing. The last concerted attempt to clarify what is believed in the Church of England (in 1937), ended in abject failure. The diversity tolerated in England has spread to produce a global communion increasingly engaged in what resembles an ecclesiastical civil war.

One of my professors while I was studying theology many decades ago in Durham, himself not an Anglican, declared to a room full of ordinands: "The Church of England is only a half-reformed Church." He offended most of us, but today his words ring true. The settlements of the 16th and 17th centuries may have held one established national church together, but can the same be said today for the wider family? Is it possible that any effort at reformation can become a unitive force in the global community that the English Reformation has spawned. Vigorous voices seem to think so.

What is certainly true is that the faithful of many schools of the vaunted Anglican "via media" have risen up in the last seventy-five years to do theological battle, precipitated by the rise of a liberal revisionist form of Anglicanism that none of them recognize as faithful to Holy Scripture. All parties have come to call for change, if not for reformation. By the turn of the present century major schism became unstoppable. Though various groups of a more catholic disposition had separated and formed what is called "the Continuum," they were largely ignored by the wider communion. The birth of the Anglican Mission in AD 2000, however, finally shocked the Anglican establishment on every continent. Since then the situation has only gotten more complex. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), formed in AD 2009, arose out of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) held in AD 2008 in Jerusalem, and the latter has now galvanized itself into a "shadow communion." But if global unity is their goal there are problems.

If we can use the shorthand common in the last century to define orthodox Anglican groups or schools, we can say there are catholic, evangelical, and latitudinarian (or broad) sub communities within the Anglican world. Evangelicals are happy, but few of the former or the latter are in agreement with the currently proposed solutions.

The last remnant who hold to the old catholic understanding of the Anglican Way are not enamored of GAFCON, as it is unashamedly asserting an evangelical theology wedded to an episcopal polity. They also see themselves completely cut off from ACNA because of its liberal approach to the question of women in Holy Orders. Most of this school has already gone over to the Continuum, to Rome or to Orthodoxy.

The middle ground of the orthodox, if we can call it that, is held by establishment centrists, or what used to be called the Broad Church Party, and they are not willing to part either from Canterbury or orthodoxy as they define it. Unfortunately, what they consider orthodox is rejected by others. Those remaining loyal to the Lambeth establishment take this position. The recent statements that have come from the Global South movement also express this view clearly.

While not nearly as defined as the historic three, the Anglican Charismatics represent a sizable block within the Anglican Family as well, and anyone who knows them is familiar with their dislike for historic doctrinal clarity. When left alone they are quite satisfied to be part of the Anglican household, but when pressed they sit very lightly to any of the classic formularies or the constraints of received authority. The residual elements of the Anglican Mission represent this pattern, but there are others like them throughout the communion.

It seems honesty requires any observer to confess that the Anglican world is in a form of chaos, with every part of the family "doing what seems right in its own eyes." What then can reformation possibly mean if there is no clarity about what is believed to be essential, or what are the limits of tolerance, let alone which - if any - institutional structures need reform? No easy answers are likely.

The splintering of the Anglican family is much more complex than I have outlined, but the rough framework of this time of communal travail has, I hope, been sketched. The outcome of this era is only known to God.

Let us then return to definitions. Is it possible to define "reformation" in a way that will begin to unite, rather than divide, true believers in the Anglican Family?

Jon Shuler is an Anglican priest who lives in South Carolina. Since 1994 he has given global leadership to NAMS (New Anglican Missionary Society) a church planting community serving on every continent. He is also Executive Director of AAi (Anglican Associates, inc.) a ministry focused on training church planting leaders. He holds a PhD in Church History from the University of Durham, Durham, England. He was made a Canon Missionary of the Diocese of Sabah by the late Bishop Albert Vun. His weekly blog "Canon Fodder" is found at joncshuler.wordpress.com

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