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The following is the fourth in a series on Anglican reformation

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
November 30, 2019

A New Place to Stand Under?

In previous columns I have argued that the reformation of the Anglican Family must take its next steps by refocusing on a statement of faith and practice that would unite the warring factions. I am suggesting that the singular unifying text that has some chance of assisting that endeavor is the Ordinal composed by Thomas Cranmer. I believe his words, printed in AD 1550, commitment to some form of which has been required of every ordained man for the last 469 years, are the key words to focus upon. The ordination vows began with three central assertions: 1) the clergy declare their conviction of the call of their Lord; 2) their confident faith in the supreme authority of Holy Scripture for all that regards salvation; and 3) their commitment "to keep and observe" the faith once delivered, as summed up in Cranmer's phrase: "the Doctrine and Sacraments, and Discipline of Christ, as the Lord has commanded."

But it is the last of these three promises that I believe could offer a key to the hope for a unifying reformation among us, if the Lord Christ will allow us that grace. I believe it could offer a new place for all faithful Anglicans to stand together in one body. Let us revisit the details of that third promise.

In full all the clergy vowed explicitly to faithfully "minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord has commanded, and as this Church [of England] has received the same." Until the revisions (generally in the West) beginning in the last part of the Twentieth Century, that promise went on to add these words: "according to the Commandments of God." Printed in every Book of Common Prayer since 1550, this promise undergirds the vows of all clergy in the Anglican Family, both those taking them in the past and in the present.

From time to time the words of Cranmer have been modified during prayer book revision, ever so slightly, through the global expansion of the Faith and Order of the English Church. The revisers, however, almost always declare themselves to be upholding the essentials of the apostolic inheritance that the English Reformers claimed in the Sixteenth Century. Though many schools of Anglican understanding have developed through the intervening centuries, all clergy have promised, with their lips, to uphold this claim, as well as the two which go before. Here is a standard that men of good conscience should agree to uphold again. They have already so promised. That is if they are truly men of Christian faith.

But what of our divisions?

It has become common to acknowledge the various schools of Anglicanism as all acceptable. Certainly, the behavior of the churches through the years suggests this. The new North American Catechism (To Be A Christian: An Anglican Catechism, 2014) seeks to be acceptable "to all recognized schools of Anglican thought," but without further theological consensus it will almost surely not suffice. Doctrinal compromise has gone on for so long that global unity is seriously imperiled. Different schools hold to different theologies, and often with schismatic fervor. And who decides who is "recognized"?

It is true that all schools, from time to time, claim to be upholding "the faith once delivered to the saints", but are they? Though these words of Jude have sometimes been a battle cry uniting - for a season - many of those in conflict with liberal revisionists, separation from those liberals has not left the "schools" united. Indeed, they each hold to some opinions that are at odds, if not antithetical, to those of the others. Events in Australia are a recent example, where the clear orthodox statements of one Archbishop were immediately rebuked by another. What every faithful Anglican in the world would have once agreed they believe, today divides the community. What satisfies faithful Evangelicals does not satisfy faithful Anglo Catholics. What satisfies faithful Charismatics does not satisfy many others. And no historically orthodox position satisfies the establishment liberals. How did this come to be?

It must be admitted that for generations, the church has turned a blind eye to the glaring fact that many clergy have signed documents, and promised to uphold what they teach, without understanding what the documents say. Often they have not even read the documents they sign, let alone come to a clear understanding of their meaning. How can such a family of professing Christians hope to come to a new unity of faith and understanding? At best this has been negligent ignorance, but at worst it has been intentional deceit. If there is to be a new dawn of faithfulness, as part of a global reformation, then must there not be serious repentance? Perhaps none of the clergy can truly escape this demand, since all have colluded in this charade, one way or another.

True repentance leads to a changed life. If there was widespread repentance among clergy and leaders, what would come next?

I want to propose that first the faithful clergy would have to struggle together to find agreement on the legitimate parameters of meaning that would satisfactorily incorporate Thomas Cranmer's phrase, and that our consciences could accept. If we truly love the Lord Jesus Christ how can we remain apart? Could we stand together under the phrase required of us all for nearly five hundred years? And be held accountable to it? Could we walk and serve together in that light? Will we, together, commit to uphold the "doctrine, sacraments and discipline of Christ, as [the Church of England] received the same?" I want to propose that finding agreement on the meaning of that statement (which presupposes a true call from the Lord Jesus Christ, and our prior submission to the rule and ultimate authority of Holy Scripture) would be a stable and lasting global framework for a new Anglican Reformation.

What could possibly prevent this from happening? If we place aside for one moment the antagonism and diabolical conspiracy of the enemy of our souls, it would be this. Good men are committed to things that were not part of the faith received when the gospel of Christ first came to ancient Britain. Good men are devoted to things that are not part of the ancient rule of faith that characterized the era of the apostles or their first successors.

In the next few columns I am going to delineate seven historical seasons to facilitate discussion. In each of these eras something was added to the "faith once delivers to the saints," and I intend to ask: "Is this something that must be held by all Christian men of good conscience and true faith, or is it an opinion that can be tolerated if foundational agreement has been first reached? Or is this something that, though once helpful for the community of Christ's people, must now be laid aside?" Indeed it may be that some things we have embraced are now seen to be in error, and must no longer be maintained at all?

It will be my presupposition that appealing to the classic Anglican Formularies of the 16th Century alone, will not suffice. Though a major element of the global community of the Anglican Family are trying to take a stand there, I do not believe it can hold us. Too many Anglicans, already beginning in the late 16th Century, thought them necessary at the time but did not think them sufficient for doctrinal unity. The church of the creeds and early centuries was broader than the formularies. There are too many unexamined historical presuppositions, if we start there, for true global Anglican unity ever again to be found. It is clear that the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America understand this, at least in theory. How wide their charitable embrace will be remains unclear.

Whether Thomas Cranmer's "triple emphasis" on "the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord has commanded" might suffice, is only known to God. Indeed if God wills a globally reunited and reformed Anglican Family to persist is only known to him. I believe it to be his will, rightly construed. Nevertheless, Cranmer's words are only a pointer to something prior, and to those realities we must turn.

Here are my seven historical seasons, with the last divided into three movements.

1) The Apostolic Foundation & The Pre AD 597 Era

2) From the Council of Whitby to AD 1054

3) The 16th Century Reformation in England

4) The Anglican Counter Reformation & Restoration

5) The Evangelical & Catholic Revivals of the 18th & 19th Centuries

6) The 20th Century Renewal

7) The 21st Century :Realignment



The sweep of this discussion will, of necessity, be selective. I will try to isolate the key additions to the way of Christ in each of them, with particular attention to those things still battled over by Anglicans. It will be my intention to call us all to be better Christians, that is better followers of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ obedient to his clear command to the church.

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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