jQuery Slider

You are here


The following is the sixth in a series of essays on Anglican reformation

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
December 30, 2019

What Did They Believe?

If it is true, as I believe it is, that the gospel of Jesus Christ had come to ancient Britain by the end of the first century, what was the gospel they believed? I am suggesting that it was the same gospel that was proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, the same one brought to Italy, Spain and Gaul. There were not two messages carried in the hearts of true believers, but one. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah longed for by ancient Israel. He is the Son of David and the Son of God. He lived, and taught, and died in fulfillment of prophetic words spoken centuries before, and written in the Hebrew Bible. He was crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate, was dead and buried, and God raised him on the third day. He revealed himself to his followers as the glorified and Risen Lord, the Beloved of the Father. Before ascending to the heavens to reign at the right hand of God Almighty, he gave commandment to his disciples to make disciples of all peoples. It was in obedience to his Final Command that the gospel came to Britain. The church of Jesus Christ was founded then, in what would one day be called "England's green and pleasant land."

When and how the next steps were taken to order that church, we do not know. When did the full ordering of the ministry take place, with deacons, presbyters, and bishops? When did they have the majority of (if not the full) New Testament? When did they first build purpose made buildings for worship? When were they first made aware of the wider Christian world, and their calling to be in unity with all true followers of Jesus? When did they first hear that disputes and divisions had begun to break the visible harmony, the "communion of saints (believers)?"

What we do know is that when historical evidence has survived it reveals that all of these questions had been answered in the same way as they were answered in the rest of the world. The early church in Roman Britain bore all the same marks as those appearing elsewhere. There is no discernible difference. What would later be called the Faith and Order of the catholic church is recognizably present. Dependency on the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures, the presence of the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, summing up and holding to the faith in what will be later called the Creeds, and organized everywhere with a threefold pattern of ministry.

So I ask, were they Anglicans? Or were they just Christians who lived in what would later become England? When Irenaeus (d. AD 180) mentions the church in Roman Britain, or Tertullian mentions the Christians there (d. AD 220) they give no indication that the British Christians hold a different faith or live by a different gospel. Soon after these early references specific names will begin to be handed down, and they will be remembered because of their faithfulness, their virtue, and their courage. When we hear of Alban (3rd century), and Patrick (5th century) are we hearing of Anglicans or of Christians? When bishops turn up to participate in the Council of Arles (AD 314) there is not a hint that they hold to any different teaching than their brothers on the continent.

Godly and scholarly leaders in the time of the English Reformation knew these facts. They repeatedly appealed to the unbroken faith and unity of the Church in England, and found clearly in the first five centuries of the Christian Era. They were convinced that the Church, in the fullness of early catholic faith and order was present, before the arrival of the mission Augustine in AD 597. The Gregorian Mission did not bring the faith, it brought the administrative order of the Church in Rome. The church Augustine found in Kent was in doctrinal conformity with the church of the Creeds and first four Ecumenical Councils, the last (at that time) having been held in AD 451. It was an episcopally governed church. It was a biblical church. But it was organized differently than had become uniform in the Mediterranean world. Soon that organization would prove to bear fruit in one of the most amazing missionary advances known to history.

So, I ask again, was it Anglican or simply Christian?

The reason this must be asked is in order to return to the question asked in our previous columns: What would we all have to agree that we believe in order for the global community of Anglicans to reposition themselves, in gospel unity, as simply a united part of the Christian Church? Part of the whole global family of those following Jesus as Lord. And not only refusing to be divided among themselves, but refusing to be divided from godly believers everywhere. Where are we to find what Cranmer called the "doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ" that first came to Britain if not in those first five centuries? Would this be enough for us?

When the question is looked at from this angle, it soon appears that almost everything we divide over in the 21st century is something that emerged from subsequent centuries. Can we return to a common framework that comes before those disputes? Lancelot Andrews famous dictum, quipped in the 17th century, that he believed "One canon of Holy Scripture, in two Testaments; Two sacraments of the gospel; Three Creeds of the Church; Four General Councils; and Five unbroken centuries of unity," remains a compelling testimony.

The things most Anglicans argue over now are not part of what was received in the early centuries. A great many things held, by many contemporary adherents, to be Anglican were never known to our fathers and mothers in the faith. There was a day before elaborate buildings, before rigid doctrinal definitions, before most liturgical ornaments, before diocesan boundaries, before elaborate canonical laws, before theological seminaries, before synodical government, before prince bishops.

Some of my readers will be asking: "So Shuler, do you want to destroy everything that makes us distinct as Anglicans?" And I say, emphatically, "No." I believe there are some distinctives that have come to shape the modern global Anglican Family that ought to be retained. I believe we have a family heritage that we are not to be ashamed of, but it is rooted first of all in the apostolic gospel and order. Some of those later distinctives have emerged only because they strengthen and help us uphold "the faith once delivered to the saints." Whatever upholds the clear message of the cross, and the preaching of Jesus Christ must be retained.

But what has increasingly happened among us, for several centuries, is that we have emphasized secondary things over primary things. We have gone far astray in some areas, and we have begun to divide in a way unseen for hundreds of years. Rare have been divisions about central matters of the gospel, but many have come over traditions that are not ancient. We must face that we have made "doctrines of the commandments of men,' and in some cases have neglected, or even overturned, the very word of God while upholding them. This must not stand. The most distinctive thing about the church that I belong to is that it "submits to Christ" as the Apostle Paul reminds us. That is, I believe, the church that the martyrs died in.

Where then may we turn? I must say again, we must turn first to the Lord Jesus individually and corporately. We must resubmit ourselves to the absolute truth that the church belongs to him. We must be willing to come under the scrutiny of the divine authority above all other authorities. And how will we know what he wants? We must pray and fast, and return to the Holy Scriptures. We must recognize that there are first and second order doctrines and practices that must be separated and then realigned. What must be believed by all Christians should be no different for Anglicans than it is for any other true follower of Christ Jesus. That the church on earth must exercise judgment and discipline, cannot be denied, but it must be "the teaching and fellowship of the apostles" that we are devoted to, not later additions.

From the beginning, God has held the leaders of his people to be accountable to a higher standard than the people they lead. It is still true today. If the ordained leadership of the Anglican Family will not repent and return to the Lord, we are lost as a faithful and coherent community of the New Israel. And there is no better place to begin to face into that call to true gospel revival than in the light of the Ordinal of Thomas Cranmer.


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

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top