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Thoughts on the New Anglican Reformation -- Part 7

Thoughts on the New Anglican Reformation -- Part 7

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
January 15, 2020

The Anglo Saxon Invasions & The Retreat of the Church

The current season of the life of the church in the West could well be called the Great Retreat. Under the pressure of heretical opinion and the profound influence of cultural transition the Church of England and her progeny in most of the developed world have been in steady decline for well over a century. The evidence was at hand long ago to those who were paying attention to the demographic data. Relative to the general population the influence of the Anglicans has been diminishing in England for several centuries, and in most of her children in the English-speaking West for over one.

As sad as this picture is to those who love the Lord Jesus and have been raised to true faith in the Anglican community, it is not the first time the faithful have had to face such a day. The scriptures tell of this repeatedly, both in the time of the Old Covenant and the New. And it is most certainly not the first time that it has happened to the Church in England.

When the Roman Empire fell, in AD 410, the retreat of that culture and the decline of almost all of its supporting structures from Britain was devastating to the church. As near as it is possible to deduce, the pastoral structure of the church was dependent on the key Roman Garrison Towns in Britain. Most historians project back from later centuries to posit that there were Minster Churches in the larger towns, to which the smaller congregations were attached. This cannot be proved or disproved, but what is indisputable is that the church survived the withdrawal of the Romans. All our evidence shows that a version of the apostolic order that they had known continued to be normal, though increasingly it was formed around tribal affiliation and kinship groupings. There is no hint that there was ever a departure from the Faith and (primitive) Order of the church. None.

By asserting that it was a primitive form of what will later be called "catholic" (or "universal") order, I simply mean that they were adhering to all the essentials of the church of Jesus Christ as that had first come to them. As I have said in previous weeks, they were submitted to Christ Jesus and his truth revealed in the Holy Scriptures. They maintained the two sacraments of the gospel, baptism and eucharist. They had a summary "rule of faith" that was creedal. And they had a three-fold ministerial order to care for and give leadership to the church in every location.

What then were they missing? I maintain that they were missing nothing that is essential to a community of faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as that was universally understood in the early centuries. And I would further maintain, that they exemplified the two-fold evidence of their authenticity: they were faithful in their doctrine, and they were faithful in their mission. They were not only "faithful" they were also "fruitful." The continued to preach and to spread the gospel, as the Lord opened the doors.

That the church in Britain did go into a long slow decline, after the withdrawal of the Roman Legions is undeniable. As the Anglo Saxon invaders arrived, with the power of the sword, stable life and faith suffered grievously. They killed and destroyed as they came, and a season of chaos reigned for those who witnessed their loved ones suffer, their homes and buildings destroyed, and their lands taken. Who among us can fault the church for gradually withdrawing to the Western lands of the British Isles? But how long did that withdrawal take? And at what rate did it occur? How was it that bishops heard of the arrival of Augustine and his companions in Kent so soon after AD 597? To assume the church was only present in Cornwall and Wales is untenable. The church may have been weakened, but it was not dead. A group of bishops came out to meet Augustine and his companions from existing communities of the church soon after his arrival. There was a French bishop serving as a parish priest in Canterbury when they had arrived! Earlier bishops had gone to meetings on the Continent centuries before. Missionaries had gone to Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany long before.

Let us go back to the 5th Century, and leave Augustine and the so called "Conversion of England" to a later column. In the middle of that century the church of Jesus Christ still existed in what would one day be called England.

They had not abandoned the apostolic testimony to the Risen Christ, nor departed intentionally from any of his teaching. They were, in every way we can discern, remaining faithful to the "doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ" as they had "received the same, according to the commandments of God." What Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformers would see as central, over a thousand years later, was central then. What was to be expected of all ordained clergy in the 16th Century was not substantively different than what was expected in the 5th.

Of course, there were other things that were different. The culture of England in the 16th Century had changed significantly from earlier times. The imprint of the Feudal Era, and the impact of the Medieval Centuries had changed much. The rise of the power of Bishop of Rome and the emergence of the nation state had altered the culture greatly. And perhaps most significantly, when Cranmer wrote his ordinal of 1550, he used words in a way that did not always reflect the meaning those same words had in earlier centuries. For illustration let me elaborate on just four: church, bishop, priest, and deacon.

Let us begin with deacon. The New Testament makes clear that what came to be called the "Order of Deacons" comprised a group of men, who served under the authority of apostolic leaders, or those set-in authority by them, in a subordinate role. We have no indication that the majority of them ever served in any other capacity. Never the less, these men were expected to be highly esteemed in the community before selection, to be filled with the Spirit, and to be gifted way beyond their first assignment of waiting on tables. Some of them would prove to be gifted preachers and evangelists, and at least one of them would die as the first martyr. Yet by Cranmer's day, deacons were generally men on the way to being local pastors, in a temporary status before becoming priests.

What of those called priest? The New Testament never uses that word for the men in this pattern of ministry, but instead most commonly uses the word "presbyter." Though there is a reasonable explanation that the word "priest" is just then an etymological derivative of "presbyter," the explanation misses the key point that must be made. The work of a priest in the 16th Century, even after the Reformation, was significantly different than the ministry of a New Testament presbyter. Most English translations of the Bible use the word "elder" for the Greek "presbyter" for good reason. They were generally older men, esteemed for their faith and stability, who shared in the ministry of the local church along with other men so called. They were part of a "college" of ministry in every place, who exercised a leadership of oversight, but by Cranmer's day they were ordained to have sole care of one local congregation. They functioned as local pastors. They embodied "the ministry" in one place.

What of bishop? The New Testament gives us clues, but no certainty. The word was in use, that is certain, but what did it mean? It is a word implying oversight, but was it a part of the general ministry of all elders or only the ministry of one man? The weight of evidence is that it means the former, though it is historically undeniable that within one or two generations from the death of the last apostles it is everywhere the designator of the single overseer of the local congregation. But never do we find this title used of someone functioning alone. Always, he is the first among equals in a group of clergy including presbyters and deacons, and almost universally he is associated with the church in one city or town. By Cranmer's day they are princes of the church, and they live in palaces.

And finally church? In the New Testament it always means a faithful believing people. Disciples in one place who are following and serving the Lord and one another. By Cranmer's day it means a building and a highly complex organization.

At the close of the 5th Century, the pattern seen in the New Testament, and the first centuries, was still the pattern of the church in Britain. The four words had not changed their meanings, and the life of each local congregation incarnated them all. The doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ, as the early apostolic church had received them, were at the heart of their life.


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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