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

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
March 22, 2020

The Church in England a Century Before Augustine

Let us pause from our historical survey of the early centuries of the Christian Faith in Britain, and take stock of where we are.

Earlier in this series we described the first task we would set for ourselves was to outline the "Apostolic Foundation & The Pre AD 597 Era" of the church in England. We ended our last offering with the observation that everything which characterized the church of the first centuries was present well before the end of the 5th Century.

In addition to historical argument, we also surfaced an etymological one. The modern meaning of four key words: church, deacon, presbyter, and bishop has changed significantly since the early centuries. To even begin to be in union it is necessary, we believe, to agree on the earlier meaning of these words. To try to build fidelity to Christ Jesus now on the back of meanings that these words did not have in the days of the apostles or their earliest successors is doomed. Could any in good faith deny this?

We also have argued that the hope of a renewed unity among Anglicans, by God's grace, could begin if there was agreement that fidelity to the "doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ as this church...has received the same" (Cranmer's Ordinal) was considered the standard. Over four hundred years of presbyteral ordination that has contained submission to this maxim could, with God's merciful grace, serve to be a framework around which factions might unite.

What then are Anglican leaders confronted with if there is to be a New Anglican Reformation?

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that all that makes up what is essential to apostolic Christianity was present in the church in England long ago. What do we see at least a full century before the arrival of St Augustine and his companions in Kent? We see an apostolic church, holding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, professing an orthodox understanding of that gospel, organized on the universal pattern of all known churches East and West, living its life so as to be faithful in each place, committed to being fruitful where it had already been planted, and sending missionaries to reach new lands and peoples with the gospel of Christ Jesus.

Is such a church not what Cranmer meant by a church holding to the "doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ as this church has received the same, according to the commandments of God?" Would he have added anything else, as necessary?

Second and no less important if reformational unity is to progress among us, we must acknowledge that much that is part of modern Anglicanism is not ancient. Indeed a great deal of it has come by later additions that are disconnected from the foundation of the gospel in the first instance. Could we then agree that the ordination promises made by all Anglican clergy require of us prior fidelity to something much more foundational than we had thought? Can we face that many of us are in thrall to ideas that are additions to the faith as that was first received? Can we, for the purposes of God agree to be united on the basis of an earlier consensus?

Godly fathers before us attempted such an agreement in the late 19th Century, when they put forward to Lambeth an appeal to establish a basis for reunion among the divided denominations of Christendom. That appeal led to the Lambeth Quadrilateral two years later, but it has failed to usher in the hoped for day. Indeed it has come to be insufficient to hold even the Anglicans of the world in common accord. Was the attempt a mistake or a godly effort that needs to be reclaimed?

But third, are we willing to positively agree to action that would lead to unity? Rare would be the man to argue seriously, if he was "devoted to the apostle's teaching and fellowship," that the Anglican Family are in a place of conformity to the holy example of the first church. But in that light are we willing to give up our prized preferences for anything that can clearly be shown NOT to be part of the "doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ?" Can the biblical principle of "adiaphora" be reclaimed?

What might some of those things be?

In no particular order I put forward the following later additions to the church in England, not a part of the apostolic deposit: provinces, diocese, congregations with only a single ordained leader, confirmation, distinctive clergy dress, cathedrals, celibacy, archdeacons, deaneries, prince bishops, archbishops, disciplinary canons, Lent, Advent, auricular confession, miters, schools of theology, large financial budgets, ever proliferating meetings, etc. Which of these was part of the first century, or the second?

At the reformation of the 16th Century our fathers sought to cleanse the church from some of these things, though we know that many were kept. One of my teachers in Durham used to say that the Church of England was only "half-reformed." Clearly the depth to which the 16th Century Reformation could go had limits. Some things were kept because of an innate conservatism in the English people. Some things were kept because they aided the complex relationship between Church and State in England. But were any of these things kept because they were thought central to the faith? Of course not. What was addressed as central then was recovering the clear truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The widespread availability of the New Testament had revealed the problem. This was the chasm that was to bridged. Today a chasm no less serious has opened up. The clear gospel of Jesus Christ, and the consequences of its embrace by faith, has become obscured and often abandoned. Much of the Anglican community is in denial of the very preaching that first established it.

Immediately I can hear the reaction of some readers: "Is this man an Anglican?" And to this I say an unreserved "yes." My Anglican bone fides are unimpeachable. But what I am first of all is a Christian. I have received the faith from those who themselves received it from others going back to England, and through the centuries going back to the first missionaries to arrive on those shores. And through them to the apostles themselves. And further, as a clergyman, I promised to be "loyal to the doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ" not to something called Anglicanism. And I swore my sacred oath to be faithful to the Holy Scriptures.

Some will say these later things are our "vital Anglican distinctives." If that is so, that all that has been added to the modern Western version of our tradition since the sixth century is so vital, then how can we explain what has happened in the Mother Country? The Anglican witness to "the faith once delivered to the saints" in that land is in chaos. Daily news reports tell stories of clergy, and the statements of some of them, that make honorable pagans ashamed. Leaders and synods say and do things that scandalize the faithful. Numerical decline has gone on for so long in the Church of England, and in such a widespread way, that it is reasonably argued that not one in twenty of the people of England are active participants in the life of the church. Only God knows how many are true Christians. But the established forms are maintained. The Royal Weddings are performed. And the Archbishop of Canterbury will invite, and the Queen will host, the bishops to Lambeth (if the Corona Virus allows). It will all be very photogenic. But it is not likely to speak clearly in defense of the faith for which the martyrs of the English Church gave their lives. It will speak for political accommodation.

Where is all this leading me? I am arguing that we are in a day needing a deep reformation if the Anglican Family is to take its God appointed place in the evangelization of the world. I am arguing that God wills it. God did not call the English Church into existence to be a voice for fine religious sensibilities and aesthetic patterns of worship and architecture. He called her, as he has ever called his faithful people, to be an instrument of his grace and mercy. He called her to bear the image of his Son Jesus to a broken and sinful world. Not to be one with it. He has called her to participate in the evangelization of all the peoples of the world. But it requires a new reformation.

Where are those who want nothing more and nothing less than the "doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ" as the Church in England "received the same?" Where are those who want this, always and everywhere, submitted to the clear "commandments of God?" They are those who must lead the New Anglican Reformation.

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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