Thursday, May 27, 2010
Anglicanism: Protestant or Reformed Catholic?
By Robin G.Jordan
In June 1995 J. I. Packer expressed a view that make some Anglicans quite nervous. He told a conference of Reform UK that the basic stance of Anglicanism is Protestant. In doing so, he was simply reiterating what Anglicans had believed until the Oxford movement created confusion about Anglican identity in the nineteenth century, and what Classical Anglican Evangelicalism holds to this day.
From English Reformation to the early nineteenth century members of the Church of England saw themselves as “Churchmen” and “Protestants.” They were Churchmen because they belonged to the Church of England and the Church of England was the established Church. They were “Protestants” because the Church of England was a Protestant Church. The English Reformers had joined the continental Reformers in protesting the errors of the Church of Rome. They had denied the universal authority of the Pope. They had rejected the Roman doctrines of apostolic succession and the sacerdotal character of the Christian ministry. The Thirty-Nine Articles affirmed such Protestant doctrines as the ultimate authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice, justification by grace alone by faith alone in Jesus alone, and good works as the necessary fruits of faith and the evidence of justification. The Glorious Revolution had put a Protestant monarch on the English throne and Parliament had enacted a law requiring that all English monarchs as the supreme governor of the Church of England must be Protestant.
In the nineteenth century the Scottish Episcopal Church experimented with the use of the term “Reformed Catholic” but abandoned it for “Protestant Episcopal.” “Reformed Catholic was too closely associated in the minds of the Scots with “Roman Catholic.” In our time the late Peter Toon championed the use of the term “Reformed Catholic” instead of Protestant in an attempt to accommodate Anglo-Catholics. However, a number of Anglo-Catholics have begun to use the term for Catholic doctrine and practice that is by no means reformed. They redefine “Reformed Catholic” in accordance with John Newman’s fanciful reinterpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles in which he claimed that the Articles only reject certain Roman abuses and excesses. While Anglo-Catholics might not like the term “Protestant,” it accurately describes classical Anglicanism. Unlike “Reformed Catholic,” it cannot be redefined to apply to unreformed Catholicism.
Being Protestant did not make the Church of England sectarian even though its sixteenth and seventeenth Roman Catholic detractors sought to portray the English Church as such. Unfortunately the Oxford movement would adopt this view of a Protestant Church of England and went to great lengths to demonstrate to themselves and the Church of England’s Roman Catholic critics that the English Church was Catholic. They also claimed that they more than any other church party, including the High Church party, stood for Catholic doctrine and practice and represented genuine Catholicism in the Church of England. They also claimed that they were not a church party. In all three instances their claim was untrue. A great deal of the uneasiness that modern-day Anglicans feel with the description of being Protestant reflects the influence of what the nineteenth century Evangelical Bishop of Ohio Charles P. McIlvaine called “Oxfordism.”
The English Reformers, however, were not uneasy with the use of the term “Protestant” to describe the Church of England. Between apostolic times and the sixteenth century the primitive catholic faith had become defaced and overlaid by so many innovations in doctrine and worship in the Church of Rome that it was no longer recognizably the “faith once delivered to the saints.” Free of the accretions of almost two thousand years, the faith of the Protestant Church of England was much closer to the catholic faith of the Primitive Church than the faith of the Roman Church. It was decidedly more apostolic than the faith of the latter. Rather than breaking with the Primitive Church, the Church of England had reinforced and strengthened its continuity with that Church.
The Church of Rome quickly realized that it could not win any debate over doctrine and practice if it appealed solely to Scripture, as did the Protestants. The claim of the Church of England and the other Reformed Churches that their doctrine and practice was that of the Primitive Church forced the Church of Rome to resort to several devices. The first was to claim that Church tradition had authority equal to that of Scripture if not greater than Scripture. The second was to claim that Scripture must be interpreted by Church tradition and only the Church of Rome could rightly interpret Church tradition. Consequently only the Church of Rome could rightly interpret Scripture. The third was to claim that in the imposition of the hands at the consecration of a Roman bishop a special grace of the Holy Spirit is passed on to the newly consecrated bishop. This grace has been passed from one Roman bishop to another throughout the centuries all the way back to the apostle Peter, whom Christ had designated as his earthly vicegerent. Only bishops to whom this grace has been passed on, those who stand in a line of succession going back to Peter, are true successors of the apostles. Only the true successors of the apostles taught apostolic doctrine. It was apostolic because the bishops teaching it were the true successors to the apostles, not because it agreed with what the apostles taught in the New Testament. This last device countered any claim of the Reformed Churches that their doctrine and practice was apostolic because the apostles taught it in the New Testament, that they were the true successors of the apostles because they retained apostolic doctrine and practice. This included the Church of England. The position of the Roman Church has substantially not changed since the sixteenth century.
So is Anglicanism a form of Protestantism or a form of Reformed Catholicism? The answer is both. Anglicanism is a conservative, distinctly English form of Protestantism. Classical Anglicanism holds that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the written Word of God and the Sole Rule of Faith and Practice, inspired by the Holy Spirit and containing everything necessary for salvation. This belief is one of a number of things that clearly link the faith of the reformed Church of England and its formularies to Protestantism and Protestant movement. While classical Anglicanism has first used Scripture and then reason in interpreting Scripture and has as a last resort consulted the writings of the early Church Fathers in regards to their opinions as to the meaning of a text, it has never given equal authority to Scripture, reason, and Church tradition as some modern writers have falsely claimed.
At the time of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement the Reformers sought to make the English Church more apostolic by abandoning the false teaching of the medieval Catholic Church and conforming the teaching of the Church to that of the Holy Scriptures. This teaching applied not only to doctrine but also to practice. The Reformers sought to restore in the English Church the catholic faith of the Primitive Church. In this sense Anglicanism, the faith of the reformed Church of England and its formularies, can be regarded as “Reformed Catholic.”
Due to the influence of liberalism and ritualism Anglicanism in and outside The Episcopal Church has been viewed for the large part as a liberal form of Roman Catholicism. It is liberal to the point that it tolerates practicing homosexuals and women in ordained ministry, the blessing of homosexual liaisons and “gay marriage”. It is also pluralistic and universalistic, showing its tolerance of other religions by incorporating their practices into its own worship and recommending non-Christian spiritualities to Episcopalians. Like Anglo-Catholics, radical liberals show a tendency to redefine “Reformed Catholic” to include their particular ideology.
Due to the same influences Anglicanism is now increasingly viewed in the Anglican Church in North America as a bringing together or convergence of three disparate theologies—Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and evangelicalism. The liberal character of the ideology of the Ancient-Future or Convergence movement is evidenced in its stress upon open-mindedness toward the beliefs and practices of other Christian traditions, its call for a more “generous orthodoxy,” its emphasis upon practice and piety over doctrine, and its intolerance of Classical Anglican Evangelicalism’ insistence upon stricter adherence to doctrine. Convergentism is also liberal in its stance toward the ordination of women and divorce and remarriage. While Convergentist thinking does not goes so far as to embrace pluralism and syncreticism as does radical liberal thinking, it does to some degree adopt the latter’s theological inclusivism but confines its own inclusivism to conservative theologies. Like Anglo-Catholics, Convergentists are inclined to redefine the term “Reformed Catholic” to apply to their own emphases.
As we can see the term “Reformed Catholic” along with the term“via media” can be given a meaning quite different from how we might understand the meaning of the term. Unless the term is accompanied by a clear explanation of what it means, I recommend that we avoid these two terms in our preaching, teaching, and writing.
For the foregoing reasons we need to emphasize the Protestant character of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. At the same time we also need to help people to acquire a better understanding of not only what it means to be Protestant but also what it does not mean. Too many misconceptions of Protestantism have been fostered by detractors of the Protestant movement. We need to challenge all mistaken and erroneous ideas about Protestantism and all deliberate misrepresentations or distortions of what it means to be Protestant. Being Protestant should not be the cause of unease in Anglicans. It should be something that they not only can acknowledge and affirm but also feel honoured to be.
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 10:32 AM