By Robin G. Jordan
Les Fairfield has written about the development of what he calls “Catholic Modernism” in the Episcopal Church—the blending together of elements of Anglo-Catholicism and Modernism, which began with Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation, the collection of essays written by liberal Anglo-Catholics and edited by the future Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore, in 1889. I have myself picked up elements of Newman’s theory of development and Maurice’s dynamic theory of the Anglican via media in contemporary Episcopal thought. But I do not find these elements confined to the Episcopal Church.
I have also noted these elements in the writings of the Emerging Church movement and the Ancient-Future or Convergence movement. Brian McLaren, a leading figure of the Emerging Church movement and the author of A Generous Orthodoxy is especially popular in the Episcopal Church. The Ancient-Future or Convergence movement, which has roots in the Episcopal Church and the charismatic movement, is influencing the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Mission. Archbishop Robert Duncan and Primatial Vicar Chuck Murphy often use its terminology in their sermons and addresses.
I have identified a number of underlying influences—Darwinism, post-modernism, humanism, and futurism. Doctrine, Biblical revelation, and even God are seen as evolving. This evolution is viewed as desirable and progressive. The Holy Spirit is seen as operative in the evolution of doctrine and Biblical revelation and behind the bringing together of disparate theological streams.
In the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church the feminist and gay rights movements have found in these developments a theology that is congenial to their aspirations. The Christian Church has a long history of theology following practice, the former to explain and justify the latter. As Archbishop Cranmer observed, “there was never anything by the wit of men so well devised, or so sure established, which in the continuance of time have not been corrupted.” Of course, the contemporary tendency is not to view the changes as the product of corruption but the result of progressive evolution. This is revisionism in full bloom. What past generations defined as evil is redefined as good. What they regarded as regressive is interpreted as forward-moving.
The pluralism we observe in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church is also observable in the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Mission albeit in milder form. Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals have different views of authority and salvation and do not preach the same gospel. It is not simply a matter of difference of emphasis or nuance. It is an entirely different message. Yet we are told that neither Anglo-Catholics nor conservative evangelicals have a monopoly on truth—a postmodernist view if I have ever heard one—and should tolerate each others’ teaching—a liberal view, with the inference that “persons will be saved no matter what belief they hold or what sect they belong to, provided they sincerely lead their lives according to those beliefs and to the light of nature”—a decidedly pluralist view.
I have no problem with tolerance of differences of opinion in secondary matters. However, salvation is not a secondary matter. Among the purposes for which the Thirty-Nine Articles were compiled and adopted is to set the bounds to the comprehensiveness of the Church of England. The Articles allow the maximum of flexibility and variety on secondary matters but not on primary matters.
Among the purposes of the Articles is also to ensure that the gospel of justification by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone was not lost to the English Church again as it had been lost for such a long time before the Reformation. The Oxford movement and the Anglo-Catholic movement that has succeeded it are Counter-Reformation movements and they historically have sought to undo the Articles and the Reformed doctrine of justification and grace embodied in them.
In the Episcopal Church the Anglo-Catholic movement joined with the liberal Broad Church movement to remove the Articles from the American Prayer Book. They almost succeeded. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the Articles are relegated to the historical documents section.
The constitution of the Anglican Church in North America largely treats the Articles as a relic of the past. In its view the Articles deal with issues that were the subject of dispute in the sixteenth century but are not longer controversial, a view that is far from the truth.
We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.
As comparison of this clause with that original clause in the Common Cause Theological Statement from which it was adapted show that two changes have been made. The original clause referred to the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1562, which omits Article XXIX. The latter affirms against Lutheranism that “wicked persons and all in whom a vital faith is absent physically and visibly press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ with their teeth…, are in no sense partakers of Christ.” The article “the” preceding “fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief” has been dropped. Several versions of the Common Cause Theological Statement were in circulation before the final ratification of the constitution of the Anglican Church in North America. Some omitted the article “the” while others contained it. The version of the Common Cause Theological Statement posted on the Anglican Church in North America web site contains the article. The omission of this article significantly alters the meaning of the clause, inferring that all the principles of historical Anglican belief are not contained in the Articles but may be found elsewhere such as the vague unidentified body of doctrine that Newman referred to as “Catholic tradition” in his explication of the Articles in Tract 90.
In this regard the Anglican Church in North America stands in continuity with the Episcopal Church from which a large proportion of its members come rather than global South provinces such as the Church of Uganda, which not only accepts the formularies of the Church of England as its standards of faith and doctrine but also disclaims for itself the right of altering them. The position of the Anglican Church in North America on the Articles stands in striking contrast to that of the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration.
We uphold the Thirty-Nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.
The GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration takes the position that the Articles are authoritative as God’s word for contemporary Anglicans as they are agreeable to God’s word.
In the Church of England the Anglo-Catholic movement agitated for the abolition of the Articles and their replacement with the Prayer Book, interpreted “in a Catholic sense,” as the doctrinal standard for the English Church. While they did not succeed in their efforts to do away with the Articles, they were successful in weakening the laws and canons governing subscription to the Articles. What we are seeing in North America and the United Kingdom in the last months of the opening decade of the twenty-first century is the outworking of the consequences of these developments.
The challenge facing conservative evangelicals in North America is keeping the gospel from being obscured and even lost in the various bodies that form the North American Anglican community. Alone, isolated, and scattered, they can do very little to meet this challenge. Networked together within the North American Anglican body in which God has placed them and networked with conservative evangelicals in other Anglican bodies in and outside of North America, they can make an incredible difference. They can provide each other with mutual support and assistance. They can promote the historic Anglican formularies—the Articles that embody the historic Anglican understanding of the New Testament gospel, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer that gives expression in liturgical form to the doctrine of justification by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone, and the 1662 Ordinal that emphasizes the ministry of the gospel. They can develop alternative rites and forms, including guidelines for local patterns of worship, for use alongside the 1662 Prayer Book, rites, forms, and worship patterns that adhere to the biblical and Reformation doctrine of the Prayer Book and respect its liturgical usages. They can make provision for the training of gospel workers, not only in residential programs but also at the local church level. They can plant new gospel churches throughout North America and organize networks and other groupings of these churches within the Anglican bodies in which they find themselves. They can also establish an independent association of gospel churches for those who cannot due to their theological convictions and/or other concerns join an existing North American Anglican body. These are just a few of the steps that they can take to maintain a genuine Anglican witness in North America, centered on the gospel and grounded in the Bible and the Reformation.
Those who are numbering their years can leave behind them a rich legacy for future generations. They can go to their graves with peace of mind knowing that they have done their share to preserve and uphold the true apostolic faith of the reformed Church of England in North America. They have not labored in vain.
As mountain climbers and skiers know, it takes very little to start an avalanche. Once the snow begins to move, it gathers momentum and gathers more snow. Soon it is an unstoppable mass of snow, earth, and ice descending swiftly down the side of the mountain, carrying everything before it. Let us pray God will turn us into a human avalanche, an avalanche through whom God sweeps the lost into his arms, an avalanche so might that it shakes all North America and the world.
Let us pray that God frees us from whatever is holding us back from serving him to our fullest. Let us pray that God will make us hot and glowing, filled with fervor in the cause of the gospel, truly Anglicans ablaze!