By Robin G. Jordan
Orthodox Anglican clergy and congregations committed to the Great Commission and to the teaching of the Bible and the doctrinal and worship principles of the Anglican formularies cannot be expected to make-do with a Prayer Book that emphasizes a different gospel from that of the New Testament and embodies a set of beliefs and practices with no clear basis in Scripture and in conflict with historic Anglicanism’s longstanding doctrinal and worship standard. Nor can they be expected to live with a catechism that contains doctrinal views that are inconsistent with the Bible and the Anglican formularies.
Anglo-Catholics may make appeals to “the faith of the undivided church,” to the Vincentian Canon, and to the early Church Fathers. The “undivided church,” however, is a convenient fiction. From New Testament times the Christian Church has experienced divisions. Before the East-West Schism, or the Great Schism, in the eleventh century the Eastern and Western Churches were moving significantly away from each other both in doctrine and practice. The East-West Schism made official the growing divisions between the two Churches.
The canon to which historic Anglicanism looks as its first and final authority in matters of faith and practice is the Holy Scriptures. Being widely-accepted, enduring, and seemingly ubiquitous is no guarantee that a belief or practice is Scriptural. Error and superstition can also exhibit these characteristics.
The English Reformers, while they gave consideration to the opinions of the Patristic writers, submitted the early Church Fathers’ opinions to Scripture. They did not give the opinions of the Patristic writers the weight that the Laudians and the Tractarians would, recognizing that the early Church Fathers were fallible, were not always guided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit, and employed unsound principles in their interpretation of Scripture. While the Patristic writers may have lived in a time that was closer to the time of the apostles, their proximity to apostolic times did not guarantee that their opinions were consistent with apostolic teaching.
Nowhere do we find in Scripture anything requiring orthodox Anglicans to submit to what the Anglican Church has historically viewed as false teaching or to those occupying the place of power in an organization that Scripture does not recognize as a part of the Church of Christ. Denominations, after all, are human inventions. In the New Testament we find only reference to churches in particular localities and to loose regional associations of these churches. The only leaders to which believers are urged to submit are the leaders of such churches. They are also advised not to welcome false teachers.
The Holy Scriptures do not prohibit the formation of denominations and the appointment of denominational officials. But the authority denominational officials exercise is derived from the churches forming the denomination. They in turn derive their authority from Christ. It is certainly not independent of these churches nor is it received from the apostles. While Anglo-Catholics may hold that bishops are the successors of the apostles, this view is based on tradition, not Scripture.
The governing documents of a denomination are essentially a contractual agreement between the churches forming the denomination in which they agree to abide by certain rules. When denominational officials do not abide by these rules as what has happened in the Anglican Church in North America, the contractual agreement is voided. The College of Bishops by not confining itself to role defined for the episcopal college in the constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America has in effect nullified both documents. The contractual agreement that these documents established is no longer valid and binding. The only authority that the denominational officials have at this stage is what the parties to the now void contractual agreement are stilling willing to extend to them.
The governing documents of the Anglican Church in North America do not assign to the College of Bishops the role of producing and approving liturgies for the denomination. They assign that role to the Provincial Council, which under the provisions of the constitution is the governing body of the denomination. The Provincial Council is the closest thing that the Anglican Church in North America has to a provincial synod. The only role that the canons assign to the bishops of the denomination is that of ensuring that the liturgies used in their respective dioceses or networks conform to the teaching of the Bible. In that regard most of them have not been doing a first-rate job, tolerating and even promoting rites and services that are far from Scriptural in their doctrines and practices.
The College of Bishops may go on revising and endorsing new additions to Texts for Common Prayer but its revisions and endorsements are not valid or binding. Some churches forming the denomination may choose to accept the College of Bishops’ revisions and endorsements but others may choose to reject them and Texts for Common Prayer itself. They are not bound to use the rites and services in the collection or the companion faith outline, To Be A Christian: An Anglican Catechism. They may enter into a contractual agreement with each other to develop and use a separate Prayer Book and a separate Catechism, both of which are more closely aligned with the teaching of the Bible and the doctrinal and worship principles of the Anglican formularies.
Whatever arguments that those may not agree with this view of denominations can muster can also be used against the succession from the Episcopal Church of the churches forming the Anglican Church in North America and their formation of a new denominational organization and structure. It would be interesting to hear such arguments not from self-appointed apologists for the Anglican Church in North America but from members of the College of Bishops themselves. How do they rationalize their departure from the teaching of the Bible and the doctrine of the Anglican formularies as well as their irregular, unconstitutional, and uncanonical actions over the past five odd years? How do they rationalize their charade of embracing the tenets that the Jerusalem Declaration identifies as underpinning Anglican orthodoxy?
Of course the members of the College of Bishops are not going to make any public statements. They do not want to have on the record anything that might come back to haunt them.
Explaining their thinking is also an admission that they are accountable for their actions and that the churches forming the denomination can require from them an accounting for whatever they do. This I suspect does not fit with how a number of the bishops see the episcopate. As successors to the apostles in their own minds, they do not see themselves as accountable to anyone except to Christ and then at a time in the distant future. Therefore, they feel no obligation to offer an explanation for what they are doing. They are, after all, as Bishop Keith Ackerman put it, rulers of the Church. Rulers do not explain their actions or the thinking behind their actions to their subjects.
Former Archbishop Robert Duncan set the tone of the College of Bishops with his flagrant disregard of the provisions of the Anglican Church in North America’s constitution and canons during his five years in office. During his arch-episcopate the College of Bishops encroached upon the role of the Provincial Council and took upon itself an increasing larger part of that role.
An underlying problem is disparate visions of the Church. For a number of bishops their chief priority is the promotion of “Catholic faith, order, and practice.” It is not to advance the gospel, to point the way of salvation to the millions in and outside of North America who desperately need a savior, facing eternal separation from God. Our Lord, on the other hand, has given his Church as its principal task the spreading of the gospel to all people groups and the making of disciples of these groups. This is attested again and again in the Holy Scriptures. The bishops’ book, Texts for Common Prayer, reflects the concerns of the bishops whose chief priority is to promote “Catholic, faith, order, and practice.” Obedience to our Lord and fidelity to the gospel requires a different kind of book, one that emphasizes the gospel and embodies the evangelical faith of the Bible and the Anglican formularies.
In The Way, the Truth, and the Life: Theological Resources for a Pilgrimage to a Global Anglican Future the GAFCON Theological Resource Group identifies two major challenges to the authority of the Bible and the Anglican formularies in the Anglican Church. The first is Anglo-Catholicism; the second is liberalism. The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops failed in its duty “to banish and drive away strange and erroneous doctrine contrary to God’s Word.” Indeed its members promoted liberalism. Now in the Anglican Church in North America the College of Bishops is doing the same thing. Its members, however, are promoting unreformed Catholicism.
The bishops in question in part due to their doctrine and in part due to their disregard of the provisions of the Anglican Church in North America’s governing documents have thrown away their moral and spiritual authority as well as whatever authority these governing documents gave them. As I noted earlier, what little authority they have left is that which individual churches in the denomination are still willing to give them. Their decisions have no force of their own outside their own jurisdictions and then arguably have no force there. They have shown themselves as being bankrupt of the qualities needed to lead a grouping of churches, much less a denomination, in the principal task of the Church. They should do the honorable thing and step down. What the Anglican Church in North America needs is leaders committed to advancing the gospel in and outside the denomination.
In any event their decisions are not binding upon the Anglican Church in North America, both due to the provisions of its governing documents and due to their nullification of the contractual agreement between the churches forming the denomination and underlying these documents. Orthodox Anglican clergy and congregations committed to the teaching of the Bible and the doctrine of the Anglican formularies and affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America are free to develop their own Prayer Book and Catechism consistent with such teaching and doctrine. They are also free to take other steps for the furtherance of the gospel and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Only when orthodox Anglican clergy and congregations become fully aligned with the principle task that our Lord entrusted to his Church will they become what they were meant to be—Anglicans ablaze, on fire with the Holy Spirit and zeal for the gospel and the salvation of souls. They will be willing and working for God’s good pleasure. They can be certain of it!