A friend on Facebook drew my attention to this article on conservative evangelical site The Gospel Coalition. One of the few Anglican hobbies that people from catholic, evangelical and liberal traditions seem to share is arguing that their version of Anglicanism is, has been, and ever shall be “real Anglicanism”. Most famously, perhaps, Blessed John Henry Newman tried it with Tract 90.
You be Anglican in your way, and I’ll be Anglican in God’s way. It’s a form of polemics that owes more to the ingenuity of the writer than the awkward footprints of history which suggest a more complex development.
Michael Jensen’s version, written from a narrowly evangelical base for a narrowly evangelical audience, suffers as much as any from the same vice. It seems worth pointing out some of the problems.
1. Since the arrival of Christianity in Britain in the 3rd century, British Christianity has had a distinct flavor and independence of spirit, and was frequently in tension with Roman Catholicism.
There was no “Roman Catholicism” as commonly meant until the 16th century. But not only is this statement anachronistic, the tensions of 7th century British Christianity were real but limited, organisational rather than doctrinal. There is no simple picture here that makes British Christianity a unique case, as opposed to versions of Christianity adopted anywhere else.
2. The break with Rome in the 16th century had political causes, but also saw the emergence of an evangelical theology
I don’t think there’s any disagreement about the complex causes of the English Reformation. But the complex causes help explain why what follows develops the complex history that Jensen ignores.
3. Anglicanism is Reformed.
The progression of the prayer books from 1549 to 1552 show Cranmer moving in a strongly Calvinist direction. Historically Jensen is right about the formularies having a strong Reformed flavour. But it is never simply about formularies. There was a large party that argued it was insufficiently reformed, regarding bishops, the sign of the cross in baptism, and other catholic hangovers. There were others who in various ways, have always pushed back. Hooker in a more positive estimate of Aquinas, the high churchmen whose pushback caused the evangelicals to execute them and the king, and so on down to Newman’s Tractarians and later liberals. The nature of what a biblically reformed catholicism is, or should be, continued to be disputed, and in today’s Anglican world, the formularies have a very limited place in practice, however honoured as an historical witness..
4. Scripture is the supreme authority in Anglicanism.
Jensen uses this statement to downplay reason and tradition, but neglects to note what a difference there is between suprema scriptura, and sola scriptura. Many Anglicans would demur from Jensen’s statement that scripture alone is supreme as the “saving Word of God” since they believe that ascription belongs to Christ alone, and that to apply it to Scripture is bibliolatry. And Jensen would, I think, find it hard to accept the way in which the articles and lectionary, taken together, provide for the Apocryphal books to be read in church every year in the same way as the Hebrew Bible texts “for example of life and instruction of manners” (Article 6).
5. Justification by faith alone is at the heart of Anglican soteriology.
I’m persuaded this is true of the Prayer Book, not least by the arguments of Colin Buchanan in his study What did Cranmer think he was doing?. Buchanan argues that the whole structure of the 1552 Eucharist is intended to give liturgical expression to the doctrine. However, in today’s New Testament studies, one of the hotly contested areas is whether the Reformation doctrine is remotely plausible as an understanding of St Paul’s historical view. The Gospel Coalition are doughty defenders of the traditional Protestant view, but the weight of scholarship has moved away from it. An Anglican faith that is concerned to make scripture supreme might well be questioning the Lutheran view of justification, rather than setting evangelical tradition over scripture.
6. In Anglican thought, the sacraments are “effectual signs” received by faith.
While this view can certainly be supported from numerous places, the texts also lend support to other views. This is one reason evangelicals always struggled with lines such as that immediately after baptism and signing: “seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that these children be regenerate”. And the subtle additions made in 1571 to the Prayer Book, placing the title “Prayer of Consecration” in the service of Holy Communion, and putting an “Amen” at the end of it, subverted Cranmer’s intentions in a more realist direction. Cranmer’s own language (such is the power of well-written liturgical prose) also militated against a Zwinglian turn in the minds of most communicants: “grant us therefore (gracious Lord) so to eat the fleshe of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood” is powerfully realistic language. No wonder Anglicans have held a diversity of views on how the presence and gift of Christ is or is not related to the elements of bread and wine.
7. The Anglican liturgy—best encapsulated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer—is designed to soak the congregation in the Scriptures, and to remind them of the priority of grace in the Christian life.
Absolutely. But it’s hardly an Anglican exclusive, and ironically you’re likely to get more scripture read in catholic Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in today’s society that you are in evangelical and charismatic churches. At least, that’s both my experience, and one I hear many others echo. I have been to more than one “new church” worship gathering where there wasn’t a single Bible reading.
8. Anglicanism is a missionary faith, and has sponsored global missions since the 18th century.
There has certainly been a major commitment to mission among Anglicans, often with entangled with uncomfortable colonial relationships. However, Jenson overstates his case. The 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books contain no Baptism service for adults, only for infants. Arguably, the only reason for the provision of an order of Baptism for those of “Riper Years” was the number of unbaptised people left over from the Commonwealth period. The hard truth for the churches of the Reformation is that by and large, they were national and not missionary. The only church interested in going into all the world was that giving allegiance to Rome.
9. Global Anglicanism is more African and Asian than it is English and American.
For Jensen, this is less a statement of numerical fact, and more a means of criticising what he calls “liberal theology”. It sits oddly with his earlier adherence to ancient European formularies. Either the faith grows, inculturates, develops, and descriptions of it have to take account of what Anglicans actually do and say (for good or ill), or it is about a fundamentalist holding on to 16th century formularies. It seems as if Jensen is saying, “Heads you lose, tails I win.”
There’s more to Anglicanism than Jensen’s description, and some of what he describes is less than Anglican. Some of what other Anglicans do and believe I agree with, and some I don’t, but just saying “my version’s Anglican, and yours isn’t” is a fairly sterile position to take, and one that just sits up and begs to be disqualified at the bar of history.