Will The Real Anglicanism Please Stand Up?
“Are they even Anglican?” “We aren’t Baptists, we’re Episcopalians.” “He’s just a Presbyterian with robes on.” As a Reformation Anglican, you would think I would get used to hearing these kinds of statements. I have to admit, even after over a decade of active leadership in Anglican and Episcopal ministries, it still surprises me when I hear people articulate a monolithic understanding of what Anglicanism is. For this reason, it’s important that we ask the question “What does it mean to be authentically Anglican?” While this question seems straightforward at first, through Anglicanism’s 450 plus years some very different answers have been offered. This series of posts will examine some of the main ways Anglicans have identified themselves through the years.
I must be honest, I am approaching this as a self-identified Reformation Anglican, and I do have a bias as to how Anglicanism should identify itself (not how it does, nor even how it must) and that bias rests on how I define what is meant by “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” My case here is not to say, however, that Reformation Anglicanism (as we’ll define it in this post) is the only legitimate Anglican identity, but rather to simply make the case that Reformation Anglicanism is a legitimate Anglican identity, that we do have a seat in the boardroom.
It is also my hope that by more clearly lining out the differences with which Anglicans have approached their faith, we might more clearly think about some of the controversies we face. I have a friend who, due to a childhood illness, does not remember anything before her 7th or 8th birthday. She has built her recollection of her childhood largely off of what her family members have told her. There is a significant amount of institutional amnesia in American Anglicanism and it is my hope that we would build our memory not off of what we may have been taught in confirmation class, but on the facts of history itself. We will begin this series with where Anglicanism began
By Reformation Anglicanism, I mean Anglicanism as it developed during the time of the Reformation. Reformation Anglicanism was dominant in the Church of England from the reign of Edward VI through Elizabeth I (of course, with the exception of Mary Tudor’s reign). Reformation Anglicanism was largely formed under the leadership of Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. It claims such heroes as Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, John Jewell, and Richard Hooker to name a few. The doctrine of Reformation Anglicanism is contained mainly in the Edwardian prayer books (1549 and 1552), the Articles of Religion, and the Book of Homilies.
Careful and objective study of these documents seats Anglicanism at this time firmly within the trajectory of the Magisterial Reformation. Later historic revision recast this period as an attempt to pave a middle way (via media) between the church in Rome and the Reformed church in Geneva (led by John Calvin). I believe a careful study of the history and theology of the Anglican Reformers themselves (as opposed to their later historians) will show that if the Church in England were paving any middle way, it was more of a middle point between Calvin’s Geneva and Luther’s Wittenberg. I do not say this as a polemical statement, but rather to say that it is the best interpretation of historical facts. The Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Book of Homilies all clearly articulate a form of doctrine that is much more in line with Reformation doctrine than that of the Roman Catholic Church.
While it is clearly in the flow of Protestantism, Reformation Anglicanism carries its own distinctive flavor in the milieu of the Reformation. Perhaps the chief distinction is the reliance Thomas Cranmer and early Anglicans had on the normative principle over and above the regulative principle of worship. You see this clearly in the controversy leading up to what has become known as the Black Rubric. This rubric was inserted late into the Prayer Book of 1552 largely due to the efforts of the Scottish Presbyterian, John Knox. What’s significant about this rubric is not just what it says about the presence of the Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, what is significant is how the debate played out between Knox and Cranmer. Knox insisted that what was not expressly stated in Scripture must be condemned (Scripture is regulative of our worship). Cranmer resisted this, making the case that Scripture laid out the norms for worship but allowed for freedom in the pastoral application of the clear truths.
This distinction bled as well into their doctrine of the church. Thus, Knox (following John Calvin) makes the case that since Elder government is standard in the New Testament; this was the only legitimate form of church government. Cranmer (and later Richard Hooker) built a case for bishops in the church based on the pastoral need within the structures of British society. Thus, Reformation Anglicans retained the episcopacy not as much because they viewed it as essential for the church, but because they saw it as needful for the English church. Hence, when John Cosin, a High Church Caroline Divine and not a Reformation Anglican, is asked by an Englishman travelling in France whether to attend the Roman Catholic Church (which had bishops in apostolic succession) or the French Huguenot Church (led by elders holding a reformed understanding of the gospel), Cosin bases his advice off of the definition of the Church in the Articles of Religion “Where the Word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly and duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.” In other words, you attend the church that preaches the Gospel, not the one that upholds the historic institution. Furthermore, during the English Reformation French Huegonot ministers (French Calvinist Presbyterians) were regularly received into the Church of England and allowed to preach and celebrate without having to receive Episcopal ordination (i.e. Apostolic Succession). In other words, the church can be seen where doctrine is correct, not where their hierarchy is correct.
So, you see, those who accuse Reformation Anglicans of not having any ecclesiology have simply failed to recognize one simple fact. Reformation Anglicanism has an ecclesiology with a different foundation than High Churchmen and Anglo-catholics. This is an ecclesiology that is built on the supremacy of the Scriptures over the traditions of the church and the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Furthermore, it is an ecclesiology that is found within the very foundational documents of Anglicanism itself: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” Reformation Anglicanism is a bit of a minority in American Anglicanism today. However, if you look to the history of our church, you’ll see that this is not due to a lack of credentials within the history of Anglicanism, but more of an institutional amnesia that has failed to set the foundation of our church in its proper historical setting.
Postscript: Many will read this and not recognize their brand of Anglicanism. In the posts that follow we will look at some of the other mainstream trajectories Anglicanism has followed!
 There is an increasing awareness of this in recent scholarship. For example, see Alister McGrath, Anglicanism and Protestantism, Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Myth of The English Reformation, or Ashley Null, The Thirty-Nine Articles and Reformation Anglicanism Biblical Authority Defined and Applied.