Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Anglican Debacle: Roots and Patterns

(Ed: This article from Mark Thompson in Australia has some challenging things to say about Anglo-Catholicism. Even though the current divide in Anglicanism is not along the old lines of churchmanship, there are other elephants in the room, and the 'wounds of a friend' can be faithful (Prov 27:6). Others may wish to respond.)

... a golden age of Anglicanism, in which biblical patterns of doctrine and practice were accepted by the majority, is nothing but an illusion. Biblical Christianity has always struggled under the Anglican umbrella. At some times it did better than at others, but there was never a time when evangelical Anglicanism, even of the more formal prayer book kind, was uniformly accepted or endorsed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were, after all, burnt at the stake with the consent of most of the rest of the bishops in Mary’s church.

The Puritans who stayed within the Church of England suffered at the hands of Elizabeth I, and William Laud and others made life increasingly difficult for them after Elizabeth’s death. The re-establishment of the Church of England following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was never a determined return to the Reformed evangelical version of Archbishop Cranmer, but a compromise designed to exclude anything that resembled Puritanism. Wesley was hunted out of the established church. Whitfield had to preach in the open air when pulpits were closed to him.

However, the real seeds of the problem we now face lie in the nineteenth century. John Henry Newman’s infamous Tract 90, published in 1841, encouraged Anglicans to read the Thirty-nine Articles as a Catholic document.2 In this way he opened the door to the possibility that you might publicly assent to the Articles while reinterpreting them to say what you wanted them to say. What he did in the interests of a more Catholic version of Anglicanism others would do in the interests of a more liberal version before very long. As one scholar put it, ‘whether he intended to or not, he taught us to lie’.

Later in the century liberal approaches to the Bible and Christian doctrine were introduced into Anglican thought through men like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit was published in 1840 though it had most likely been circulating privately before then) and two collections of essays: Essays and Reviews published in 1860 and Lux Mundi published in 1889. By the end of the nineteenth century, liberal Anglo-Catholicism was the dominant form of Anglicanism in Britain and elsewhere (with one or two significant exceptions).

So it is not simply that a couple of rash actions in the past five years or even the last fifty years have undermined what was a pretty well-functioning institution prior to that. Evangelical Anglicans have struggled in a hostile environment within the denomination for a very long time. Sometimes their ministry has flourished, despite the hostility of the hierarchy. Whitfield, Simeon, Ryle, Stott, Packer, Lucas — God has raised up many Anglican evangelical leaders in England and elsewhere.3 But their faithful ministry has always involved struggle within the denomination.

That background might lead you to ask, ‘So what’s changed now?’ If the denomination has long been compromised in these ways, and evangelicals have always struggled within it, why are we arguing that we have now reached a moment of crisis where decisive action needs to be taken? What is different about what’s happening at the moment? Read more
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Peter Kirk said...


Thanks for this, the whole article. But if this is how they feel, if they believe that worldwide Anglicanism has gone "further down the road of denominational apostasy than we have ever been before", why do they remain in the Anglican Communion? Why do you, John? Why do I?

Revd John P Richardson said...

Have a look also at Andrew Goddard's latest on the Fulcrum website: "What if the church were ever to bless relationships which claim to be godly but are founded on ungodly behaviour which the church simply ignores or even commends? Then, I am afraid, I am with the great contemporary German theologian Pannenberg who writes that 'Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that allows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture.'"

One regular poster there replies, "I take it that the latest view of Andrew Goddard shows that he is one with GAFCON. If acceptance of homosexuality is schism, then to withdraw from those that do is not itself schism because it has already taken place."

Big questions for all of us.