If Anglicanism is everything, it’s nothing

When I say “Anglican,” what do you hear? Do you hear via media? Do you hear Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, or Anglo-Catholic? 

The temptation throughout Anglican history has been to become confused about our identity. Various groups have reduced Anglicanism to various assertions, for instance, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral or the Tracts for the Times. 

But, despite accretions, Anglicanism has come to mean far less than it once did. When “Anglican” is allowed to become a liturgical and not theological designator, any real identity is lost. If Anglicanism is a liturgical everything, then it is theological nothing. 

However, Anglicanism rests on theological assertions that are decidedly Protestant and based on an authentic catholicity. There is no via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. 

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

Cranmer would violently have rejected such a notion; how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist? The middle ground which he sought was the same as Bucer’s: an agreement between Wittenberg and Zürich which would provide a united vision of Christian doctrine against the counterfeit being refurbished at the Council of Trent. For him, Catholicism was to be found in the scattered churches of the Reformation, and it was his aim to show forth their unity to prove their Catholicity.

Anglicanism, from the outset, forged a Protestant middle way.

The most contentious battles were fought between evangelicals (Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer) and conservatives (Fisher, Gardiner, More) over predestination, freedom and bondage of the will, and justification. Anglicanism settled these debates in the 39 Articles (1571). The evangelicals won.

Article 17 states:

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour.

Thus, Reformation Anglicans held to (single) predestinarianism. 

Reformation Anglicans also believed that the human will is bound and that individual human beings will always choose their own destruction. 

Article 10:

The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith… we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God.

Finally, Reformation Anglicans believed that while good works naturally spring from faith, they are not in and of themselves the means by which we remain in relationship to God.

Article 11:

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.

The Reformation’s questions were answered, past tense. And, since 1571, the 39 Articles have been the confessional document for Anglicans. In addition to The Book of Common Prayer (1662), The Ordinal, and The Books of Homilies, they are part of the traditional Anglican formularies. 

As history progressed, Anglicanism fell prey to the times, revivalism (the Great Awakenings), Tractarianism, etc. Anglican confusion deepened with the redefinition of key terms. The clearest case of this is the term evangelical

Evangelical meant something different during the English Reformation. Back then, you were an evangelical if you believed in justification by faith alone. Today’s evangelical Anglicans might have a few bones to pick with Reformation evangelicals. Accretions to the definition of evangelical from the First and Second Great Awakenings added some caveats to Anglican soteriology. 

Thanks to the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield, Anglican soteriology became fraught with self-doubt. Not only was baptism necessary, but now you weren’t saved unless you had (1) a religious experience, (2) an adult renewal of faith, and (3) actively participated in the covenant established in baptism. If that seems to undermine justification by faith alone, you are not far from the kingdom of God, to borrow a phrase. 

By the mid-19th Century, Anglicanism was deeply entrenched in revivalist evangelicalism. There was a tacit understanding that one’s salvation was contingent upon a kind of emotive response to God’s work. In response, a group of faculty at Oxford University began writing the Tracts for the Times, a series of essays addressing concerns they had about trends in Anglican theology and practice. 

The nascent Oxford Movement attempted in Tract 90, by the pen of John Henry Newman, to interpret the 39 Articles expansively, “to take our reformed confessions in the most Catholic sense they will admit.” 

This was an admirable goal, but it carried within it the seeds of yet another identity crisis. Had Anglicanism lost too much of its Catholic heritage? Had it compromised too heavily? It was a legitimate question, but the Oxford Movement went too far. 

Justification by faith only was weakened. The Oxford Movement eventually led many to join Rome, but an Anglicanism that attempts to mediate between Rome and Protestantism is ultimately untenable. Newman understood an important reality: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are irreconcilable unless one or the other concedes major theological ground.

The ground shifted again in modern times, especially in the American context. The Liturgical Movement continued the work begun by the Oxford dons. Many wanted a more flexible prayer book for the purpose of ecumenism. In the two decades before the ratification of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), significant changes were proposed in the form of the Prayer Book Studies series. 

These studies were steeped in the work of people like Dom Gregory Dix and other Anglo-Catholic theologians. When the new prayer book came into being, it looked substantially different than any of its previous iterations. A rather obvious difference is that there are now six different Eucharistic prayers and two different rites available for use. It soon became disingenuous to speak any longer of “common prayer” in the Episcopal Church.

Today, much of western Anglicanism tends to be centered in addressing social concerns. These are important and have theological implications, but if a church holds contradicting positions on theology, it loses credibility. The Church (note the capital letter) is supposed to tell the truth, yet two opposing assertions cannot both be true.

Anglicanism is not enriched by holding contradicting theological positions. Anglicanism does not engage in “common prayer” when the prayers we say are not held in common. Anglicanism is not healthy when there is too much diversity of theological opinion. Anglicanism is not great when it tries to arbitrate between Luther and Rome. 

The greatness of Anglicanism is not that it is expansive. Anglicanism is Protestant. It is not a spectrum between Rome and Wittenberg. It is a spectrum between Wittenberg and Zürich. Rome is in the rear-view mirror. 

Anglicanism’s promise is found in hewing to the formularies, especially the 39 Articles. Our theology makes assertions. One of our central assertions is the one most readily dispensed with today: justification by faith only. Not an ounce of our work participates in God’s work of salvation. There is no facere quod in se est (to do one’s best) in Anglicanism. Anglicanism has agreed with Jonathan Edwards’ sentiment from the very beginning: “You contribute nothing to your own salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” But one is hard pressed to find that message being preached.

Ultimately, the promise of Anglicanism is the promise that God makes to Israel and for the church in Isaiah 43: “I have called you by name. You are mine.” As Paul says in Romans 8: “And those whom [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” 

Anglicanism proclaims that God so loved the world that he took on human flesh in Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us to reconcile us to the Father. God’s redeeming work is not contingent upon our work. We do not stay in God’s good graces by behaving well. Instead, God saves us in spite of all we do. Having elected us, God predestined us to eternal life, justified us, and sanctified us apart from our works. This is the Gospel that Anglicanism proclaims.

The Rev. James Rickenbaker is the Assistant Rector of Aquia Episcopal Church in Stafford, Virginia.

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