Friday, October 19, 2012

Anglican Myths 10: Nothing "Peculiar" Here

The inspiration for the title of this post comes from the (infamous) quote from Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury, from 1945 to 1961.  The quote in its entirety follows:

"The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ's Church from the beginning." It may licitly teach as necessary for salvation nothing but what is read in the Holy Scriptures as God's Word written or may be proved thereby. It therefore embraces and affirms such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the Scriptures, and thus to be counted apostolic. The Church has no authority to innovate: it is obliged continually, and particularly in times of renewal or reformation, to return to "the faith once delivered to the saints."
(Note, a commentary on the text -- I believe the first quoted portion comes from Archbishop Fisher and the latter text was drafted by the ACNA theological group.  I cannot find the text without both pieces so I assume that they go together.  I will be commenting mostly on the first portion, lines 1-4, which I believe to be Archbishop Fisher's actual words.  But in the case that I am misunderstanding the punctuation of the text, I will comment on the latter portion as well.)

This idea has gained some traction in "conservative" Anglican circles over the past few decades.  It is especially pertinent now since it is featured on the ACNA webpage ("About Us").  It is included with the theological statement adopted by ACNA (which is loosely based on the Jerusalem Declaration).  It is safe to say that this statement is presented in Introductory Anglicanism courses in many parishes in North America and elsewhere.  The question remains, does it accurately present the teaching of Anglicanism?  In particular, does it present a clear understanding of the nature of authority in Anglicanism, especially in relation to the early Church?

I believe the problems with this line of thought are wrong on two accounts.  I divide the statement into two halves.  The first half being the first sentence and the second half being the second sentence simply.    I will address the second half first and then the first.

The second half of Fisher's statement reveals an ignorance of the Anglican formularies, in the sense of Anglicanism's acceptance of the early Church Fathers, Creeds, etc.  The Church of England (and consequently her daughter Churches) accept the teaching of Scripture and the doctrine contained therein, because "Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." (Article 6).  The universal truth of Scripture is consequently particularly applied in various national contexts, one of which is in England.  The Reformed Church of England does not base its authority off of the teaching of the Fathers or the Creeds, by themselves, but on the authority of the Holy Scripture.  These lesser authorities are only accepted insofar as they agree with the teaching of Holy Scripture.  For instance, "The three Creeds... ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture" (Article 8), the Creeds have no inherent authority of their own and are only to be accepted because they present the universal truth of Scripture.  Again, Article 20 seriously limits the authority of the Church, especially in comparison with the claims made by the Romish Church, for the Church is the "keeper of Holy Writ" but is bound by it and cannot teach anything contrary to it or count anything as binding that is not contained therein:

The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God's word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ: yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.
The subsequent Article (21) limits the authority of General (or Ecumenical) Councils by first declaring them to only be licitly called together by Christian princes, not the pope.  Secondly, Ecumenical Councils may and have erred, such as the Seventh Council, Article 19 extends this possibility of error not only to Ecumenical Councils but also to particular Churches, "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith."  Not only that, the Articles list in several places specific errors of the Churches and Councils.  For example, works of supererogation "cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety" (Article 14); purgatory, pardon, the veneration of saints, images, and relics, as well as the invocation of saints are " fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God" (Article 22); holding services in Church in a language not understood by the people is "plainly repugnant" (Article 24), etc.  Thirdly, their authority is only relevant insomuch as they present and uphold the teaching of Scripture:

Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture. 
 Consequently, Article 34 details the authority of particular or national Churches to regulate its own ceremonial life, for example, England chose to celebrate Pentecost Day but Scotland did not.  Each particular Church has the right to these types of decisions so long as nothing contrary to the truth of Scripture is promoted by a Church:

It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one or utterly alike; for at all times they have been diverse, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's word. Whosoever through his private judgement willingly and purposely doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church which be not repugnant to the word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly that other may fear to do the like, as he that offendeth against common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the magistrate, and woundeth the conscience of the weak brethren.
    Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying.
The first half of Fisher's statement presents a set of problems as well, though less severe than those of the second half.  "The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own."  This cheapens the Church of England and her daughter Churches, at least in my opinion.  The statement has a nugget of truth wedged in it in the sense that there is no "Cranmerianism" or "Hookerism" but I think it is far-fetched to deny any peculiarities to the Anglican tradition.  One must remember that there was no "Calvinism" in 1563 either.  The Church of England preserved a unique combination of the retention of episcopacy, liturgy, some ceremonies, and Reformed doctrine, not to mention the most important aspect of English Christianity, the sacral monarchy (which is often overlooked).  The notions of passive obedience, non-resistance, and the divine right of kings is a key aspect of Anglicanism which, although not unique, its application and life in Anglicanism has been unique in comparison to other Churches.  The high doctrine of presence in the Eucharist, virtualism, is a unique contribution of Anglicanism to the understanding of Christ's presence in the Sacrament.  Waterland's regeneration/renewal distinction is a unique way of understanding the relation of the effects of baptism to the soul.  The understanding of ecclesiastical election was a popular alternative to Arminianism and Calvinism, especially in the Protestant Episcopal Church.  All of this to say that Anglicanism has contributed uniquely to the development of Christianity. 

The crux of the issue is that this is another attempt to erode the doctrinal standards in the historic formularies.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it directly leads to liberalism.  It's not that far of a stretch to say that Anglicanism has no peculiar doctrines to saying that Anglicanism has no doctrines.  Anglicanism does have particular and peculiar doctrines which are found only in Sacred Scripture.  

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