Thursday, 28 May 2009

Unity, the Church and denominations

What is to prevent the fissiparation from which Protestantism has historically suffered? What is to provide the way back into that unity which is the essence of the gospel and the subject of so many urgings from Christ and the Apostles?

To quote a traditional Irish saying, “If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here.” But here is where we are, so how might we get there?

I have suggested in previous posts that we need to be very careful about ‘private judgement’. Though this is much beloved of Protestants (linked as it often is to the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture), it is a grave error to suppose that the individual should be encouraged to make decisions about doctrine —especially the untrained and inexperienced individual.

As history has shown, sometimes individuals —Athanasius or Luther —must indeed take a stand, and some individuals —Augustine, Calvin, etc —have made massive contributions to doctrinal understanding. But history has given us the chance to sift their contributions and generally doctrine is something for us to receive, not to discern.

To move from our divided ‘here’, to a united ‘there’, then, our first need is humility and our second need is historical awareness. We need to know what the Church has said in the past and learned from the past. And in this respect, if the ‘Gamaliel principle’ has any validity at all it must suggest that history is on the side of the theological conservatives.

A classic example of theological history in action would be our acceptance of the Creeds —particularly the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which are the most widely known and used. The issues they addressed were deeply controverted at the time, and the conclusions they reached on the nature of the Trinity do not follow immediately from a ‘plain’ reading of Scripture. Yet they have stood the test of time and resisted efforts to reject or recast them, and we now expect Christians to understand doctrine and read Scripture in the light of them.

This is not to set the Creeds above Scripture. The Anglican Articles, for example, say they are only to be believed because they may be proved from Scripture. But they do set aside alternative —for example, non-Trinitarian —readings of Scripture. And they do this with the general agreement of the vast majority of Western Churches and Christians.

This brings us, however, to a third ‘stepping stone’ from here to there, which is the recognition for many of us that we also stand in a denominational tradition which ought to provide an agreed theological basis for unity.

Historically, denominations have generally arisen over differences in our understanding of the truth —what it is, and how it should be applied. When these differences have become too great for an institution to cope with them, a split has taken place. That being the case, however, we would expect to find within the denomination a substantial agreement on the truth and thus a high degree of unity. We must, therefore, take very seriously the fact that this is observably not the case in many Protestant denominations, including, of course, the Church of England. Indeed, Robbie Low writes,

Anglicans have no common doctrine, no common liturgy and no common orders. In short, Anglicanism lacks the fundamental qualifications to make the bold claim that it is a Church.

Gerald Bray has similarly written in the same vein:

Incompatible beliefs about the ministry, the sacraments and almost anything one cares to name can and do co-exist under the Anglican umbrella, and nobody seems to be able to say what the boundaries of the church’s faith are.

This situation is, frankly, ridiculous! What is the point of being a denomination if the disagreements amongst ourselves are greater than our differences with those outside our supposed ‘boundaries’?

And there is another insidious factor arising out of this. For if unity is not maintained ‘in the truth’, then it must be maintained, ultimately, by force. The denomination which tolerates an ‘anything goes’ approach to belief must, in the end, use its institutional rules, regulations and sanctions to preserve its unity despite disagreements.

We need to remind ourselves —certainly Anglicans need to remind themselves —that our denominations do, for the most part, have confessional origins. In the case of the Church of England, this produced not only the Thirty-nine Articles but also the Book of Common Prayer which expressed a theology in sharp contradistinction to what had gone before.

In short, in denominations with a confessional basis, we are entitled reassert the importance of the confessional statements in the interests of gospel unity. Anglicans should be especially glad that the GAFCON Jerusalem Statement and Declaration reassert doctrinal significance of the Thirty-nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, and those of us in the Church of England with a concern for the gospel should do all we can to align ourselves with this, because they give a clear signal both that we do not embrace unlimited theological diversity and also that we do not regard such diversity as inherently Anglican.

GAFCON, however, also reminds us that provided the boundaries of the Church have some substance and definition, you can actually work with a diversity of expressions of the faith. So, to the annoyance of many of its critics, GAFCON saw Anglo-Catholic Africans sharing the same platform as Puritan Australians.

Some saw this as a betrayal of principle. I would want to argue, rather, that it is entirely principled, provided there is a common acceptance of a shared confessional heritage. In the same way, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in this country can work together —albeit in a sometimes-limited way —provided we do so as confessionally committed Anglicans.

Unity in the truth, however, does not come automatically. It has to be deliberately sought and systematically maintained through the structural provisions of the institution, and ultimately the responsibility for it rests with those who are empowered to be the doctrinal ‘gatekeepers’.

In short, the clergy of a denomination are the first line of defence regarding the unity of the Church. Or at least they should be! Yet in some denominations —sadly including Anglicanism —the clergy are the last people to whom one would look for an understanding of the historic confessions and formularies. Indeed, ordination seems to be regarded as an official license to believe and teach whatever takes your fancy.

This is the ‘elephant in the living room’ for liberal Protestantism. Disunity is fostered and caused by the very body charged with establishing unity in the faith through the teaching office. What might be done about this will be the subject of a later post.

John P Richardson
28 May 2009

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may not be posted.


  1. Thanks for the word of the day, "fissiparation." It reminded me of this:

    There is the old story of the visitor to Smallville USA who noticed there were two First Baptist Churches on opposite sides of Main St. When he asked a farmer standing nearby why this town had two First Baptist Churches, the farmer responded, "Well, that one over thar got to to sayin 'There ain't no Hell," and the other got to sayin, 'The Hell thar ain't.'"

    U.P. Rock Hill, SC USA

  2. Re the CofE: "What is the point of being a denomination if the disagreements amongst ourselves are greater than our differences with those outside our supposed ‘boundaries’?"

    I don't think that the Church of England has ever set out to try and be a good "denomination". It is simply the continuing, reformed catholic church of the country. That being the case, it should be able to represent the beliefs of all baptized Christians in the country. Of course there have been, at times, attempts to regulate and create boundaries, but all those boundaries lose their power over time, as a result of the Church's catholicity taking priority over any attempt to make it a confessional church.

  3. Murrary, I agree absolutely with your first point, that the Church of England is (or certainly should be) simply the continuing, reformed catholic church of the country, and disagree absolutely with your second, "That being the case, it should be able to represent the beliefs of all baptized Christians in the country."

    The reason is simply that the Catholic faith is what ought to be believed by all Christians everywhere, which comes down to the tradition set forth in Scripture and handed on from the Apostles' time.

    Now it is evident reading the Bible that baptized Christians have believed, and done, all sorts of wrong things since the beginning of the Church. The Church's task has thus always been to teach its own people the truth and to guard against errors from within.

    The Catholic Church has thus embraced all the baptized, but never agreed with all the baptized.

    The Church of England has always been confessional, in adhering to the Creeds in particular. Since the Reformation it has furthermore explicitly denied some Roman doctrines and set some confessional boundaries to include and exclude some other views. It excludes Anabaptist views about property in Article 38, for example, and its Communion service excludes the notion that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice.

    The boundaries are there. That they are ignored doesn't mean they don't exist. Nor has this promoted the Church's 'catholicity'.