Recently I spent an hour looking at (as it happens) the Ship of Fools discussion forums —but the same would be true of numerous Protestant blogs and websites —and I have come to the conclusion that what we see represented there is not Christianity, in the strict sense, at all. Rather, what Cardinal Newman said in the 19th century is undoubtedly true of many modern believers who think of themselves as Christian:
“Protestants, generally speaking, have not faith, in the primitive meaning of that word ...”
The problem is, we do not see ‘faith’ as trusting in a received tradition passed on to us through others, as it originally was. Instead, ‘faith’ has come to mean a completely individualistic, ‘pick and mix’, self-made religion. It is ‘my faith’, not ‘the Church’s faith’, around which I organize my life. Pretending to be disciples —learners —of Christ, we have enthroned ourselves as the final aribiters of what is true.
The result is chaos, at the individual and corporate level. The present-day struggles of Anglicanism are simply the logical outcome of allowing everyone, doctrinally, to do ‘what is right in his or her own eyes’.
In this post I’m going to try to sum up my thoughts about the causes, and possible cure, of this disunity within Protestantism. Here are the key points so far:
1. The gospel demands unity. There is ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.’
2. Christian unity is, however, ‘unity in the truth’, not in ‘structures’. It is possible to be baptized and enjoying fellowship in the Lord’s supper, yet outside the truth (1 Cor 10:1-6).
3. Historically, Protestantism is inherently divisive. This is clear evidence that something is wrong, since the gospel is inherently unifying.
4. This divisiveness is due not to the principle of sola scriptura, as some have suggested, but to an overestimation of ‘private judgement’.
5. The individual is not the author of doctrine.
6. The Christian is, first and foremost a learner.
7. Christ himself instituted the office of teachers in the Church, from whom Christians should learn the faith.
8. The task of the teacher is faithfully to hand on, and defend, the Apostolic tradition.
9. Teachers therefore need to be as fully aware as possible of the history of the Church and its established doctrines.
10. Theological history helps us discern ‘dead ends’ and ‘positive trends’ (the ‘Gamaliel’ principle). Theological history favours contemporary conservatism.
11. Creeds and confessions represent the past work of the Church in attempting to establish sound doctrine in accordance with the Apostolic tradition.
12. Churches may rightly expect their members to have due regard to their own formularies.
13. A Church (denomination) which does not have proper regard for its formularies will become authoritarian since, in the face of doctrinal division, it will use its disciplinary measures to enforce structural unity.
These things are true, I would suggest, for most Protestant churches, but from here on I’m going to be very ‘Anglican’ in suggesting how things might be improved.
Since the unity of the gospel is ‘unity in the truth’, and since the truth of the gospel is, by Christ’s own devising, entrusted to and imparted by the teaching ministry of the Church, the Church which wishes to prevent internal disunity must look first to the quality of its teaching ministers. In the case of the Church of England, this should mean looking to the bishops, above all, as the ‘gate keepers’ of the ordained ministry.
Unfortunately, the bishops have largely bought into the idea that their role is not to define and defend doctrine, but to ‘referee’ the various doctrinal positions within their dioceses. In others words, they are actually upholding Protestantism’s divisiveness. Far from making things better, they are, in most cases, actively making them worse.
This is not, I must emphasise, because they are bad people. For the most part, they are good people and well-intentioned. But the well-intentioned maintenance of structures which are antithetical to the unity of the gospel is not a Christian action. Nor can it be depicted as the fulfilment of episcopal ministry.
Now this is not to introduce some alien notion into Anglicanism. Rather it is to recall the Church to its founding principles. It is well known that in the Ordinal which forms part of the Church’s formularies, both bishops and priests are required to teach sound doctrine and contradict error. The bishop or the priest who therefore takes a laissez faire attitude at this point is the true ‘alien’ to the Church of England.
Moreover, the parameters of true doctrine are also clearly established within the formularies. The Thirty-nine Articles and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer include some doctrines and exclude others. And whilst it is undoubtedly true that this is widely disregarded in the Church, that does not make such disregard ‘Anglican’ —rather, it is itself a disregard of Anglicanism.
There would, moreover, be little that could stand in a bishop’s way should he decide to urge both his ministers and the people in his diocese to take these doctrinal boundaries more seriously. There is surely no-one who could claim he was exceeding his episcopal prerogatives by doing so!
It would thus, for example, be entirely appropriate for the bishop to demand from potential candidates for ordination some demonstration of an awareness of, and engagement with, the Anglican theological heritage. At present, many such candidates are required to write an essay on their understanding of the priesthood. It might be rather more challenging to them, and more useful to both them and the Church in the long term, if they were required to write a similar essay on their responses to the Thirty-nine Articles. Certainly, every training course ought to include a section devoted to their consideration.
Similarly, it would be extremely valuable if the standard liturgy at theological colleges, on training courses, and for Continuing Ministerial Education events were the Book of Common Prayer. The reason is simple: on the one hand, there are many parishes where the BCP is hardly used (sometimes for good, missiological, reasons), and yet, on the other hand, the BCP enshrines (in a way that later liturgies often deliberately do not) the fundamental reformed Anglican understanding of divine service.
Many ordination candidates have almost no experience of this. It is not in their bloodstream, nor will it ever be through their normal liturgical usage. Therefore the college or course ought to make up for this deficit by giving them as much exposure as possible to this heritage.
These three suggestions —that bishops should call their clergy and people back to the Anglican heritage, that ministerial candidates should have engaged with the theology of the Articles, and that those candidates should also be made practically familiar with the Prayer Book —would go some considerable way to establishing that Anglicanism is a confessional faith. The denial of this is surely one of the great myths of our time. Indeed, the suggestion that Anglicanism is not a confessional faith, and specifically a Protestant confession, would have come as a surprise to the compilers of the Articles and the Prayer Book, the Marian martyrs and, not least, to John Henry Newman, who once wrote,
... it is notorious that the Articles were drawn up by Protestants and intended for the establishment of Protestantism ...
This is why the establishment of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is so important. It is not just about ‘politics’, it is about theology —or rather two theologies, one that sees the individual as the final judge in matters of faith and doctrine, to be decided privately between himself and God, the other that sees the individual as the recipient of both faith and doctrine through means instituted by Christ, but reliant on others.
This, I suggest, is the nettle Protestantism needs to grasp if it is to overcome its schismatic nature and regain one of the true marks of the Church —that we are united in the truth of God’s holy Word.
Revd John P Richardson
1 June 2009