Monday, 1 June 2009

Overcoming schism - the nettle Protestantism must grasp

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

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


  1. What an outstanding post, John!
    Thank you
    Peter Carrell
    Nelson, NZ

  2. Welcome back to Catholicism!

  3. I for one am disappointed that I do not get to use the BCP services more. I was raised on them and so rememebr the words - that personal benefit is slowly lost in a denomination that forgets its heritage. it is sad for all those of a previous generation who thought they were doing a useful thing in training their kids to remember the BCP words.

  4. Interesting John, thanks.

  5. Apropos the Prayer Book, two points.

    First, American readers (perhaps) need to bear in mind I am referring to the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer (and, for the English, certainly not to the 1928 Prayer Book).

    Secondly, Colin Buchanan wrote what I think is a work of genius on the BCP service of Holy Communion, titled, "What did Cranmer think he was doing?" You can buy it from Grove Booklets here, and I believe it does for Anglican liturgy what Graham Goldsworthy's Gospel and Kingdom does for biblical theology. In other words, it is a brief and readable eye-opener.

  6. Thank you, John, for thinking through so clearly some forgotten truths. As one raised on Colin Buchanan's Grove booklet in the 70's, I do just have to say Arthur Couratin's atte,pt to answer the same question in 1963 (the result of which can be seen in the Series II liturgy he drafted) gives a rather different answer. But it's a good point you're making.

    In the early 60's theological students cursed and sweated their way through Bicknell on the articles. There is some loss in the complete evaporation of that element in theological courses, because it did ground the C of E in its broader Christian and historical context. I'm not sure how we recover what we need here.

    Finally, decades of treating BCP parochially as a linguistic style/ taste thing have obscured the fact that it is actually still the normative liturgy of the Church of England. I am very sorry training courses seem to have given up on it, because so many of their students find it heavy going, don't like it, and have never encountered anything like it before. I wonder if this pendulum will swing the other way, and rather hope it will.

  7. Dear John,

    Magnificent stuff brother. One problem I see concerns our "Anglican Heritage" (which is so little known these days, not least because of postmodern impulses against history). There are 2 (amongst other) issues here:

    [1] Much of the material written about our Anglican heritage is flawed, and gives a very skewed picture of what Anglicans actually believe. One thinks here of Henry McAdoo's work on the 17th century that has been so influential yet is so muddled historiographically.

    [2] The people who are writing most about the English reformation are Roman Catholics (Duffy and Rex for e.g.), and with an agenda. Hence, generations of students are hearing only negative portraits of the English reformation. These revisionist histories need challenging, and now.

    A good start at recovering Anglican history is Stephen Hampton's Anti-Arminians (OUP, 2008). He shows that there was a strong tradition of reformed Anglicans after 1662.

    God bless you brother,


  8. Yes, a fine post; though not helped by quoting John Henry Newman, who (so it turned out) was not an Anglican.

  9. Macca, if I can just say the point of quoting Newman is (a) he is much admired within Anglican circles, but more importantly (b) he has a clear 'insider' then 'outsider' view - he knew Anglicanism from within, tried to do for it (or to it) what others have since also attempted, realized it wouldn't work and left for another Church. In other words, I think he realized the theological inconsistency of his position and put it right - as has, indeed, my good friend Robbie Low, who has taken the same journey.

  10. (Chelmsford)

    (Why the **** can't I copy material into this box? What the **** is wrong with this stupid Blogger software? Long live WordPress!)

    You wrote that faith was originally "trusting in a received tradition". But where did you get that from? This is nonsense, from the biblical viewpoint. Biblical faith is trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, belief in him, not in anything human and certainly not in even the best of human traditions. Yes, that faith does have to be informed by the truth about Jesus. But the moment it becomes faith in anything other than God and Jesus, as soon as anything else becomes the object of one's trust, that faith has gone totally wrong.

    Sadly that is what happened to the so-called "faith" of much of the Catholic church many centuries ago, and despite many valiant attempts including the English Reformation to get it back on track, it has not done so, in the Anglican church and many other churches. And it has not done so largely because of the destructive attempts of people like Newman and now yourself to divert our faith from its proper object, Jesus Christ, towards human traditions and human institutions.

  11. Peter, pasting works fine here!

    The point I am making, and here I think Newman is right, is that New Testament faith was faith in and through what the Apostles preached. This is not a 'human tradition, but the gospel.

    It is not, moreover, an unmediated faith in God. Rather, belief in God was belief in the so-called kerygma - the Apostolic preaching - and involved assent to that. There was no 'hotline' to God which by-passed this process then and there should not be now.

    By contrast, the modern 'believer' imagines he or she can sit down with a Bible and, with the 'aid' of the Holy Spirit, decide what should and should not be believed, irregardless of the Church and the teaching ministry Christ gave it. It is this which, I would suggest, is nonsense.

    To give a few instances of the link between the Apostles, the tradition and faith:

    "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message ..." (Jn 17:20)

    "But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" (Ro 10:14)

    "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions (paradosis, things handed on) just as I handed them on to you." (1 Co 11:2)

    "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance ..." (1 Co 15:3)

    "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation ..." (2 Co 5:18)

    "We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us." (2 Co 5:20)

    "On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel." (1 Th 2:4)

    "We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers."(1 Th 2:13)

    "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." (2 Ti 2:2)

    "So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter." (2 Th 2:15)

    "Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us." (2 Th 3:6)

    "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us." (1 Jn 1:3)

  12. Bill in Ottawa2 June 2009 at 16:03

    One of the overlooked pieces of the Articles is the Homilies referred to as expounding the doctrine of the Church.

    "XXXV. Of the Homilies.
    The Second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may he understanded of the people."

    They are available in modern orthography online here:

    There is much in there to offend the modern ear, but it is good solid Christian teaching and clarifies, for me at least, what the Anglican position is on things like marriage, idolatry and ostentatious displays of wealth.

    Some homilies are specific responses to situations in England at the time of writing, but the Christian principles can be applied to analagous situations in republics or non-democratic regimes.

    If the seminaries are to revive teaching of the Articles, they need to drill down into these homilies as well.

  13. John, I think our real difference is that you see faith as primarily propositional whereas I see it as primarily relational. I agree that some propositional content is necessary e.g. as summarised in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. But the kerygma was not a set of articles of faith to be assented to but the proclamation of a Person, Jesus, and the saving work he had accomplished. No one was saved by signing a doctrinal statement, but anyone can be saved by trusting in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

    (Pasting seems to work now. I don't know what the problem was. But it wasn't only with this blog, also with another Blogger one.)

  14. No, Peter, I agree with you entirely that faith is "primarily relational".

    Would you yourself not agree, however, that our relationship with God is established through his word to us and our response to his word?

    So at the Transfiguration, the voice says, “This is my Son ... Listen to him!”

    Again, in Genesis 15:5, God said to Abram, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then, we read, God said to him, “So shall your offspring be." And so we read in v 6, "Abram believed the Lord (ie, what the Lord said), and he credited it to him as righteousness."

    Or again, Paul says in Galatians 3:8, "The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”" Abraham, then, is the 'man of faith' in the word preached to him.

    Or again, in Hebrews 4:2, comparing the present-day Christian with the Israelite, "... we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith."

    Faith in God, therefore, is always at heart a response to God's word. Peter Jensen's The Revelation of God is very good on this.

  15. Propositional or relational? I think it is unhealthy to place a dichotomy where none exists.

  16. John,

    I agree with a lot of what you have said here, however I am worried by the fact that you dont expect the Holy Spirit to be speaking, enlightening and teaching people today through personal revelation. I am concerned that the push for good doctrine so easily pushes out God and relegates him just to a distant deity with the Bible and puts doctrine in a more prominent position than the one who we construct doctrine around.

    Near the start of your posting you quote from Ephesians but the verse before your quotation states:

    "There is one body and one Spirit ? just as you were called to one hope when you were called ? one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."

    We must be careful therefore not to relegate the Trinity into just two persons by ignoring the Spirit is closely associated with the faith we profess. It almost seems in this sentence that Paul is saying that we mustn't forget the importance of the Spirits association with the body .

    Returning to Ephesians 2v18-22, we can see how the Spirit brings about an important relationship between us as believers and God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. we are described as citizens, members of Gods household and a building. Crucially Jesus himself is the cornerstone of this house where the Spirit lives.

    Indeed the doctrine of the Anglican church from what I understand (a lay point of view) does not teach that any part of the trinity is missing today or defunct, it affirms the Holy Spirits place in the trinity and indeed always puts God (all three persons) in the most prominent position in statements of faith. This relationship also cannot be relegated to a one way conversation when we pray or act. In Ephesians 1 for example Paul says:

    "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe."

    This is clearly talking about Paul expecting individuals (not just apostles) to receive revelation through the Spirit and receive power in doing so. I believe this is not any less true today than it was 2000 years ago. Obviously this wisdom and revelation can now be balanced and checked against scripture (as it should be) because we have to assume that scripture is a firm basis for our faith and any contradiction would undermine its authority totally. But as Revelation states in the argument many use to restrict our understanding of God solely to the Bible:

    "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."

    there is also a flip side that nothing should be taken away. The importance of the whole Godhead in our understanding therefore is paramount.

    The dependence on sound doctrine will probably hold things together for a while (if obedience to that doctrine can somehow be achieved) but is severely limited if that doctrine is wrong (I am not saying it is) or the implementation of those doctrines ignore certain parts of what scripture truthfully says, for then the very rules you are proposing contradict themselves for they are themselves a 'private judgement' albeit possibly a corporate one.

    When we are willing to accept the full gospel message, and we are willing to accept that we cannot (on our own) bring about the unity that God wishes for us, and we are willing to be humble before Him and accept the help of the Holy Spirit, only then can He can bring about the end to divisions we see in Anglicanism today.


  17. I think it unlikely that any such appeal to 'revealed truth' will ever have appeal or make sense again in an increasingly post-modern society

  18. As long as "man" takes a position of knowing above that of God, as in a post-modern society, you are correct. This is not to mean that 'revealed truth' should rest in mans reason... it's just another sign of the End of Days.