Saturday, 27 February 2010

A church halfly reformed?

Update: for a 'full on' presentation of the 'Catholic' view of ministry, see here, and for confirmation that this is by no means confined to the Church of Rome, see Peter Ould's (Anglican) blog here, to which I owe the link.

When I began what has now become a series of articles on the Anglican ministry, I set out rather like Abraham in Hebrews 11:8, not knowing whither I was going. Now, in this post, I feel that I’ve arrived somewhere that has a certain feeling of inevitability, even though it wasn’t where I expected to be.
After due consideration my conclusion is this: what we have in the Church of England is a Catholic structure of orders, operating on Protestant principles, upheld by an Erastian authority. This is surely a recipe for confusion!
The godly prince
Let me take the last point first. By ‘Erastianism’, I mean basically ‘the exercise of supreme authority by the state in the affairs of the church’. And I would want to observe immediately that this was not the original nature of the ‘Henrician’ project at the time of the English Reformation. For if we look carefully at contemporary statements about the authority of the monarch, we find a fundamental assumption, preserved in our Articles but no longer in our laws, that authority to order the Church in matters of doctrine was derived from God through the monarch, rather than inherent in the state.
Thus, in his speech at the coronation of Edward VI, Cranmer announced both to him and to the assembled listeners,
Your majesty is God’s vice-gerent and Christ’s vicar within your own dominions, and to see, with your predecessor Josiah, God truly worshipped, and idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished from your subjects, and images removed. (Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Ed J E B Cox [Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1846, reproduced by Regent College Publishing], 127)
This power belonged to the King as of right. As Cranmer had said earlier in the same speech,
For they [kings] be God’s anointed, not in respect of the oil which the bishop useth, but in consideration of their power which is ordained, of the sword which is authorised, of their persons which are elected by God [...]. (ibid, 126)
Nevertheless, the key to the English Reformation at this point was what Article XXXVII, ‘Of the civil magistrate’, calls “godly princes”. Thus godliness (specifically, Christian and un-Roman godliness) was an attribute which it was assumed all King’s should display if they were to fulfil their calling under God. Hence, as we have seen, what was intended in Henry’s day was not an ‘Erastian’ state control of the Church, but a godly society, ruled by the godly Prince, under whom the ‘temporal’ and ‘ecclesiastical’ functioned with the monarch’s authority.
An Erastian authority
Over the course of time, however, the authority of the monarch was gradually diminished. Just as gradually, the original Church of England of Henry’s day, intended to be the same everywhere throughout his dominions, became a denomination — something neither Henry nor Cranmer would have welcomed. Throughout this process, the established Church fought to retain its state-sanctioned privileges. The unintended consequence of these developments, however, was that the Church of England found itself under the thumb of a mixed, and in recent decades increasingly secular, parliament.
By the 1950s, senior appointments in the Church of England were thus virtually in the hands of the Prime Minister and his Appointments Secretary. And as recently-released correspondence has shown, whilst these duties were generally taken with utmost seriousness, the considerations behind the appointment of bishops were in every sense ‘political’. Thus from the years of Harold Macmillan, we have a revealing letter from his Appointments Secretary. It is worth quoting at length:
The first and greatest problem [in September 1960] is the See of Canterbury, and here I see only two candidates of archiepiscopal stature: the Archbishop of York ([Michael] Ramsey) and the Bishop of Bradford ([Donald] Coggan).
Here it is fair to remark that the Archbishop of York has not settled down happily alongside the present Archbishop of Canterbury. He never seems quite to have got over the relationship established at Ropton [sic, Repton public school], where Ramsey was at school when Fisher was headmaster.
They are men of a very different type and live on entirely different planes. Ramsey is less worldly and a more distinguished theologian than Fisher. He knows absolutely where he stands on all matters of doctrine and theology. Fisher likes to have his own way and is sometimes unpredictable in his actions and judgements. His capacity is prodigious and he hates to delegate. None of this makes him an easy man to work with, and Ramsey is not the first to suffer these difficulties.
I mention this relationship for two reasons, partly as a warning that Fisher’s view of Ramsey ought not to be taken altogether at its face value, and partly to explain why Ramsey, during his five years as Archbishop of York, may appear not to have grown in stature to quite the extent that was hoped when he was first appointed. He nevertheless remains the outstanding figure in the Church of England today. He is, of course, a definite high churchman, but I have not gathered any impression amongst people of a different way of thinking that he is in any way intolerant of their point of view.
The Bishop of Bradford, Donald Coggan, is much younger (51 in October) but is coming on fast, and is about the only member of the Bishops’ Bench who earns unqualified praise from all quarters. He would make an excellent Archbishop of York, if it were decided to move Ramsey to Canterbury. He would also make a possible Archbishop of Canterbury if it were decided to leave Ramsey at York. He is too big a man to have any definitive party allegiance, and has grown from an evangelical background into a central churchman. His evangelical background would provide a balance to Ramsey’s tendencies in the opposite direction, and together they would be a truly representative pair of Archbishops.
One fascinating aspect of this is that Coggan was always (even in my memory) regarded by evangelicals as definitely ‘one of their own’, whereas the establishment clearly regarded him as one of their own — a man who had “grown” into “a central churchman”. But, above all, we should notice, in the last sentence especially, the deliberate intention to produce balance. Erastianism in the Church of England was not so much about the imposition of doctrine as the imposition of tone. The Church would be a moderate body, kept so by the appointment of moderates, from differing backgrounds, but not prone to any “party allegiance” (though Ramsey was an acknowledged “definite high churchman”, he was not, note, “intolerant”).
Protestant principles
We must move on, though, to the second element of the Anglican ministry, namely its underlying Protestant principles. Here again, though, we must be careful what is meant. I do not mean the theologies of Calvinism or Lutheranism, much less the views of Calvin or Luther! Rather, I refer to that streak of individualism and independency which has, at its best, been a defining strength of the English character, and at its worst makes each man (or woman) what Robbie Low memorably called a pope in his own front room.
The most obvious effect of this inchoate Protestantism is that the Church of England clergy have never exercised that grip on the laity enjoyed (for better and for worse) by the Catholic priesthood. The Church of England has, in the past, used the law to enforce attendance, but it has never been able to rely simply on the power of the clergy to command or to sanction.
There is, however, another, and less obvious impact, which is that the same Protestant attitude is taken up into the ordained ministry itself. Thus, Low spoke also of the person who is pope in his own parish. And this does not apply only to protectionism with regard to the daily practicalities of ministry (whereby, for example, a parish priest can for the most part, in a very un-Catholic manner, effectively ignore his or her bishop, even when he or she does not have the freehold).
More importantly, the parish clergy bring (and indeed are encouraged to bring) the same individualistic attitude to doctrine as do the laity. Thus it is a long time since newly-instituted clergy were required to ‘read themselves into’ their new appointments by reciting the entirety of the Thirty-nine Articles from the pulpit. But it is even longer since they were actually expected to believe them “in the plain and full meaning thereof”, as the preface requires.
Indeed, for some considerable time the Church of England had a common, national (and indeed international) liturgy, but an increasingly local (indeed parochial) doctrine, determined in practice by whoever wore the senior dog-collar. The current ‘local difficulty’ in The Episcopal Church’ may be seen as the logical outcome of this attitude.
Catholic orders
In all this, however, the Church of England has outwardly maintained the ‘Catholic’ threefold order of ministry: the deacon as probationary priest, the priest as the one solely authorised to administer the sacraments (lay Readers can, of course, fully share the ministry of the Word), and the bishop as the one who rules a diocese and ordains the clergy.
Yet this is done despite a conscious disavowal of the pre-Reformation understanding of priesthood. One only has to look at the tortuous justifications put forth by the House of Bishops in their report Eucharistic Presidency for denying celebration of Holy Communion to authorised laypeople, to see that the Church of England’s position is formally unlike that of Roman Catholicism. Here, there is none of the clarity that a priest is given at ordination a ‘charisma’ that the laity do not have. Instead, the position of the report is that,
... presidency over the community’s celebration of the Eucharist belongs to those with overall pastoral oversight of the community ... (Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod (London: Church House Publishing, 1997] 49)
It is thus the function of the ‘priest’ in relation to the parish which notionally gives him or her the ‘exclusive’ right to celebrate, not the ontological nature of Anglican ‘priesthood’. And yet, of course, the argument wobbles as soon as the assistant curate, or a visiting minister, celebrates in the absence of the priest-in-charge or incumbent.
The whole thing is desperately confused, and yet at this point so is the Church of England. We deny the Catholic doctrine of priesthood, but we attempt to retain the Catholic privileges of priests.
Where from here?
Logically, then, there might seem to be only two places to go: the Church of England must become more Catholic or more Protestant.
The former is, of course, the position of the Oxford Movement and its inheritors. In this respect, it is surely significant that the movement itself began in response to a perceived unwarranted interference of the state in the affairs of the Church, when the government of the day decide to abolish a number of Irish bishoprics. What began as a protest against the diminution of the Church in public life, however, (Keble’s Assize sermon repays reading) could not end, finally, in full union with Rome, despite years of work by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.
Instead, the Protestant principles of the Church of England, and the wider Anglican Communion, have inevitably asserted themselves, not least (some would say) in the admission of women to the Church’s orders.
Logically, therefore, the Church of England, minus those who accept the Papal offer of an Anglican Ordinariate, ought to become more Protestant. Yet to do so ought to mean to become more biblical — at least according to the Church’s own self-definition in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Otherwise, it will surely suffer the same fate as other institutions, such as the Quakers or the Unitarians, which may have begun well but which, divorced from Scripture (though notionally reliant on the Holy Spirit), have declined into a vague ‘spirituality’, unrecognizable as historically Christian.
We may therefore take the view of the Puritan, William Fuller, that the Church of England is still “but halfly reformed”. Yet a full reformation would surely involve a radical reassessment of Anglican orders — of which the ‘probationary’ diaconate should surely be the first victim!
There is, however, a third option. And in reality is seems to be the one the Church is most likely to adopt, namely to sit, as it always has done, rather awkwardly on the theological fence. This is the much-vaunted, though historically revisionist, position of Anglicanism ‘between Rome and Geneva’. And, arguably, it has served us well in the past. The Church of England has been, variously, a chaplain to the nation for those so inclined to see it that way, and an excellent boat from which to fish for those who take a more evangelistic approach to ministry.
The trouble is, fence sitting is, by its very nature, indecisive. And the Church of England may be about to face making decisions which will challenge its fundamental character at the same time that the nation has decisively turned away from the Church that bears its name. Fence sitting is written into the Anglican character. But it is not an inevitable outcome of history. We may already be in the time when we must choose whom we will serve.
John P Richardson
27 February 2010
Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. The problem with Cranmer's kind of reliance on a godly prince, as you describe it, comes when the prince turns out not to be godly, or at least not to support sound doctrine. This will always happen. Constantine's successors tried to impose Arianism - and in fact Athanasian orthodoxy was only rescued by the "Apostate" Julian. Cranmer himself came across this issue under Mary - and you don't mention here that in her reign he conceded that even the ungodly Nero had authority over the church. Surely that makes him an out-and-out Erastian, even to the extent that he submitted to Mary's right to burn him to death.

    Is there any sign that he rejected Mary's authority because she was a woman?

    If you Reform people are Cranmer's heirs, you too should submit to the right of the (female) sovereign and her ministers to put your party to death, by choosing to appoint women bishops and not those who won't accept them. A lot less painful than the stake!

    No doubt Cranmer prayed that Mary would be succeeded by a godly monarch, and his prayer was answered. If you don't like the decisions made by those in authority, you should not rebel against them but pray that God will put things right in his time. Or you should stop claiming to be Cranmer's successors and get out of the Erastian Church of England. Oops, did I say that again?

  2. The verification "word" for my last comment was "mytract". Very appropriate!

  3. u concentrate tw much on theology and philosophy that it becomes meaningless ... get out and make disciples... the cof e is what it is- some gwd some bad

  4. And some apparently heedless of punctuation.

    W.S. Churchill
    Mount Purgatory

  5. ... or speling ;-)

    But to be serious for a moment, in the Anglican way, theology is fundamental to how we go out and make disciples. As the Ordinal says to the priests, "ye are called ... to seek for Christ's sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. [...] And seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures; and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside, as much as ye may, all worldly cares and studies."

  6. Excellent piece, John.

    My take would be: since 'regius' scriptura hasn't worked for CoE is it time to finally turn to 'Roma' scriptura or complete 'sola' scriptura?!

    Do you think John that the more Calvinist side to Anglicanism will take presidence in CoE since those likely to start a new Oxford movement will find their wishes fulfilled in the Ordinariate? Or is CoE now bound to will of liberals, 'catholic' or 'protestant' in origin?

  7. I think you are missing something important, John!

    The history of the C of E is older than the Reformation, indeed older than certain Roman initiatives (papal power, transubstantiation, etc). Within that history there have been swings which could be graphed as 'toward Rome' and 'away from Rome' but there has also been a series of swings which could be measured on an axis called the ancient apostolic and catholic church. My own (quite limited) understanding of the Oxford Movement is that it included aspirations to draw closer to this axis (as well as some specifically Romewards aspirations). Renewed interest in Celtic spirituality could be another such drawing closer to the ancient apostolic and catholic church. My general understanding of liturgical revision in the Anglican Communion is that many changes to the BCP were a regathering of the best elements of the most ancient liturgies.

    Long story short: the future of the C of E is not necessarily more Protestant.

    In respect of the matter of priesthood you cite,

    "... presidency over the community’s celebration of the Eucharist belongs to those with overall pastoral oversight of the community ..." (Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod (London: Church House Publishing, 1997] 49)

    I do not know the fuller context but the 'overall pastoral oversight of the community' is the bishop and priests serve in his stead. Presidency of communion in a parish may be undertaken by any of the priests the bishop licenses, not just 'the Vicar', without invoking the charge, "We deny the Catholic doctrine of priesthood, but we attempt to retain the Catholic privileges of priests." Rather (on my line of historical understanding) we deny the Catholic doctrine of priesthood but retain the ancient tradition of bishops and priests presiding at communion.

    Where might women bishops fit into this line of understanding? The ancient apostolic and catholic church has not been without development as part of its unfolding life. Some developments have come and gone (once there were sub-deacons and other orders, but no longer), some have waxed and waned (there have been periods when abbots had more power and sway in the church than bishops), and some once were not but have become embedded into the way of the church (bishops, priests, and deacons; the monarch as governor of the C of E; in the Anglican churches of the colonies, synodical governance replaced the British parliament; the formal doctrine of the Trinity): women bishops could be understand as a development in the life of the church which looks Protestant but may reflect a different impulse.

    I guess I am saying there is a third option which is not necessarily muddled fence sitting. Rather it is a renewed emphasis on being what the C of E has always been, an ancient apostolic and catholic church of and for the nation of England!

  8. Rev. Richardson:

    We have on this side of the pond cinematic comedians of old, called "Laurel and Hardy."

    More at:

    In one old clip, Laurel says to Hardy, "What a fine mess mess you've gotten us into."

    From this side of the pond and with a Reformational perspective, it appears to be quite a mess.

    I'm reminded of Archbishop Parker's letter to Bullinger in 1566, to wit, that "I and all the others" believe the Second Helvetic Confession (recently penned, 1566).

    It's all quite "Manglican" or mangled on this side of the pond too.

    (Rev.) D. Philip Veitch, a fugitive from Anglicanism
    Camp Lejeune, NC

  9. John,

    This is not only interesting - it is important. For many years, it has been noted that evangelicals lack a well-formed ecclesiology, and there have been many attempts to address this. However, it isn't just ecclesiology that is evangelicalism's weak foundation (dare I say foundation of sand?), but just as significantly - and probably as you note, due to a weak ecclesiology - it lacks a theology of ordained ministry.

    I have only had a chance to give a quick reading to your post, but I have read enough to want come back and read more carefully, following many of the links you provide.

    My sense is that evangelicalism (and I am focussing more on this, rather than the CoE, for personal interest's sake) has bought wholly into the western cult of individualism, with it's consequence unwillingness to enter into relationships of mutual accountability, especially if it is perceived to stifle local initiative, in the name of the gospel.

    Arguably the Diocese of Sydney is an instance of this - gospel focussed, innovative and pioneering ("mad as hatters but at least things are happening" as the late Alan Cole once put it to me) - but deeply unwilling to put this independence under any threat of being answerable to the wider communion (compounded by Sydney's distinctive, and in my view seriously flawed ecclesiology which denies an ecclesiological existence outside the local context and the heavenly realm - but that is another story).

    However, my observation is that the current attraction in church planting initiatives (vital dimensions to kingdom growth that they are) are also attractive because they are less accountable to established traditions and give much greater scope for local initiatives. The strength of this is that it gives scope for good missiological thinking. It's potential weakness is that it will create shallow, consumer orientated churches, unless serious consideration is given to moving from 'fresh expressions' to 'mature expressions' of church.

    It is the theological task in addressing the bigger picture issues of ecclesiology and ministry, that has the potential to encourage mission-shaped thinking into something Jim Belcher calls 'Deep Church' (who has a great book by the same name). The emerging/emergent church is facing precisely the same issues, and within that broad movement the critical question (on which they are divided) is what liberty does any church (worthy of the name 'church'), or its 'ministers' have to rethink the received gospel traditions that come with being 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic'.

  10. Tim Harris asks: "what liberty does any church (worthy of the name 'church'), or its 'ministers' have to rethink the received gospel traditions that come with being 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic'."

    A good if rather bold question to be raised by such a stout supporter of women presbyters and bishops - something wholly unknown in "the received gospel traditions" of the catholic church.

  11. Tim Harris judges Sydney's ecclesiology "seriously flawed" (by what criteria?), but the point is, they do have one that they have attempted to articulate from a holistic biblical theology in dialogue with Anglican formularies and the Articles. If their ecclesiology is 'deeply flawed' no doubt it will show up in 'deeply flawed' Christians.
    Tim also faults them for seeking to preserve their independence from the liberal catholicism that is regnant in most of Australian Anglicanism. Do we really want more of Peter Carnley and Roger Herft in one of the most secular countries in the world?

  12. The flaw in Sydney's ecclesiology lies in limiting a theology of church to the semantic sense of ecclesia as 'gathering', without allowing for semantic development towards a wider reference beyond the local gathering; and even more significantly, by not considering other images or motifs that apply to 'ecclesiology' such as 'people of God' etc (see former Moore College lecturer Dr Graham Cole on this).

    On Sydney's concern to preserve their independence, it comes as much out of their particular ecclesiology. The rest of Australian Anglicanism is not all liberal catholicism, and indeed I would argue that the Anglican Church of Australia is markedly more moderate, if not conservative, than it was five years ago. But I have great respect for the strengths of Sydney - I was trained and ministered happily there, and have ongoing friendship and fellowship I value highly.

    As for your other observation Anonymous, it all depends on one's view as to whether women's ministry is indeed part of the 'gospel traditions'.