Talk 1: The Genius of the Church of England

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Introduction: The Church of England: a Catholic English Reformed church

The Church of England is a Catholic (Western) English Reformed church. How important that we understand that.

But the Reformation was not homogeneous

"As there were many reformers, so likewise many reformations - every country proceeding in a particular way and method, according as their national interest together with their constitution and clime inclined them."

Religio Medici - Thomas Brown, 1643.

But Brown praised the genius of the Church of England "whose Articles, constitutions and customs seem so consonant unto reason".

One of four main reformation traditions

So the Church of England gave rise to one of four main 16th and 17th century traditions: The Saxon tradition of Luther, the Genevan tradition of Calvin, the Dutch tradition seen at Dort, and the tradition of the Church of England as Elizabeth I left it.

It is the church order and attendant theology of this tradition that is the foundation of, and the benchmark for, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion or true Anglicanism.

So what is this Anglican or English Reformed tradition in essence and so what should the Church of England be seeking to re-establish?

1. A Reformed 'Catholic' church

a) 'Catholic' - doctrinal (or credal) universality

First, it is "Catholic."

All the mainstream or magisterial Reformers (those with whom the state authorities – the "magistrates" – aligned themselves) wanted to be "Catholic", unlike some of the more radical reformers.

Being Reformed meant there was something already in existence that needed to be reformed! So the Church of England certainly didn't begin with Henry VIII, as some people think.

The Greek term "Catholic" is used rather than the Latin "Universal" because of its use in the phrase the "Catholic Creeds" (the Apostolic, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds). These three Creeds were the result of the first four General Councils of the Church when much of the time was spent on the vital doctrine of the Trinity and on Christology (the person and work of Jesus). As the international language was still Greek, so two of those three creeds, the Apostles and Nicene creeds, were written in Greek. And so the use of the adjective "Catholic" as against "Universal" has come to imply doctrinal (or credal) universality and not just territorial universality.

b) 'Reformed Catholic' - continuity with early the Fathers, but with the Bible as the final authority

So the Reformers were "catholic" as they claimed to be going back to the early Fathers of the Church and not only the New Testament. But the Bible of the Old and New Testaments was their final authority not the Pope and the Roman Catholic tradition. Our Reformers wanted what is described in the Anglican Homily, An Exhortation to Obedience, "the catholic faith contained in Holy Scripture." The Reformers did not want to ignore or lose continuity with the wisdom of the Church where it was based on the Bible and where it was wise down the centuries. They took seriously (and so should we today) Ephesians 3.18 and19 and Paul's prayer for the Ephesians that they …

"… may have strength to comprehend with all the saints [i.e. down the ages and across the world] what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

Ephesians 3: 18-19

So like the other main reformed traditions, this English Reformed tradition is catholic but reformed catholic.

2. Not a half-way house between the Pope and Calvin

a) Not a 'middling' church

Secondly, the Church of England is not a "middling" church. It is not a half-way house between the Pope and Calvin. If anything it is a half-way house between Luther and Calvin. But that doesn't mean it is a lowest common denominator version of reformed teaching and belief. This stereotype of the Anglican church is described by Professor Oliver O'Donovan as: "steering a steady middle path between the exaggerated positions of Rome on the one hand and Geneva on the other."

O'Donovan is critical of this misrepresentation:

"There was nothing particularly 'middle' about most of the English Reformers' theological positions … Their moderation consisted rather in a determined policy of separating the essentials of faith and order from adiaphora [things indifferent] … Anglican moderation is the policy of reserving strong statement and conviction for the few things which really deserve them."

Introduction to the Thirty Nine Articles- Professor Oliver O'Donovan

b) Strong convictions on the essentials: 39 Articles, and the Prayer Book

Certainly the Anglican Settlement of Elizabeth I was by no means a fudge over essential matters. From then on the Church of England was to be theologically rooted in the Thirty-nine Articles, the Prayer Book with its Ordinal and the Homilies (printed sermons to be read in churches). With regard to the Homilies, the first five in the first book of Homilies (written by Cranmer under Edward VI) are basic reading for the theology of the Church of England. They are on Scripture, Sin, Salvation, Faith and Good Works. They are still easy to read; and they give you, in short space, the Gospel Fundamentals of the Church of England. The second book of Homilies, published by the authority of Queen Elizabeth I is important as showing the concerns current at that later time of the Settlement. Read in context they too are still relevant for today.

3. A policy of 'things indifferent' as opposed to the Regulative Principle

a) In opposition to Hooper's Regulative Principle found in the Westminster Confession

Thirdly the mainstream Anglican tradition has a policy of freedom regarding "things indifferent" in contrast to the more non-conforming English Reformers with their Regulative Principle.

The issue had first cropped up in Cramer's time when John Hooper had been against wearing robes. Hooper's views were expressed in his The Regulative Principle and Things Indifferent. He wrote:

"Nothing should be used in the Church which has not either the express Word of God to support it, or otherwise is a thing indifferent in itself which brings no profit when done or used, but no harm when not done or omitted."

But then he said this:

"Indifferent things must have their origin and foundation in the Word of God."

This is the Regulative Principle. For many it meant that robes (and wedding rings together with a host of other things including festivals), which are not mentioned in the New Testament, cannot claim to have their origin in the Word of God. Therefore, it was argued, they ought to be ruled out.

In some quarters the issue is still alive today. Indeed, this tradition regarding the Regulative Principle is classically found in the non-conforming more Genevan Westminster Confession of 1647. Chapter XXI, section 1, says:

"the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will … He may not be worshipped … according to any way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture".

b) Instead a policy of 'allowed if not forbidden'

However, the Anglican way is that if something is not forbidden in Scripture and it is judged helpful, go with it!

Nor is this all academic. For it not only relates to robes, festivals and the Church's liturgical year, but also to the place of music, family services, and a "seeker friendly" agenda. If you adhere strictly to the regulative principle, much of that will be excluded. So will much of "church growth" thinking, which, in its place and where it is not contradictory to Scripture, is helpful. Such thinking is allowed for by the Anglican Reformed tradition's understanding of the Bible. So, in contrast to those not conforming, the Reformers of the Anglican tradition believed that robes, festival days, the sign of the cross in baptism and kneeling at the Lord's Supper were secondary. They were more concerned with what they saw as basic or primary theological matters.

4. Doctrine as found in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal

a) Key points or 'articles' not a systematic theology - W H Griffith Thomas 1861-1924

Fourthly, therefore, this concern for primary theological matters is to be seen in the Anglican tradition as adopted in the Thirty-nine Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its Ordinal as the standard for Anglican doctrine and not The Westminster Confession adopted by the Scottish and English Presbyterian Reformed traditions. This was significant and not only as regards the Regulative Principle. W. H. Griffith Thomas, the first Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, expresses the virtue of the Thirty-nine Articles over the more systematic Westminster Confession in these terms:

"There is obvious danger in every attempt at systematizing Christian truth … it is far better to be content with "Articles", or "points", with gaps unfilled … This method prevents teaching becoming hardened into a cast-iron system which cannot expand. It is the virtue of the Church of England articles that they … do not commit Churchmen to an absolute, rigid system of doctrine from which there is no relief and of which there is no modification."

Principles of Theology W H Griffith Thomas

b) Against over-systematizing the Bible - Charles Simeon 1759-1836

Earlier, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, Charles Simeon was at Holy Trinity Cambridge of whom the historian Thomas Macaulay famously said his "authority and influence … extended from Cambridge to the most remote corners of England … his real sway in the Church was far greater than that of any primate."

Simeon, too, was worried by any tendency to "over-systematize" the Bible - which the Anglican tradition has been careful not to do. In his time there was what was wrongly called "the Calvinistic controversy" regarding divine sovereignty and free will and over which the two great evangelists, Wesley and Whitfield differed. However, in that context this is what Simeon wrote:

"The author is disposed to think that the Scripture system is of a broader and more comprehensive character than some very dogmatical theologians are inclined to allow; and that, as wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve one common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man's salvation. The author feels it impossible to repeat too often or too distinctly, that it is an invariably rule with him to endeavour to give to every portion of the Word of God its full and proper force, without considering one moment what scheme it favours, or whose system it is likely to advance. Of this he is sure, that there is not a decided Calvinist or Arminian in the world who equally approves of the whole of Scripture… who, if he had been in the company of St. Paul whilst he was writing his Epistles would not have recommended him to alter one or other of his expressions.

But the author would not wish one of them altered; he finds as much satisfaction in one class of passages as in another; and employs the one, he believes, as often and as freely as the other. Where the inspired writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same, judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles, and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken."

Horae Homileticae Vol I Charles Simeon

c) Biblically balanced - for example silent on predestination to damnation

Like Simeon the Church of England has tried to follow Scripture in being biblically balanced. So unlike Calvin its Article 17 on Predestination affirms the predestination of the elect but like the Bible does not affirm predestination to damnation. It does not, however, deny it. It remains silent.

d) Biblically balanced - God's glory the goal of justification

But the Church of England is more like Calvin with regard to Salvation and the juxtaposition of Justification and the Glory of God. Where Luther laid most stress on the justification of the believer, Calvin, believing justification by faith essential, saw God's glory coming first, but with God being glorified through such a pardon. The Anglican, however, would add that God's glory then leads to human flourishing.

5. Unashamedly biblical

So obviously and fifthly, and finally, the Anglican Tradition is unashamedly biblical. This needs to be hammered home. Of course, the Bible is not above Jesus Christ; of course the Bible does not take the place of the Holy Spirit, as is an accusation. But it does mean that the Anglican tradition when true to itself is committed to the written Word and so is committed to literacy and so education and so using your mind.

a) Produced a learned clerical profession with a wisdom from God

Thus the Anglican tradition has produced, when true to itself, a learned clerical profession with a wisdom from God (1 Cor 1.30). Is that any longer the case?

Two people from previous centuries of whom that was true were John Wycliffe and Richard Hooker.

b) John Wycliffe: the Bible is 'incorrigible' 1330-1384

With regard to the Bible John Wycliffe – the 'Morning Star of the Reformation' – was adamant about its authority. And wanting a single word to prevent its misuse suggested the word "incorrigible" – that is to say, it cannot be corrected. As "infallible" and "inerrant" fail to exclude some liberal forms of wrong exegesis and theology, perhaps this word needs to be resurrected for today.

c) Richard Hooker: 1554-1600
  • the Bible not the Pope or Calvin is the final authority

Then Richard Hooker, a most remarkable Anglican Reformer and theologian of the Elizabethan Settlement, was concerned that the Bible not the Pope should be seen as the final authority. But he was also worried that some people were already putting Calvin in the place of Scripture and making him their "pope". "His books" were, says Hooker, "almost the very canon to judge both doctrine and discipline by." This position is parodied brilliantly by Bob Fyall, the Old Testament scholar (and himself a Scottish Presbyterian): "It is a pity Calvin didn't write the Bible".

Hooker however, did have a great respect for Calvin. But Hooker typifies the Anglican Reformed view (moderate Calvinism) – the view of Griffith Thomas and Simeon- with the warning of adding to the Bible through over systematization.

The Elizabethan Settlement had endorsed Cranmer's Articles which are so clear about the Bible. But Hooker spelt out more clearly the implications of these articles.

  • avoid two errors: 'the Bible needs supplementing' and 'the Bible says more than it does'

Hooker therefore warns of two dangers - one, the danger of thinking the Bible does not teach enough for our salvation and so needs supplementing (e.g. Rome); and, two, the danger of thinking the Bible teaches more than it does, (e.g. over exegeting the text):

"Two opinions … there are concerning [the] sufficiency of Holy Scripture, each extremely opposite unto the other; and both repugnant unto truth. The schools of Rome teach Scripture to be so unsufficient - as if (except traditions were added) it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know [so] that they may in the next be saved. Others, justly condemning this opinion, grow likewise unto a dangerous extremity - as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary [i.e. necessary for salvation], but all things simply [i.e. "all" without qualification]; and in such sort that to do anything according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful" (2.8.7).

Laws Ecclesiastical 2.8.7 Richard Hooker

Hooker's worry was that if you make unfair demands on the Bible, the Bible is discredited:

"In attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed."

  • Scripture is above reason and tradition but there is a value in both

For Hooker Scripture is above reason and tradition. But there is a place for both and that is essential in the Anglican Tradition.

Hooker admitted the place for Scripture, tradition and reason. He would, however, have profoundly disagreed if he heard someone say that these are three equal authorities that you can juggle to suit your own fancy. This has been a liberal fantasy. Hooker, while not denying the place for tradition or reason, would say Scripture must, nevertheless, always judge tradition and reason. That is the settled Anglican Reformed tradition.

Conclusion: "Nothing either more necessary or profitable, than the knowledge of Holy Scripture"

And that is why Cranmer can write as the very first words of his very first Homily, 'A fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture' as follows:

"Unto a Christian man, there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable, than the knowledge of Holy Scripture."

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