Protestant and Catholic: the Trojan Horse of Anglican Comprehensiveness

It has been some time since I posted. I myself considered the weblog all but moribund. But after reading the Very Revd Dr Robert Munday’s post, “Treating Friends Like Enemies“, I thought that I would post a part of a lecture that I gave last Friday to a group of engaged, perceptive and welcoming Anglican aspirants, postulants, and clergy as part of the Anglican Missional Pastor program that the Revd Dr Steve Breedlove directs for churches of the Anglican Mission in this region. The extract is long, so I’m jumping in again with both feet. I may post other extracts from the lecture as time goes along.

Some have claimed that the Elizabethan Settlement was a compromise that sought principally to avoid the extremes of papal Catholicism and Genevan Calvinism and that managed – if uneasily and only temporarily – to hold the Catholic-minded and the Puritan-minded together in one national Church, more out of a concern for political unity than for evangelical truth. In recent years this claim has been adduced by some theologically conservative Anglicans in the assertion that the virus of compromise insinuated by the Settlement into the DNA of Anglicanism has had a profoundly morbid, if not mortal, effect and has led to the crisis of authority within and among the Churches of the Anglican Communion. While there may be some partial truth to this claim, at least as to unintended effects of the Settlement in later times less interested in preserving orthodox doctrine, it is also true that clearly defined boundaries, both theological and practical, existed to limit the comprehension of the religious parties by those who created the Settlement. These boundaries are chiefly those described by the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Ordinal.

We should at this point introduce another concept, that of comprehensiveness, a concept that according to the Rt Revd Professor Stephen Sykes was “raised to a key position in Anglican apologetic”, in part as an attempt to mitigate the bitterness of the exchanges between ecclesiastical parties in the Church of England in the 1ninth century. In ecclesiastical contexts, this simply means that the Church contains within itself many elements regarded as mutually exclusive in other communions; e.g., the very concepts of “catholic” and “reformed”, or “catholic” and “evangelical”. (The corollary of course is that the Church contains within itself the people holding these mutually exclusive theological positions.) When the Elizabethan Settlement is celebrated, it is most often celebrated as creating this foundational aspect of the character of Anglicanism. But Anglicanism is not, and never has been, all-embracing. It was unable to include many Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who believed that the English Reformation had been incompletely faithful to the Scriptures. It was unable to include those Catholic Recusants who wished to remain under papal authority. It was unable to include those who rejected episcopacy. The ejections of Puritan ministers at the Restoration in the 1660s, and the loss of the Methodists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries stand against claims of complete comprehensiveness. Even those in the present-day who champion freedom of belief on matters considered fundamental and unchallengeable for millennia – like the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation – are loath to comprehend doctrines with clear practical consequences, like the essential masculinity of the priesthood.

Anglican comprehensiveness can become a “radically unclear notion, requiring qualification to give it precision” (Sykes, The Integrity of Anglicanism, p. 8). Comprehensiveness can easily become simply an easy toleration for diversity that becomes an unwillingness to seek theological clarity, or an incorrigible state of muddle that leads to a loss of integrity. It can create difficulty for partners in ecumenical discussions (to say nothing of difficulty for the Anglicans in those discussions who are trying to say something definitive about Anglicanism’s positions on various matters of ecumenical import). It can lead to disagreements within and among Anglican Churches themselves, as the boundaries of classical Anglican belief and practice are pushed at – and these disagreements can and have lead to a state of impaired communion between some Anglican Churches in the last ten years.

In attempting to define or to qualify Anglican comprehensiveness, we can start, as did both the late Dr Henry McAdoo (former Archbishop of Dublin) in his lectures, The Unity of Anglicanism: Catholic and Reformed, and Dr Stephen Sykes (sometime Bishop of Ely and retired Principal of St John’s College, Durham) in his book, The Integrity of Anglicanism, with an extract from the 1968 Lambeth Conference Reports:

Comprehensiveness demands agreement on fundamentals, while tolerating agreement on matters in which Christians may differ without feeling the necessity of breaking communion. In the mind of an Anglican, comprehensiveness is not compromise. Nor it is to bargain one truth for another. It is not a sophisticated word for syncretism. Rather it implies that the apprehension of truth is a growing thing: we only gradually succeed in ‘knowing the truth’. It has been the tradition of Anglicanism to contain within one body both Protestant and Catholic elements. But there is a continuing search for the whole truth in which these elements will find complete reconciliation. Comprehensiveness implies a willingness to allow liberty of interpretation, with a certain slowness in arresting or restraining exploratory thinking.

Sykes suggests that analysis of the statement reveals that it contains three elements. First, it is unambiguously admitted that comprehensiveness has limits. It is limited and qualified by the need – the demand – for agreement on fundamentals, which is the long-standing mainstream theological position within Anglicanism, dating back at least to the writings of Richard Hooker, the late 16th century parish priest and theologian who is one of the founders of Anglican thought. In his third book on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) he writes of the unity of the visible Church as grounded in the outward profession of “the essence of Christianity”, the profession of which is necessary in every Christian. He clarifies that by the “essence of Christianity” he means the articles of the Christian faith given as the regula fidei (the rule of faith) in the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian in the late second century, and that these fundamentals are essentially the doctrines found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Anglican comprehensiveness could therefore not contain views that deny the fundamentals (e.g., denial of the Trinity) or views which assert as fundamental matters which Anglicans hold to be non-fundamental (e.g., the requirement to hold specific views on predestination and election). This idea of fundamentals and nonfundamentals, expressed in other reformed Churches around that time (for example, by Jan Amos Comenius, a 17th century bishop of the Unitas Fratrum, the Bohemian Brethren of the Unity), is similar to that of the hierarachy of truths taught in conciliar documents from the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church.

Second, Anglicanism is asserted to contain within itself both protestant and catholic elements which, in the growing apprehension of the whole truth, will someday be reconciled. The implication here of course is that these elements are at present not reconciled, allowing some to speak loosely of their “complementarity”, meaning they are both at present necessary for the understanding of the whole truth, each expressing that truth only in part – despite the fact that they appear to be contradictory. Third, the notion of a development in the apprehension of truth is asserted. Sykes observes that the entangling of the concepts of “complementarity” and the “continuing search for the whole truth”, which becomes a “doctrine of new truth”, is largely responsible for the breakdown in Anglican theological integrity in the 20th century, and that the history behind this entangling permitted a state of affairs that left the Anglican Churches unable to deal with de facto demands that comprehensiveness extend to the denial of fundamentals as well (hence J.A.T. Robinson, Don Cupitt, John Spong – and earlier, Hastings Rashdall and others). Sykes wrote his critique, The Integrity of Anglicanism, in the late 1970s, and its accuracy and incisiveness have been demonstrated again and again over the ensuing thirty years.

I would add a further observation to Sykes’: that by nourishing the (mis)understanding that Protestant and Catholic are elements in Anglicanism that, while complementary, are in need of future reconciliation and therefore at present appear to be contradictory, other elements, doctrinal, moral, and practical have been introduced into Anglicanism which are in fact contradictory and not reconcilable. Yet the same claims will be advanced about such elements, that, while they appear for the present to be contradictory, deeper understanding and future reconciliation of what are really complementary elements will be achieved by “liberty of interpretation” and “exploratory thinking”. Herein, I think, lies the crisis of theological integrity in Anglicanism. I don’t argue that there can’t be elements in the Church that, in our present state of peering through a glass darkly, appear to be contradictory but are in reality reconciliable in God’s economy and in his time – the “now” and “not yet” character of Christian eschatology, the simul peccatus et justus status of the Christian – but the principle has been too easily applied, without hard theological work, to far too many things in an attempt to broaden the boundaries of Anglican faith and practice well beyond those that are recognizably catholic and evangelical. And I would further suggest that the understanding of “Protestant” and “Catholic”, or better Evangelical and Catholic, as elements in need of reconciliation is fundamentally wrong.

I tentatively suggest that a better understanding of the Elizabethan Settlement is that its comprehensiveness is not a (political) end in itself, nor that it is a Trojan horse (even if unintended) through which doctrinal laxity and theological flaccidness were introduced into Anglicanism, but rather that it is the context in which a positive reformed catholicism could begin to be worked out. The reformed catholicism of the Church of England under the Elizabethan Settlement was not, at least primarily or in the minds of such churchmen as Matthew Parker and John Jewel, a matter of compromise and avoidance of the extremes of papal Catholicism and of Puritanism. It involved another dynamic entirely, a dynamic that, in the words of Bishop Jewel, meant a return to the teaching and practice of the Church of the “Apostles and the old Catholic fathers”, a return that involved a reformation of the errors and abuses that had obscured the evangelical and catholic doctrine that came from the Apostles.

Contra the 1968 Lambeth Report quoted before, I suggest that the reformed and catholic character of Anglicanism is not a matter of “complementary” or contradictory elements that require future reconciliation, but that, properly understood, the reformed catholic character of Anglicanism is a unity arising from the Gospel itself. To be sure, there are contradictory elements in Anglican theology and practice. Some modern Evangelical Anglicans have adopted theological positions and practices that are more in keeping with Protestant Evangelicalism (including the latter day Church Growth movement), and some Anglo-Catholics have resumed theological positions and practices that had been removed or reformed at the Reformation. In both cases, Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, this has involved adopting or resuming elements at variance with the theology of the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion. There is real work to be done regarding the limits of comprehensiveness with regards to some of this theology and some of these practices – to say nothing of Liberal Anglican theology and practices – and where theology and practice vary from the reformed catholicism of Anglicanism, it should be carefully examined as to whether it can exist within the boundaries set by our historic formularies.

In his 1936 book, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Michael Ramsey, then a young priest and theology lecturer, later to become the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974), took hold of the reformed catholic character of Anglicanism and gave it a new and deeply insightful understanding by relating it to the way in which Church and Gospel are viewed in the New Testament. In so doing, he was developing in a more exegetical and modern way what his Anglican theological predecessors had started in the latter half of the 16th century. Ramsey’s main thesis is that Church and Gospel are indissolubly one fact, and that the catholic emphasis and the reformed (or evangelical, i.e., gospel-centered) emphasis are one in the New Testament. He writes (and this is worth quoting at length):

To understand the Catholic Church and its life and order is to see it as the utterance of the Gospel of God; to understand the Gospel of God is to share with all the saints in the building up of the one Body of Christ. Hence these two aspects of Anglicanism cannot really be separated. It possesses a full Catholicity, only if it is faithful to the Gospel of God; and it is fully Evangelical in so far as it upholds the Church order wherein an important aspect of the Gospel is set forth. To belittle the witness of the Reformers and the English church’s debt to the Reformers is to miss something of the meaning of the Church of God; to belittle Church order and to regard it as indifferent is to fail in Evangelical insight since Church order is of the Gospel. Hence “Catholicism” and “Evangelicalism” are not two separate things which the church of England must hold together by a great feat of compromise. Rightly understood, they are both facts which lie behind the church of England and, as the New Testament shows, they are one fact. A church’s witness to the one Church of the ages is a part of its witness to the Gospel of God.

Varieties of thought and of apprehension of course exist. There are always those to whom certain aspects of the truth appeal more than others. There may always be those who dwell chiefly upon the one Body, the Church, as the pillar and ground of the truth; and there may always be those whose minds are more filled with the thought of Christ and the individual, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” But there is a true and a false way of thinking of the comprehensiveness of the Anglican church. It can never be rightly expressed in terms of Victorian latitudinarianism or broad-mindedness, or by saying “Here are two very different conceptions and theologies, but with a broad common-sense humanism we combine them both.” Rather can the meaning of the church of England be stated thus: “Here is the one Gospel of God; inevitably it includes the scriptures and the salvation of the individual; as inevitably the order and the sacramental life of the Body of Christ, and the freedom of thought wherewith Christ has made men free.” (pp. 208-209)

Ramsey’s underlying conviction is that the meaning of the Church becomes clear only when studied in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his examination of the doctrine of the Church and its order, ministry and sacraments he expounds them not in terms of an institution founded by Christ, but “in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection of which the one Body, with its life and order, is the expression” (p. 7). The outward order of the Church is not a matter of indifference, but since it is dependent on and expressive of the Church’s inner life in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, order is a matter of primary importance – we might even say, an evangelical imperative. He writes:

For the good news that God has visited and redeemed His people includes the redeemed man’s knowledge of death and resurrection through his place in the one visible society [the Church] and through the death to self which every member and group has died. And in telling of this one visible society the Church’s outward order tells indeed of the Gospel. For every part of the Church’s true order will bear witness to the one universal family of God and will point to the historic events of the Word-made-flesh. Thus Baptism is into the death and resurrection of Christ, and into the one Body (Rom.6:2, I Cor. 12:13); the Eucharist is likewise a sharing in Christ’s death and a merging of the individual into the one Body (I Cor. 11:28, I Cor. 10:17); and the Apostles are both a link with the historical and risen Jesus and also the officers of the one ecclesia whereon every local community depends. Hence the whole structure of the Church tells of the Gospel; not only by its graces and its virtues, but also by its mere organic shape it proclaims the truth. A Baptism, a Eucharistic service, an Apostle, in themselves tell us of our death and resurrection and of the Body which is one.

In summary, the Church’s own catholic order arises directly from the early Church’s living out of the Gospel. “The structure of Catholicism,” Ramsey writes, “is an utterance of the Gospel” (p. 54).

The principal elements of the Church’s outward order in the New Testament are baptism, eucharist, and the apostolate (including the Apostles’ witness that would assume normative shape in the writings of the New Testament and in the regula fidei, the “rule of faith”). From the second century onward, we see the emergence of new forms of order, so that those elements become baptism, eucharist, bishops, the canon of Holy Scripture, and creeds. Ramsey argues that the Gospel created these outward marks of the Church, and that their meaning is found only in the Gospel. Their testimony is one and united, and they cannot be treated in isolation from one another.

At the Last Supper, the eucharist, the Old Testament Scriptures, and the apostles are inseparably linked as expressions of the Gospel. Jesus is about to undergo his passion and death. He interprets his death both by means of the Scriptures (“the Son of Man goes as it is written of him”) and by the eucharistic act (“this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”). By his death, Jesus creates a new people of God through a new covenant with God, a people of whose unity the Apostles are the agents.

As the structure develops more fully through the course of the second century, the interdependence of the elements of the Church’s emerging outward order is plain to see. Confronted with the spiritual perils that Gnosticism typifies and that recur again and again, the Church appeals to the Scriptures, which are slowly and universally being formed into the Canon, and to the historic episcopate which has arisen in the place of the Apostles. Both of these, the canon of Scripture and the historic (or apostolic) succession of bishops point Christians away from what is only partial and subjective to the historic Jesus, incarnate and resurrected, and to the one universal Church whose order is apparent for all to see. Both of these, the canon and the episcopate, are developments within the life of the second century Church. It is arbitrary to call the one essential and to reject the other. Both of them should be understood as closely related in their place in the life of the one Body of Christ, as expressions of the Gospel.

Misunderstanding and misuse arise if these marks of the Church are treated separately or it any of them is appealed to in isolation as the basis of Christianity (such that the roots of Anglicanism, like the roots of the entire catholic Church, are more like the spreading roots of the oak tree than the taproot of the pine).

Thus the Gospel may be seriously obscured by a piety which emphasizes Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and dwells too little upon his presence in the baptized; or by a use of the Creeds as scholastic definitions, which ignores their close relation to the Eucharist and to the scriptures; or by a reverence for Scripture, which ignores the ministry and the Creeds as organs of the society wherein the Scripture grew. But in each of these cases (and they are typical of many other perversions) deliverance comes not by discarding the gift of God which has been misused but by recovering its true relation to the other gifts. The remedy for a misuse of Creeds is to see that Creeds are a signp-post to Scripture and accordingly to turn to Scripture; but Scripture will be misused unless the Episcopate points us to the continuous life of the one Body in which Scripture emerged. And the Episcopate will be perverted unless it knows itself as nothing in isolation and as significant only as an organ of the one Body, which, by the healthy relation of all its parts, sets forth the Gospel…‘He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.’ Divine action does not cease; if He gave the Canon of Scripture, He gave also the sacraments, the ministry, the Creeds. But all these avail for His purpose only when, “fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth,” they are used unto the building up of the Body of Christ. (Ramsey, Gospel, pp. 63-64)

I hope these extracts from Ramsey have spark interest in some. As Dean Munday noted, a new edition of Ramsey has been just recently published which makes me hopeful that the book might exert some influence on a new generation of Anglican clergy and laity.

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One thought on “Protestant and Catholic: the Trojan Horse of Anglican Comprehensiveness

  1. In sum, I think Ramsey’s argument can only go through if one is sufficiently ambiguous about what “the Gospel” is. If it isn’t specifically sola fide, then the entire claim of Reformed is empty. If it is, then the same seems to be true concerning the claim of Catholicity. Much the same is the case with the emphasis on the death of Christ. Which theory of the death of Christ is in mind here? A Penal model? A Satisfaction model? Reformation distinctives won’t work on just any model of the atonement, let alone Christology.

    As for the boundaries of comprehensiveness, what is the principle or on what principle are they normative and enforced in Anglicanism?

    Second, where do things like the Filioque fall in terms of comprehensiveness? It doesn’t seem to fall under that rubric, but another. The same is true with the doctrine of the Articles concerning sola fide or predestination.

    Third, as for Jewel and company, while it is true that they took themselves to be returning to apostolic and patristic understanding, it seems fairly clear that on a good many of the core issues, they were mistaken, sola fide being a prime example. It doesn’t follow that they took themselves to do doing something, that that is in fact what they were doing.

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