The Anglican Communion and its beliefs
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The Anglican Communion is the Church of
England and its daughter churches in other parts of the world. It is divided into 38
provinces. Most provinces cover one country, but there are exceptions. In
England there are two, Canterbury and York. Some provinces, like Central
Africa, cover more than one country. Anglicanism has always had a geographical
base: under Henry VIII it was simply the continuing Catholic church in England.
Provinces are divided into dioceses. Each diocese has one or more bishops.
Dioceses are divided into local parishes.
Historically there are three main
contributors to Anglican theology, one Catholic, one Reformed and one
distinctively Anglican. This means the term 'Anglican theology' can, confusingly, mean one of two things:
either what, in practice, Anglican churches have done and taught, or alternatively
the distinctively Anglican theological tradition, often called 'classic
In the current debates different people
emphasise different elements. The Catholic tradition sees the Church of England
as a historic continuation of the Christian church in England. King Henry VIII
did not change it from Catholic to Protestant; he merely made himself, instead
of the Pope, the head of it. Its Catholicism is expressed in the continuity
with the medieval Catholic church in England: for example, unlike most
Protestants it never abolished bishops. Its Catholicism was later expressed
during the Stuart era in the Laudian and High Church tradition, and from the
middle of the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement.
The Reformed tradition emphasises the
Protestant element, as established in the sixteenth century in the reigns of
Edward VI and Elizabeth I and largely continued under James I. The main
influence was Calvinist, with a heavy emphasis on the Bible.
Many were Puritans
who expected society to be governed according to biblical principles. The
evangelical movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drew on
Reformation Protestantism, but innovated in many ways.
Classic Anglicanism appeals to the
writings of Richard Hooker, who responded to the Reformation debates by
reaffirming the role of reason. Hooker is best known for his balance of
authorities: scripture, reason and tradition. Others add experience to the
list. The key insight is that no single authority is an infallible source of
truth; in our searching, and in our decision-making, we have a range of
authorities and need to balance them against each other. (More on Hooker's views and the role of scripture, tradition and reason in Anglicanism).
This is partly for historical reasons.
Anglicanism stems from the Church of England, its mother church. Whereas some
Christian traditions, like Lutheranism and Calvinism, defined themselves from
the start by what they believed, the Church of England has traditionally aimed
to express the faith of the people living in England. It has never been
entirely successful, but through having this aim it has permitted a wide range
of beliefs to coexist.
Within this tradition, the way to resolve
a disagreement is to allow the different opinions to be openly expressed and
defended for as long as it takes to reach agreement. In this way the various
parties can challenge each other and learn from each other, debating the issues
until consensus is reached. The corollary is that differences of opinion are
normal. We do not expect always to agree with fellow-Anglicans, but we do
expect to respect each other's views.
It is this approach which has enabled
Anglicans to stay united through controversies; because diversity of opinion is
accepted as normal, it does not pose a threat. It is no accident that while the
English church was committed to this open method of searching for truth, it
also led the world in science.
These three traditions - Catholic,
Reformed and 'classic Anglican', have often been complementary. When neither
scripture nor reason nor tradition is exalted to infallible status as the only
authority, each has its proper place. Thus Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of
Canterbury in the middle of the twentieth century, said: 'We have no doctrine
of our own - we only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church
enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or
Michael Ramsey, his successor, agreed:
The Anglican will not suppose that he has a system or a Confession
that can be defined and commended side by side with those of others; indeed,
the use of the word 'Anglicanism' can be very misleading. Rather will he claim
that his tasks look beyond 'isms' to the Gospel of God and to the Catholic
Ramsey argued that 'there is such a thing as Anglican theology',
but that 'it is neither a system nor a confession (the idea of an Anglican
"confessionalism" suggests something that never has been and never can be) but
a method, a use and a direction'.
The classic statement of this position is The Spirit of Anglicanism
by Archbishop Henry McAdoo. McAdoo writes: 'There is
no specifically Anglican corpus of doctrine'. Instead, 'There is a
distinctively Anglican theological ethos, and that distinctiveness lies in
method rather than in content' (p. 1). Stephen Sykes and Paul Avis have
disagreed, but the focus of their argument has been that Anglicans have
distinctive ways of ordering the church, not that it offers distinctive
teachings about God or moral norms.
Classic Anglican theology has dominated
most of the Church of England's history. It was developed in the seventeenth
century and not seriously challenged until the middle of the nineteenth when
the Oxford Movement revived a more dogmatic approach to doctrine, allowing less
scope for reason and therefore less for development - an issue on which Newman
wrote at great length. Resistance to change still characterises many
It has not usually characterised
evangelicals; the recent conservative evangelical revival, with its insistence
that innovations in the church cannot be accepted without supporting biblical
texts, is a more dramatic leapfrog, back behind nineteenth century
evangelicalism to those Reformation Puritans who wanted an unchanging church
based entirely on scripture.
This history of Anglicanism explains why
it is possible for both conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics today to
claim that they represent true Anglican theology. They both represent
some of what the Church of England has
stood for at significant times in its history. However, if any of the three
traditions can claim to have characterised the Church of England though
most of its history, it is without doubt
the more open, undogmatic 'classic Anglicanism' associated with Hooker and his
Anglicanism as a whole is more varied
than the Church of England. Many Anglican provinces were founded in the
nineteenth century by missionaries who were dissatisfied with the Church of
England's liberalism and set out to found a church more to their liking
elsewhere. Such provinces may have never experienced the more open-minded
balance of scripture, reason and tradition described above. Leaders of these
churches have recently been encouraged by American conservatives to adopt a
more active international role.
These developments have encouraged an
increasingly authoritarian mood, which the Anglican Covenant would encourage.
The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion would have power to decree
official Anglican teaching on any future controversy, thus declaring that the
matter is settled and there is no scope for further debate. This principle has
already been invoked since the publication of the Windsor
Report to insist that as far as Anglicanism is concerned there is no longer
any role for a continuing debate on the ethics of same-sex partnerships. The
purpose of the Covenant is to extend this approach to future controversies.
Anglicans who seek to defend the more
open approach of classic Anglican theology are, of course, anxious to resist
- Speech at a meeting marking his return from a tour of Australia and New
Zealand, Westminster Central Hall, 30 Jan 1951, quoted in Church Times, 2 Feb 1951, p. 1.
- Ramsey, A M, 'What is Anglican Theology', Theology 48, 1945, pp. 2-6, at p. 6.
- Ibid, p. 2. [back]
- Podmore, Colin, Aspects of Anglican Identity,
London: Church House Publishing, 2005, pp. 37-38.
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