I suspect that those of us who advocate a return to the historic Anglican Way and its Formularies are “heard” by some as being nostalgic advocating a return to a past glory period of the life of the Church – be it in the history of the Church of England or the Episcopal Church. Yet this is not so, at least for the leadership of the Prayer Book Society of the USA. We are not nostalgic and we do not advocate a return to a former period of church life.
Each period of history, and each period of the life of the Church in space and time, is unique. It can never be repeated or re-lived.
The period of the Early Church as recorded in the New Testament is also unique but in more than one sense. The extra sense is that during this period the revelatory work of God the Father continued through the ministry and teaching of the Apostles and Evangelists, and what God said through them is now deposited in the books of the New Testament. Thus the New Testament is the Word of God written for our instruction and salvation.
So returning to the New Testament, or returning to the Early Church, or returning to the Reformed Church of England in the sixteenth century, does not mean attempting to reproduce in our time what occurred then. Rather, it points to learning humbly as taught by the Holy Spirit first from the Scriptures, then from the Documents of the Church at any one period of time (e.g. patristic age), receiving the foundational, fundamental or important doctrines, principles and practices present and in operation then.
The New Testament is the Authority for our Faith and Conduct; we read and interpret its content and then apply it carefully to our present situation. The period after the apostles, the patristic age, provides us with all kinds of important information of what the Church believed, taught and confessed and how it worshipped. Again we study this and apply it to our situation. The sixteenth century provides us with the documents [the Formularies] that were produced and accepted as the basis and standard for worship, doctrine, discipline, polity and morality.
The Canon Law of the Church of England states the matter succinctly: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.” (The last Three are the Formularies.)
We do not advocate seeking to recover the worship and witness of the Church in the first or second or sixteenth or any other century. What we advocate is a reasonable application of the doctrines of the Word of God to the contemporary church, in the light of the experience and example of the Church of the Fathers, and according to the basic principles of the Formularies of the Anglican Way.
Thus, if new forms of service are produced in contemporary language then we state that their doctrine has to be in conformity with that of the Formularies; if innovations are proposed in the Ministry of the Church, in the Sacraments, in Marriage, or any other area, then we say that these are to be in conformity with the principles of the Formularies. We are all in favor of moving on but always within the principles on which we are founded.
So a return to the Scriptures, a return to the Fathers and a return to the Formularies are possible within a Church in the twenty-first century that is wholly engaged in the modern world – that is, in character, not of the world as such, but in the world and for the world in Christ’s name in holy mission. Such a church could use an organ or an orchestra or a band for its music. Such a church could use both the texts within the classic Book of Common Prayer in some services and modern equivalents in others (as long as they are doctrinally in harmony with the BCP). And these could be projected on to a screen to avoid use of books if necessary. Such a church could be “low” or “high” in ceremonial and could call its Ministers by the name of “Father” or “Mr.” or “Pastor”. And such a church would be the church of Jesus Christ for its neighborhood, for the local community and for the sake of the Gospel. It would not be bound to doing things as they were done in the 1950s or the 1970s or any other recent decade, though it may learn from what was done then. However, there would be an underlying continuity through space and time of the varied expressions of the Anglican Way.
Such a church would not seek to be relevant but to be faithful; it would not try to be acceptable to local culture and norms but be submitted to God’s revelation and law; and it would not dumb-down its message and worship so as to make instant converts, but it would proclaim the whole Gospel allowing the Holy Spirit to open men’s hearts to it.
So Reformed Catholicism in 2005 is not the transplant of the religion of the sixteenth century, reformed Church of England to another place and time. Rather it is that religion of the Anglican Way in another place and time that embodies the same roots, norms, principles and basic content as that of the sixteenth century Church of England. It is not infallible and so mistakes have been made and will be made.
The danger is always present for any local parish or national Church that has a sense of its history to idealize or romanticize a period or decade and seek to re-invent it in the present. To do so, however, is never successful and it is wholly contrary to the principles of Reformed Catholicism.
Let us concede that today there is a problem of perception concerning attempts to call the churches of the Anglican Way back to the foundational documents, the Formularies. We must seek ways of doing this which we hope do not portray nostalgia, for we do not intend to do so. In fact we do believe that the foundational principles and doctrines which were so powerfully applied to his time by Richard Hooker and to their time by the Caroline divines of the seventeenth century, can and should be applied to our time. And we have made and continue to make attempts in various ways to do this, usually to find that we are heard only by the few because the many are not tuned into the possibilities of what we write or talk about.
However, we do not give up hope and we do not allow ourselves to get depressed. We believe that genuine Reformed Catholicism is a way of being the Catholic Church of God on earth at this time and we shall continue by God’s help to seek to commend and to live it – despite the fact that many of our friends within the Anglican fold choose to go for either a generic form of Evangelicalism set to post-1960s liturgy or a generic form of liberal Catholicism set to post 1960s liturgy, or even a generic form of Pentecostalism set to post-1960s liturgy.
December 9, 2005
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)