Thursday, October 12, 2006

Anglican Identity and the Anglican Birth Certificate

Everyone recognizes the importance of possessing a birth certificate. By it one knows one’s identity in terms of origins and by it one is able to get such things as a passport and a driving license. In fact one regularly needs one’s birth certificate throughout life in order to establish and maintain one’s identity.

On the birth certificate of the Church of England (and thus of the Anglican Way) are clearly stated its parentage, and the place and time of birth. The mother was Ecclesia Anglicana, the medieval Latin-based Church, loyal to the Papacy in Rome, and the father was the Word of God written, God speaking in and through Holy Scripture in its original languages. The place of birth was London and the year was 1549. The theological ethnicity was Reformed Catholic (= Evangelical Catholic), expressed in and by the original Formularies—The BCP, The Ordinal and The Articles of Religion.

In the present crisis of identity which is seriously rocking the global Anglican Family of Churches, one thing ought to be clear to all leaders. No real progress will be made in establishing a clear identity for a future, renewed (and perhaps reduced) “Anglican Communion of Churches” without taking note of the Anglican birth certificate. One of the weaknesses of the draft “Anglican Covenant” provided in The Windsor Report (2004)—a document that seems to have become as important as the Bible recently in Anglican debate—is that there is no clear recognition of the Formularies and thus of the theological, spiritual and moral ethnicity of the people of the Anglican Way.

Of course, all reasonable people recognize that there has been growth in Anglican Identity since 1549—for example, a National Church praying in English has become a global Communion or Family of Churches worshipping in many languages; but, it is always important to know the content of the original identity in order to assess the quality of any growth since 1549. When there are proposed developments in worship or doctrine, this question (along with others) must be asked at the local and sometimes international level: Is the proposed innovation consistent with the type of Church that the Anglican Way actually is by its birth? If it is not, then to proceed with the innovation has the effect of seeking to change the very content of the birth certificate and thus modifying identity.

Then there are many examples throughout Anglican history of honest people who came to recognize that they had grown away from the basic liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Way—be it in a Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, progressive Liberal or other direction—and thus they departed to find a spiritual home in a church more suited to their theological taste. Of these, the departure of John Henry Newman to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845 is a well-known example. Regrettably others stayed and sought to impose their views on others and to change the facts of the birth certificate.

Let us be honest. If any parish, diocese or province in the Anglican Way totally forgets, denies or trashes its birth certificate and seeks to take on a new identity then, although it may call itself “Episcopal” or “Anglican,” it has effectively left the Anglican Way and has created a new birth certificate and identity. Much of the confusion about Anglican Identity in the last twenty to thirty years has arisen through neglect or denial of the information on the Anglican Birth Certificate, especially by Churches in the West. For example, The Episcopal Church as an institution trashed its birth certificate in 1976-1979, when it sent the Formularies to the archives. On its new certificate the mother is the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. and the father is the union of the radical liberation, human rights and therapeutic movements of the 1960s-1970s. Its Formulary is the 1979 Prayer Book, as that is interpreted by the progressive liberal elite. Regrettably, it took the global Anglican Family a long time to recognize by its public behavior that a new birth certificate had been issued for The Episcopal Church!

Certainly the recently announced “Design Group for the Anglican Covenant,” headed by Archbishop Drexel Gomez, will need to make sure that the original Birth Certificate is a solid part of the Covenant which will bind the Anglican Communion of Churches together in biblical orthodoxy. Then, also, the Lambeth Conference of 2008 will need to insist that the Certificate is there in the clearest of language.

If the Prayer Book Societies of England, Canada, the U.S.A. and Australia have a common and global vocation it is to do all they can to ensure that the Birth Certificate is clearly an essential part of the Anglican Covenant. Indeed, not only the Prayer Book Societies but all faithful Anglicans need to be vigilant in this manner. The identity of the Anglican Way needs to become clear once again and it will take a lot of work to ensure that this actually happens.

I close with a Prayer:

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and through him our Father, we beseech thee, the God of all mercies, to have pity upon the whole Anglican family of churches around the world. Purify and sanctify it that it may grow in fellowship and communion, in maturity and in membership. Illuminate it that it may rightly understand thy holy Word and inspire it that they may obey thy will. Guide it safely through the present crisis of identity so that it will everywhere be eager to pursue truth and unity in the Spirit and in the bonds of peace. Help it always to remember its origins and vocation. Grant that this family of churches will actually be a genuine communion of churches, bound together in the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, desirous to join thee in thy mission to the world for the salvation of mankind. This we ask humbly in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son and our Lord. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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