Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Anglican—how I understand this description of 75 million baptized Christians

Peter Toon November 7

This is a short essay aimed at inspiring others to think through some of the issues I raise. It is not intended as theological warfare but as a statement both for discussion and improvement.

Though I believe that the Church of God is in a profound sense “invisible,” I also believe that this dimension is primarily God’s business for He is himself invisible, being pure Spirit, and we as enfleshed are very much seen and visible.

So I have to make sense of the fact that what claims to be the Church of God exists through space and time and does so in some places in a bewildering variety of forms, as a complex assortment of jurisdictions, denominations and groups. Of all these, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches have the clearest claim to both antiquity and continuity through space and time. However, we have to remember that many of the other smaller jurisdictions, denominations and groups exist because many people from the sixteenth century through to the present have sincerely believed that these two ancient Churches have seriously departed from their “first love” and from their apostolic origins, faith and practice.


The word “Anglican” when used of God’s Church comes from the Latin word anglicana in the name ecclesia anglicana , which is the Church of God in/of England. So “an Anglican Church” is either the Church of England itself or one of those Churches formed by it or from it since the sixteenth century. Thus we speak of “the Anglican Communion of Churches.” And “an Anglican” is a member of one of these Churches.

It was only from the middle of the sixteenth century that the ecclesia anglicana was declared by the monarch and government of England to be an autonomous National Church, not under the authority of any other Church or ecclesiastical rule. This situation was not wholly new for in the long history of the Church of England from the patristic period, there were long periods when this Church was not directly under the supervision of the Pope.

Thus to be a member of the Church of England (or one of its global offshoots and extensions) is to be a member of a Church which has existed through space and time and which may be traced back as a congregation of Christ’s flock to the period after the apostles. That is, it always was a jurisdiction and part of the Catholikos, and in the sixteenth century it adopted a distinctive form of Catholicism, without ceasing to be part of the one Catholikos. This Anglican Church has grown since then and is now a global Communion of Churches. It expressed itself and explained itself through its Formularies—the Book of Common Prayer, The Ordinal and The Articles of Religion.

Regrettably, where we are now in history in 2006, the fact of being an Anglican does not also mean that we are in full communion with the Roman Church and the Orthodox Churches; but, it does mean that we are in full communion with most if not all of those other National Churches (and their own global offshoots) which also came into separated existence in the sixteenth century—e.g. the Lutheran Churches of Europe and around the world.

For an Anglican, this real but imperfect relation to the whole, historical Catholic Church of God is most important as a place to stand and as a people of God to belong to. At the same time, what is also very important is the actual experiential relation to the Father through the Son in the worship of the local Body of Christ and in personal devotion and service. Through careful and devoted use of the Bible and other means, an Anglican alone and with others looks up to the Lord Jesus and through him to the Father in adoration; he looks backwards to the apostolic age and all the saints who have been graced by God through the centuries and provide holy examples; he looks around and sees the divided and confused state of the Church of God today and also he sees the mission and vocation of the Church in the world today; and, at the same time, he looks forward in hope for the glorious appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ to raise the dead and to judge the people and to bring the Church, which he bought with his precious blood ,to glorious perfection and unity.

Continuity of the Church through space and time is important for the Anglican mind and this is seen in terms of continuity in the Faith of Christ, in ecclesial institutions (provinces, dioceses etc) and in Ministry, particularly, of Pastors (Bishops). It is not one of these without the others but all together that is important for the claim of the Anglican Churches to be a jurisdiction within, and a part of, the Catholikos. That is, Anglicans can humbly recite the Nicene Creed with its declaration of belief in the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, because they have been baptized in the Triune Name and they are members of a Church which claims to be a microcosm of the whole Church of God and for which continuity of faith, order and institutions through space and time point back to the primitive Church. This claim has been set forth from the beginning in the Anglican Formularies—Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and Articles of Religion—which have been a kind of glue binding together the Family of Churches.

In 2006 the Family of Churches is facing an identity problem of what it means to be Anglican. And at the personal level individual members are asking the same question. Here are several examples of what is being said and asked in the USA:

What happens to the claim to be in the Catholikos when a member Church of the Anglican Family in synodical action rejects the received Faith and Order and Formularies and engages in innovations which most of the Family think are heretical and immoral? Are the members who wish to be orthodox to stay or to leave, and to where are they to go if they want to remain within the Catholikos?

The major claim of the Continuing [Anglo-Catholic] Anglican Churches—the small denominations which have deliberately left one or another of the Churches of the Anglican Family—to be in the Catholikos is by a strong claim that their bishops are in “apostolic succession” which means that they can trace their consecration through the laying on of hands back through space and time (not a few of them have charts in their offices showing this long line through the centuries). Being successors of the apostles, they hold, brings with it the claim that they can dispense “valid sacraments.” But is this claim to apostolic succession in some ways negated or mitigated by the fact that these groups are “schismatic”? Is there not within the Anglican claim to authenticity also the reality of a real living connection with the original Anglican Identity and Family, usually through the See of Canterbury (as the Affirmation of St Louis 1977 appears to recognize)?

And what about the action taken by evangelical and charismatic groups who leave an Episcopal diocese in the USA or an Anglican one in Canada, form themselves into a congregation and choose a bishop from overseas to be their Pastor? What kind of a church is it that they have formed by their schism and by their looking around for a suitable Guide? Is it part of the Catholikos?


Maybe it’s because I was born in England and ordained in the ecclesia anglicana in 1973 that I cling (perhaps weakly) to the claim that I am in the Catholikos of God the Father by reason of membership in that Church or in another formed from it—even if that Church is weak in its commitment to historical Christianity and traditional doctrine. Though I surely know that they are many people of deeper faith and devotion than I possess, and there are many clergy with greater commitment and energy than I have in the various Continuing Anglican denominations and in the various Extra-Mural Anglican entities, I myself still feel “more secure” and on “safer ground” within one of the Churches of the Anglican Communion. I say this because of my sense that to be Catholic there needs to be continuity through space and time. And I say this very conscious of the many problems and difficulties faced especially in the West by this imperfect and fractured Anglican Family and Communion of Churches in 2006. I think of the Lambeth Conference of July 2008 as the final opportunity in my lifetime on earth for it to be made clear how the Anglican Way is to be set right, to work with a conciliar polity, and how its members will be energized to begin to walk in harmony and in truth to evangelize the nations and to be fully engaged in God’s own mission.

[My long essay on ANGLICAN IDENTITY as a 64 page booklet will be published next week and will be available for purchase from November 16th at and from 1-800-727-1928. It deals in some detail with the three major Reports—Eames, Virginia & Windsor—and other recent statements and events in search of an answer.]

No comments: