Saturday, October 16, 2021



This is the thought that was on my mind (though I hesitate actually to call for one) as I read the news that Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has been received into the Roman Catholic Church. The comment I posted to the Anglican Church in North America (Unofficial) Facebook group (and I want to expand it here) was this:

[["[His conversion] surprises me because Bp. Nazir-Ali did have a great respect for the English Reformers and Richard Hooker. Having just taught a class on Anglican distinctives, I point out how the same teaching on indulgences, applying indulgences even to those who are dead, the treasury of merit, and purgatory against which the Reformers protested, are STILL in the Roman Catholic Catechism. This necessarily implies (and the rest of the RC Catechism teaches) an entirely different view of justification. I don't see how anyone once enlightened to the biblical truth about salvation by grace through faith can swim the Tiber. If the Reformation had not happened and if Anglicanism did not exist, then, under God, we would have to start it now; because even if the leadership and institutions of Anglicanism fail, Anglicanism, or something like it, is always a viable option wherever people understand biblical truth."]]

I am still shocked by the news. Bishop Nazir-Ali was mentioned as the other leading candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury when Rowan Wiliams was chosen, just as (Bishop of London) Richard Chartres was mentioned when Justin Welby was chosen. In both cases, one can speculate for hours how the Anglican Communion might have been different if either alternative candidate had been chosen. But, from knowing both men, I would have thought, if either of them were to go to Rome, it would more likely have been Chartres than Nazir-Ali. Nazir-Ali's fellowship and rapport with Evangelicals would have seemed to make it less likely, as well as his apparent sympathy with the principles of the English Reformation. But many of the departures for Rome I have seen in recent years have left me scratching my head.

But the point I was making with my comment is, I believe, an important one: If Anglicanism didn't exist, it would need to be invented. If the English Reformation hadn't happened, we would need to have one now, because the Catholic and Reformed principles for which Anglicans stand is a vital and authentic expression of essential Christianity.

The 5th century theologian, Vincent of Lerins defined Catholicity this way: "in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent."

The argument that the English Reformers were making, and the feature that distinguishes Anglicanism from the Continental Reformations is that they sought to preserve the catholicity of the Church while reforming it. The argument they make is that the Church of Rome departed from essential catholicity in the centuries prior to the Reformation, so that what the English Reformers were doing was recovering true catholicity, not forsaking it. If they can be said to be Protestants, it must also be said that their protest was against the Church of Rome and not against catholicity as Vincent of Lerins defined it.

How had Rome departed from catholicity? One way was the assertion of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), as the Eastern Orthodox Churches will readily agree. This is why the sainted Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac, Charles Chapman Grafton (1830-1912) saw rapprochement with the Eastern Orthodox as being the most natural ecumenical endeavor in which Anglicans could engage. (Read the final chapter in Graftons's book, _Christian_and_Catholic_, entitled, "Anglicanism and Reunion" to see his estimation of the place of Anglicanism in Christian unity.

Which brings me back to my assertion: If Anglicanism didn't exist, we would need to invent it. If the Anglican Reformation hadn't happened, it would need to happen now. Which leads to the question: DO WE NEED A NEW ANGLICAN REFORMATION? Amid the confused state of contemporary Anglicanism and the many departures for other traditions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, it appears that we do.

Many of us thought (and some of us still hope) that the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (in 2009) might be a new Anglican Reformation. The commitment to biblical orthodoxy so strongly emphasized in the ACNA's founding was a deliverance from the doctrinal and moral confusion that had infected the Episcopal Church (along with other provinces of the Anglican Communion and other "mainline" Protestant denominations). At the same time, there was a concern to avoid the personal rancor and tendency to schism that had characterized the Anglican churches emerging from the Affirmation of St. Louis (1977).

But, in the process of forming a new church structure, compromises were made. There is no agreement regarding role of women in the church, as it relates to ordination; and this is true for the international fellowship of Anglican provinces known as GAFCON as well. Then there is the matter of liturgical formularies. It took the ACNA ten years to produce its first prayer book, and it was no easy task. The Committee is to be commended for producing a book that can be used by Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, and Charismatics. It has entailed compromises on all sides, but it is not hard to see why Anglicanism in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, was once referred to as "the roomiest tent in Christendom."

To a certain extent, I believe that a church produced by a new Anglican Reformation needs to be a roomy tent whose only boundaries are biblical orthodoxy. My concern is that, if we were to attempt a new Anglican Reformation that went beyond the ACNA; that is to say, if it resulted in a splintering of the ACNA (God forbid), that those who want a purely Reformed Church and those who want a purely Catholic Church and those who want a more Charismatic Church would not live comfortably together, if at all.

Bishop Grafton recognized this division and anticipated the need for unity when he wrote: "It, moreover, is to be observed that the high and low schools are not in principle antagonistic, but are supplementary to each other. The low churchman emphasizes the subjective side of religion. He dwells on the sinfulness of man's nature, and his redemption by the atoning efficacy of Christ's cross, and the necessity of conversion and a living faith. The high churchman dwells on the objective aspect of religion. Christianity came into the world as an institution. An Apostolic ministry is essential to connect us with Christ's authority. The sacraments are the ordained channels and instruments of conveying grace. The two aspects do not exclude one another. The truth lies in their combination."

Grafton continued, "Every school, high, low, or broad, has its own danger. The subjective or low church system, unbalanced by the objective side of religion, leads to a denial of the visible Church, its priesthood, and the sacraments as instruments and effective signs of grace; the broad, or rationalizing, to a denial of all that is supernatural in God's Word, and of authority, and the Church's inherited dogmatic faith. The extreme Catholic or pro-Roman one, by his devotion to Western scholasticism, centralization in government, mistaken interpretation of Scripture, impatient with the condition of the English Church, turns in faint-heartedness to the papacy."

And finally, he wrote, "But these errors lead to their own cure. The divine life of our Church is no more forcibly shown than in her inherent power of self-purification. Christ is in her, and she shares in His indestructible and resurrection life. The faith is preserved in her, not by ecclesiastical trials, necessary as they must be. Extremes lead to their own elimination; and so we have found the extreme low churchmen, who deny priesthood and sacramental grace, seceding from the Church and founding a new sect, called the Reformed Episcopalians. They tried in America to get the Church to alter the prayer-book, which they admitted was not in accord with their theology. It taught, they said, the Apostolic succession, priesthood, baptismal regeneration, and the real presence. The Church refused to change the prayer-book, and they withdrew. It was the honest course to pursue and the logical outcome of their theology. Likewise Catholics, who have become pro-Romans, believing in the divine power of the papacy, and our duty to submit to its dominion, naturally gravitate to Rome. They go out from us because they have ceased to be Catholics and become papists. The rationalizing broad churchmen who deny the fundamental facts of the creed, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ's body, are eventually pricked by conscience, which tells them they have no right to go on saying one thing at the altar and denying it in the pulpit. It is like leading a double life. They are in a false position. It is dishonorable to eat the bread of the Church whose creed they do not teach. It is far better for all those who do not believe in the creed and sacramental system of the Church to be outside of it. They then are delivered from the sin of saying what they do not believe, or not discerning the Lord's body in the Eucharist, and so eating and drinking to their own condemnation."

To deal with Grafton's last thing first, by the 1990's, the Episcopal Church, alas, had too many in its leadership who said one thing at the altar and denied it in the pulpit, and so it was the orthodox who had to withdraw. But beyond that, high churchmen and low churchmen can and should live together if they remember the comprehensiveness that has long characterized Anglicanism: "In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity." In that regard, I commend the following essay:

So, yes, I believe we need a new Anglican Reformation. But I also believe we already have it, if we are prepared to look beyond our very transient circumstances and see the larger picture. How precarious must the Reformation have looked as Luther awaited his trial at the Diet of Worms (1521)? How precarious must the English Reformation have looked as Latimer and Ridley, and later Cranmer, were burned at the stake in Oxford (1555-56)?

We have come through the initial phase of a new Reformation: the recovery of essential truths. But we are tired. Like Luther after his trials were over, like the Church of England after the reign of "Bloody Mary" was ended, we are tired. We have entered the "Elizabethan Settlement" phase of this new Reformation. It remains to be seen how the compromises will be worked out in the interest of comprehension and catholic unity. When challenges come to this endeavor, we must pray for God's protection and blessing on His Church and the renewal of our hearts, and minds, and strength by the power of God's Holy Spirit.

And when the temporal leadership and institutions of Anglicanism sometimes fail us, I am still inspired by these words from Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher who said that Anglicanism "has a special responsibility at this time in the world. 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 diminution. We stand firm on that rock. We know how to bring to bear on our Christian devotion and creed all the resources of charity and reason and human understanding submitted to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So we have a freedom and embrace a faith which, in my belief, represents the Christian faith in a purer form than can be found in any other Church in Christendom."

Archbishop Fisher concluded, "That is not a boast. It is a reminder to us of the immense treasure that is committed to our charge — the immense responsibility on us in these days to maintain unshaken those common traditions that we have inherited from those who have gone before us.”

May God confirm these words and the love of the Church of which they speak to our hearts and minds, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

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