Some of the greatest challenges for Anglicanism today revolve around identity, uniformity, discipline, theology, and limits. At what point does something or someone cease from being Anglican? How do Anglicans preserve an appropriate breadth while also recognizing the need for consistency and the tendency for traditions to narrow down over time?
These quandaries were brought in full relief to my mind when I read Lee Gatiss’s latest contribution to Reformation21. In his piece, the Church Society director contends that John Owen, the well-known Non-Conformist Puritan, can be best categorized as an Anglican.
It cannot be denied that John Owen is well within English divinity and spirituality, but I do not think this entails that he is properly Anglican, seeing that he rejected episcopal polity, the classical prayer book, and historic ceremonial. However, I know that Gatiss and I both share more in common with Owen on a theological level than a majority of self-described Anglicans today, at least in the West. I will certainly grant that Owen has much more in common with classical Anglicanism than the various heretics and revisionists we find running around today who claim the Anglican name.
But that is precisely the point where I think we would err in categorizing Owen as Anglican. Just because someone claims for themselves the label does not mean they merit or fit it. It is elements like the episcopate and less-revised liturgical worship that make Anglicanism a unique form of Protestantism. That is because the post-Civil War decisions regarding the prayer book, polity, and other forms became quite integral to the Anglican identity. I reckon this is where Gatiss and I would disagree. To my mind, the mid-seventeenth century was the point that Puritanism and Anglicanism diverged from each other. Beforehand, the proto-Puritan party was part-and-parcel of the Church of England conglomeration held in check by strong, winsome monarchs.
But, ultimately, the two parties held views and commitments that were mutually exclusive or at least unable to endure one another for over a century. From that point forward, we find many of the markers that tie the Anglican Communion together besides the Articles and Homilies: the historic Book of Common Prayer, the episcopate, certain ceremonials, and so forth. The various parts of the Acts of Uniformity have been helpful in tying the orthodox Anglican world together and in fellowship.
I know of several evangelicals—Anglican or otherwise—who would like to return to the 1500s when there was an ever-lively debate about such matters. Many of the proto-Puritans and Puritans desired a Genevan-style church and commonwealth. When Charles II was restored to the throne is when England stated, “We want a king, bishops, and prayer book, and let’s stop arguing about it and move on.” The Genevan hopes were dashed, and the Puritans went off on their own, many sailing to American shores.
I realize that my complaint with Gatiss’s thesis has a lot to do with my American perspective and experience. Conservative American Anglican churches can feature both evangelical preaching in the pulpit and Anglo-Catholic liturgy at the altar, which is almost unheard-of in the United Kingdom. And in our non-establishment setup, one senses a great urgency to have reasons for his religious existence and particularity. When there are five different denominational congregations on the same street, I have to argue why I go to one and not the others, generally favoring the particularities of my tradition rather than the commonalities I might have with others.
This certainly was the case in the 1700s. New England Anglicans were much more high church than their southern brethren because they were in the minority and had to defend why they were not participants and members of Puritanism-turned-Congregationalism. And many American converts to Anglicanism—especially the young—convert to escape the aftermath, excesses, and heritage of the Great Awakenings, which, again, herald from a Puritan mindset. Some even harbor an especially virulant disgust for heresies like Unitarianism and Transcendentalism simply because they fall along Puritan lines. This is excessive, but it is born out of the need to defend one’s identity.
I know it seems like it would be helpful to have fellow church members who shared many of our mutual theological convictions, while they also cast aspersions at the episcopate and “sumptuous” worship. If I were in the Church of England or another body that had a large, influential liberal contingent (that tended toward Anglo-Catholic trappings), then John Owen would seem to be a much-desired ally. But I think it would be dishonest and ultimately unhelpful to revisit and restructure such pillars that have done much to bind the various orthodox Anglicans across the globe against the menace of heresy. I think we are a bit too busy with upholding the uniqueness of Christ in salvation than to loosen up, reconsider, or discard the episcopate to appease our Presbyterian cousins, for instance. There is not time or energy to do that; it would be an unfruitful distraction. Low churchmen may gripe that bishops are non-essential to church order, but they cannot deny that it was bishops that conspired together (in a good way), fellowshipped across national identities and borders, and met in council for the GAFCON movement and other such beneficial stirrings.
As the editor of this publication observed, at the end of the day we have a lot to learn from the best of the Papists and nonconformists. It would be foolish to ignore their contributions simply because they do not share our commitments. Still, it would be irresponsible to pretend someone is “one of ours” even when their convictions lead them directly out of our tradition. The same applies to John Henry Newman as much as it does John Owen: sons of the Anglican Church that left their mother, albeit through different doors.
Gatiss and I agree that theological and practical disorder ravage the contemporary Anglican world. Although I think the battle against theological liberalism pivots primarily on the Scriptures, their proper interpretation, and their authority, Gatiss and I both agree that adherence to important Anglican formularies like the Thirty-Nine Articles, Prayer Book, and Ordinal are desperately needed at this hour (especially since they are Scripture applied, in many ways). Yet it is just that concern that fuels my appreciation for the 1662 Act and the hedge it creates for Anglicanism. Not all questions can be on the table at once. With things being so chaotic and uncertain as they are today, having a bit of stability from the Act of Uniformity heritage is to be welcomed.