Book Review: “Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition”

Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition. By Gerald Bray. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021. 128 pp. $23.99 (cloth).

It is a cliche to say that American Evangelicals are becoming Anglican. The past few decades have seen ever-growing numbers leaving the tradition of their youth to “swim the Thames.” Almost as much of a trope are the books that have been written to take advantage of the trend, with all sorts of “introductions” on the market. Many of the new introductions are shallow or sloppy, and older ones have a more academic bent, making recommendations to newcomers difficult.

Gerald Bray has a new entry in this genre: Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Bray, know that he is one of the foremost scholars of Reformation-era Anglicanism in the world. His collections of, and commentary upon, primary documents of the English Reformation will be influential for a generation. Bray also happens to be an example of 20th-century English Evangelicalism, in the vein of Stott and Packer, and Anglicanism heavily reflects that.

Anglicanism has eight chapters, but should be viewed as having three “sections.” The first section asks, “What is Anglicanism?” and provides explanations of history, church parties, controversies, etc. The second, and the heart of the book, is a distillation of Bray’s exposition of the 39 Articles, while the last section briefly handles miscellany like the Book of Common Prayer and ecclesiology.

The first section serves a two-fold purpose: to paint a fairly comprehensive picture of Anglicanism, but to also demonstrate that the only coherent “Anglican” identity can be found in its formularies: “the 39 Articles, scripture, the Ordinal, and the three creeds” (note the absence of the 1662 BCP; we’ll get to that later). This section accomplishes both goals. Bray’s historiography is solid, and while there will be some quibbles, it is better than almost anything else on the market. Myths are dismissed, if they are mentioned at all, and Bray places Anglicanism among the family of Reformed churches, although he correctly defines this broadly (Calvinism and Arminianism are both considered Reformed). Quick introductions to subjects like the Anglican Communion and the application of Anglican theology are placed here as well.

The second, and largest, section of the book is dedicated to an exposition of the 39 Articles. This is a prescient choice on the part of Bray. None of the other “intro” books right now spends much time on the Articles, preferring to deal more in the functional aspects of Anglicanism. Not so with Bray, whose readers will walk away with an Anglican identity built around the Articles, and some solid theology to boot.

Bray introduces a hermeneutic at the beginning of this section: Anglicanism is part of Western Christianity, it is Protestant, and it is broadly Reformed. This will anger some, but the truth is that it allows the Articles to unfold, and shine for what they were intended to be: a confessional statement with room. The Articles aren’t simply an obstacle for the expositor to get around, go over, or tunnel under (none of the embarrassing grammatical gymnastics of Tract 90, for example). Yes, the Articles are viewed through Bray’s lens, but his love for them is clear, and it will instill in readers a hunger to dig deep into the tradition surrounding them.

The third and final section is quite short, and is used to touch on a few topics, like the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican ecclesiology. While brief, they provide enough to get a reader started.

The book makes little attempt to be non-partisan. Bray is open in his criticism of advanced Anglo-Catholicism, and those strains of Anglicanism that flowered in the 20th century, such as the charismatics, are effectively ignored. But whatever your churchmanship, Bray’s candor is a good thing. For too long the bounds of “comprehension” have been pushed out further and further. This will not do in a 21st century where identity is everything. For newcomers entering Anglicanism, it is essential they are not handed a choose-your-own-adventure Anglicanism, and Bray avoids that entirely.

Problems

There are two issues with the book worth discussing. The first of these is that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is excluded from the Formularies, as are all other prayer books. I understand why Bray does this; he’s seeking to disentangle Anglicanism from the mess produced by lex orendi, lex credendi. If the BCP is always viewed as deciding the doctrine of a province it will forever exist as battleground with various church parties vying to use it for influence.

The problem with cutting the 1662 (and its canonical predecessors, the 1559 and 1604) from the Formularies, however, is that they are designed to go together, and always have been. Take Canon 51 from the Canons of 1604:

And if any in his Sermon shall publish any Doctrine, either strange or disagreeing from the Word of God, or from any of the Articles of Religion agreed upon in the Convocation-House, Anno 1562, or from the Book of Common Prayers, the Dean or the Residents shall by their Letters subscribed with some of their Hands that heard him, so soon as may be, give Notice of the same to the Bishop of the Diocess.

In this canon, as in numerous other places, the authorized Book of Common Prayer is given the same status as the Articles. They go together, and the doctrine laid out within them, the Book of Homilies, and the Ordinal, provide a robust confession. The strangest thing, though, is that Bray seems to want to accept this position. Despite rejecting the 1662 as a formulary early on in the book, he then turns around in the section on the Book of Common prayer and says that “if any prayer book is to decide doctrine, it’s the 1662.” So which one is it?

Second, and perhaps related, is Bray’s rejection of baptismal regeneration. Now, it should be noted that “baptismal regeneration” is one of those terms that is poorly defined, much like “real presence.” Some take it to exclusively mean ex opere operata, as Dr. Bray appears to, but at the same time we must be cognizant that in the classical tradition of orthodox Anglican conformity the divines tended to lean in the Augustinian direction and used the language of baptismal regeneration. It was, after all, presumed to be the position of the Church of England, considering that the Cranmerian prayer book tradition openly advocates for it.

Take John Jewel for example: “For this cause are infants baptized, because they are born in sin, and cannot become spiritual, but by this new birth of the water & the spirit.” Or Richard Hooker: “That infants therefore, which have received Baptism compleat, as touching the Mystical Perfection thereof, are by vertue of his own Covenant and Promise cleansed from all sin.” Or the Homily on Salvation: “In so much that infants, being baptized and dying in their infancy, are by this sacrifice washed from their sins, brought to GODS favor, and made his children, and inheritors of his kingdom of heaven.” Or take the fact that even Samuel Ward, John Davenant, and the great James Ussher believed that all infants were washed of their sins at baptism, not merely the elect.

Obviously, entire books can be written digging into what exactly all that means, since the Articles insist both that baptism is “a sign of regeneration or new birth” and that it must be rightly received. But my point is more that dismissing “baptismal regeneration” wholesale is a mistake. Perhaps this is a discussion we need to have, as those of us who advocate for a ressourcement of classical Anglicanism can struggle to engage with the older school of English Evangelicalism on the topic. But it seems to me that in the Anglican tradition it is a term worth clarifying, and a term worth fighting for.

So, would I recommend the book? Even with my issues, I do, and we will be at Christ Church, although we’re going to supplement on baptism. It excels far beyond any of the other introductory matter widely available on the market, and I would have few qualms handing a copy to a newcomer or an Anglo-curious friend.



Robert Ramsey

Robert is the Executive Editor of The North American Anglican. He is also a warden and church planter at Christ Church Anglican South Bend. In his spare time he likes fixing old espresso machines and cars from the 90s.


'Book Review: “Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition”' has 1 comment

  1. April 30, 2021 @ 6:29 pm Dave Wells

    If Anglicanism is a “Reformed Catholicism” then there will always be those who place more emphasis on the former rather than the latter descriptor. For myself I favor the latter. But I am curious to understand why there is so much emphasis on the Thirty-Nine Articles as the absolute touchstone of Anglican orthodoxy. I’m willing to grant their historical authority; but it seems to me that their contribution was to the great questions that were confronting the Church in the 16th century. Are these still burning questions today? Do they supplant the Catholic Creeds? The decrees of the primitive Councils, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church? As a reasonable response to distortions and corruptions that had developed within the medieval Church, I believe the Articles are useful. But so are the writings of the Caroline Divines, and the fathers of the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic renewal movements, and to the great Christian apologists of modern times, even in our own day and age (Lewis, for example, and Stott, Packer, and Wright). For that matter, the Fundamental Declarations and the Jerusalem Declaration along with the Catechism are as pertinent, and authoritative, to modern Anglicanism within the ACNA and GAFCON as the Thirty Nine Articles. I am grateful for the breadth and depth of Anglicanism, ancient and modern, reformed and catholic.

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