Gerald Bray and the Anglican Communion’s Identity Crisis

I heard a joke recently that any time three Anglicans are in a room together you’ll have four different opinions on doctrine. It’s the kind of joke that cuts deep because at its heart is a very real disunity that haunts the tradition.

The longer I’ve read into the tradition, the more the church’s centuries-old identity crisis becomes clear to me. In the past month, I’ve read two very different books on the history of the Anglican Church—Bishop John Moorman’s The Anglican Spiritual Tradition and Fr. Gerald Bray’s Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition. Between these two relatively conservative books, the full breadth of the Anglican identity came into view.

The heart of the theological disagreement between these two books is the eternal question of Anglo-Catholicism vs. Reformed Catholicism. In other words, is the Anglican Communion Catholic or Protestant?

As history shows, it is technically both and neither. As Bray writes, “It has been remarked that Anglicanism is a bridge church with elements of both Protestantism and Catholicism, but the retort has sometimes been that if it’s a bridge, it is one that does not touch either bank of the river.”

John Moorman, the former Bishop of Ripon and a scholar on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, speaks to the former view and discusses the history of the Church of England in terms that are very adversarial towards the Calvinist Reformers of England, whom he generally seems to dismiss as overly zealous. To him, the Church of England was a minor corrective that preserved the catholicity of the Church and its high theology of the eucharist from the Puritans, who spent the better part of two centuries ransacking England’s churches, burning vestments, and starting rebellions.

“Anglicans liked to approach their worship from a historical point of view, making much of the Church’s year with its reference to the events in the life of Christ, allocating feast days to the Virgin Mary, and commemorating a number of the saints, while the Puritans were far more concerned with the present and with the battle between Christ and Satan for the soul of man,” he writes.

Gerald Bray, a priest in the Church of England, author, and director of research at Latimer Trust at Oak Hill Theological College, is far more comfortable with that Reformed tradition than Moorman. Much of his book is just spent expositing the specifically Reformed roots of the faith and showing just how deeply the Church of England’s divorce from the Church of Rome has transformed its theology.

“[We should not] be allowed to obscure the Reformed character of the Church’s official doctrine and classical liturgy, which remain more closely allied with Geneva than with either Wittenberg or Rome.” He continues, “Within the Protestant world, Anglicans are more closely aligned to the Reformed tradition, represented by Presbyterians, for example, than to anything else.”

Coming from an Evangelical family, I find that Bray speaks a lot more directly to my heart. My family has no written history outside of the Reformed Churches, and all of my religious ancestors were varying degrees of Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Pentecostal. My earliest memories of the faith are being held by my grandmother and read to out of her Scofield Reference Bible.

This isn’t to say that Bray rejects catholicity, nor do I as a young initiate. He’s very orthodox in his outlook and reinforces the universality of the tradition and its connection to Apostolic Christianity. The church is rightly understood as ecclesiologically catholic but theologically reformed. It is this disunity that gives the church its unique identity and flavor compared to other fellow spiritual traditions. We are an island to ourselves, having developed a very unique tradition since the 1830s.

Unfortunately, Anglicanism’s identity crisis does not begin and end with questions of Protestantism and Catholicism. It extends to all manner of earthly politics and petty resentments that have broken the church in deeper and more painful ways than the Reformation has, in some regards. And it goes much deeper than merely this or that partisan group breaking away from a group they consider heretical.

“Liberals try to establish themselves as the mainstream in modern Anglicanism, relegating their conservative opponents to a backwater where they wille eventually atrophy and disappear. Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to reinforce traditional doctrine and have recently shown their strength,” says Bray. “It is possible that this conflict will only be resolved by a split that will create two Anglicanisms.”

The divisions have grown complex as offshoot churches like the Anglican Church in North America, The Reformed Episcopal Church, and the Reformed Episcopal Anglican Church in South Africa have sparked into existence. Officially, the Anglican Communion does not recognize them as breakaway movements, and yet some members of the Communion want these congregations to replace more liberal churches.

“This can create an awkward situationfor example, if the churches that recognize ACNA refuse to attend gatherings called by Canterbury unless Canterbury recognizes it,” says Bray.

Our disagreements are deep and abiding, going further back than the Reformation but also digging in deeply over the very real modern schism between Conservative Christianity and Liberal Christianity—emblematic of our society’s near irreconcilable political differences. It is a shame that our church struggles so deeply with them, as the ability to live and let live with difference was one of the things that attracted me to this tradition.

Unlike many disenchanted former Evangelicals, I did not start attending the Anglican Church as a fleeting effort to stave off my inevitable crossing of the Tiber—although most of my Catholic friends annoyingly prophesy me to be within a hair’s breadth of converting. I did so to find a spiritual home that offered the beauty of liturgy with a more high-minded view of scripture and intellectualism than the Southern Baptist Churches I was used to.

And I found that within the Anglican Church. My first experience with the church was only on January 9 of this year when I visited St. Philip’s Cathedral in Charleston, South Carolina—a beautiful 340-year-old congregation with historical roots from before the American Revolution. Shortly after that, I began regularly attending a small parish in rural Tennessee, and the tradition has unfolded before me.

As a relatively new parishioner, I don’t consider disunity a bug of the church so much as it is a bug of liberty. We choose this path in breaking with the Bishop of Rome, proclaiming that our path was equally legitimate as a parallel apostolic church—albeit one that Rome and the Orthodox churches don’t recognize. We can afford to disagree on all matters of faith and still be united in faith. We don’t need to fully resolve the Anglican identity crisis, but we need to address a church that anathematizes our brothers over those differences.

Gerard Bray’s Anglicanism isn’t primarily concerned with this crisis—it is merely a rudimentary text on the nature of the faith, and it does an admirable job explaining the different facets and factions of the worldwide Communion, the role of The Book of Common Prayer, and the complex web of disagreements and schisms within the church. More specfically, the chapters expositing the Thirty-Nine Articles and unpacking their theology are incredibly useful for unpacking the theological roots of thorny issues and showing just how much influence Calvin, Luther, and Aquinas’s theologies have over the traditional perspective.

Bray’s book had no choice but to address these divisions, though. They are a core political reality of the church at this moment. In detailing the nature of these separations and conflicts, the book made it clear just how much work the Anglican Communion still has to do in uniting our tradition.

 


Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a freelance writer and was the Fall 2021 College Fix Fellow at Main Street Nashville. He has been published at Leaders Media, Geeks Under Grace, The New York Sun, The Tennessee Register, The College Fix, Law and Liberty, Angelus News, and Hollywood in Toto. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics Association.


'Gerald Bray and the Anglican Communion’s Identity Crisis' has 1 comment

  1. December 7, 2022 @ 9:37 am The Rev. Sudduth Rea Cummings

    As a grad of GTS in 1971 I was trained in the Moorman tradition and read Bray in later years. I would have to say I’m in the Moorman camp and see it as the definitive Anglicanism. (Tragically, the GTS of today is a pale reflection of its heritage and a sad place to visit. I’ve attended my first and last alum gathering there, totally disenchanted with the leadership and decline of the place.)

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