John Owen was Not an Anglican

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.

Barton Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude's Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, VA. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College and an M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

'John Owen was Not an Anglican' have 3 comments

  1. January 28, 2016 @ 11:06 pm B. Todd Granger

    Bart, your use of the terms “Puritan” and “Anglican” are very much in keeping with current scholarship, i.e. that these terms are anachronistic prior to 1662. Prior to the Restoration, the 1662 Prayer Book, and the Great Ejectment, we can certainly speak of the reformed English Church, and to some limited extent of “Puritans” perhaps twenty or thirty years earlier (most scholars now prefers to describe the radicals in the Elizabethan Church as “nonconformists” rather than as “puritans). Prior to 1662, the reformed English Church included presbyterians and other non-episcopalians (indeed the polity of the reformed Church of England was a messy and unresolved mixture of presbyterianism and congregationalism from 1645 until 1660), and it is only after 1662, with the ejection of the mostly Calvinist non-episcopalians (i.e. Puritans), that the English Church becomes distinctively Anglican.

    This means a considerable range of theology (and polity, or at least attempts at changes in the Church’s episcopal polity by presbyterians) in the reformed English Church prior to 1645 and a less wide range (considerably so with regards to polity) after 1662.


  2. January 30, 2016 @ 5:02 pm The Rev. Robert K. Herrell

    The boundaries of the faith have not changed, have they? I am only sharing a few example, and it is these I was ordained into. Let me share:

    God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis
    Chapter 10: Christian Apologetics

    “…Apologetics means of course Denfense. The first question is – what do you propose to defend? Christianity, of course: and Christianity as understood by the Church in Wales. And here at the outset I must deal with an unpleasant business. It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. It may depart from Anglican Christianity in either of two ways: (1) It may be so ‘broad’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ that it in fact excludes any real Supernaturalism and thus ceases to be Christian at all. (2) It may, on the other hand, be Roman. It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is – I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession.
    This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubt that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is is your continuing your ministry after you have come to hold them…
    …We are to defend Christianity itself – the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers. This must be clearly distinguished from the whole of what any one of us may think about God and Man. Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the Faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; not ‘my religion’…
    This distinction, which is demanded by honesty, also gives the apologist a great tactical advantage. The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as a scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them to realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact – not gas about ideals and points of view.”


    “One canon [the Bible] reduced to writing by God himself,
    two testaments, three creeds, four general councils,
    five centuries, and the series of fathers in that period –
    the centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after,
    determine the boundary of our faith.”

    The Rt. Rev. Lancelot Andrewes
    Bishop of Chichester, Ely, & Winchester


    We have no doctrine of our own…
    we only possess the Catholic doctrine
    of the Catholic church enshrined
    in the Catholic creeds,
    and these creeds we hold
    without addition or diminution.
    We stand firm on that rock.

    The Most Rev. Geoffrey Francis Fisher
    Archbishop of Canterbury

    “In the midst of the world there is the Christian Church, the pledged followers of Jesus Christ, filled with Christ’s own Spirit; the family and the community, not of those who are perfect, not always of those who are very good specimens of holiness, but of men and women and children who, by being pledged to Jesus crucified and risen, are being put into the way of being made holy, put into the discipline of that cleansing and sanctifying and perfecting which is the restoration of the true divine life in humanity.”

    The Most Rev. A. Michael Ramsey
    Archbishop of Canterbury


  3. March 25, 2016 @ 12:51 am Arthur

    Dear Bart,

    After reading Lee Gatiss’ theses, I think you have misunderstood him, and its not very often I defend Lee Gatiss’ beliefs on anything. It seems that Lee Gatiss was just mentioning the obvious, that John Owen is an Anglican because he was ordained an Anglican in the Church of England. Despite John Owen having contrary beliefs on what makes someone an Anglican. There are many ordained Anglican presbyters who don’t subscribe to all of the formularies, regardless of Anglican jurisdiction or whether they are Reformed Anglicans or Anglo-Catholics.

    In Christ,


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