The Axis of Orthodox Realignment: Prospects for the Future of Anglicanism

Throughout the history of American politics, a political realignment occurs once every couple of generations. Some realignments are more profound and significant than others, but all usually manifest themselves during a presidential election year. New economic circumstances or historical events give rise to new interests, fears, or discontents that turn former enemies into friends or vice versa and new constituencies and coalitions are created. Usually, political realignments tend to revolve around one charismatic political personality or hot-button issue: Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States, William Jennings Bryan and free silver, Ronald Reagan and tax cuts, just to name a few examples. Most recently, Donald Trump served as a kind of pivot point around which new coalitions would begin to form and a new political realignment occurred. Instead of the traditional left vs. right paradigm, the dividing line in the 2016 (and 2020) elections tended to be nationalists and middle-American populists vs. elites, globalists, and activists. Long-time conservative writers at think tanks in Washington DC, military brass, Wall Street bankers, and big businessmen, all traditionally associated with the American right tended to oppose Trump actively or passively. Meanwhile, Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from working-class Americans and union members, many of whom were voting Republican for the first time in their life. Whether or not Trump was the right man to lead this realignment is another issue, but there is no question that Trump was able to understand and capitalize on a political realignment that had been, up to that moment, only latent, and become the axis around which new coalitions would form. Donald Trump’s personality and platform forced people to take a side, whatever agreements or disagreements voters may have shared on other issues. The point is that all successful realignments must have some point around which they can rally and a common banner under which they can unite.

A Theological Realignment

At this point in history, the church, particularly in the West, finds itself in the middle of a theological realignment. Liberalism, which began in its classical phase as the testing and questioning of dogmatic truth claims based on empirical and rational evidence, has advanced to the point of creating a new orthodoxy. The individual is now the final arbiter of his or her own truth and the moral imperative enforced by liberalism is tolerance and acceptance toward all. Says political philosopher, James Kalb: “Even religion, to be legitimate, must transform itself to that it simply restates established egalitarian, rationalist, consumerist, and careerist values. Its public face and authoritative principles must be decided by experts and emphasize tolerance, inclusion and equality.”[1] Liberalism acts as a kind of solvent. It can be used to break down bad hierarchies and dissolve loyalties to oppressive systems, as it was used in the former Soviet Union. But these same properties make it dangerous to good hierarchies, traditions, and institutions. The problem is that liberalism is not discriminatory. With the Western embrace of the Enlightenment that was used in some cases to reform corrupt or oppressive institutions, some of that solvent spilled over into the church and immediately began attacking the fundamental dogmas of Christianity. Liberal Christianity has proven itself to be outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and cannot be accommodated as a distinct spirituality within the church as J. Gresham Machen brilliantly articulated nearly a century ago.[2] It has wreaked havoc on the church over the past century to the point that there is a great need for boundary markers of orthodoxy to be drawn again.

Though liberalism is clearly a cancer that has wreaked havoc on the modern church, there is an argument to be made that our current cultural moment presents an opportunity, rather than an occasion for despair. In a 2014 First Things article entitled “The Future of Protestantism,” Peter Leithart argues that while the Protestant Reformation and the division of the church that ensued was necessary, we should not assume that it ushered in the last stage of history. According to Leithart, “if God is alive, why would we think that the Church reached its final form in 1517 or 1640? Why would we think that the Reformation marks the end of history? Why do we think we can keep these names forever? We cannot. Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s Church.”[3] Leithart proceeded to make a “partial wish list” aimed at the promotion of unity within the body of the universal church. Interestingly enough, almost every point on Leithart’s list sounds like something that would be championed by one who identifies as an Anglican, or Reformed Catholic. Just a handful of examples to illustrate the point:

  • Preachers who teach the whole Bible in all its depth and beauty and who draw on the whole tradition of commentary as they prepare sermons. The word of God is active, a two-edged sword.
  • Churches whose worship centers on the Eucharist, celebrated at least weekly, where all the baptized are welcome. Evangelical Protestants who do not consider it “Catholic” to have a regular Eucharist, a sung liturgy, set prayers and responses, dialogic worship.
  • Churches whose musical culture is shaped by the tradition of church music.
  • Churches where infants are baptized and young children participate in the Eucharistic assembly. Do not forbid them.
  • Lutheran pastors who teach obedience (as Luther did!), Anglicans who exercise discipline, jolly Presbyterians with a reputation for levity, Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition, Baptists who acknowledge hierarchy, liturgical Bible churches.[4]

Anglican Tradition: A Rallying Point

By Leithart’s own admission, he was designing only a wish list and it is very possible that hopeful speculation about the possible outcomes of the current realignment within Christianity may turn out to be nothing more than an exercise in wishful thinking. However, it is worth at least raising the question about what shape the realignment may take in the future. In other words, if current trends continue and a new realignment manifests itself more clearly, which tradition might be in the best position given its theology, history, and ethos, to serve as a rallying point around which a new, legitimate, orthodox consensus could form? Notwithstanding the fact that the Anglican Communion is currently plagued with many of its own problems and internally struggling to determine its own identity, the argument presented here is that the Anglican tradition presents a unique approach to theology, history, and spirituality that just might be the best option to serve as a rallying point for orthodox Christianity in the midst of the current theological realignment. In the following, there will be five reasons presented to support this argument, four objections to the thesis, and finally, four possible action steps to be taken at the parish and diocesan levels to promote Reformed Catholicity in the broader church.

Theological Simplicity

The first reason Anglicanism is positioned to serve as a centerpiece in the coming realignment is its theological emphasis on simplicity and the preservation of what the church has always believed and taught. Unlike many other Protestant traditions coming out of the Reformation, the Anglican tradition does not originate with an individual personality or center on one doctrinal distinctive. The theology of the Anglican church does not find its roots in the passionate and charismatic writings of a Martin Luther, nor the logical precision of the systematic theology of a John Calvin. The goals of the English reformers tended to aim at more practical matters. If there was one overriding goal that stood above the rest at the beginning of the English Reformation, one might argue that it was the desire for a Bible in the common vernacular. It was John Wycliffe, writing in 14th century England who argued that Christian piety and moral reform required access to a Bible that everyone could read and understand. How could people know and be held accountable to apply Scripture if they could not read the words of Scripture?[5] William Tyndale, one of the first Protestant English Reformers, was motivated chiefly by a desire to produce an English Bible for the people to read for themselves. Tyndale believed that simply getting the Word of God into the hands of the people would be sufficient to change hearts. In his 1527 work, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, Tyndale writes,

God worketh with his word, and in his word. And as his word is preached, faith rooteth herself in the hearts of the elect, and as faith entereth, and the word of God is believed, the power of God looseth the heart from the captivity and bondage under sin, and knitteth and coupleth him to God, and to the will of God; altereth him, changeth him clean, fashioneth, and forgeth him anew, giveth him power to love, and to do that which before was impossible for him either to love or do, and turneth him into a new nature, so that he loveth that which he before hated, and hateth that which he before loved; and is clean altered, and changed, and contrary disposed; and is knit and coupled fast to God’s will, and naturally bringeth forth good works, that is to say, that which God commandeth to do, and not things of his own imagination.[6]

Tyndale’s first translations of Scripture, produced in 1526 included no notes or book introductions, though these would be included later. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the English Reformation was the translation of the King James Bible in 1611. While King James’ motivation for authorizing the project was rooted in his desire to replace the Geneva Bible and its anti-absolutist footnotes, the belief that the words of Scripture written in the common tongue were sufficient for promoting godliness and piety remained a matter of vital importance to the English tradition.

One might object that the moderation of the English Reformation was due merely to the fact that Henry VIII’s goals for breaking from the Bishop of Rome were politically, rather than theologically, motivated. Henry desired to have his marriage to Catharine of Aragon annulled, to regain sovereignty over the realm, and to acquire the wealth that was being siphoned out of the country by the Roman Church via the monasteries. While it is true that Henry was much more concerned with power than theological reform in his day, this argument does not account for the intentional theological reforms made by the English Divines after his death in 1547. The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, produced largely by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, demonstrate both a sincere desire to reform the church based on essentials that would have been affirmed by the universal church in the first six centuries as well as to head off both the radical reformers and the potential return to Roman Catholicism. As Anglican scholar, Peter Toon, writes,

The Articles only laid down, within the mid-sixteenth century situation, as much as was necessary to secure Catholic faith and ordered life in the Church of England; and they do not seek to go past the minimum. On the central issues of the gospel they are full and exact. Yet they are as broad and comprehensive as was deemed to be consistent with theological safety.[7]

The Sufficiency of Holy Scripture

The basis for unity within the Anglican tradition is also broader than other Protestant traditions. This principle is not some vague notion of “via media” as is often alleged in modern times. Rather, it can be found in Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles on the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”[8] Thus, those things that cannot be proved by Holy Scripture are not required to be believed. For this reason, the Articles explicitly reject the main tenets of the penitential system of the medieval church that fostered and facilitated corruption and abuse including the doctrine of purgatory, works of supererogation, and the power of the priest to perform a miracle by turning bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Christ. At the same time, the Articles retain those church practices not at odds with Scripture and restore the partaking of communion in both kinds for the laity and the practice of common prayer in the language of the people.

A Catholic Approach to Other Protestants

The English reformers demonstrated a more catholic approach to their relationship with other Protestant denominations. They did not see themselves as having to pick a side between the Lutheran and Reformed churches which were often at odds on the continent. Writings from both theological camps were welcomed by English reformers and were influential in England. During the reign of Edward I, Reformed lights such as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Martin Bucer were invited to England to teach at Oxford as well as Luther’s right-hand man, Philip Melancthon, who ultimately declined. While Luther and Zwingli had bitterly separated at Marburg in 1529 over the meaning of Christ’s words “this is my body” as applied to the Eucharist, Thomas Cranmer was content to focus on the spiritual nourishment of worthy receptors of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament. Likewise, Elizabethan theologian, Richard Hooker, in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, focuses on the promise of Christ given to the believer at the Lord’s table “without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise”, seeing the controversy as something that cannot be proved definitively from scripture either way and as unfruitful. This does not mean that the theology of the Eucharist was unimportant to Hooker, as he is careful to provide a precise, theologically rich definition of the sacrament in his work, but rather that he did not believe the way Christ presented himself to the Christian in the bread and wine should be the basis of division in the body of Christ. Of greater importance to Hooker is that there is agreement that the sacrament should be received by faith:

what these elements are in that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish, why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, “O my God thou art true, O my soul thou art happy”?[9]

In 1618, Queen Elizabeth’s successor, James I, sent representatives from the Church of England to the Protestant ecumenical Synod of Dort, who made important contributions to the Canons formulated there, but did not sign or adopt them as a confessional standard of orthodoxy for the English church. While the English delegates to the synod could all be considered sympathetic Calvinists and stood in unity with the Reformed church on the continent on the doctrines of grace, they did not desire to impose the language of the Canons of Dort on the Church of England, which certainly would have created a certain amount of dissension and division. The Caroline Divines during the reign of Charles I continued this tradition of maintaining the unity of the church based on the fundamentals of the faith believed and taught by the church in all times and places. William Laud, debating the Jesuit theologian John Fisher in 1639, denied that the fundamentals of the faith as determined by the Roman magisterium must be believed as such to remain in the faith. On the contrary, Laud asserts:

To believe the Scripture and the Creeds, to believe these in the sense of the ancient primitive Church, to receive the four great Councils so much magnified by antiquity, to believe all points of doctrine, generally received as fundamental in the Church of Christ, is a faith in which to live and die cannot but give salvation.[10]

Historian J. R. H. Moorman, in his authoritative A History of the Church in England, summarizes the theology and practice of the Caroline Divines such as Lancelot Andrewes this way:

Theirs was an attempt to get back to the early Church before the accretions of the Middle Ages which the reformers had been so anxious to get rid of … [they] aimed at a Via Media between two extremes; but the Via Media which they sought was not a compromise, a ‘lowest common denominator’; it was a real attempt to recover the simplicity and purity of primitive Christianity.[11]

Even the later Oxford Movement, which one could certainly argue overshot their mark in their reaction against liberalism and the reform movements of the 19th century, were following an ecumenical inclination to look back and reconnect with the universal church rather than becoming an increasingly nationalist and secular English church governed exclusively by Parliament. Thus, the Anglican tradition has a rich history of maintaining the essentials of the faith that have been agreed upon by the whole church throughout its history and avoiding a sectarian impulse. This charitable approach to theology, the desire to build bridges rather than burn them, and a natural hesitancy to avoid the imposition of doctrines that go beyond what the church has believed and confessed throughout all ages are characteristics crucial to forming a new consensus for what constitutes Christian orthodoxy in the 21st century.

A Church for Nations

A second reason Anglicanism could serve as a rallying point during a post-modern orthodox realignment is due to its unique history as a national church at the time of the Reformation. England presents an interesting contrast historically both to the Spanish Empire, the dominant Roman Catholic power in Europe in the 16th century, and to the small Protestant strongholds in the Dutch Provinces, Swiss Cantons, and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire. Spain had a strong and united monarchy going back to the 1469 marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. An Inquisition was established in 1478 at their behest to ensure the maintenance of Catholic orthodoxy. By 1492, the monarchs had removed the Moors from Granada and financed the discovery of a New World, one of the most lucrative investments in history. The political power and preoccupation with economic prosperity in Spain successfully prevented the Reformation from making any inroads there. Thus, the lack of theological diversity made the pursuit of theological consensus or compromise completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, the Protestant Reformation tended to flourish most where governments were more decentralized, or regions were more geographically isolated. The complicated and overlapping governments of the Holy Roman Empire left a certain amount of autonomy to various states governed by electors to protect their own religious distinctives and commitments. The Reformation gained a foothold in the German states in no small part because Martin Luther enjoyed the protection of Saxony’s elector, Frederick the Wise. By the time Emperor Charles V began his attempt to crush Protestantism and return the empire to Roman uniformity, the Reformation had become too entrenched. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, establishing the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio,” meant that Lutheranism was there to stay as a legitimate religious option in the empire. The Alps also presented a geographical obstacle to outside governance in the Swiss Cantons, which maintained a long tradition of fierce political independence. Geneva and Zurich could become bastions of Reformed orthodoxy even as Catholic Cantons such as Uri and Schwyz could head a confederation opposed to the Protestants. The reality is that the more decentralized and disunited a government, the less need there is for compromise and concession as more narrow political agendas can prevail politically on the local level where there is likely to be more uniformity of thought. Doctrinal purity is at least a more attainable goal in churches formed within a city-state or region. Those who dissent from the dominant religious position of a city like Geneva or Zurich or a region like the Palatinate or Saxony can leave or be expelled. Thus, Luther and Zwingli could part ways at Marburg over their differences on the nature of the Lord’s Supper and promote their own respective positions at home, neither forced to work toward some kind of theological consensus. Rivalries between Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed states in the Holy Roman Empire would grow and eventually culminate in the Thirty Years War beginning in 1618. Even after this brutal conflict, consensus still proved elusive as the Peace of Westphalia weakened the Holy Roman Empire and ensured that all three Christian traditions would continue to exist separately within the German states.

The English Peace

England was neither an empire with a powerful monarchy like Spain, nor merely a city-state or province, but an emerging modern nation-state. England had already been through a devastating civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York ending as recently as 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Preserving peace and unity had been the top priority of the new Tudor monarchy headed by Henry VII and continuing with Henry VIII. The desire for the preservation of the dynasty and the political stability of the nation had been the catalyst of the English Reformation in the first place. Henry VIII’s failure to produce a male heir to the throne with Queen Catharine of Aragon caused him to question the validity of his marriage, which had been contrary to canon law and authorized only by a special papal dispensation by Julius II. The aim of Henry’s separation from Rome after the denial of his request to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine was to secure English sovereignty and strengthen his monarchy. Under these circumstances, there was no chance that the Reformation was going to be used to divide the nation. Furthermore, England did not have any distinct geographical or cultural lines that would have made natural borders along which they could divide like the Swiss Cantons or the German states. Each side in England, Catholic and Protestant, were competing for all the proverbial marbles – that is, the entirety of the emerging nation-state of England. If either side was to prevail, it had to include as much of the population as possible.

These unique historical circumstances surrounding the English Reformation, beyond even the beliefs held by the English reformers, provided a precedent for accommodation and a conciliatory temperament that neither other Protestant traditions, nor the Roman church at the time were forced to adopt. This is not to suggest that 16th-century England was a place where sweet reasonableness prevailed. The martyrdoms of Roman Catholics such as Thomas More and John Fisher and of Protestants such as William Tyndale and John Frith demonstrate that Henry VIII applied considerable coercion to manufacture the new consensus. Nonetheless, England’s sense that they were one people and the understanding that separation was not an option produced a climate where a middle course between two extremes could be cultivated over time. The natural Anglican ethos that desires to comprehend a broader spectrum, rather than to aim at a singular point, prevails to the present day and has at times been both a feature and a bug of Anglicanism. However, amidst a theological realignment, faithful Anglicanism is well positioned to maintain the orthodox center not only because it has always sought to uphold that which the church has always believed and taught, but because the urge to find consensus and unity is built into the fabric of its historical DNA. It provides a governing ethos. This temperament might be unappealing to some denominations or networks who might denigrate it as mere appeasement, accommodation, or compromise, but it does have the ability to build more bridges than it burns. If a realignment is to be successful and have legitimacy, common core beliefs are essential, but so is the ability to see consensus and unity as worthwhile goals.

Two Successful Examples of Consensus

While a commitment to the fundamentals of Christianity as taught by the early church and a temperament that tends to seek consensus over partisanship is a good start to serve as a basis for unity among orthodox Christians, these arguments still lie within the realm of speculation. The question must be asked whether the Anglican tradition has a precedent for what a comprehension strategy would look like. Anglican history provides two illustrations of comprehension in practice. For those examples, we look to the Elizabethan Settlement and the Restoration of 1660. In both examples, we see the ability of the Church of England to regain long-term stability following wild theological and political pendulum swings that could have torn the church apart.

The Elizabethan Settlement

To some readers, the Elizabethan Settlement and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 might seem like strange examples of unity and consensus. Roman Catholics would be quick to claim that Elizabeth I was more brutal than Mary and less pious. Elizabeth’s persecution of Roman Catholics during her forty-five-year reign and the restrictions placed upon evangelical dissenters do not seem to warrant praise for tolerance and moderation. While it is true that religious uniformity was of utmost importance for the Elizabethan regime and violent coercive power was seen as a legitimate means of achieving it, both the context of Elizabeth’s reign and the content of her religious plan must be considered. First, Elizabeth’s persecution of Roman Catholics usually occurred in response to specific threats and assassination attempts. In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth, which in effect meant that her Catholic subjects were no longer bound to obey her and represented a de facto challenge to her authority. Elizabeth also survived a series of assassination attempts, the final of which led to the execution of Elizabeth’s cousin and Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Second, if we consider the provisions of the Elizabethan Settlement, we find that it allowed for a considerable range of theological opinion and practice. This becomes especially apparent when it is contrasted to the religious reform agenda during the reign of Elizabeth’s younger brother and predecessor, Edward VI. The Elizabethan church was able to accommodate both higher-church minded men like Matthew Parker as well as proto-Puritans like William Perkins. Considerable latitude was given to Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the question of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. While the doctrine of transubstantiation was denied, the Church of England affirmed that the Lord’s Supper was more than a mere memorial and that Christ was really (spiritually) present in the elements of bread and wine. Furthermore, the wearing of vestments and traditional liturgies not in conflict with the doctrine of the Thirty-nine Articles remained in place. Though the theology of the Church of England set forth in the Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Book of Homilies was decidedly Protestant, there was no desire to alienate traditional Englishmen by revolutionizing the liturgy and architecture of the churches where they had worshipped for generations. Where at all possible, the Elizabethan Settlement aimed to maintain continuity with the historic church. Rather than acting as a theological straitjacket that left a majority of the population outside of orthodoxy, it aimed to comprehend a wide swath of the English population. In the words of English church historian J. R. H. Moorman, “the picture we get of the Elizabethan Church is one not of uniformity, but of diversity.”[12] Detractors of Elizabeth’s piety should at least recognize the political motivation of her religious policy. If England were to survive as a sovereign and independent nation and if Elizabeth was going to keep her throne in the face of plots to assassinate and overthrow her, it was in her best interests to avoid purges and inquisitions. England had already endured enough upheaval beginning with her father’s reign and continuing through the wild pendulum swings of her younger brother and older sister. The desire of Elizabeth and her counselors to minimize religious divisions and comprehend the widest spectrum possible within the religious uniformity of the Church of England produced a lasting peace that began England’s rise as a superpower.

Though Elizabeth was able to maintain consensus throughout her reign, frays in the fabric opened to outright tears in the reign of her successor, James I. Puritan critics of the church began to emerge in the 1590s and had hoped to make progress in their visions for reform under the reign of a Scottish king who had been tutored by Presbyterians. James I, with less tact than Elizabeth and concerned about the implications that Presbyterian ecclesiology would have on the monarchy, doubled down on episcopal government for the church and the divine right monarchy for the state. What had remained a theoretical basis for monarchy under James I was put into action under his son Charles I who, while sharing his father’s political convictions, lacked his father’s prudence. The English Civil War raged through the 1640s culminating in Charles’ beheading in 1649, ushering in an era of Puritan dominance under the control of Cromwell.

The Restoration

The Act of Uniformity under Elizabeth is to Roman Catholics what the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II and the imposition of the Clarendon Code is to Puritans. The latter marked the end of the interregnum and the expulsion of dissenters from the Church of England. Charles II is not popularly regarded as a voice for toleration and compromise. However, like the Elizabethan Settlement, the Restoration sought to bring an end to civil war and dictatorial power, by allowing for the broadest possible base for theological unity. Continuation in the Church of England and a license to preach required only adherence to the Thirty-Nine Articles which had at this point been the doctrinal statement of the church for more than a century, use of the new 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and ordination by a bishop. Some Puritan ministers such as William Gurnall signed the 1662 Act of Uniformity and continued to minister in the church, but many other clergy did not, believing that use of the Prayer Book and the wearing of vestments violated the pure worship of God. These clergy were removed from their pulpits on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1662. Charles II would go on to advocate greater toleration of both Roman Catholics and Protestant non-conformists against the wishes of parliament. The latter part of the 17-century England proved to be one of cultural advancement and open scientific inquiry. The Merry Monarch, as he was called, was not particularly ideological and tended to be much more concerned with his own pleasures and hobbies than the affairs of church or of state. However, both he and his conservative parliament needed to restore unity in the nation that had been torn apart by war and dictatorship. Doing this required enforcing some minimal standards for ecclesiastical practice that again sought to include as many people as possible. For the most part, England would enjoy peace and prosperity throughout Charles II’s reign. He was certainly not a very pious king, but he was the kind of monarch that England needed after the turmoil of the civil war and Cromwell’s interregnum.

The Global Anglican Communion Today

Thus far, we have focused on Anglicanism in history, but what is the status of the orthodox Anglican communion today? Even with a broad theology and historical precedents, it would seem foolish practically to resurrect a tradition that has long been dead. Furthermore, it would be very difficult to build an orthodox coalition that represents only a small minority of the global Christian population. Thus, the fourth reason why Anglicanism could serve as an axis for orthodox realignment will address the fact that it is the largest Protestant tradition in the world, is the official religion of many countries throughout the Global South and has been enculturated within so many countries so as to enjoy legitimacy and is not seen as merely a Western imposition.

One need not defend all the actions of the British empire throughout history any more than one would defend all the actions of the Roman empire in the ancient world. Nevertheless, the Roman Empire was used in God’s providence to create the world into which Christ would be born and the gospel would rapidly be spread. In addition, the Western world has inherited many civilizational benefits from the Roman empire as well including the codification of a legal code, order, engineering, and Latin, the language of the church throughout the Middle Ages. The British empire surpassed even the Roman empire in size and as a commercial empire was far more benign. The expansion of the British empire facilitated the growth of trade and commerce. It put an end to barbaric practices such as Suttee in India and ultimately was instrumental in ending the Atlantic slave trade. While there is no doubt the British empire existed first and foremost for the purpose of protecting its national interests and enriching its beneficiaries, it must also be recognized that it facilitated the growth of the largest missionary movement in church history. According to historian Niall Ferguson, “Spreading the word of God and thereby saving the souls of the benighted heathen was a new, not-for-profit rationale for expanding British influence. It was the defining mission of the [19th] century’s most successful non-governmental organizations.”[13] Anglican missionaries were sent throughout the empire to evangelize the native populations and build churches in North America, Africa, and Asia. Ulterior motives, corruptions, abuses, and other mistakes notwithstanding, it is a telling fact that former British colonies throughout the world have chosen to retain their Anglican identity and even establish it as their official church.

It is also important that one does not have to be English to be Anglican. While the level of diversity and enculturation can in ways challenge the existence of a common Anglican identity, it is also demonstrative of the flexibility of the Anglican tradition to take on different forms and continue to express itself in a variety of cultural contexts. This is crucial as any basis for orthodox unity in the 21st century cannot be seen as imposition of one nation or culture upon another, but rather as an organic expression of orthodoxy by each culture in which it has taken root.

Anglicanism not only has a global presence, but also has international institutions that provide a formal means of communion between its provinces. The creation of the Global Anglican Future Conference helps to provide a basis for orthodox unity that is ethnically diverse yet holds the fundamentals of the faith in common. While the Roman Catholic Church is larger and maintains more institutional unity and centralized authority, it also is more exclusive in that it does not recognize the legitimacy of other Christian traditions outside of its own. A church that does not acknowledge any spiritual authority outside of its own institutional hierarchy will not be an effective axis around which the realignment can form. In contrast, Anglicanism recognizes the sacraments of other branches of Christ’s church and demonstrates its charitable presumption of faith through its practice of open communion. While Anglicans should enforce distinctives that outline the bounds of their tradition, they do not believe that everyone must convert to Anglicanism to be within the Church of Christ.

A Catholic Option for Evangelical Protestants

Finally, of its long history and liturgy, Anglicanism has something unique to offer our current context where evangelicals are longing for a more historic faith in a rootless age. Protestant Christianity, especially in North America, still bears the effects of revivalism, fundamentalism, and seeker-sensitive consumerism. Older, High-Church traditions of Christianity such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have been growing in recent years as evangelicals have been increasingly drawn to the institutional unity, apostolic continuity, and beautiful liturgy that these traditions appear to provide. Anglicanism has presented a similar draw for younger people over the past two decades. Disillusionment with evangelical fundamentalism is a contributing factor to this phenomenon. This provides its own challenges for orthodox Anglicans if their growth is being driven primarily by a constituency looking for a new fad or desiring to move away from doctrinal rigidity in order to embrace the vagaries of “mystery.” Yet, there are many others drawn by the beauty of the liturgy, the chanting of the Psalms, the practice of weekly communion, and the mission-mindedness of the Anglican tradition.[14] Thus, Anglicanism seems to meet a very real need that exists particularly within American evangelicalism today.

Some Obstacles

Despite the strengths of the Anglican tradition and the benefits it could provide to a broad orthodox realignment, it also suffers from several weaknesses and faces unique challenges that could hinder that work. The first such weakness is that Anglicanism is going through its own realignment and lacks a core orthodox identity that unites its own adherents around the globe.[15] Without ecclesiastical unity, agreed-upon governing norms, and a common spiritual experience, it may prove to be quite difficult to unite other orthodox traditions around this center. Furthermore, in an absence of unity on what constitutes orthodox Anglican identity, it is likely that the ends could end up pulling the center apart rather than the center maintaining an effective, aligned front against liberalism. However, while the current structure of the orthodox Anglican communion is not ideal, it may also provide some benefits for the purpose of realignment. The Anglican Communion is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. It is not a dividing line that has status markers attached to it like the Church of England did. To push the realignment metaphor further, what is needed is a rallying point around which a pivot and realignment might form. The goal is not to make the entire world Anglican, which would require a very clear and united definition of that term, but rather to serve as an anchor for orthodox realignment and positively influence other traditions to join in that cause. Other denominations and associations will be influenced to varying degrees. Baptists will remain Baptists but might come to a greater appreciation for liturgy and hierarchy. Pentecostals might begin to place greater importance on church history and tradition. Roman Catholics might place a greater emphasis on the fundamentals of the faith rather than the particular traditions that they have elevated to dogma. In this way, they may be influenced by various aspects of the Anglican tradition, without feeling like they must convert to a tradition that sees institutional membership or complete doctrinal agreement as the basis for fellowship.

A second weakness of the Anglican tradition is the effect of liberalism on how its own principles and terms are understood. If the strategy of comprehension as discussed above, which seeks to include as many people within the orthodox church as possible, is an Anglican strength and uniquely beneficial in our pluralistic age, the liberal redefinition of that term also presents a unique harm. Comprehension now aims at inclusion and tolerance as its primary goals, rather than simply allowing for some diversity in adiaphora within orthodoxy. Comprehension in the hands of liberals employs the fallacy of assuming that which is therefore ought to be. According to this view, since the extremes have widened, so also should the parentheses comprehending the range of orthodox opinion in the center. Where do we place the markers of orthodoxy and who gets to make that call in the absence of a king, parliament, or archbishop? Lack of authority structures or unwillingness to enforce discipline within Anglicanism could deter others from rallying around it. There is no easy answer to this objection.

A third possible obstacle to Anglicanism serving as a basis for a broad orthodox realignment is a lack of prominent Anglican public theologians to address the pressing issues of the day. N. T. Wright would be one notable exception to this rule. Wright is a respected scholar as well as a theologian who has written many books on a popular level, gaining him considerable influence. However, despite Wright’s prominence and the quality of some of his New Testament scholarship, he is also a polarizing figure in the evangelical world. Among a vast portion of Reformed evangelicals, Wright’s name is tied to the “New Perspective on Paul” and, in their view, synonymous with “heresy.” Wright has also been a significant critic of American fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, which does not endear him with this significant segment of the Christian population in the West. Furthermore, Wright has also tended to embrace segments of the progressive agenda and has had no problem embracing theological liberals that would be on the opposing side of the realignment. While there are excellent Anglican theologians today, none have the national or international influence of figures such as R.C. Sproul, John Piper, or John MacArthur. This presents a problem for doing public theology and creating a basis for unity. Those called upon by the media to provide the orthodox Christian position on the issues of the day usually come from the Roman Catholic or Southern Baptist churches. However, this is not entirely a negative either. We could state positively that the Anglican tradition does not revolve around the celebrity pastor as in evangelical megachurches or the politically connected bishops in the Roman Catholic church. The orthodox Anglican church, as presently constituted, has been able to maintain hierarchy without demagoguery or political corruption. Just the same, there is a need to continue to develop leaders that can speak competently and effectively to the issues we face in our present context without resorting to mere platitudes and cliches.

Some Recommendations

If the argument laid out here is correct and Anglicanism really is best positioned theologically and historically to serve as an axis around which a new alignment of orthodox Christians can form, this presents a terrific opportunity for Anglican parishes and dioceses. What then can local parishes and dioceses be doing to take advantage of this opportunity? There are a couple of recommendations that can be made. First, the recognition of the fact that many evangelicals, especially in America, are looking for a richer, historically rooted, faith tradition that provides continuity with the church triumphant and unity with the universal church militant should cause Anglican clergy and laymen to be more intentional in promoting the unique characteristics of Anglican theology, life, and worship. Anglican churches should cease trying to be culturally relevant and trying to present themselves as just another evangelical church, understanding that people are not looking for a church that offers something that could be received in thousands of non-denominational churches elsewhere. Second, Anglican parishes should begin to see themselves as the parish church and act like it. Parish churches should not be thinking of themselves the way many evangelical churches do, simply offering a particular brand of Christianity to meet the demands of the local consumer demographic. Instead, Anglican parishes should act like the Reformed Catholics they claim to be, seeing the other branches of Christ’s church within their city or region as part of one Church and seeking to help bear their burdens. Of course, Anglican churches should desire to grow by adding to their own numbers. But a spirit of Reformed Catholicity should push Anglican churches to see themselves not merely as competing for market share, but as facilitating the growth of the true church within the community and promoting the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Anglican churches can work to this end by committing to pray for the ministries of other local churches and their pastors by name. Third, Anglican parishes can work at building networks with other likeminded churches in their region for the purpose of fellowship and the promotion of political and social causes that are understood to be extensions of the theological beliefs of the church such as the sanctity of human life and the biblical definition of marriage. They can organize conferences that speak to the specific issues the church is facing today seeking to at least start asking the right questions if not beginning to provide some answers. Fourth, Anglican churches can start building their own institutions that focus especially on Christian education. Public schools should no longer be an option for Christian families. A church that sees itself as having a mission to the local parish might start investing resources to provide education, not only for its youth, but also for the youth of children belonging to other churches throughout the city or region. Not only does this provide an opportunity for church growth as people will become more familiar with the name of the church and be walking through its doors throughout the week, but it also serves a valuable purpose even if the church would not grow at all, as children are instilled with a Christian worldview in their education, which hopefully will be in their faith rather than having it undermined in the public school. Fostering strong churches in the community where children are brought up and remain in the faith strengthens the community for everyone.

There is no saying what the future holds for the orthodox Christian community in the West. The Global South, while it faces many of its own problems, has not been wracked by liberalism in the way the western world has been over the past century. However, the current circumstances present a wonderful opportunity for orthodox Christians to stand together to recover the essentials of the faith going back to the early church and to demonstrate Christ’s prayer that the church would be one. Anglicanism is uniquely positioned to serve as that axis for realignment and with a spirit of Reformed Catholicity has the necessary ethos and the tools to work toward that end.

Notes:

  1. James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2008), 56.
  2. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 135.
  3. Peter Leithart, “The Future of Protestantism,” August 2014, First Things, Ref.: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/08/the-future-of-protestantism
  4. Leithart, “The Future of Protestantism.”
  5. Ashley Null, “The Power of Unconditional Love in the Anglican Reformation” in Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today’s Global Communion (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2017), 49.
  6. William Tyndale, Parable of the Wicked Mammon in The Banner of Truth Edition of the Works of
    William Tyndale
    , Volume 1 (East Peoria, Ill.: Versa Press, 2010), 54.
  7. Peter Toon, “The Articles and the Homilies,” in The Study of Anglicanism, ed. Stephen Sykes, John Booty and Jonathan Knight, Revised ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 147.
  8. Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles.
  9. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Piety, quoted in W. Bradford Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 182, 183.
  10. William Laud, A Relation of the Conference between William Laud and Mr Fisher the Jesuit, Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology (London: 1849), 361, quoted in Stephen W. Sykes. “The Fundamentals of Christianity,” in The Study of Anglicanism, 268.
  11. J. R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England, 3rd ed. (Harrisburg, Pa: Morehouse Publishing, 1973), 234.
  12. Moorman, 216.
  13. Niall Ferguson, Empire; The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books), 98.
  14. Heather Sells, “Anglican Fever: Youth Flock to New Denomination,” December 16, 2011, CBN News Ref.: http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2011/December/Anglican-Fever-Youth-Flock-to-New-Denomination-/.
  15. Charles Erlandson, Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020), 35.


Jared Lovell is a deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.


'The Axis of Orthodox Realignment: Prospects for the Future of Anglicanism' has 1 comment

  1. November 8, 2022 @ 3:58 am Antti Saarilahti

    Thank you for this very interesting article, Mr Lovell, and its intriguing proposition. You have put in words and explored in depth the possibilities of something which I’m sure many Christians, and not only Anglicans, have been thinking about in more vague terms.

    I would add to the list of facilitating factors the simple fact that the language that is currently the most widely-spoken language on earth is also the most widely-used language of the Anglican communion as well as her historic mother tongue. Indeed, English is the modern-day equivalent of Latin – except that it is not limited to the educated elite of society. I realise native speakers may be wary of this theme for fear of being accused of linguistic imperialism, but English is a second language to me so I have no scruples. I find it useful and comforting that wherever I go to an Anglican service, at least in Europe, it is most likely going to be in a language I understand. There are exceptions, certainly, especially in East Asia and South America, but still. I don’t think the same cna be said of any other global branch of Protestantism. A common language fosters unity like nothing else, while differences in language hasten its breakdown, the East–West Schism being a prominent example.

    There is one detail in the article which I take some issue with, and that is the Calvinist eucharistic doctrine of classical Anglicanism. You do not refer to it specifically but you imply that this, too, would be in line with what the primitive church believed. It has been amply demonstrated by patristic scholarship that there is simply not much support to be found for a doctrine of spiritual real presence in the ancient church. Fr. Ben Jefferies showed this quite conclusively in his trilogy on the topic (first part: https://northamanglican.com/is-the-eucharistology-of-the-anglican-reformation-patristic-part-1/) Yet, you say that “the Anglican tradition has a rich history of maintaining the essentials of the faith that have been agreed upon by the whole church throughout its history” and quote approvingly William Laud and J. R. H. Moorman, both of whom seem to think that the early English church introduced no innovations.

    Now, to be fair, and like Fr. Jefferies points out too at the beginning of his first article on the topic, the Reformation Anglican divines did not think they were being unpatristic. They worked with what patristic sources they had, which was not much compared to what we have today. But this being the case, it baffles me why many Reformed Anglicans nevertheless cling to a doctrine of spiritual real presence and point to St Augustine as the source (even though the larger body of Augustine’s work shows that not to be the case). An orthodox realignment would be much better served by a robustly patristic doctrine of corporeal real presence and not the innovation of Calvin which was transmitted via Bucer to the English church. And I say that not because spiritual real presence would be unbiblical or otherwise theologically untenable, but simply because what the Fathers bear witness to in eucharistic theology is not that but rather a form of simple realism.

    I might also refer to this article by Dr Phil Anderas where more latitude towards the Lutheran position is proposed in order to further Christian unity: https://northamanglican.com/has-acna-gone-lutheran-on-the-supper/

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