In early America, flush with the chaos and wonder of the Great Awakenings, there was a creeping hope (as absurd as it is retrospectively) in the Episcopal church. Bishops and laity embraced this Evangelical tide in its best forms. Its hierarchy, historical rootedness, formal liturgy, and irenic Reformed disposition made the Episcopal church appear as a possible means to unite all American Evangelicals. Congregationalists and Presbyterians had already begun a process of fusionism, and much of the bad blood between episcopacy and the presbyterial synods had dissipated. The American bishops’ bench was responsive to councils of priests and lay-influenced. All accusations of clerisy and priestcraft fell flat, especially as a strong ministerial hand could prevent the revivalistic chaos that plagued some churches. Episcopal Evangelical style even spilled into Congress, as Henry Clay adapted elements from his Anglican chaplain. Intellectual and pious, there was a brief (but rapidly vanishing) window for a true unity of churches.
This brief introit, of a particular time in American Protestant history, is included to suggest an alternative vision of Anglican ecclesiology. Instead of holding one’s nose above the din of Protestant (some Anglicans would spit at the word!) chaos, Anglicans should plunge in as the leader. The Anglican formularies are Calvinist in all the best senses of the word. Anglican worship is catholic in the most chastened sense. It is Anglicans who should model what it truly means to be Evangelical, in America and all across the world.
The Church of England began as a creature of the Gospel. Institutionally, there was no single *Church* of England until the 16th century, divided as it was between Canterbury and York as provinces of Christendom. However, with the unity of the realm after the War of the Roses, and the Tudor ambition to make England a modest power in the war between France and the Habsburgs, this institutional reconstitution was important. But the Church of England did not spill out of the lusty loins of Henry VIII, as many critics would claim. Rather, she was born from the confluence of Wittenberg and Zurich upon the hearts of men who desired to cleanse the dross that had afflicted their beloved England. In this sense, the Church of England has continuity with the Medieval church, as much as Luther and Zwingli (among many others) do. Some may recoil from such a claim, but no English reformer considered himself above or alternative to the Reformation currents. Lutheran, Reformed, and Tridentine, all claimed the mantle of the Middle Ages and all had pedigree (cutting off elements that were no longer to be tolerated). As an aside: the above is a lesson about how sheer historicity cannot decide theological questions. Instead, one must have a method of determination, which for the Reformers was the Evangel.
The Edwardian and Elizabethan reforms were entirely consonant with Continental developments, so much so that luminaries such as Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli took up posts to oversee the restoration of the Gospel in England. The 39 Articles, cemented in 1559, were in the same spirit as many other Reformed confessions from Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and France. It is true that the English were often sympathetic to the Lutherans, and so offered a via media to reconciliation between Wittenberg and Zurich, but that same spirit was also present in Melanchthon and Calvin (as well as Bucer who idealized what the “New Josiah” Edward VI hoped to accomplish). England remained a sister among the Evangelical churches, who in no way saw themselves as destroying Christendom, but saving it. The question was which represented the true successor to the Middle Ages: the papists or the protestants (which means “confessors,” not protestors; a positive, not a negative, descriptor). The various religious wars (especially the 30 Years War) put an end to hopes for triumphant victory of one side against another (as well as unveiling the cynicism of many clerical leaders, such as Cardinal Richelieu). However, England remained one of the many sisters of the “Calvinist International.” James Stuart famously sent English representatives to the Synod of Dort.
However, if one takes a broader view of the Reformed tradition, the Arminians and Remonstrants also subsist (even as they were formally declared anathema). The Laudians were not so much driven by Remonstrant theology (despite the eccentricities of a Montagu), but concerned about how Reformed doctrine was preached. A staunch Calvinist like Whitgift silenced certain aspects of predestinarian theology from the pulpit. Nevertheless, after England’s own ecclesiastical civil wars, the Church of England emerged a broadly irenic church that allowed both “Arminians” and Calvinists, of many stripes. The saintly bishop Thomas Ken (most famous for writing “The Doxology”) was both a High Churchman and a soteriological Calvinist. Similarly, the gifted historian bishop Gilbert Burnet was a Low-Church Arminian. While Presbyterians and Independents had been marched out of the church after the 1662 decision to draw the line on liturgical practice, much of the differences increasingly moderated into incoherence. How many Presbyterians today would consider the Gospel threatened if the pastor was required to make the sign of the cross during Baptism? How many self-proclaimed Reformed would revolt against the Book of Sport, that limits (but does not prohibit all) worldly activities (such as sport and drinking) performed on the Sabbath? On the contrary, more and more Presbyterians find Anglican devotions useful for their own personal piety. Similarly, when faced with the withering of Dissenter distinctives (e.g., English Presbyterians in the late 18th c. were rationalist Unitarians), and the chaos of revival, many saw the Church of England as a safe haven for Evangelical fervor. And so the Church of England had its own Evangelical explosion over the 19th c., with such holy men like J.C. Ryle, bringing the Gospel to the spiritual wasteland of industrial cities.
In America, the Episcopal Church had similar gains. It even had its own contingent of Fundamentalists (such as Stephen Tyng Sr and Jr) who remained in the church, even after the first departure of Evangelicals (in what became the Reformed Episcopal Church). In the wider Anglophone world, Evangelical Anglicans continued to lead the way of cooperation with non-episcopal Reformed brethren in Scotland and across the West. The purpose here is not to highlight successes or failures, both of which marked the Evangelical Union of the nineteenth century. However, the purpose here is to demonstrate that Anglicans, far from being separated unto their own unique ecclesiastic tradition, were often swimming in the same Reformed stream. However, such is not to downplay the unique contributions of the Church of England, far be it. Bishop Davenant saw the Church of England as the most beautiful and perfect sister among the Reformed churches, without failing to recognize their kinship. Even an eighteenth-century Pope saw the Church of England’s clergy as stupor mundi for their learning, scholarship, and theological/philosophical developments. The Church of England’s excellence was in being the best of the Evangelical churches, with the best potential (institutionally, liturgically, dogmatically) to bring spiritual unity.
What does this mean in practice, if such is the historical pedigree? It means, first and foremost, the rejection of pathetic efforts to receive respect from Rome. Apostolic Succession and its sacerdotal implications are to be put away as childish absurdities. Non-episcopal Protestants have no less valid orders, even if their government is (perhaps by tragic necessity) defective. Episcopacy is Jure Humano, an Apostolic institution that is not necessary (even if greatly preferable) to salvation or the reality of the church. Instead, like other Reformed sister churches, the marks of the Church are Word and Sacrament (as well as discipline). In the latter case, Anglicans have much to boldly lead with under their rich sacramental formulae (which resemble Calvin far more than Rome). In the former, Anglicans should reproach themselves for often being weak in preaching. Moderate Puritanism is part of the Anglican heritage, and the pulpit that produced Richard Sibbes (easily a rival to Chrysostom) should continue to preach honey-mouthed gospellers. Vigorous preaching, an ecclesiastic flexibility, and rich sacramental liturgies, these can draw fellow Evangelicals, as well as lead the way for their reforms.
Anglicans may not like being lumped in among hillbilly Baptists, shopping mall Non-Denominationalists, or the rigid white-washed Presbyterians (among others). But to deny our shared brotherhood would only be to forego a great opportunity for leadership.
It is true, however, that at certain points in Anglican history, Anglican-ism (a term first coined in the 19th c.) was set apart from other Protestants. But what were these marks of distinction? Was it, as Anglo-Catholics still desperately try to assert, that they are a Via Media between Rome and Reformation? Such is to invent a new tradition, based on dubious historical precedent (with a psychic strain often driving adherents into the Tiber or across the Bosporus). The distinction, claimed by Laudians and neo-Laudians, was Royal Supremacy and Passive Obedience. The monarch’s regal ability to oversee the government of the church (without claiming any priestly prerogative) and the people’s willingness to obey (even if with prayers and tears against unjust uses of power). These prerogatives make Anglican-ism essentially tethered to England and English political fortunes. What would Anglican-ism be without the King of England? What would Anglican-ism be without prestige in government as the established church loyal to the throne? These distinctives have proved useful weapons in the hands of unscrupulous enemies, who simply tarnish Anglican patrimony as the cult of regal power and pomp. And without the larger cultural hegemony (as it existed in England), this disposition leads to a sect of vain wealth. The stereotype of the Episcopalian (which is disgusting, if not unearned) is the Old-Moneyed elite from the North East, who believe in nothing but gilt and pageantry.
If that’s the heritage of Anglicanism, that glories in authority and royalty, then it should be buried, along with the extravagant meaningless ceremony found in contemporary royal marriages and coronations. Form without substance, there is no “retrieval” or resourcement for what is dead in Britain, and essentially meaningless outside of the Empire.
But that’s not the end of the story. Not all Anglicans agreed with such assessments. The maligned yet venerable Benjamin Hoadly defended the Church of England’s right of rebellion against tyrants. Hoadly not only received the respect of American patriots, like John Adams, but also helped form the spirit of the Episcopal Church (as seen in bishop William White’s church plans). An American Episcopalian church could be suffused with the above energy, to be the best Protestant Church (Reformed and Catholic), leading the others. The Anglican world does not need the British throne (or, as now demonstrated, even Canterbury). Perhaps even “Anglican” is the wrong descriptor to use (in some languages, Anglican churches are simply “the Holy Catholic Church” or Christian); though its use is more historical, like referring to “Greek” or “Russian” Orthodoxy. Anglicans have paved the way to defending limited civil governments, whether royal or republican. Anglicans have not simply cowed to authority, but defended the ordered liberty that allows God’s Kingdom to expand and thrive.
As an aside: the blather from “post-liberals” and “Red-Tories” that exalted authority was put to the test during the chaos of the pandemic (along with other government-imposed injustices). It should not be forgotten that state-worship and the conservative dullard’s infatuation with “principles” and “organic process” (a la Kirk’s “Burkean Conservatism”) led nowhere but capitulation. There would not have been a Reformation if churchmen had not the spine to stand up for saving doctrines. There would be no Church of England if not for a willingness to be extreme in a time of crisis and decision. Instead, Evangelicals need a new Josiah who will rediscover the Law (and priests to bring these reforms to bear).
The popularity of Christian Nationalism even among Baptists should lead Anglicans into the heart of the conversation, not contentedly standing off at a safe distance in a decayed tradition. Unfortunately, Anglicans have produced no insightful theology or ecclesiology for a long time because of this pseudo-standoffishness. Perhaps when Anglicans will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dutch Neo-Calvinists, Scots Presbyterians, Baptists, Holiness Wesleyans, and Pentecostals, among many others, they may return to their glory as the chief stone in an Evangelical Union.