Clearly defined Anglicanism

03 April 2007

David L. Edwards argues that the new Anglican Covenant may already be out of date

Defining moment: participants in the Primates’ Meeting in Tanzania

Defining moment: participants in the Primates’ Meeting in Tanzania

‘Biblical morality is in tension with modern knowledge’

WILL THE NEW Anglican Covenant, which has already been drafted, be regarded as decisive by many people over many years? The history of attempts to define Anglicanism in a long text do not suggest a “Yes” — unless the Covenant is revised substantially as well as stylistically.

In the past, the whole Anglican Communion declared — repeatedly — its wish to keep in step with the Church of England; so it matters that a “declaration” by Charles I was reprinted both in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and in the books proposed to Parliament in 1927-28. This prohibited the “least difference” from the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563) to their “true, usual, literal”, “plain and full” meaning.

In 1865, when Anglo-Catholics and liberals had interpreted the Articles in their own way, Parliament decided that only a less precise “assent” should be required from the clergy (the laity had never been put on oath), although the Articles were still said to be “the doctrine of the Church of England”, which was “agreeable to the Word of God”.

In 1974, when Parliament gave the General Synod liberty to legislate about doctrine and worship, it was felt that the time had come for further modification of the authority of the Articles. Previously, in 1968, a commission had proposed a new oath of orthodoxy with a new preface. This put the emphasis on the authority of “God the Father, who through Jesus Christ our only Lord and Saviour calls us into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. God’s activity is “uniquely shown forth in the Holy Scriptures and proclaimed in the Catholic Creeds” — which is not fundamentalism.

The C of E’s “historic formularies” only “bear witness” to “Christian Truth”, and this witness must be “maintained” through its “preaching and worship, the writings of her scholars and teachers, the lives of her saints and confessors, and the utterances of her councils”.


However, this phrasing was altered when a new oath was included in canon law in 1975. It sounded more conservative, but was in reality at least as ambiguous as the earlier assent to the Articles. What is “revealed” in scripture is now not God’s activity, but the Church’s faith, and the faith is to be “proclaimed afresh in each generation”. But who is to do the proclaiming — presumably after some study and thought — is not specified.

SUCCESSIVE Lambeth Conferences have issued many proclamations of doctrine, but the most concise and authoritative has been the Quadrilateral of 1888, responding to a plea from the Episcopal Church in the United States for Anglican leadership in the search for Christian unity.

The American description of the Bible as “the revealed Word of God” was not repeated, but the scriptures were called “the rule and ultimate standard of faith”, containing “all things necessary for salvation”.

The General Councils of the Church were denied any right to add to these things, but the Nicene Creed, which jumps straight from the incarnation to the crucifixion, was declared to be “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith”.

The draft Covenant to be adopted by Lambeth 2008 shifts the emphasis from unity for existing Christians to “transformative” evangelism, so that “peoples from all nations” receive “new and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ”. The “Catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition”, and “biblically derived moral values”, are essential in the mission.

Biblical texts must be handled “faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively, and coherently” with the aid of “our best scholarship”, but “primarily through the teaching and initiative of the bishops and synods”.

EACH OF THESE attempts to state the basis of Anglican doctrine reflects the situation of the groups concerned, and is therefore liable to look dated in due course.

A Stuart king believed that he and his Church deserved obedience without any confusion, and that the character of this national Church was Protestant. In Tudor times, Thomas Cranmer, the main author of the Articles, had dreamed that the Church of England might be the acknowledged leader of the whole Reformation. And the Victorians, while acknowledging that the Church had broadened out, did not wish to break with this past.

In the 1880s, the wealth of the British Empire was in the background of the bishops’ gathering in Lambeth Palace, but the shattering effect of the 20th century’s wars contributed to the toleration or encouragement of radical rethinking implied in the 1968 report of a Doctrine Commission dominated by Oxbridge theologians. Forty years later, the Lambeth Conference will be dominated by a reaction against such liberalism by bishops feeling the need for a clear identity in the Church’s mission, either in a Britain now largely secular, or in a world where non-Christian religions have revived vigorously.


But the new Anglican Covenant is not likely to provide a permanent identity. Like other substitutes for the authority of the Thirty-Nine Articles, it avoids any clear statement of the reasons for Anglican diversity or disunity. Thus it does not mention the controversy about homosexuality, in which biblically derived morality is in tension with the modern knowledge that this condition is natural for an important minority of humankind, as created by God through evolution.

In a modern, post-modern, or modernising world, this tension will have to be understood with a great care for the facts, and either accepted or overcome. It will no longer be possible to dismiss the world in a simple declaration of faith, as the Articles did when they pronounced that “works done” before the grace of Christ is received through faith are “not pleasant to God”.

It will have to be accepted that God works in many ways — in science, for example, or in non-Christian religion and spirituality. And there will have to be fresh expressions of a faith that has the life, teaching, and work of Jesus firmly at its centre.

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