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That lex credendi

21 February 2012

Paul Avis on a guide to Anglican doctrine


What Anglicans Believe: An introduction
Samuel Wells

Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

SAM WELLS has written this concise guide to Anglican beliefs mainly for lay people in the Church, but also for intelligent onlookers who would like to know more about the Church that they don’t belong to (I hope it reaches them).

Wells offers an attractive, fresh presentation of orthodox Christian doctrine with a mild Anglican slant. I say Anglican, because, although the book’s centre of gravity lies in the Church of England, Wells himself was born into the Anglican Church of Canada, brought up in the Church of England, trained for ordination in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and has been serving in the Episcopal Church in the United States, and is therefore careful to take the latter into account. There is the occasional nod in the direction of current Anglican troubles, but Wells remains calm about all this, looking to things eternal.

He takes a non-party stance, “catholic and reformed”, in order to produce a book that can be used by Anglicans of various stripes. Evan­gelicals will warm to his respectful handling of the Bible, and the fact that he often quotes the Thirty-Nine Articles. Catholic Anglicans will endorse his handling of the sacra­ments and the threefold ordained ministry. Broad-minded Anglicans will appreciate his cool­ness about current controversies and what he says about the part played by reason in divine revelation.

The book is neatly structured in four parts: “The Faith”, “The Sources of the Faith”, “The Order of the Faith”, “The Character of the Faith”. Familiar themes are brought to life with well-chosen words: there are some memorable turns of phrase. But what is Anglican about this introduction to Christian doctrine? Here are a few gleanings: Anglicans love to dwell on the incarnation; they have a place for natural theology; their theological style is practical rather than theoretical; they see themselves as “agents of unity”; they get along together through compromise. The Church of England is the Catholic Church in England in the pragmatic and operative sense that it is the only Church that harbours a responsibility for the whole population.

There are a few unfortunate incidents: the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) did not produce a “Creed” (mentioned three times), but a “Definition”: it reaffirmed the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantin­ople. I doubt whether anyone has been so crass as to claim that “Anglicans have no doctrine,” but they have been short-sighted enough to claim that “Anglicans have no doctrines of their own,” which is a different matter, but equally mistaken.

It is extremely doubtful whether Martin Luther used, still less “emphasised”, the term “the priesthood of all believers”. Does it make sense to say that ministry is bestowed on new disciples at their baptism, when it is also being (rightly) said that ministry refers to specific roles in the Church which are communally discerned? And I regret the thoughtless recycling of the nostrum that the diaconate is all about “servanthood”: I thought that we had moved beyond that, at least in scholarly circles.

This book has the potential to go through several editions over time, and this will enable corrections to be made. Directors of ordinands and vocations advisers will want candidates for ordination to have imbibed this book (supplemented by other treatments of ministry), and I would not be surprised if it proved useful as a primer in colleges and courses for those with little background in theology.

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is Theological Consultant to the Anglican Com­munion Office in London, Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral, an honorary professor of theology in the University of Exeter, and Editor-in-Chief of Ecclesiology.

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