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The Gospel and the Anglican Tradition, by Martin Davie 

16 November 2018

Paul Avis considers an Anglican vision wider than the Communion

THIS is an unusual, possibly unique, book. I know only one person who could have written it: my faithful former colleague at the Council for Christian Unity of the Archbishops’ Council, the lay theologian Dr Martin Davie. Even if it did not have his name on the cover, I would have known it for his work.

He has chosen a most interesting topic. Few projects could be more edifying than to examine the relationship of the Anglican tradition to the gospel of Christ. Davie has an excellent knowledge of the Anglican tradition, both of its founding documents in their historical context and of the current state of the Anglican Communion.

Davie gives great weight to the “historic formularies” of the Church of England (the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, 1571; the Book of Common Prayer, 1662; and the Ordinal in its 1662 form), though I sense that he does not pay enough attention to nuanced statement of the formularies’ authority today in the Preface to the Declaration of Assent (Canon C 15).

He also quotes extensively from the two 16th-century books of Homilies, which, while they contain much that is edifying, are not among the “historic formularies” and have no canonical authority today, except that of being mentioned in the Articles.

It is significant for Davie’s approach that he includes within the Anglican tradition the main “continuing” (actually separated) Churches, while explaining that they are not member Churches of the Anglican Communion. He quotes extensively from two key documents that are not owned by the Anglican Communion: the Jerusalem Declaration, produced by GAFCON in 2008, and the catechism of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2014, To Be a Christian. He holds them up as examples of how to state the historic faith of Anglicans in accessible contemporary language.

What does Davie mean by “the gospel”? I would be looking, in the first place, for a scholarly exposition of the proclamation of Jesus as he inaugurated his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is at hand [or has come near]; repent, and believe in the good news [gospel]” (Mark 1.14). The gospel in the Synoptic Gospels concerns the imminence of the Kingdom of God and points to the presence of the Kingdom in Jesus himself.

Davie’s account of “the gospel” is much more expansive, however: it takes in the whole of biblical salvation history (showing that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all God’s covenant promises of the Old Testament), together with the full orbit of Christian teaching on doctrine and ethics. But study of the apostolic preaching (kerygma) in the New Testament shows that the gospel was an intensely focused message — more like a laser beam than a floodlight.

An intriguing aspect of the argument is Davie’s demonstration that the Church in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland can be traced back through history to the Day of Pentecost. Evangelical writers are not usually concerned about visible historical continuity. For the first English Reformers, apostolic continuity was continuity in the true faith, which, they believed, had often survived underground. Historical continuity for them was therefore episodic — a dotted line.

Unfortunately, Davie’s critique of same-gender relationships and marriage, on the basis of biblical and traditional sources, is given disproportionate space and distorts the narrative. Another weakness of the book is that biblical salvation history is presented by taking the text literally and at face value, without much regard for the results of biblical scholarship over the past two centuries. It is not helpful for the credibility of the faith today to talk about Adam and Eve without some explanation.

This book is also overloaded with quotations — probably more than half the text. Bizarrely, the “Subject Index” also contains all the names. Although Davie is not a “traditionalist”, opposed to women’s ordination, his book represents a valiant effort to reclaim a traditional theological method and a traditional stance on Anglican doctrine and ethics.

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is Honorary Professor at the University of Durham and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and Editor-in-Chief of Ecclesiology.

The Gospel and the Anglican Tradition
Martin Davie
Gilead Books £12.95
Church Times Bookshop £11.65

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