Peter Smith summarises a talk he gave at the February 2014 QLD EFAC Meeting in which he gives reasons why we should keep on contending for the faith we have received.
Over in Western Australia the Perth Anglicans are divided over matters of human sexuality. The attempt to affirm same sex civil unions at the previous two synods is no minor issue. Although the media narrowed in on the homosexual issue there is a deeper concern about the nature of Anglican authority. Is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ our supreme authority OR are we at liberty to determine our own identity and set our own agenda according to human reason? In other words, are we members of God’s holy, catholic, apostolic church ruled by God’s word or are we a human invention, a creature of our own thoughts and no church at all?
Since the re-formation of the Church of England in the sixteenth century there have been numerous stoushes about the nature of Anglican authority. The newly reformed church under Cranmer rejected the Roman Catholic Magisterium. 1 In doing so, “They understood that they were restoring the church to its catholic and apostolic character and not replacing it with something new. For them the phrase ‘Reformed Catholic’ was a tautology.”2 Cranmer, under Edward VI established the Bible as the ultimate authority for resolving disputes and determining the life and health of the church.3
Under Cranmer, God’s word written, both Old and New Testaments, read in the Anglican way of OT promise and NT fulfilment in the gospel Christ, became the supreme authority. Cranmer, like Hooker who came after him, was not so naïve as to say “no authority” but the Bible. He understood that an honest reading of Scripture required humble submission to the authority triad of Scripture, a careful reading of tradition and the exercise of human reason (ascending rungs of a ladder with the Bible as the top rung or supreme authority).
New, novel or fanciful interpretations of Scripture were to be received with suspicion. The Anglican hermeneutic involved submission to the supreme authority of the Bible. It was then read in the light of the faithful from earlier ages. For Cranmer, this meant the Church Fathers who themselves were in submission to God’s word written. Needless to say, every Anglican conflict involves the three contenders for authority (God’s Word Written, theological tradition and the place of new learning aided by human reason).4
An overview – A short history of the debate for supreme authority
The Caroline Divines in the seventeenth century tied the authority of the church, not to the sovereign and free God of the Bible, (as expressed by her formularies - The Homilies and The Articles) but to the prayers and ancient creeds of the Fathers.5 Their vision was of a church where grace was piped through the sacraments to the faithful. They believed the liturgy should be performed with heavenly splendour, and human wills were exhorted to complement what was received from regular infusions of sacramental grace. By doing so they wrongly assumed the Church Fathers were united on the matters that were important for the Laudians . 6 Consequently, Church Tradition (of the Fathers) was seen to trump the authority of the Bible.
After the restoration human reason was enshrined as the official source of the Church’s authority. Four hundred clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were forced out of the Church of England. The Church of England was lurching towards the abyss, with no gospel word to save her and no word of God from outside herself to give her power for life and witness.
A fourth battle for Anglican authority was waged in the 19th century. The church had splintered into three parties. The evangelicals, following Cranmer, stood for Biblical authority (following Cranmer and Hooker). The High Church or Catholic Orthodox party championed the Church Fathers as the supreme rule for Anglican life and the radical liberals championed human reason.
The Church of England along with the world wide communion of churches has never known a pristine age where all were in glad submission to God and his word written. The battle to maintain the Anglican identity as true members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church must be fought in every age. We should not be surprised nor alarmed by recent events. We are living in an age that is, at least in biblical and historical terms, normal.
The battle for the supremacy of God’s word may be protracted and drawn out.7 Being true to Christ and our faithful forebears may mean losing our licences to officiate. Ejection from our church properties and the loss of many privileges of modern western ministerial life may follow (if the American situation is played out in Australia). Our age of ministry has been a time of luxury - titles, opportunities and privileges unknown to our forebears. Making more of the Lord Jesus and his honour (than our own comforts) has meant blessing from God.
Perth EFAC members meet regularly to pray for our Archbishop, clergy and laity and we seek God’s leading from the Bible. Both the 2012 and 2013 synods were marked by a spirit of generosity in even the most contentious of debates (with a few noteworthy exceptions). The very worst thing we could do is remain silent. Pretending that all are in agreement would be a rejection of our Anglican identity and a betrayal of our faithful forebears. Remaining silent in the midst of those who jettison the most basic of Biblical truths means partaking of their sin. As long as our Australian Anglican constitution upholds biblical morality we pray for the grace to contend for the truth of God’s word written. God’s Spirit inspired word will accomplish God’s work and gather the faithful. Of that we can be assured. This is a time of reckoning.
Peter Smith is the Rector of St Lawrence's Dalkeith and Chair of EFAC WA
1 It was obvious to the Cranmer and co that the failure of apostolic succession – to ensure apostolic teaching - not to mention apostolic morality, meant that the whole concept was flawed!
2 Ashley Null, Anglican Identity; pp 191-203 in Ed’, Michael, P. Jensen, Church Of The Triune God: Understanding God's word in his people today, The chapter is an excellent introduction and overview of the Anglican struggle for catholic apostolic orthodoxy post the sixteenth century and is the basis of the ideas in this article.
3 Article XX in the Thirty Nine Articles which were Forty Two Articles during the time of Cranmer and The Homilies laid out the priority of the Bible as the ultimate standard for all matters pertaining to faith and morality.
4 See Cranmer’s ‘A Fruitufl Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture’ in the Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (ed. John Griffiths; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), for a full explanation of the Anglican Way of reading and applying the Bible for life and doctrine.
5 Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of A Confessional Identity in the 17th Century. Oxford University Press; Oxford, 2009. Quantin’s magisterial study demolishes the notion that the Church Fathers were united on the matters that were important for the Laudians.
5 In the second century Irenaeus (c.130-200) speaks of the heretics who “”disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.8.1; ANF, vol. 1, 326. They distort and rearrange passages, like someone who “rearranges gems,” making them form a picture of their own devising, or turning something beautiful “into a dog or a fox” (Against Heresies 1.8.1. Irenaeus insists that “the entire Scriptures…can clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously be understood.” (Against Heresies 2.27.2; ANF, Vol.1, 344 cf Against Heresies 1.18.1-4 and 2.10.1,2; ANF vol.1 243-44 and 369-70. Clement, Tertullian, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil of Alexandria and Augustine had no few doubts that God spoke through the Scriptures and his word resolved disputes.
7 Athanasius was in exile for twenty years until his view triumphed over error.