ince the latter part of the 20th century, Anglican churches in the West have experienced divisions over liberal theology and sexual ethics. In response, there’s been a welcome reassertion of creedal orthodoxy in some quarters. My denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, is one expression of that response. Recently, several Anglican clergy have urged a return to a more self-conscious and consistent confessionalism.
Church of England clergy have long been required to subscribe to Anglicanism’s 16th-century confession, the Thirty-nine Articles, but the Protestant Episcopal Church unwisely chose not to require clerical subscription when it was formed in the 1780s. By the late 1970s, the Articles were relegated to a small-print section at the back of the American prayer book ominously titled “Historical Documents of the Church.”
Ensuring that clergy embrace, and laity study, the Articles and our other often forgotten but official formularies (the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the first and second Books of Homilies)—could help to fix the doctrinal incoherence Anglicans have grappled with for decades.
The Articles will help reinvigorate Anglican theology because they reflect the core teaching of the Protestant Reformation—the supremacy and sufficiency of the Scriptures, the justification of sinners by grace through faith, the spiritual meaning of the sacraments, and their intimate connection to the gospel. These are primary teachings Anglicans everywhere must never abandon, and many orthodox Anglican congregations do a commendable job teaching these brilliant Reformational truths.
But not all traditions and practices within Anglicanism today sit easily with our historic confessional standards. The following practices stray from biblical doctrine, and confessional Anglicans should reconsider them.
1. Reserving and Venerating the Sacrament of Communion
Since sacramental theology was central to the Reformation debates, it’s an appropriate place to start. The Articles reject transubstantiation—the teaching that the consecrated elements of bread and wine became Christ’s literal body and blood during the mass. They also reject the medieval church’s theology of eucharistic sacrifice—that Christ was reoffered in the mass to propitiate God’s wrath. Article 28 stipulates that “the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance [to be] reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”
Yet reservation of unconsumed consecrated bread is practiced in some Anglican parishes today, often so the sick or homebound may participate in communion but occasionally for the purpose of adoration. Reservation for any purpose was officially proscribed by Church of England authorities until relatively recently.
2. Expanding the Number of Sacraments
Even something as simple as the number of sacraments appears to have become debatable in some circles. Yet Article 25 is clear: “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” The Article goes on to explain carefully: “Those five commonly called Sacraments . . . have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.”
Nevertheless, one recent Anglican catechism muddies the waters, observing, “Other rites and institutions commonly called sacraments include confirmation, ordination, marriage, absolution, and the anointing of the sick. These are sometimes called ‘sacraments of the Church.’” The confessional standard notably doesn’t envisage that latter category.
3. Praying for the Dead
Nor is the mixed messaging limited to sacramental teaching. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to hear petitionary prayers for the dead during Anglican worship. Such a practice finds no support in the Anglican formularies. Offering thanks for the lives of deceased believers has been a feature of Anglican worship since Cranmer’s day. But petitions for “continued growth” for deceased believers were explicitly excluded from the classic 1662 Book of Common Prayer and are absent from virtually every liturgical revision prior to the 1920s. The 1662 funeral rite affirms the faithful departed are in paradise. The official second Book of Homilies (1571) firmly rejects praying for the deceased. Believers are with Christ upon death.
Special petitions on their behalf open the door to the notion of purgatory. Article 22 rejects purgatory as “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” As Anglican reformer and martyr John Bradford explained, “As prayer for the dead is not available [i.e., not effectual] or profitable to the dead, so is it not of us allowable to be exercised.”
4. Affirming Apostolic Succession
The views of many contemporary Anglican clergy on church polity don’t sync with the teaching of the Anglican reformers. All Anglicans have taught that episcopacy is a scriptural form of church government. Some today claim the Anglican understanding of the episcopal office doesn’t differ from the Roman Catholic Church. These Anglicans stress an “apostolic succession” for bishops through the physical laying on of hands that can be traced back directly to the first apostles.
The English reformers repudiated this argument. For them, as Philip E. Hughes explains, “In terms of office alone it was incongruous to equate apostleship with episcopacy.” What mattered was adherence to apostolic doctrine, not an episcopal genealogy. Hughes quotes Anglican reformer William Whitaker, who declared, “We regard not the external succession of places or persons, but the internal one of faith and doctrine,” and bishop John Jewel who concluded, “God’s grace is promised to a good mind and to one that feareth God, not unto [episcopal] sees and successions.”
These few examples highlight the pervasive influence of what’s known as the Oxford Movement and of the Anglo-Catholic party it birthed within Anglicanism in the 19th century. As historian Diarmaid McCulloch contends, “The nineteenth century growth of Anglo-Catholicism amounted to nothing less than an ideological revolution in the Church of England, which involved radically reinterpreting its history” and, eventually, modifying its corporate worship. But the unambiguous Protestantism of the formularies contradicts the romantic tale of historical continuity with the medieval church that Anglo-Catholicism has cherished.
Let’s put these fanciful tales aside. As we seek to recover historic orthodox Anglicanism, let’s allow the authentic voice of the Articles and our other Reformation formularies to be heard. Let them deepen, clarify, and advance our understanding of Anglican identity. By rooting deeply in the supreme authority of God’s Word, the gospel of justification by faith, and the right administration of the sacraments, Anglican believers will flourish.