We live in an age of denominations and distinctions, and many bemoan the seemingly constant influx of new denominations by way of church splits and schisms. The total number of Protestant denominations today varies based on who is doing the talking (and often based on their denominational affiliation as well!), but most estimates put it well into the thousands. This can give the impression of a fractured, chaotic church; and while it is certainly the case that Protestants have never been accused of being monolithic, it is wrong to think they have no unifying beliefs whatsoever.
While there is much to be said about the problem of schism, there may be more to be said about the core beliefs that unite Christians. We can acknowledge the existence of schism in the visible church, as the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” (written by Anglican minister Samuel John Stone) so eloquently puts it:
Tho’ with a scornful wonder,
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed.
We also proclaim the truth that the church is unified. As the same hymn says,
The church’s one Foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is His new creation
by water and the Word.
Despite the existence of denominations, Christians confess that the church still has unity. The church’s unity is not in buildings, finances, bishops, presbyteries, or popes. These may all be visible representations of unity, but the unity of the church is an invisible, spiritual unity. The church’s unity is in Christ himself. God creates the church and sustains it by his word and Spirit. In this essay, we will sketch out how Anglicans view themselves as part of this universal church so that we can see what we hold in common with all Christians rather than what sets us apart.
The original Reformers in the Church of England did not consider themselves “Anglican.” They were not trying to create a new theological distinction, method, or culture. They saw themselves as Christians who happened to live in England. Their desire was to be faithful to the faith handed down from the Scriptures and the church. They were not schismatic. Catholicity was of utmost importance to them.
This is not to say that the English Reformers had no theological distinctions. Some have tried to glaze over the Reformation in England, acting as though it never really happened or was not altogether a Protestant Reformation. But by the time of Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Conformity, the Church of England was a distinctively Protestant church, both politically and doctrinally. But the Protestant faith of the English Reformers was not set over and against the traditions and creeds of the church. It was understood to be the true inheritor of catholic faith.
One prominent seventeenth-century bishop, Lancelot Andrewes, encapsulated this quest for catholicity when he said we hold to “one canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period . . . determine the boundary of our faith.” Here Andrewes lays out succinctly what the Anglican divines saw as “Anglicanism”: the Scriptures, the creeds and ecumenical councils, and the church fathers.
The classic statement of Anglican doctrine, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, echoes this desire for catholicity. In terms of tradition, the articles are catholic; that is, like the other Protestant confessions of the Reformation, the articles agree with the great ecumenical councils of the church in their statements about Jesus Christ and the Trinity. They depart from the other confessions in the visible forms of their church—in their use of the prayer book and their view of church government (archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons). The “Anglicanism” that emerges in the articles is not trying to reject tradition, but rather to reform it.
As an example of the articles’ attempt to uphold tradition, Article VIII, “Of the Creeds,” explicitly affirms their acceptance of the great ecumenical creeds:
The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.
Notice, however, how that is worded. The creeds are accepted on the grounds that they are proved according to Scripture. They are not accepted simply because they are tradition for tradition’s sake or some appeal to the magisterium of the church. Rather, as Protestants, they believe that Scripture has the final authority on all matters of faith and doctrine in the church and that the ecumenical creeds are part of that. The Anglican position holds that the traditions of the church are good and should not be abandoned (contra the Anabaptists and Radical Reformers), but they should be brought under the authority of Scripture (contra Rome). The Thirty-Nine Articles provide a place for the authority of tradition. Although that role is not nearly as authoritative as in the Roman Catholic Church, it is more so than in many of the radical sects of the Reformation and even than many of the Puritans desired.
The Anglican Reformers also saw themselves in line with the church fathers. Even in some of their most distinctively Protestant writings, they did not see themselves as inventing something new but rather continuing in the faith of the earliest church fathers. In the Book of Homilies, the official book of sermons given out to ministers, Thomas Cranmer wrote the homily on justification. Within this explicitly Protestant sermon, we see that Cranmer did not think he was doing anything particularly innovative or new, but rather that he was echoing the doctrines of the church fathers as passed down through the ages:
These and other like sentences, that we be justified by faith only and without works, we do read ofttimes in the most best and ancient writers. As beside Hilary, Basil and Saint Ambrose before rehearsed, we read the same in Origen, Saint Chrysostom, Saint Cyprian, Saint Augustine, Prosper, Oecumenius, Photius, Bernard, Anselm, and many other authors, Greek and Latin.
Even Anglican sermons on justification by faith alone (how much more Protestant can you get?) were seen as rehearsing the thoughts of the church fathers!
The Catechism of the first Prayer Book was also notably catholic. Eamon Duffy has noted that nothing in the original catechism could not have been said by any Christian after the year 1215. The catechism didn’t hit any “Reformed” distinctive or doctrine; it consisted of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. So, while Church of England clergy had to assent to the explicitly Protestant Thirty-Nine Articles, there was a clear distinction between the beliefs required by the clergy and those required to be a part of the church in the laity. For the laity, all that was required was for them to profess these three ancient Christian statements. Any catechumen who could pray the Lord’s Prayer, confess the Ten Commandments, and profess the Apostles’ Creed was a welcomed member of the Church of England, regardless of their personal beliefs on the eucharist, justification, or church governance.
This has often been referred to as the Anglican “big tent.” At times, too much has been made of the “big tent” nature of Anglicanism; but the fact remains true that Anglicans have historically tried to create a religious community where Christians who did not see eye to eye on matters of doctrine could still worship together.
Anglicans uphold the ecumenical creeds as the tent under which all Christians share a common life together. To break from the ecumenical creeds is to break from the church itself. Under the tent, we may have different tables and seats in which we are comfortable, but we’re all in the party together.
Anglicanism has always viewed itself as catholic and in keeping with the apostolic faith. From the earliest Reformers to the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer, all of these have at their core an earnest desire to be truly catholic. In fact, they saw even their Protestant distinctive as the inheritance of their catholic faith, not an opponent against it.
An illustration of how the Anglican Reformers saw themselves as truly catholic Christians can be found in one of the great martyrs of the English Reformation. Lady Jane Grey was the first cousin of Edward VI, who briefly served as king of England after his father, Henry VIII, died. After Edward died, there was an attempt to make her the queen instead of Mary (who would henceforth come to be known as “Bloody Mary”). The plot failed, and Jane was arrested and ultimately sentenced to death for heresy because she refused to recant her Reformed convictions.
On the day of her execution, she brought with her some of the prayer books that had comforted her while she was in prison. And who were the authors of these prayer books? Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. All fourth-century church fathers. In the moments leading up to her brave death for the sake of the Protestant gospel of God’s free grace for sinners based only on the meritorious work of Christ, this seventeen-year-old girl reached deep into the history and catholicity of the church to find prayers that brought her comfort in her time of need. This is Anglicanism.
Justin S. Holcomb (PhD, Emory University) is an Episcopal minister and teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has written or edited more than twenty books on theology, biblical studies, and abuse.
Jared L. Jones (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary) is an Episcopal minister currently serving as associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Winter Park, Florida.
2. The Book of Homilies: A Critical Edition, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2017), 25–26.
3. The Prayer Book catechism, as Eamon Duffy points out, “might have been written at any time since 1215. . . . It said nothing whatever about the distinctive Protestant ordo salutis, nothing about the Fall or original sin, it never discussed the nature of salvation, except in terms of duties toward God and neighbor, and it never once used the word faith.” Eamon Duffy, “The Long Reformation: Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Multitude,” in Nicholas Tyacke, ed., England’s Long Reformation, 1500–1800 (London: UCL Press, 1998), 43.