John Richardson on Evangelicals and Ecclesiology

As a fourth National Evangelical Anglican Congress begins to take shape, so Evangelical Anglicans are once again divided – this time over whether they have an ecclesiology. The question was first raised in its modern form by the infamous speech at NEAC 3 in which Robert Runcie told the assembled churchmen that they basically didn’t have a doctrine of the Church. Recently, it has been further focussed by questions about episcopacy: what is to be done about bishops with unorthodox views on human sexuality, and what is to be done about women bishops?


Yet many feel that the applause for Robert Runcie at NEAC 3 was misguided. True, some Evangelical Anglicans have a cursory ecclesiology, but this is not to say there is no Evangelical ecclesiology of which they could avail themselves if they so chose. Moreover, the criticism voiced by Runcie and others is provoked not by a total lack of an evangelical ecclesiology, but by their dislike of the ecclesiology which many Evangelicals have. In a recent letter to the Church of England Newspaper, David Runcorn, the Director of Pastoral Training at Trinity Theological College, Bristol, complained that ordinands’ ‘faith and sense of call to ministry have all too often been nurtured in Churches that never seem to discuss what it means to be recognizably and doctrinally committed to the Anglican Church’ (23 November 2001, his emphasis). Consequently, ordinands at Trinity now join ‘Ministry Formation Groups’ which provide ‘a context for exploring specifically what being an Anglican Christian and priest might actually mean.’

In a follow-up letter, Colin Craston claimed that since the nineteenth century ‘Evangelicals have struggled with the doctrines of the Church, the ordained ministry and the Sacraments.’ He went on to assert that the ‘basic unit’ of the Church ‘is not an independent local Church, but a fellowship of local Churches in an area in communion with their bishop’, concluding,

The idea that if a local Church cannot agree with aspects of a bishop’s stance on some controversial matter it can pick and choose a bishop from elsewhere is but a recent indication of the need for a study of ecclesiology, called for by Robert Runcie at NEAC 3.

It is not clear whether Craston believes that what he says applies only to Anglicans or to all denominations. Nor does he acknowledge that his last criticism would apply as much to Forward in Faith members, with their highly developed ecclesiology, as it does to Evangelicals with their supposed lack of clarity. Nevertheless, Craston, Runcorn and, before them, Michael Saward all seem to feel there is a problem for Evangelicals in their failure to develop a sufficiently Anglican ecclesiology.


But here is the heart of the difficulty, for the notion of ‘Anglicanism’ is arguably not what these critics might suppose. Perhaps it is best to begin by reminding ourselves that the Nicene Creed refers to our belief in ‘one … Catholic … Church’. Each time we affirm this, we render all supposedly ‘Anglican’ distinctives either incidental or mistaken. The ultimate task of Anglican ecclesiology is to identify what is catholic, and indeed at the point where the Anglican Church first became aware of its distinction from the Churches of Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch (Article XIX), it did so on the understanding that in everything which was necessary to salvation it (unlike those other Churches) did and taught nothing that should not be done and taught everywhere by everyone.

This was because the original use of the term ‘Anglican’ was not an ecclesiological distinction but a geographical one. The Prayer Book preface ‘Of Ceremonies, why Some be Abolished, and Some be Retained’ is quite specific on this: ‘And in these our doings we condemn no other Nations, nor prescribe any thing but to our own people only’ (emphasis added). Evangelicals of all people should know that at the Reformation, the specifically Anglican identity was confined to matters of ‘men’s ordinances’, not theological principles. Article XXXIV makes this abundantly clear:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. (Emphasis added)

Here, the limits and rationale of Anglicanism are clearly displayed. The limits are ‘Traditions and Ceremonies’ – such things which, as the Article continues, are ‘ordained only by man’s authority’. Hence we can use or abandon liturgical services, wear albs or don sloppy jumpers without thereby ceasing to be ‘Anglican’. The only Anglican principle involved would be to wait until such choices are duly authorized, (though there is, of course, a strong Anglican tradition of leading by example in such matters). And this liberty is possible because the Anglican rationale is cultural diversity: ‘countries, times and men’s manners’. Anglicans should do things a certain way because they are appropriate to the local culture, not because the locals are in some global sense ‘Anglicans’. When Anglicans exported their churchmanship across the world they ceased at that point to be ecclesiological Anglicans and became merely ecclesiological imperialists. If, however, we feel we have moved on (or rather away) from this principle, that should be honestly acknowledged, not hidden under a carpet of historical revisionism.


But an historical consideration of Anglican origins also renders the structures of the Church far less clear than Colin Craston seems to imagine. If, as Craston suggests, the basic unit of the Church is ‘a fellowship of local Churches in an area in communion with their bishop’, then Article XIX is clearly wrong in claiming that.

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The weakness of Craston’s ecclesiology, and the strength of Article XIX, lies in the word ‘visible’. The ecclesiology of the Prayer Book not deny any existence to the Church beyond the local congregation (the ‘Aunt Sally’ position pilloried by some and, unfortunately, adopted by others). What it carefully says is that the visible Church is the local congregation engaged in specific activities. There is, of course, a reality to the local Church when it is not congregating. But Craston’s ‘fellowship of Churches in an area in communion with their bishop’, whilst also real, is not visibly the Church because it simply never meets as an entirety to hear God’s word and receive his sacraments. We can hardly therefore claim that it is the basic unit of the Church in the sense of Article XIX. Moreover, Craston’s ecclesiology is in danger of making the bishop the head of the Church via his administrative rôle at the diocesan centre, whereas the Prayer Book makes Christ the head of the Church via his gracious and efficacious ministry in the physical congregation.


In any case, to be truly Anglican our ecclesiology must engage with what we might call ‘Cranmer’s Peculiar Principle’ – peculiar in the sense of belonging to him and not many other people apart from Henry VIII! As Diarmaid MacCulloch has shown, Cranmer believed that the Apostles ordained ministers in the Early Church only because there was no godly prince.1 Hence the earthly ‘head’ of the Church (later amended to the ‘supreme governor’) is not the archbishop but the monarch. If Cranmer’s ecclesiology is applied to Craston’s definition, the basic unit of the Church is the conglomeration of dioceses under the rule of the monarch. This is uniquely an Anglican understanding of the Church, yet I have seen no awareness of it whatsoever in contemporary Anglican discussions and definitions of episcopacy.

It does, however, provide an interesting sidelight on the relationship of the local Church with the bishop. Article XXIII, Of Ministering in the Congregation, says that the right of admission to this role belongs to ‘men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard’. But by whom is this authority given? Cranmer’s answer would be ‘By the monarch’. More than this, he ‘affirmed that ‘princes and governors’ had as much right as bishops to make a priest’!2 It is this uniquely Anglican concept which has made the Church of England the bizarrely Erastian body it is today, where every episcopal appointment is a hostage to the mood of the monarch’s Prime Minister. However, it also challenges other presumptions about the acceptable range of Anglican ecclesiologies, as can be seen when one traces its history.


In Reformation England, ordination was performed by bishops, but in Germany Luther had argued that the congregation could ordain its own minister. Hence, in a spirit of ecumenical compromise, the 1536 the Wittenberg Articles, drawn up between Anglicans and Lutherans, read as follows:

… we unanimously teach that nobody should teach or administer the sacraments publicly anywhere in Christendom without having been regularly called by those who have the right and power to call and ordain Church ministers.

Significantly, the Anglican Thirteen Articles of 1538 still left room for the Lutheran theology:

… we teach that no-one ought to teach publicly or administer the sacraments unless lawfully called by those in the Church who, according to the Word of God and the laws and customs of each country, have the right to call and ordain.

But even after the collapse of the Anglican-Lutheran dialogue, the final amendment to the Article in 1553 still left room for theological manoeuvre by a convoluted reference to those ‘who have public authority given unto them in the congregation, to call and send ministers into the Lord’s vineyard’. In England this meant bishops, but it is clear that the Articles do not preserve a view which saw bishops as being of the esse of the Church everywhere for everyone. It is, moreover, arguable (at least from an Evangelical perspective) that within the historical Anglican understanding of the Church a ‘rogue’ (or even a woman) bishop acts only as a proxy for the monarch in ordaining a minister.

However, what this also shows is that we must ask not just ‘What did Cranmer mean?’ but ‘If this is what Cranmer meant, was he right?’ And this reshapes our entire approach to Anglican ecclesiology. A course which, like that at Trinity, Bristol, encourages ‘a critical appreciation of the historic Church tradition’ cannot merely be descriptive of what Anglicans have done and taught. It must also be prescriptive, questioning not only whether they got it right then but, most crucially, whether we have got it right now. And within such a questioning framework, some apparently ‘un-Anglican’ answers may be possible.

John P Richardson

Senior Assistant Minister in the United Benefice of Henham (‘No Yoga Here’), Elsenham and Ugley


1. D MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, (London: Yale University Press, 1996) 278-279

2. Ibid, 279

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