Arthur Middleton looks at the Faith of the Anglican Communion

‘ … they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic Faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches’ Lambeth 1930.

The Constant

While the organization of any church is its most obvious feature, as Bishop William Wand pointed out, ‘the most important must assuredly be its faith.’ The Catholic faith of the Primitive church, the faith once for all delivered to the saints, summarized in the Regula Fidei or Scripture and the Creeds, is the doctrine of Anglicanism. She refuses to affirm as de fide any doctrine not so qualified in or by Scripture or the Primitive Church. Jewel affirmed in his Apologia, that ‘Scripture and the Primitive Church are the criteria by which the authenticity of a Church and the truth of its teaching are assessed’ and Bramhall claimed that the Church of England was not ‘a new Church, a new Religion, or new Holy Orders’. This constant of the Anglican spirit is found in different shapes from the sixteenth century onwards.


Anglican distinctiveness derives from theological method, not content, and emerged with Archbishop Parker’s theological interpretation of the Elizabethan Settlement in the 1571 Thirty-Nine Articles, The Second Book of Homilies and the ‘Canon of Preaching’. Rooted doctrinally in Scripture and antiquity, we find this method in the works of Anglican divines and our formularies. Richard Hooker articulated it in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Michael Ramsey describes its spirit as ‘… doing theology to the sound of church bells’ to stress the essential connection between theology, doctrine and Christian worship. The Book of Common Prayer is as much about a way of doing theology as about liturgy, lex orandi est lex credendi, and as Athanasius’s theology cannot be understood apart from the liturgy of Bishop Serapion, so Anglicanism cannot be understood apart from The Book of Common Prayer.

For Hooker God’s revelation in Christ and the Church, the Whole Christ, is authoritative, but the language in which it is expressed is not infallible. In essence it is rational but mysterious, defying exact definition. Lancelot Andrewes put it succinctly, ‘One canon … two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of the Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.’

Divine Revelation

This cannot deny God’s presence in creation. CS Lewis noted that Hooker’s universe was ‘drenched with Deity’, and the implications of the divine presence in his world keeps together things that can easily be set in opposition: ‘… reason as well as revelation, nature as well as grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally though diversely ‘of God’ … all kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences and disciplines … we meet in all levels the divine wisdom shining out through ‘the beautiful variety of things’ in ‘their manifold and yet harmonious similitude’ … ‘This divine presence is one in revelation and nature, consistent and reasonable, in revelation bringing to a climax what God does in nature and in nature giving us the clue to revelation, because ‘The Word’ that ‘became flesh …’ is the Word or Logos at work in all creation. So the Incarnation becomes central and primary to Anglican theology.

Scripture, Tradition, Reason

Michael Ramsey claimed that it was the nature of Elizabethan theology rather than imitation of Hooker in the style of Lutherans to Luther or Calvinists to Calvin, that made it possible to appeal creatively to Scripture and tradition and it must remain so today. Scripture is the supreme authority because it contains all things necessary to salvation, but not as regulations for everything in the Church’s life, which has authority to decree rites and ceremonies. Our Formularies affirm the Old Testament revealing Christ by pointing to him and the New Testament revealing Christ fulfilling what is foreshadowed in the Old. The Bible is about God’s saving work and self-revelation through law and prophets, Christ being the head and climax.

Scripture became the self-evident basis but because the Bible without the Church becomes a mere collection of ancient documents, Scriptural interpretation depends on the appeal to antiquity as mutually inclusive. Anglicanism maintained the Catholic notion of a perfect union between the Church and Scripture in that the Church’s authority is not distinct from that of Scripture but rather that they are one. Anglican divinity has an ecclesial context in which the Church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence or from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its Catholic fullness that has its roots in the Primitive Church. This appeal is not merely to history but to a charismatic principle, tradition, which together with Scripture contains the truth of divine revelation, a truth that lives in the Church. In this spirit Anglican divines looked to the Fathers as interpreters of Scripture. The 1571 Canons authorize preachers to preach nothing but what is found in Holy Scripture and what the ancient Fathers have collected from the same, ensuring that the interpretation of Scripture is consistent with what Christians have believed always, everywhere and by all.

The third feature in this theological method is the appeal to reason. In creation God reveals himself as the principle of rationality, purpose and unity, described as the divine Logos, that informs our consciences and minds enabling us to perceive purpose and order in the universe. Such knowledge requires revelation to complete it and redemption to cleanse and free the heart and mind from things that inhibit and corrupt us. It is an appeal within the context of the appeal to Scripture and antiquity. Unbalancing in one direction degenerates into the ghetto mentality of either Scripturalism, or Traditionalism, or Liberalism.

The fashionable addition of experience is unnecessary because Tradition enfolds past and present, and embraces as its source and power the contemporaneity of the Gospel through which the true character of present experience is refracted and thereby critically evaluated. It is a way of looking at and experiencing the world; but with the kingdom of God, the sui generis experience of the Church and not the world as the ultimate term of reference.


In The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Michael Ramsey shows that the form of the ministry, the canon of Scripture and the form of the creeds work interdependently towards a two-fold continuing objective. That objective is to maintain the Church in the truth of the faith once for all delivered and to help members of the Church to express the fullness of membership in and for the world. Ramsey then leads straight into what might be called a first distinguishing feature of Anglicanism as he relates the Anglican stress on the once-for-all character of the Gospel to the question of developments. Developments took place, but they were all tested.

But it must be a development from the facts of revelation and not away from them. Otherwise we would not have the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity, which facts are part of the revelation. The criteria for such development must be Scripture or Tradition conformable to Scripture otherwise we will end up with what Bishop Hanson described as a ‘virtual, uncontrolled doctrinal space-flight’. This ensures that the Christian message remains unchangeable, but also that it is understood by those to whom it is sent by God as it answers new questions posed by new generations. This saves it from the deadness of traditionalism, for its concern is to allow tradition to live as a living process of transmission as it makes Scripture available and understandable to a changing and imperfect world. Treating problems in isolation from tradition by simplistic references to Scripture may lead to error. ‘Neither may we in this case lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgement of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole Church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe’ (Hooker, V vii 1).

For Michael Ramsey the tests of true development are whether it bears witness to the Gospel, whether it expresses the general consciousness of Christians, and whether it serves the organic unity of the Body in all its parts. These tests are summed up in the Scriptures, wherein the historical gospel and the development of the redeemed and the nature of the one Body are described. So the Scriptures have a special authority to control and check the whole field of development in life and doctrine. This is going to be much harder to maintain when the argument from Scripture and Tradition has been so publicly abandoned in parts of the Anglican Communion.

Anglican Divines

This threefold appeal is found in the Reformers and in divines after Hooker; Andrewes, Laud, Hammond, Thorndike and Taylor to name a few. An ecclesiastical use of antiquity and reason is found in Daniel Waterland, to defend the scriptural doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation against Deists and English Arians in the eighteenth century. Evangelicals like Venn and Simeon emphasized personal experience and commitment to Christ, but held the doctrines contained in the Articles, Prayer Book and Homilies, as did the Cambridge Platonists and Bishop Butler in their concern for a reasonable faith. Evangelicals enriched the Oxford Movement when heirs from Evangelical homes became leading Tractarians. The nineteenth-century scientific undermining of Christianity found this threefold appeal able to respond to and absorb scientific method and historical criticism.

This spirit continued where the Incarnation became central, from Westcott, Gore and the Lux Mundi school to William Temple, as they illustrated the presence of the divine Logos to pinpoint the unique revelation of God in Christ as the keystone of a continuous divine activity in creation, in nature, history, culture and civilization. The doctrine of the One Person and Two Natures of Christ defined by the Council of Chalcedon has had a continuous influence. Our understanding of eucharistic sacrifice and sacramental presence have been enhanced, and the doctrine of the communion of saints seen to be about the living and departed as one fellowship of common prayer and praise rather than in terms of mediation.

Reading from the Inside

Nicholas Lossky’s advice to an Orthodox exploring Anglicanism is to read it ‘from the inside’ in the works of Anglican divines, The Book of Common Prayer, and The English Hymnal, and not only in Formularies. Here the living tradition of Anglicanism lies hidden rather than in statements described as corporate acts of the whole Church.

Today’s Anglican will grasp its spirit by suspending most of the responses and unlearning most of the habits of the modern mind that have created the great gulf between this and all preceding ages. As we do not translate Shakespeare into modern English in order to understand him, so in these divines there is no easy process of changing the images. Tampering with their particular expressions will only result in losing the substance of what they are saying because, as Ian Ramsey claimed, such images are disclosure models, specific images with a depth of meaning that develop an understanding of what is presented in several directions at once. They ‘are rooted in disclosures and born in insight’, and hold together two things in such a way that thought about one produces some understanding in depth of the other.

Anglican divines use the language and imagery of patristic theology because the poetic vision of these Fathers could only be expressed as they, in fact, expressed it. When these divines are allowed to speak in their own language there is no substitute for reading what they say as they say it, not as mere relics of the past but as living witnesses and contemporaries with us, so that what constitutes the essential feature of these divines, their charismatic life in the Church, can continue to live in the apostolic tradition they have received.

Arthur Middleton is tutor at St Chad’s Durham, a writer and retreat conductor