Arthur Middleton on the impact and enduring relevance of Christopher Wordsworth’s influential work, Theophilus Anglicanus

In this column last month C.S. Lewis was cited as recommending the discipline of reading an old book after the reading of a new book. Here is one recommendation. In 1843 Christopher Wordsworth, who became Bishop of Lincoln in 1869, published Theophilus Anglicanus, which by 1886 went through fourteen editions, became the most widely influential of his books and can be found today in theological libraries and second-hand bookshops. It is subtitled ‘A Manual of instruction on the Church and the Anglican Branch of it’.

Meeting a need

Its initial aim was modest: to instruct Wordsworth’s pupils at Harrow in the elements of Church principles though he foresaw the possible importance of the work and invited two of the best churchmen of his day, Joshua Watson and his own father, the Master of Trinity College Cambridge, to revise the proofs. The book was greeted by a sonnet from the Poet Laureate and received the written sanction of Archbishop Howley of Canterbury. In 1861 a French translation was sent to all the French bishops among other eminent people and was reprinted in America with modifications as Theophilus Americanus.

In 1847 it was translated into modern Greek and in 1863 was printed in Italy as Il Teo~lo Cattolico in 1863.

Theophilus Anglicanus met a deeply-felt need of the time. The Oxford Movement had revived the importance of church principles and the Catholic identity of the Church of England, but in 1843 had met a setback with the secession to Rome of some of its most prominent men. Rome was regarded as the terminus ad quem of those men who contended for such principles found in the great Caroline divines. If such a notion was to be rebuffed such people would need to be thoroughly acquainted with the writings of the early Fathers and the great Anglican divines.

Nature and attributes

The book is divided into four parts in which he expresses his material in questions and answers. Part I¸ comprising sixteen chapters, lays the foundation of the nature and function of the Church in its attributes as visible and militant, invisible and triumphant with a dignity and glory and the salvation of the world as its mission. It bears the distinctive marks of being One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. It is the witness and keeper of the Word of God and charged with the right interpretation of that Word and the due administration of the Sacraments by a lawful threefold ministry of divine institution. In discipline it holds the Power of the Keys, Absolution and is privileged to exercise sacerdotal intercession, meaning that ministers are charged to pray to God for their people.

Part II, comprising nine chapters, is concerned to establish the Anglican Church in its origins and history as a legitimate part of the Catholic Church. These chapters discuss the pre-Augustine English Church, Augustine’s mission, the period between Augustine and the Reformation, the removal of what was new and the restoration of what was old at the Reformation and the uninterrupted succession of Holy Orders in the Church of England which has never separated itself from the Catholic Church.

Part III has seven chapters which discuss the Church in its civil relations and starts by defining Church and State and the duty of the State to profess and promote the true faith. The Church of England as the spiritual mother of Christians in the country is discussed, as is the place of the Royal Supremacy in ecclesiastical government. The final Part IV considers in two chapters the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England.

Antidote to the secular spirit

This discussion in Theophilus Anglicanus is set within the widest context of the Christian centuries and is packed with authoritative references to Scripture, early Fathers, Anglican divines and medieval authorities. Here is a credible tradition in which to think and to judge, because it is a collaborative achievement of coherent intellectual effort with a long history, still accessible, that confirms our own experience of what we have found and which we cannot do without.

Here we will find ourselves in an encounter with the cen tral Anglican tradition that can become an occasion for self-recognition and self-knowledge for what I now take to be true but in some measure what I have always taken to be true. It is our antidote to the rise of the secular spirit, a compass with which to navigate through the confusions of our time when Church history and ecclesiological principles are at a low premium. ND