Arthur Middleton on the Anglican quest for unity


In January another week of prayer for Christian unity is promoted, and we are urged to pray for the unity of the universal Church. Previous generations of Anglican divines had a great respect for the universal Church and were careful not to promote fashionable innovations that would cause further disunity.



Professor Owen Chadwick wrote of Anglican divines in the seventeenth century (‘Preface’, From Uniformity to Unity 1662–1962, SPCK, London 1962):

‘if High Churchmen of that age like Bramhall or Thorndike had been asked what led them not to compromise, they would have replied in terms like the following: ‘Our paramount duty is to the Catholic Church; our sub  ordinate and derivative duty is to the Church of England as the representative of the Catholic Church in this country. The Catholic Church is known by its faithfulness to the primi  tive model. The Church of England has no choice but to follow that model, must seek to apply the principle rigorously and exactly’.’

‘I am satisfied’, wrote Thorndike in 1660, ‘that the differences, upon which we are divided, cannot be justly settled upon any terms, which any part of the Whole Church shall have just cause to refuse, as inconsistent with the unity of the Whole Church’ (‘The Due Way of Composing Differences on Foot,’ Works, vol. 5).   


The Primitive Church

Chadwick went on to say that any act which divides the Church of England from the universal Church of the centuries is to be eschewed, even if that act offers temporary or local advantage; and the test of universality, in this sad, divided state of Christendom, may be found in appeal to the ancient and undivided Church of the first centuries.

It has always been the Anglican claim that in faith and order the Anglican Communion is continuous in identity with the Primitive Church. The principle was set forth by Bishop Jewel, one of the earliest Anglican apologists in the sixteenth century (Defence of the Apology, 1567, Works (Parker Society), pt III, p. 100; McAdoo, Being an Anglican, p. 10).


Test of a true development

Anglicans have continuously insisted that the Primitive Church of the undivided centuries is a doctrinal model. ‘We are willing to own this for a true mark of the Church’, wrote William Payne, ‘its agreeing with the doctrine of the Primitive Church’ (cited by More and Cross in Anglicanism, SPCK 1951, p. 140). This basic concept is formulated in Jude 3: ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’, and is expressed in the Church of England’s Canon A5. This is forma  tive for Anglicanism and it means that the content of faith cannot be changed by addition or omission, though each generation needs to develop into a deeper understanding of it and to express it in the idiom of its own time.

The tests of a true development are whether it bears witness to the Gospel, whether it expresses the general consciousness of the Christians, and whether it serves the organic unity of the Body in all its parts.

The innovations of General Synod in ignoring the claims of the universal Church have compromised the Church of England in a way that previous generations of Anglicans would not have done.