Arthur Middleton considers the influence of the divines


In the July edition, Fr Andy Hawes’ letter made a request that the Society lay claim to the orthodoxy that is at the heart of the Anglican patrimony. This was the inspiration of the Tractarians which they received from Richard Hooker and the Anglican divines of the 17th century.

Professor Owen Chadwick wrote: ‘If High Churchmen of that age like Bramhall or Thorndike had been asked what led them not to compromise, they would have replied that their paramount duty is to the Catholic Church, their subordinate 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 primitive 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.”‘

Chadwick continues: ‘The argument… represents a contention which has survived the centuries and must still be reckoned with. Any act which divides Anglicanism from the universal Church of the centuries is to be rejected, 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. The question whether there are sufficient ambiguities or exceptions in the Episcopal practice of the ancient Church to warrant modern exceptions, Thorndike answered with a vigorous “No.”‘

We are where we are because of another kind of battle that would make us captive to a sociological reductionism as the interpretative principle of Anglicanism. This uses political correctness to reinterpret the Bible and apostolic faith and order. It is a secularism that stalks the Church and would reduce Christian faith and life to a respectable secular humanism. It wants to set the agenda for the Anglican Communion and dresses it in Christian language. It is what I call genetically modified theology, and like genetically modified crops we cannot tell where it will lead us, as sight is lost of where we have come from. In a time like this, it is crucial that we know what the patrimony of Anglicanism is, as the great theologians of our Anglican tradition did.

The catholic faith of the primitive Church—the faith once for all delivered to the saints, summarized in the Rule of Faith or scripture and the creeds—is the doctrine of Anglicanism. She refuses to affirm as ‘of the faith’ 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 John 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.

This derives from theological method not content and emerged with Archbishop Parker’s theological interpretation of the Elizabethan Settlement in the 1572 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 credenda, which means that the Rule of Prayer governs the Rule of Belief; 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.’

This cannot deny God’s presence in creation. C.S. 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, creation and redemption, consistent and reasonable. In revelation it brings to a climax what God does in nature and in nature it gives 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. We see this appreciation of the natural world in those great poets of our Anglican tradition—George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, John Keble, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas—who discerned God’s presence in his creation. The Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes are sensitive to this same divine presence in the natural world. It is a direct consequence of their embracing of a profound sacramentality that the incarnation implies and is so often lacking in theologies where the incarnation is not central.

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 creatively appeal 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. The Bible and the Church must be dancing partners and where the one is detached from the other it leads to an uncontrollable doctrinal space-flight. Anglicanism maintained the catholic notion of a perfect union between scripture and tradition or 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. So, scripture and tradition or the Church are the first two features of our patrimony.

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 and the sui generis experience of the church, and not the world, as the ultimate term of reference.

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 19th 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.

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. It requires sympathetically reading the other’s experience with total readiness to put one’s own ‘traditional’ formulations in question with absolute confidence in the indestructibility of truth. The writings of the divine, the hymn, the prayer give commentary to the formulations, a definition of certain terms lacking in them and generally yield an impression of Anglican spirituality and doctrine. 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 way 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.


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Canon Arthur Middleton FRHistS is an honorary fellow

of St Chads College, Durham.