The crisis of Anglican identity and authority

The Anglican Communion is not unfamiliar with impact of postmodernism and the cultural accretions that have devalued the kerygmatic authority of the twin pillars of word and sacrament upon which its worship is built. Like any other segment of the Christian community, it is susceptible to the individualism that reinvents these encounters with revelation and mystery as accommodations to self-affirming spirituality. And its people, perhaps especially in the evangelically-minded Anglican Mission, are often tempted by the inwardly-focused and potentially self-absorbed spirituality characteristic of so many ‘seeker-sensitive’ models for worship, discipleship, and evangelism.

Anglicans are also acquainted with controversy, theological and otherwise, and have become expert at holding together tensions of various kinds while preserving communion. This famous Anglican method, often celebrated as a communion-preserving via media, is now viewed by many as an insipid failure to define and live by any sort of biblical and doctrinal authority. As much as Anglican worship, theology, and practice may be well-grounded in biblical and historical tradition and informed by reason and experience, the standards by which one might measure any sort of Anglican orthodoxy or orthopraxis have themselves become blurred. The ever-shifting political questions of the relationship between provinces, alignments on one side or another of various issues, and the very serious and central problem of defining the source and nature of authority in the Anglican world have called into question the essence of Anglicanism and any claims to unity among its adherents.

To posit any uniform Anglican sacramental theology or to assume any common spiritual maturity among the people in any expression of the Anglican Communion would be foolish. The Anglican Mission has staked its doctrinal claims as clearly as any conservative Anglican organization. Yet the self-conscious inclusion of “…evangelical, anglo-catholic and charismatic influences, like three streams flowing together as one river in Jesus Christ” leads to some measure of ambiguity in liturgical convention with plenty of disagreement over the choice of prayer books and ongoing discussion over the whether the true face of Anglicanism is or should be reformed, anglo-catholic, or something else entirely.(1) And with the wonderful appearance of so many in the Mission who have traveled these same three streams, and others, from traditions outside Anglicanism, the three are really many more.

These deep questions about an Anglican identity and spirituality make any attempt to engage in the effective spiritual formation of Anglicans that will prepare them to become a missional presence in any community difficult. Nearly every Anglican pundit, from the theologian to the episcopal leader to the person in the pew, will admit to the fact that something is terribly wrong, that “Anglicanism is undergoing severe rending, and American Anglicanism is at the heart of it in a negative way,” as the Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Murphy so directly stated in a recent email. What really needs to be done, as Dr. Murphy continued to advise, before we can embark on any constructive reformation of a distinctively Anglican model for spiritual formation, is “to identify what is amiss in contemporary American Anglican spirituality.”(2)

To what then do we turn to establish the standard against which contemporary Anglican spirituality is measured and from which we could draw to establish a new vision for the Anglican Communion and its churches, old and new? What is the essence of Anglicanism to which we must appeal to quiet the controversy and reestablish what it means to engage in the mission of Christ? Rather perceptively, Sykes, Booty, and Knight, in their extensive Study of Anglicanism summarize the problem this way:

One approach to the question of the essence of Anglicanism is to look at various formulations of Anglican self-definition through the centuries…. Anglican exercises in self-definition fall broadly into two categories: those that focus on the material ingredients of the Anglican synthesis—Scripture, tradition, reason and so on—and those that claim a distinctive method, ethos or praxis for the Anglican way. Those in the first category hark back to the formation of Anglicanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Between the English Reformation and the Oxford Movement there was a consensus as to the identity of Anglicanism as a reformed church confessing with all the Reformers the supreme authority of Scripture, justification by faith, the legitimate role of the laity (embodied in the sovereign and parliament) in the government of the church, and a particular national and regional identity. Those in the second category of Anglican self-identity—the appeal to an elusive ethos—belong to the period since the Oxford movement, for the radical Tractarians successfully challenged this consensus by asserting the authority of tradition (“The Church to teach, the Bible to prove”), compromising the forensic doctrine of justification by faith with the notion of justification by infused sacramental grace, clericalizing the government of the church and repudiating the partnership between church and a now partly secularized state.(3)

A vague notion of “a tacit consensus residing in a common ethos,” which Sykes, Booty, and Knight characterize as “a post factum accommodation of the demise of doctrinal accord within the church,” is a rather unsatisfactory basis on which to establish any kind of Anglican orthodoxy. It is equally inadequate as a foundation on which to build any kind of positive, biblically grounded, and culturally impactive method for discipling new and lifetime Anglicans alike into the likeness and mission of Christ. Such an ambiguous “conceptual construction, a pragmatic adjustment to the facts of history” leaves us with nothing in which to anchor any inquiry or justification, theological or otherwise, for one particular approach over another.(4) If indeed such a consensus really lies in the via media between a catholic and reformed vision of the Anglican church, two obvious polarities coexisting within contemporary Anglicanism, the question remains where to turn for answers to the theological questions which must undergird both choices of praxis and content in preaching and teaching with “weight and substance.”(5) The vague notion of balance, inclusion, and middle ways is of little help navigating the pressures of practical issues in the church, and the odd result appears to be increased polarization over a variety of issues.

All shades of Anglican churchmanship can be found subscribing to the view that the Anglican faith is both catholic and reformed at the same time hospitable to intellectual inquiry. But the conclusions that they draw from this commitment are rather different. To some this threefold appeal will mean ordaining women; to others, not on any account doing so. To some it will follow that there is no logical obstacle to intercommunion with, say, Lutherans; to others, no such conclusion follows. To some it will entail adopting a tolerant attitude to doctrinal radicals within the Church; to others, this would be betrayal. This paradoxical situation might well lead us to ask whether the distinctiveness of Anglicanism lies not in the ingredients—which are not unique to Anglicanism—but in the nature of the mixture.(6)

The mixture itself, Paul Zahl argues, has the “deliberate fuzziness” of a form of liberal Catholicism that has the appearance and effect of a “wax nose.” The resulting “church of incarnation, synthesis, and Englishness strangely attaches the same degree of importance that our forbears,” whom Zahl argues were irrepressibly Protestant, “once attached to issues like atonement and justification, to issues of liturgical correctness, not to mention political issues from the world’s ever-changing store.”(7) “What is left of the identity of Anglicanism?” Zahl asks.

Is Paul Avis right to describe the present situation as a “nerveless failure to grapple with Christian truth systematically?”(*) Or is it really ‘pragmatism’ that defines the Anglican way? Or do we wish to punt back, with O. C. Edwards, to the Prayer Book?(**) That is a particularly shaky move now, as the Prayer Book has undergone frequent revision since achieving its definitive form, in England at least, in 1662. Moreover, revision of the Prayer Book has proliferated in many provinces of the Communion. It is now, without doubt, impossible to answer any given question concerning Anglicanism by answering it with the question that used to be able to settle almost everything: What does the Prayer Book say about this?!


(*)See his “What is ‘Anglicanism’?” p. 422.
(**)O. C. Edwards quotes Roger Lord approvingly in his essay “Anglican Pastoral Tradition,” in The Study of Anglicanism, p.342: “It is in the Prayer Book that we find the heart of Anglicanism laid bare.” (8)

Lex orandi lex credendi, or praying shapes believing, may well be another characteristic of the elusive Anglican ethos, as Leonel Mitchell also recognizes. Yet if the alterations in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were for American Episcopalians, as he posits, “a readjustment of the language of our relationship with God” which therefore “affected that relationship itself,” then appeals to the prayer book become even more tenuous for those who recognize and are wary of the changes.(9) Prayer book alterations are indeed the focus of many suspicions by those, like members and leaders in the Anglican Mission, who recognize and value the formative impact of worship and who are aware that changes in the structure and content of the liturgy will affect the spiritual experience of the community with potentially disastrous results. Those critical of the Episcopal Church have, in my experience, often cited changes to the Book of Common Prayer as both cause and evidence of the demise of truth and spiritual health in the American expression of Anglicanism and are quick to restore the form and content of older editions as the basis for worship and doctrine.

The need appears to be for a new standard for orthodoxy and orthopraxis in Anglicanism, one that delivers Anglican spirituality from this quagmire of doctrinal fuzziness. We need a vision that offers a basis for identity and mission through which new efforts, local, regional, and global, can find justification and theological foundation as being consistent with that which is both uniquely Anglican and yet firmly at the center of all that Christ is doing through his Church worldwide.

The question remains as to where to turn to find such a standard. For many, the answer lies in the past, in a possibly romanticized era or personality from Anglican history.

Some who would agree would point to the 17th century as the golden age of Anglicanism, and utilize, often uncritically I am afraid, its liturgical and pastoral resources, for a new standard in Anglicanism. Others would rightly critique the Arminian and even Pelagian strains in that period, and perhaps head in a different direction to secure a contemporary Reformed understanding of Cranmer as the real Anglican standard.(10)

And yet as valuable as the fullness of our past is and will be to the establishment of a new Anglican ethos, I agree with Dr. Murphy that, “neither of those approaches is appropriate.” Any appeal to a ‘Golden Age of Anglicanism,’ the substance of which is likely to have relevance to the issues facing the contemporary church to varying degrees, is more than likely to fall to one side or another of the arguments that persist already in the Anglican Communion that have resulted in the struggle in which we find ourselves.(11)

Not that it is impossible to define a new Anglican ethos or speak in terms of orthodoxy within the Anglican Communion, but the fluidity of the current Anglican landscape means any such endeavor must be aware of the limitations of relying on any particular expression of our Anglican past or being satisfied with vague notions the preservation of a diverse, even divided, ‘Communion’. The chaotic nature of contemporary Anglicanism creates the urgency to equip local communities with the means to choose and grow into forms of worship, spirituality, and mission that remain true to our heritage and to Christ and his gospel, even as we respond to threats to each from within. The chaos also points to the inadequacy of our own resources, Reformed or Tractarian, Protestant or Catholic, to bring resolution. In one sense, the open question about how to identify an Anglican orthodoxy releases us to look to sources outside ourselves, including ecumenical dialog with Orthodox, Catholic, and other Protestant communities, and encourages us to retrace assumed influences in our deeper past, many of which are shared with these other traditions, such as the liturgical catechesis of the catechumenal and mystagogical methods of the early church.

I think the Anglican approach to the erosion of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in our own midst is precisely not to rely on our own resources. Thus, believing Anglicanism to be simply the Church in the British Isles and thus carried to various parts of the world, I would seek to restore Anglicanism on the basis of Scripture, the Fathers, and the best theology of the Church, understanding that the Church of the British Isles is a Reformed Church and so not discounting or shortshrifting the Reformation but not isolating ourselves in the sixteenth century. In this way, I critique contemporary Episcopalianism as gnosticism with particular reference to the Fathers, and I would utilize all the sources you are [using] for an appropriate sacramental formation. At the same time, I would do so with an English Reformation understanding of the gospel, Scripture, justification, and the Church, embracing the 39 Articles, but recognizing that they fail to speak to our day by understandable omission and perhaps, emphasis.(12)

The crisis of identity and authority in the Anglican Communion has had a negative impact on the spiritual integrity of many who remain in its more liberal and socially progressive expressions, such as the American Episcopal church. It has led to painful rendings of local communities and the heart-wrenching exit of many from churches of which they’ve been a part for generations. The resulting emergence of a conservative, evangelical presence in Anglicanism has led inescapably to an encounter with the culturally astute and conditioned movements within American evangelicalism in general. It has also introduced occasions for the indiscriminate adoption of tendencies toward inward and self-affirming spirituality. Both create the necessity and opportunity to rediscover the best in Anglican spirituality and Christian orthodoxy in general, asking honest and challenging questions about Christian identity, experience, worship, and formation. Dr. Murphy’s caution, “that the move to appropriate teaching of the rest of the Church is a particularly Anglican trait, which if it results in, say, conversion to Orthodoxy, Rome, or evangelicalism, misses the point altogether” is well-advised. The goal is not to redefine Anglicanism to be something else entirely, but to have it join the entire Christian community in asking of its Lord and itself what it should be in this age, even as it retains and contributes the best of what Anglicanism has to offer.

I think one might restore valid Anglican spirituality in America through the benefit of teaching and instruction from other parts of the Church, historical and contemporary. If you follow me in all this, I think you should be able to substitute ‘Church’ for ‘Anglican’ and have it mean the same. In my estimation, that’s Anglicanism.(13)

What he describes is a daunting task and in its fullness is well beyond the scope of this project. And yet even as the Anglican Communion continues to struggle on this side of that vision and faces the long, arduous task of rediscovering and reforming itself, hopefully along the lines Dr. Murphy suggests, our new community can participate humbly in the process. To the struggle over present issues, liturgical, doctrinal, and moral, we can add open and honest dialog with our brothers and sisters in other traditions and an exploration of our common past and common challenges as we take our place as Anglicans in Christ’s body and mission.

  1. Anglican Mission in the Americas, “What We Believe,” (, 9 September 2006).
  2. Murphy, “Re: Anglican Studies,” email.
  3. Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight, The Study of Anglicanism, revised ed. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1998), 464-465.
  4. Ibid., 465.
  5. Paul F. M. Zahl, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 40.
  6. Sykes, Booty, and Knight, The Study of Anglicanism, 468.
  7. Zahl, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, 40.
  8. Ibid., 39-40.
  9. Leonel L. Mitchel, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse Publishing, 1985), 1.
  10. Murphy, “Re: Anglican Studies,” email.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

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