As an Anglican, I am often compelled to ask myself: what is distinctive about Anglican belief? Put a little more bluntly, is there such a thing as “Anglican doctrine”? After all, Christianity’s third-largest communion boasts no “founding theologian,” no Calvin or Luther, not even an Aquinas who has recapitulated the tenets of the faith in a massive tome. It has no Magisterium, no official body tasked with interpreting tradition and passing on authoritative teachings. Indeed, it has no formal confession of faith, such as those that pepper the annals of churches of the Reformed persuasion. To be sure, there are the venerable Thirty-Nine Articles, but those formularies are less a positive statement of doctrine—with the exception of those things believed “everywhere, always, and by all”—than they are an infant church’s argument for why it was neither Catholic nor Calvinist.
Neither Catholic nor Calvinist (or maybe both/and): this is precisely the via media, the intermediate ground, as it were, that has always been the defining feature, the blessing and the curse, of the Anglican tradition. The vagueness of this formulation has allowed for the incredible diversity of theological expression found within Anglicanism, which spans the gap between Rome and Geneva—the high-church worship of the Mass and the low-church worship of the evangelical praise band; the sacramentalism of the Catholics and the iconoclasm of the Reformers; the creeds of the early church and the postmodern blather of the twentieth-century liberal church; the Arminianism of John Wesley and yes, even the tempered Calvinism of J. I. Packer. But the broadness of the via media comes with a certain lack of focus. After the spectrum is surveyed, the question remains: what is distinctive about Anglican doctrine?
Let’s put one thing to rest at the outset. The Anglican church is a church that is indeed guided by doctrine. It is not solely the child of Henry VIII’s political machinations, born out of hatred for the pope and Catherine of Aragon. A theological robustness was present at the very beginning and has been present ever since.
An excellent case can be made for the Book of Common Prayer itself as being that foundation which marks the particular doctrine of the Anglican church. This squares with Anglicanism’s strong adherence to the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi—“the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” Anglicans take it as a fact that the postures and rituals of the liturgy profoundly inform the content of our faith. And when we look at what that content is, we see (or more accurately, hear) Scripture itself, beautifully expressed, memorably supplemented by Thomas Cranmer’s exact words and mellifluous phrases.
If I were to hold up another possible foundation of Anglican doctrine, it might be its sacramental understanding of life. Of course, this is also not so distinctive, as our Catholic and Orthodox brothers would take pleasure in reminding us. And the way that Anglicans tend to formulate this truth hearkens back to St. Augustine—a sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” But something in the way this plays out in Anglican life seems unique. Unsaddled with the weight of Aristotelian metaphysics, the sacramental life breathes the lightness and immediacy of the Spirit. It quickens all facets of existence, combining the Roman exclusivity of the sacred with the Reformed inclusivity of the mundane.
However, rather than engage in general theory, I think the best way to approach Anglican doctrine is through the words and lives of the particular men and women who have shaped it. By studying in close-up the times, contexts, controversies, and beliefs of Anglicans themselves, we can reach a better understanding of what Anglicanism is as a whole. My hunch is that a distinctive Anglican doctrine will begin to take shape after such an exercise.
So, without further ado, I would like to initiate a new series for this blog, one which will attempt to do just that. We will explore the lives and beliefs of Anglican divines of all stripes—bishops, theologians, philosophers, artists, musicians, workers—who have contributed to the body of Anglican thought, plotting the course of Anglican doctrine on the way. We’ll call it “Common Saints,” which evokes both Cranmer’s prayer book and the remarkable nature of the priesthood of all believers. We hope you join us on the journey.
> Read the first entry in the series: Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer