The Church of England – Catholic or reformed?
Church Society met in May for its annual conference at High Leigh. The aim was to determine whether the fundamental nature of the CofE is Catholic (i.e. unreformed) or reformed. The speakers asked to tackle this subject were Roger Beckwith, former warden of Latimer House, Oxford; Lee Gatiss, associate minister of St Helen’s Bishopsgate; Angus MacLeay, rector of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks; and Paul Darlington, minister of Holy Trinity, Oswestry.
Roger Beckwith addressed the question historically. He explained that, although Anglo-Catholicism and liberalism had made inroads into the church in the last 150 years, the basis of the CofE was still reformed. At the time of the Reformation, Cranmer and the other Reformers had reformed the CofE’s formularies and prayer book with the help of such Continental reformers as Martin Bucer. The formularies were modelled on such continental Protestant confessions as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession.
He explained that the word ‘catholic’ meant ‘universal’ or ‘general’ and should not be confused with Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic – ‘catholic’ should describe those who hold the common biblical faith.
Since the CofE formularies acknowledge the ancient creeds (containing the word catholic) the CofE can claim to be both catholic (in the true sense of the word) and reformed. This contrasts with the Church of Rome which can be called neither catholic nor reformed, since it has distorted the catholic doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The first day closed with David Phillips leading an open session about why there are so few conservative evangelicals in positions of senior leadership in the CofE (two out of 270). David explained that there are barriers to senior positions because our views are considered too narrow and many evangelicals are put off by the administrative nature of these posts.
On day two, Lee Gatiss spoke about the life and times of Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778). Lee explained that as conservative evangelicals we need to rediscover our reformed heritage within the CofE, and that the life and writings of Toplady can help us do this.
Toplady was born in 1740 during the eighteenth century evangelical revivals. Through the reading of Manton and Jerome Zanchius, he became a thorough Calvinist and staunch defender of Calvinism in the church.
In 1769 he published The doctrine of absolute Predestination stated and asserted (a translation of Zanchius’ work) and disputed with Arminians (including John Wesley). In 1774 he published The historic proof of the doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England.
Interestingly, he proved his hypotheses not by arguing from the 39 Articles, Book of Common Prayer or Homilies but by providing a historical overview of what the early Church Fathers, Reformers and CofE clergy had taught over the centuries. This showed decisively that Arminianism is not Anglican. According to J. C. Ryle, Toplady’s work was ‘unanswered and unanswerable’.
Lee then applied this to our current situation. We have a good heritage in the CofE and although the situation has been bad in the past the gospel is still the power of God for salvation. The mess we see in society can be cleaned up as it was in the eighteenth century.
We need to pray for revival and evangelise passionately, not just in the cities but also in rural areas (as the eighteenth century evangelists did). We shouldn’t be surprised by opposition from within the church, including when ‘Open evangelicals’ or ‘evangelical’ bishops attack our doctrine.
On day three, Paul Darlington explained what it was like to be an evangelical ministering in a parish which had previously been Anglo-Catholic. Paul spoke of the challenges he had faced over the four years since he arrived and the progress that had been made in teaching the congregation the gospel of grace.
He concluded with a reminder that across the country there are thousands of ‘lost sheep’ sitting in congregations week by week who need to hear the gospel. In between these talks Angus MacLeay gave three expositions from Habakkuk.
The conference was a great encouragement as we were reminded of the reformed nature of the CofE and how God has acted in the past to establish, protect and revive it. We were also encouraged because there are still good opportunities for conservative evangelical ministry within it today.