What do Anglicans Believe? – A review.

  1. What are the purpose and contents of  What do Anglicans Believe?

What do Anglicans believe? [1] is a study guide to Christian doctrine which has been produced by:

‘… members of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) working in partnership with the Anglican Communion’s department of Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC)’ (p.5)

According to its Introduction, it is intended to provide:

‘… a concise and well-grounded introduction to Christian doctrine….for use in home groups, study programmes, seminaries and theological colleges across the Anglican Communion.’  (p.5)

The guide is based on the statements about doctrine which have been agreed between Anglican churches and churches of other traditions in recent years and which ‘create a broad and rich map of the Christian faith as it has been received and handed on by these churches.’ (p.5).

Following the Introduction, the guide consists of three chapters

Chapter one, ‘What is doctrine?’  ‘looks at the nature of doctrine in general, introducing its place within discipleship and mission as a whole’ (p.5)

Chapter two,  ‘What is the Doctrine of the Creeds?’  looks at the Nicene Creed ‘using a recent and widely welcomed ecumenical text that unpacks and applies its meaning for today.’ (p.5)

Finally, chapter three, ‘What is the Church?’  looks at the doctrine of the Church:

‘…drawing on a rich selection of Anglican and ecumenical ecclesiological statements, to approach this topical and important subject from a number of directions, also touching on the nature of the sacraments.’ (p.6)

To help its readers to not only understand the material in the guide, but also to think how it applies in their own contexts, the guide adopts what it calls a ‘See-Judge-Act’ (p.6)  approach to learning.

This three step approach begins by seeing ‘the situation in which we find ourselves’ (p.6) . In relation to doctrine this means asking about ‘the current role of doctrine (or specific doctrines) in the life of our church (whether local or regional), who is involved in that role, and what effects does it have.’ (p.6)

The second step (judging) involves:

 ‘… learning from authorities such as scripture, church teaching and scholarship, and comparing and contrasting what is currently the cases in our context with what could and should be he case.’ (p.6)  

In relation to doctrine this means:

‘… reading and learning from authoritative ecumenical and Anglican statements, on the meaning and place of doctrine and specific doctrines in the life of the Church, and then reflecting on how the situation uncovered by the first step is positively critiqued by this.’ (pp.6-7)

The third step (acting) is about ‘deciding how in practice we are going to bridge the gap between what is happening and what should be happening.’ (p.7) In relation to doctrine this means:

‘deciding how doctrine general, and specific doctrines, should play a more contextually authentic and inspiring role in our worship, mission and discipleship, and then resolving to make these changes.’ (p.7)

Chapter one of the guide locates doctrine in the context of Christian discipleship, declaring that doctrine enables Christians ‘to grow in understanding and ownership of their faith’ (p.10) so that they can ‘communicate it in inspiring ways to others.’ (p.10)

It goes on to argue that doctrine emerged from the theological differences that existed in the Early Church. These differences led to the calling of the ‘Ecumenical Councils’ and the ‘conclusions of the first four of these councils’ on matters such as the humanity and divinity of Christ and the Trinitarian nature of God ‘are held to be authoritative doctrine by most historic churches’ (p.11).

Doctrines came to be seen as authoritative through a ‘two way process of offering and receiving’ which eventually resulted in the existence of a corpus of ‘authoritative teaching’ (p.12)  

In recent years the ecumenical movement, and particularly the Faith and Order movement ‘has re-invigorated the process of churches exploring doctrine together ‘ (p.12). This has taken place through both bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogues. Such dialogue is helpful because it helps churches ‘to sharpen and clarify what they believe, and to find how best to express this, together learning and growing in the life to which God calls us.’ (p.14)

Ecumenical agreements about doctrine such as the Joint Declaration of Justification have been helpful in setting out the different approaches taken by different churches and in ‘overcoming misunderstandings and disagreements of the past’ by clarifying where churches ‘have used different language to express matters on which they agree in substance’ (p.15)

Finally, the chapter notes that different periods of history ‘require new ways of understanding and expressing the faith.’ (p.16)

In the chapter all the points noted above are supported by quotations from ecumenical documents. For example, the last point is supported by quotations from the Anglican-Reformed statement God’s reign and our unity  and the Roman Catholic-WCC joint report Notions of hierarchy of Truth – An Ecumenical Interpretation.

Each section of the chapter is followed by questions for group discussion. For example, the section on the importance of news ways of understanding and expressing the faith is followed by the questions   ‘In your experience have encounters with other churches made you change your understanding of certain doctrines? Has this been enriching? How could it be encouraged?’ (p.17)

Chapter two recommends studying the doctrines of the Christian faith by looking at the WCC text  Confessing the One Faith: An Ecumenical Explication of the Apostolic Faith as it is Confessed in the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed (381). It suggests a ten session study of this text employing the seeing, judging, and acting approach set out in the introduction.

Chapter three looks in turn at the calling of the Church and at the four credal marks of the Church (its unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity). It then looks at the place of the sacraments on the life of the Church and at what is involved in communion between churches. Finally it commends sections 1.1 -1.2 of the Anglican Communion Covenant of 2009 and  the Porvoo Common Statement of 1993 as helpful summaries of what Anglican’s believe about the Church and of what it means to be a church ‘living in the light of the Gospel.’  (p.41)

As in chapter one, each of the points made in the chapter are supported by quotations from ecumenical documents and each section of the chapter is followed by questions for group discussion.

The guide ends with recommendations for  further reading on the topics of the Church and the nature of the Anglican Communion and a list of the ecumenical statements referred to by the guide.

  2.What are the strengths and weaknesses of What do Anglicans Believe?

There are three positive aspects of the approach taken by What do Anglicans Believe?

  • It is useful to try to get Anglicans to take doctrine more seriously.
  • It is useful to introduce Anglicans to the texts produced as a result of ecumenical dialogue since these texts contain much helpful material.
  • It is good to encourage people to not only understand doctrines better, but to think how this better understanding ought to lead to changes in both personal discipleship and in the Church’s worship and mission.

Unfortunately,  alongside these  three positive aspects of its approach the text also has a number of major weaknesses.

First, in spite of its title, this is not a guide that explains at all adequately what Anglicans believe

The guide only concentrates on one specific area of doctrine, namely ecclesiology, and says literally nothing about other key doctrinal topics such as the doctrines of God, creation, anthropology, salvation and eschatology. The reader will learn absolutely nothing about what Anglicans believe about these topics.  

Most of the material to which the guide refers is ecumenical rather than specifically Anglican in nature and the guide makes almost no attempt to expound the historic Anglican formularies (The Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal) and to show how these have been the basis for a specifically Anglican approach to Christian doctrine. No one who used this guide would be able to tell you about the historic Anglican approach to doctrine as a result of having read it.

It is true that most of the material in the guide is derived from ecumenical dialogues between Anglicans and Christians of other traditions. However, the statements produced by such dialogues and quoted in this guide are  consensus statements of what Anglicans and Christians of other traditions feel able to say together rather than explanations of what the Anglican tradition in particular stands for. If you want to produce a guide to what Anglicans believe then statements from ecumenical dialogues are not a good place to start.

Secondly, it is a guide that fails to explain adequately the basis of doctrine.  It never explains to its readers that in the words of the great American scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian doctrine is ‘What the Church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God’ [2]

The starting point for doctrine is not, as the guide seems to suggest, ‘scripture, church teaching and scholarship’ as if these three carried equal weight. The starting point for doctrine is God’s own testimony to who he is and what he has done given to us in the words of the writers of the sixty six book of the Bible, words which God himself inspired through his Spirit and which together constitute his Word to us.

What this means is that doctrine is never self-referential. It has no authority of its own, but is only authoritative in so far as it bears faithful witness to what God has said in his word. The guide never explains this point.

Thirdly, in a related error, the guide gives a misleading explanation of the emergence of doctrine in the Early Church. It is true that the context in which doctrine developed was, partly, the doctrinal divisions within the Church. However, that was not the basis for the development of doctrine. The basis for the development of doctrine was the continuing attempts of the theologians of the Early Church to understand more deeply, and proclaim more faithfully, God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Thus the Trinitarian debates in the fourth century were debates about the best way to understand and bear witness to what the Bible has to say about who God is.

The reason why the decisions of the first four ecumenical councils have historically been regarded as doctrinally authoritative is because they have been seen as having understood the biblical witness correctly and to have borne faithful witness to it.   

Fourthly, the guide fails to note that the reason churches should engage in dialogue about doctrine should be to help each other to grow in their understanding of and witness to what the Bible teaches. It is true that churches should help each other to ‘sharpen and clarify what they believe,’  but this is only so what they believe can become ever more in line with the Biblical witness.

Fifthly, the guide similarly fails to acknowledge that ‘new ways of understanding and expressing the faith’ are only justified in so far as they enable people to make better sense of the unchanging biblical witness in a changed context. What the Bible says about who God is and what he has done remains ever the same, but new contexts demand fresh explanation of this unchanging truth in the light of the experiences and questions of every new generation in which the Bible is taught.

Sixthly, while what is said about the doctrine of the Church in chapter three is  for the most part unexceptionable and contains some helpful quotations, the material is too dense and lacks sufficient explanation. Those who have studied ecclesiology and the doctrine of the sacraments will understand the points that are being made, but students approaching this material as an introduction to ecclesiology are likely to need a lot of help  to make sense of it.

What would be better would be to have fewer quotations and more explanation of the ones that remain, showing how what they say is rooted in a particular way of understanding the biblical witness that has developed in the course of the history of the Church and challenging the reader to think whether or not this is a helpful way of expressing the biblical teaching today.  

Seventhly, the discussion of the sacraments fails to alert its readers to the historic debate about the number of the sacraments, to explain the specific nature of the grace given through the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, or to note the fact that the sacraments require a response of repentance and faith to be spiritually beneficial. The discussion also says nothing about the debates  concerning whether it is right to baptise infants or admit children to Communion.

Overall, therefore, while the study guide is to be commended for wanting to encourage Anglicans to engage with doctrine and with the  documents produced as a result of ecumenical dialogue the end result is not at all satisfactory.

[1] Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, What do Anglican Believe? available at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/417436/2020-08-what-do-anglicans-believe_en.pdf

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago and London: The university of Chicago Press, 1971, p.1.