Vol I No. 7

Anglicans and Crisis

by sinetortus

Some historical reflections bring out the importance of asking

What is Classical Anglicanism?

– the topic of the 2019 PBS Anglican Way Conference


James II of England by Peter Lely (Public Domain)

Reports of the collapse and incipient demise of Christianity, in one or another form, are not a new phenomenon, even if nowadays, vituperative debates in which one branch seeks gleefully to put down another is, happily, quite rare.  By contrast with such ecumenical amity as we may now enjoy, things were rather different in the relatively recent past.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was, for example, a rather hot exchange within the pages of The North American Review, opened by the Roman Catholic bishop,  B.J. McQuaid (first Roman Catholic Bishop of Rochester, and the first president of Seton Hall University) with an article entitled “The Decay of Protestantism”. This led to one in reply by  William Kirkus entitled, “The Disintegration of Romanism”. This article opened by mischievously attributing to Bishop McQuaid the tendentious view (or rather hope) that,  “….if Protestantism would only die, Romanism would come to life again. It would be the last and only refuge for all who are frightened of hell, and who, “do not care to make a mistake in what concerns eternity.” (for) “The only alternative then remaining would be infidelity or Romanism ; and, Protestantism being dead, who would accept Infidelity?”

By way of repost to McQuaid’s further argument that all Protestant churches suffer from the woeful malady of being fatally fissiparous, Kirkus went on to write,

“Let us admit that in the sixteenth century there was only one church, one creed, one divinely constituted and universally recognized guiding authority. This one church was at that time in possession, not only of all the spiritual forces which belong to a spiritual body, but also of all the physical force which belonged to all the states of Europe. Not only was this physical force at its command, but the Church habitually made use of it. She had the absolute monopoly of education ; the censorship of books ; control, not only over the speculative opinions, but over the practical morality, of the whole population of Europe. She had her learned doctors, her parish priests, her religious orders, her confessors in every household ; she had every possible facility for maintaining her authority by instruction and persuasion ; and if, in spite of this, any of her children stumbled into error, …., she could burn them to a cinder…. She had the field all to herself….

And what, as an undisputed fact of history, was the outcome of all this?  It was that Romanism “decayed”  into the innumerable sects of Protestants with which, at this very hour, the world is either cursed or blessed.  ….if infidelity and agnosticism are the legitimate children of Protestantism, then Protestantism itself, with all its children, legitimate and bastards, is the child of Rome.”

  (The North American Review, Vol. 136, No. 318, May, 1883, pp. 419-430)


Only a few decades later,  the Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Keating, wrote an article entitled the, “Anglican Crisis” which opened by observing crisply that his,

“title might well be kept in type as a heading to any discussion about the Church of England, covering events of the last sixty or seventy years,”


“there is no principle of stability in that religious corporation. It is in a perpetual state of crisis, owing to the leaven of Private Judgment implanted in it by its founders, and their emphatic repudiation of any visible, God-guaranteed, teaching and ruling authority.

(Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, No. 68, Dec., 1928, pp. 547-564)


Putting aside the polemic nature of these particular exchanges, which is happily of a temper not much to be found these days, there is within them reference to a challenge which all too obviously remains before Anglicanism down to this very day, when the question of unity in truth is all too obviously pressing across the Communion worldwide.

These passages point thus to the sharp reality of an historic tension within Anglicanism, for,  on the one hand, they show that the challenge of preserving both unity and fidelity in teaching has been of long standing,  and yet also,  that intimations of a consequent and looming collapse and demise have always hitherto proved false.


The challenges facing Anglicanism mean

that we need to understand the heritage that is ours


There will be other occasion to set out the full nature of the present challenges to unity facing the Anglican Communion right now, as it prepares for the Lambeth and GAFCON conferences in the summer of 2020, but the immensely pressing nature and reality of these challenges makes all the more timely the theme of the coming Anglican Way Conference of the Prayer Book Society which will specifically address the question of just “What is Classical Anglicanism?”

The implication is clear: that we need first to understand what we hope to preserve if we are to be faithful to our Great Commission as Christians to a wider world in desperate need of Salvation. 

In doing this, we have to be true to the rich heritage of Anglicanism without over-simplifying to its detriment the complexity that comes with its history. Over the centuries Anglicanism has wrestled in a characteristic –indeed defining– way , with its normative sources, rooted in Holy Scripture and conveyed in the Creeds, the Councils of the early church, historic formularies and the Book of Common Prayer. Merely to set these out is to convey the central dynamic that is always present for Anglicans in seeking for each generation to articulate anew and compellingly the substance of our faith –mindful always, that it is not merely a faith of the English Church transported around the globe, but rather a faith that has always understood itself to be an authentic expression of the faith of the Church of the ages. All of which is to recognise the reality of a degree of complexity in the theological project that is ours, which is a fact best understood as simply consequent upon the complex and all too often untidy history of the Church of God over the millennia.


Merely by way of one historical foray, it is possible to see these tensions in play, just as it is also salutary to realise that the participants in the hotly contested disputes of a given historical time often thought their church’s very future to be at stake. What emerges is a degree of untidiness that can seem disconcerting, but –from an historical perspective at least– this seems to be a recurring reality that is not to be gainsayed.

The challenge in looking through history from the theological perspective is to discern, nonetheless, the key elements of continuity central to the tradition that are normative for the faith upheld.

As the course of history and particular theologically focused controversies has unfolded over the centuries, there are two questions in particular that arise which are nonetheless very different, namely how we can best arrive at an understanding of what happened and then what the implications might be for our theological understanding of Anglicanism and Christianity.


The late seventeenth century

Two rather limited but interesting examples may be drawn from the late seventeenth century when towards the end of the reign of William III there arose what came to be known as the “trinitarian controversy” followed by the  “convocation controversy”, which related to the campaign to revive the long dormant provincial synods of the Church of England. The tumults that followed became a wide debate not only about the constitutional status of the synods but the respective powers of discipline that could be exercised by (and indeed over) the clergy, the bishops, Parliament, and even the Crown,  all matters that did much in later times to  define subsequent ecclesiastical  (and indeed, political) allegiances and identities as also to create “a rage of party”.

These controversies themselves had roots in earlier ones that go back to the time just before the “Glorious Revolution” of 1680 and the disputes about the Trinity and the rule of faith that arose in the reign of James II which is where this somewhat notational overview can thus conveniently begin,


James II, Anglican and Roman controversies,

unitarianism and subsequent debates 

In consequence of his own disposition, James II’s Court encouraged Roman Catholic writers to attack the inadequacies they discerned in the Anglican rule of faith, which championed the instrumental role of human reason in discovering the validity and salvific sufficiency of scripture. By contrast, Catholic protagonists argued, individual reason was unstable and needed to be contained by authority and tradition, lest it seem to remove the element of mystery appropriate to revelation, and worse, subject orthodoxy to the fragmented and various judgment of mere individuals.  Thus did all forms of Protestantism, come to be  charged with a tendency to “Socinianism” (or at least, the modes of rationalist scriptural hermeneutics that had in late seventeenth-century England come to be branded “Socinian” for their critical treatment of trinitarian orthodoxy more broadly – though the term originally derived from Lelio and his nephew Faustus Sozzini and the Italian Anabaptist movement of the 1540’s, later linked to the Polish Unitarian offshoot of the Calvinist Reformed Church of Poland, known as the Polish Brethren. Lelio was the first such to deny the pre-existence of Christ.)

An interesting feature within these disputes was that the doctrine of the Trinity was not at all a point of substantive disagreement between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but rather seen as comprising a revealing test of the rule of faith. Thus the Roman critique alleged Anglicanism could not coherently both comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity as a belief transcendent of human reason (which is to say it was deemed neither derivable by mere human reason nor to rest on incontrovertible biblical foundation), while a the same time rejecting the equally mysterious Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation since, “’tis as equally unreasonable, and as seemingly repugnant to say one is three, as it is to say a body is not what it appears.” In short, both the doctrines of the Trinity and transubstantiation it was argued should be seen as standing or falling together. “Both doctrines will be at a loss, and both equally require the authority of the Church to support them.” (A Dialogue between a New Catholic Convert and a Protestant, London, 1686, 3,6, Lewis Sabran, An Answer to Dr. Sherlock’s Preservative against Popery, London, 1688, 7; Sabran, Dr. Sherlock’s Preservative Considered, London, 1688,.45.)

The defense of Anglican orthodoxy in face of this attack was first taken up for the most part by London clergy, (later in many cases to become highly eminent within the Church) of whom leading figures gathered regularly at the residence of William Sherlock, the Master of the Temple.

Many of these figures  were of the “latitudinarian” persuasion which maintained an anti-Calvinist  and distinctively “Anglican rationalist” tradition in their critique both of Roman Catholicism on one side and Protestant nonconformity on the other. They thus broadly upheld the reasonableness of scripture and the general availability of its fundamental saving truths to the plain sense of its readers. However, what was critical here was that for them this did not entail that they held reason to be the primaryarbiter of doctrine, nor that they intended to reduce the whole of Christianity to ‘clear and distinct ideas,’ to echo the language in use from Locke and Descartes.

This careful positioning meant that they could allow for the presence of mystery in Christianity, while nonetheless maintaining that the fact of mystery in revelation did not have to compromise the accessibility of saving truths to the general reader of Holy Scripture on the one hand or require regular submission to the doctrinal determinations of ecclesiastical authority on the other in the manner that they associated with Rome. (See for example, William Sherlock, A Vindication of Both parts of the Preservative against Popery, London, 1688,, 56-57.)

Edward Stillingfleet, the Dean of St. Paul’s, took up the problem posed by the Roman arguments directly in his 1687 dialogue, The Doctrine of the Trinity and Transubstantiation Compared. In this text,  the “papist” in the dialogue echoes the prevailing English Roman Catholic line (in the rule of faith controversy) by enquiring of the Protestant: “Do you believe that there are any mysteries in the Christian doctrine above reason or not?” whereupon he argues that  “If not, you must reject the trinity; if you do, you have no ground for rejecting transubstantiation, because it is above reason.” This evokes the Protestant response of distinguishing “our not apprehending the manner of how a thing is” from  “the apprehending the impossibility of the thing itself.”

All of which illustrates the claims to a specific and limited form of rationalism in the Anglican rule of faith, being advocated at the time, based upon a characteristic “distinction of things above our reason, and [those] contrary to our reason.” This was vital in order not to have to render all mysteries intelligible on the one hand, without on the other, abandoning the capacity to argue against error and contradiction,


From the Trinity and Transubstantiation:

a short path to Unitarianism?

It was into this large prior context, that there then fell the specifically anti-trinitarian tract entitled A Brief History of the Unitarians also called Socinians, written by H Stephen Nye of 1687, which was later widely credited with igniting the great and subsequent trinitarian uproar of the final decade of the seventeenth century in England.

This text emerged just as James II issued his first Declaration of Indulgence which  suspended the execution of all penal laws in ecclesiastical matters (against both Protestant and Catholic non-conformists) and dispensed with the tests which had been required of anyone taking up a civil or military office, and pardoned all the non-conformists and recusants imprisoned for religious offences –though this timing does not entail any necessary link to the King’s Whig supporters,  but rather on account of its publisher, one Thomas Firmin to such Anglican divines of the latitudinarian persuasion as John Tillotson and Edward Fowler who, for all that they were latitudinarian, were very much opposed to the Declaration of Indulgence.)

Nye made his radical move by simply first conceding the Roman Catholic contention that the doctrine of the Trinity was, in purely rational and biblical terms, indefensible, and then going further, to allow that the Roman controversialists were correct to judge the Trinity and transubstantiation by the same epistemological criteria. Having allowed all this, Nye then proceeded to draw the opposite conclusion from that which the Roman protagonists intended, by concluding, not that both should be upheld upon the warrant of the Church, but instead neither.

Since the doctrine of the Trinity was he held “absurd, and contrary both to reason and to itself” there was as much reason to abandon it as belief in transubstantiation, which doctrine had been merely historically imposed (albeit from earlier times) by ecclesiastical authority, buttressed by persecution and violence, and “penal laws.” and was thus he claimed, just like transubstantiation, in the end,  a mere relic of popery. Moreover,  he argued as a general principle that, “that interpretation of Scripture can never be true, which holds a consequence that is absurd, or contradictory or impossible” and that in his view the doctrine of the Trinity failed on all counts.  

Shrewdly, Nye used the fear of Catholicism to advance Unitarianism, while he also deftly tried to  claim as sympathisers for his cause such luminaries as Desiderius Erasmus and the Dutch Remonstrants Hugo Grotius and Simon Episcopius, (who were likely to be thought of well by London clergy, of whom many were sympathetic to Arminianism). Furthermore in the appendix to Nye’s work, Henry Hedworth (the first person recorded to use the word Unitarian) urged all trinitarians  nonetheless “to own unitarians for Christian brethren and behave towards them as such.” While the irenic tone of the writing, careful use of scripture and invocation of “the law of common reason” together nonetheless with a firm anti-Catholicism, left the Brief Historynicely placed at a time of growing clamour and proposals for Protestant union in the wake of the Indulgence Declaration of King James II and fear of papal advance which it occasioned.


The legacy of James II

Beyond Comprehension, Tolerance and Dissent:

opening debates with long future….


Overall, the actions of King James II during his reign had two broad effects, which might at first seem paradoxical,  in that his actions had the result on the one hand of promoting toleration but on the other of discouraging comprehension (in the sense of a more comprehensive Church of England, more willing to accommodate theological dissenters within its ranks), and Nye took great care to make Unitarianism appear a natural extension of Protestantism, with this in mind.

King James had evidently hoped with his Indulgence Declaration to divide the Protestant opposition to his rule through establishing a policy of toleration and thereby creating a place for Dissenters outside the Anglican Church thereby reducing the need for Dissenters to try and compromise over their differences with Anglicans.

However, as it turned out, many Dissenters were unhappy with the way James had used the royal prerogative to by-pass parliament, and fearful of the perceived Roman threat, so ultimately there was no comprehension (accommodation) of Dissenters within the Anglican Church, while the perceived threat of Catholicism ended up uniting Dissenters and Anglicans in defence of the Protestant cause –ultimately to James’s downfall. Nonetheless it was the period of toleration which allowed the first flourishing of Unitarian literature.



The Bill of Rights is Presented to William and Mary (Public Domain)

Things changed significantly after the Glorious Revolution, as the Act for exempting their Majesties’ Protestant subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the penalties of certain laws of 1689, (known as the Toleration Act), in fact only extended religious toleration as far as Trinitarian Protestants. The Act specifically stated that it should give no ‘ease, benefit or advantage’ to ‘any person that shall deny in his preaching or writing the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity’.

Unitarians aside, the spirit of co-operation between Dissenters and the Church of England led many to towards efforts to relax upon the various points of ritual and dogma of the Church of England to which Dissenters objected, and thus expand the Church of England’s ‘comprehension’.

At the instigation of King William the House of Lords proceeded to pass a Comprehension Bill. But the  House of Commons decided that alterations to the Church were more appropriately debated by a revival of the Church’s Convocation and referred the matter thence which did however mean that the Bill was doomed on occasion of the further “Convocation controversy” to which attention will turn in the second part of these notes.  For the moment however it is apposite to observe that the new monarchy was viewed with deeply mixed sentiments by the Anglican clergy many of whom found the manner of treatment given to James II as the Lord’s anointed highly troubling, while he was also the monarch to whom most had sworn an allegiance they were now expected somehow to transfer. Moreover, while King William was certainly a Protestant he was not an Anglican, creating a degree of fear that he would side with Dissenters to the cost of the Church of England. This atmosphere cast a cloud upon his promotion of the Latitudinarians into the hierarchy of the Church – was this perhaps an attempt to weaken first what he planned to destroy later?

To be continued…..