With much appreciation I have read Dr. Francis W. Read’s article titled Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics (Christianity Today, Jan. 5 issue).
Though written in a conciliatory spirit, there is a frank recognition of the fact that on certain theological issues of basic importance Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are separated from each other by a deep gulf. It would certainly be neither honest nor helpful to gloss over differences as though they did not exist. Understanding can come only through openness. In entering the discussion, as an Evangelical, I do so not in a disputatious spirit but rather by way of conversation. And, so far as Dr. Read is concerned, I do so as a fellow-Anglican.
If there is one difference that is more radical than the rest, and from which most of the other differences spring, it is the wide divergence over the doctrine of the ministry. The theology of Anglo-Catholicism maintains that bishops are the successors of the apostles and the divinely appointed channels of Christian grace. As such they are regarded as the essential ministry, on which all other ministries are dependent, and without which there can be no validity of orders or guarantee of grace. In particular the ministry is conceived of in terms of sacramental competence, since it is through the sacraments that, in a preeminent sense, grace is held to be conveyed.
The Anglo-Catholic conception of the ministry is, moreover, a sacerdotal conception. The sacrament of Holy Communion is a sacrifice—the sacrifice of the Cross offered or reenacted through the minister acting in his priestly office. It is, accordingly, at an altar, not a table, that he officiates. Christ’s presence becomes localized on this altar. The consecrated wafer is mysteriously transformed and is displayed for worship and adoration. To partake of it is to feed upon Christ in a literal as well as in a spiritual sense.
As, further, the ministry of priesthood is episcopally mediated by ordination, so also the communicant status of the laity is episcopally mediated by confirmation, with the logical consequence that episcopalians may not receive the sacrament from those who have not been episcopally ordained (indeed cannot, since such ministers lack what is constitutive of sacramental competence, namely, priesthood), and nonepiscopalians are not qualified to receive the sacrament in episcopal churches. This, in principle, places nonepiscopalians in a situation of the greatest spiritual danger, for, according to the theology of Anglo-Catholicism, they possess no valid sacramental ministry and are cut off from the main and essential means of spiritual grace so long as they continue in their unepiscopal state. That they are fellow-Christians would not indeed be denied; but that they are so is attributed to the so-called “uncovenanted mercies” of God.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, though valuing highly the threefold ministry, do not regard episcopacy as an essential ministry in the Church. They agree with Jerome and other fathers of the early Church that in the New Testament bishop and presbyter are interchangeable terms. They conceive of the episcopal office as primarily one of pastoral oversight and guardianship of apostolic faith and worship, and as in this sense a focus of unity. With Richard Hooker and the other great Anglican divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they hold scripturalness of doctrine to be paramount and questions of ministerial order and church government to be accessory.
Far from underrating the sacraments, Evangelicals use them with gratitude and rejoice in them as, when rightly received, an unfailing means of grace. But they do not divorce the ministry of the Word from the ministry of the sacraments, as Anglo-Catholics seem to do. On the contrary, with Augustine they affirm that the sacraments are a visible Word, annexed to the promises of the Gospel, that apart from the Word they cease to be sacraments, and that they are means of grace to those who receive them with sincere faith in the promises of which they are signs and seals, and a means of judgment to those who receive them unworthily.
Evangelicals do not speak of the Eucharist as the offering up of Christ’s sacrifice. In accordance with its institution, it is celebrated at a table, not an altar. The one Christian altar (they emphasize) is the Cross of Calvary; the one sacrifice for sins, never to be repeated, that of Christ there; the one Christian priest, Christ Himself, who offered Himself for our redemption once for all. The Lord’s table (they believe) should be fenced, not against nonepiscopalians, but against unbelievers and evil livers; and it should be open to all who love the Lord in sincerity and truth.
The true apostolic succession, Evangelicals declare, is succession in the pure doctrine of the apostles. And this doctrine is enshrined in the New Testament, the very words of the apostles which they were taught by Christ and which they were able to commit to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is in their own authentic writings that the apostles speak authoritatively to the Church in every age. The New Testament then is the supreme standard of the faith and life of the Church. Thus, as in the New Testament, preaching or proclamation of the Good News is a preeminent means of grace.
Necessarily brief though this review is, I have endeavored to present the position fairly and charitably. The divergences described are indeed profound, but I am sure that Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, while recognizing the issues that separate them, should have a real strength of agreement on such vital matters as the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God, the sole redeemership of Jesus Christ, the supreme authority of Holy Scripture as God’s Word (universally held in the early Church and reaffirmed by the Reformers, and the very foundation of Anglicanism), and the acceptance without reservation of the articles of the Creed. If Anglicans were united in loyalty to the worship and doctrine of the Book of Common Prayer they would be powerfully united indeed.
PHILIP EDGCUMBE HUGHES.
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