Sydney Anglicans I. Biblically confessional

Posted on March 29, 2012 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

What is it that makes Sydney Diocese what it is?

‘Sydney Anglicans’, as well as their friends, and critics, will find Mark Thompson’s first post in a new series helpful in understanding the ethos of the diocese –

“Those of us privileged to grow up in faith within the Anglican diocese of Sydney don’t often appreciate just what an extraordinary privilege it is. Until we travel outside the diocese, we are apt to think that this is just what Anglicanism is like everywhere. But it isn’t.”

Here’s his post:

“In this new series of posts I want to explore some of the characteristics of Sydney Anglicans. Those of us privileged to grow up in faith within the Anglican diocese of Sydney don’t often appreciate just what an extraordinary privilege it is. Until we travel outside the diocese, we are apt to think that this is just what Anglicanism is like everywhere. But it isn’t. There are many exciting examples of Anglican evangelicalism all over the world, but rarely does a diocese have that particular theological flavour. In another series of posts (which will be picked up again soon) I have sought to identify some of the key figures who have made substantial contributions to character of the diocese. Here I want to look at some of those things which, while not by any means unique to Sydney Anglicans, nevertheless are important characteristics of the diocesan ethos. 

One important caveat is necessary, however. While I write as a Sydney Anglican, I am only one Sydney Anglican. My faith in Christ has been nourished in Sydney Anglican churches for the past 35 years. I have been given the enormous privilege of serving the churches as an ordained pastor and teacher for the past 25. I have taught in its theological college for the past 21 years. In all that time one thing is as clear as crystal: Sydney Anglicans are not simply clones of each other. There is variety — healthy, thrilling, life-giving variety — within the Diocese of Sydney. So, some would say things rather differently from the way I propose to put them in this series of posts. Yet I’m convinced it’s possible to recognise key commitments which the vast bulk of us hold in common (even if very often they are assumed rather than expounded). These serve as identity markers in some measure because they are what Anglicans elsewhere tend to notice about us (whether they like or loathe what they see is another matter).

The first of these is the way our self-understanding or identity is determined first and foremost by theological commitments rather than institutional allegiance. That is not to say that the institution is an irrelevance when it comes to the way Sydney Anglicans tend to think about ourselves. For some, no doubt, it is. But for many of us the Anglican heritage is something worth preserving, worth thanking God for. We appreciate the checks and balances of a denomination that is episcopally led but synodically governed, even if we readily acknowledge that this way of organising ourselves is open to abuse just as much as any other. However, the simple fact that many of us would describe ourselves as Anglican evangelicals rather than evangelical Anglicans is testimony to the priority of doctrine over structure.

Sydney Anglican clergy are still required to assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of religion as a faithful account of biblical doctrine (not the only faithful account but a faithful account). Cranmer and the other drafters of the Articles were not intending to produce something distinctive which would mark them out from both Catholicism and all other forms of Protestantism. They sought to provide a brief statement of biblical doctrine, largely focussed on the controverted issues of the time. And they required subscription — in other words they saw this as a confession that leaders within the denomination were to share. Here is the doctrinal core of the Anglican expression of corporate Christianity. Put alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, and with due acknowledgement that the Articles themselves commend the two books of homilies, what we have here is the bedrock of authentic Anglicanism.

Of course the Articles are a product of their time. This is most obvious in the last few which give expression to Cranmer’s Erastianism, a particular understanding of the relationship of church and state in England (though the label is strictly speaking anachronistic and a little misleading). The role of the monarch in the English church, the establishment of Anglicanism as the church of England, all described in Article XXXVII, does not envisage a day when the basic forms of Anglicanism will be transported around the world, taking root in countries with very different civil authority structures. And yet the same principle annunciated with respect to traditions and ceremonies of the church in Article XXXIV surely applies: ‘It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like’. In the same Article we find the insistence that ‘every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority’. Anglicanism can and does flourish in republican settings as well as in the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain! Arguably it can even fare better in settings where it is not the established church than it appears to do where it is the established church.

The Thirty-nine Articles are most definitely a Reformed confession (as opposed to a Catholic, Lutheran or Anabaptist confession). This is confirmed by a study of the homilies. Cranmer was comfortable with the theology of Calvin and Bullinger (indeed prior to drafting the Articles he had sought a common Reformed confession which could be used by these churches in common). Despite John Henry Newman’s attempt in Tract 90 to suggest the Articles should be read in a Catholic fashion, a proper contextual reading does not permit the conclusions which he wished to reach.

However, while acknowledging and indeed assenting to the Thirty-nine Articles, Sydney Anglicans emphasise their derivative authority. In line with Article 6 they insist ‘whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation’. The Articles are authoritative insofar as and only insofar as they are a faithful account of biblical doctrine. Ultimately, we do not believe in the Trinity or the atonement or justification by faith only, on the basis of their appearance in the Articles but rather because these things are taught in Scripture.

One of the lessons I remember learning from D. B. Knox as he taught Christian doctrine to the Moore College first year of which I was a part, is that every tradition and every theological system must be tested and repeatedly tested by Scripture. We must not pay mere lip service to the final authority of Scripture and the contingent authority of the Articles. The theology to which we are committed is the theology arising from Scripture and we are convinced that the Thirty-nine Articles are a faithful articulation of critical aspects of that theology. Our confessionalism is thus limited by a prior commitment to the final authority of Scripture as the word of God. It is biblical confessionalism, not strict adherence to a particular theological system (‘the Reformed faith’, ‘Catholic dogma’, etc.) or a particular theological account (Calvin’s, Cranmer’s, Luther’s, etc.). We might read Calvin or Cranmer or Luther or Barth or Knox, but we are not slavish followers of any of them in every particular.

But the point being made under this first heading is a little broader. Commitment to biblical truth, as expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles and elsewhere, trumps institutional allegiance every time. That is why Sydney Anglicans have no difficulty standing against the denomination when it moves in directions that are contrary to Scripture. No amount of ecclesiastical consensus can overturn the teaching of the word of God. Furthermore, an opinion or practice is not simply to be accepted because it has a long history in Anglicanism or elsewhere. Everything must be tested by Scripture and if a practice  or doctrine is discovered to be contrary to the teaching of Scripture then it must be put aside. It is important to note, however, that there is a third class of practices in particular: those about which Scripture does not speak and therefore about which it is perfectly appropriate for any fellowship of Christians to decide together (forms of church government, baptismal practices, etc.) In other words, this adherence to the priority biblical authority over ecclesiastical and institutional authority is not the same thing as the regulative principle of Presbyterianism: that only what is found in Scripture is permissible. It recognises more God-given freedom than that.

Some of the difficulty others have with the Anglican diocese of Sydney may well stem from a failure to appreciate this very deep conviction. It is not a conviction peculiar to Sydney Anglicans, of course. Many Anglican evangelicals in other parts of the world, and evangelicals who are not Anglicans would adopt a similar stance to their denominational structures. There is great value in the Anglican heritage we enjoy. There is great value in the platform Anglicanism retains even in increasingly secular Australia. Yet it is not participation in denominational structures which Sydney Anglicans think of first when we contemplate who we are. Confessional Anglicanism but confessional Anglicanism acknowledged as sourced and tested by ‘the word of God written’ — doctrine and practice which is open to continual reform on the basis of the Scriptures — that’s much closer to our hearts.”

– First published at Theological Theology, 29 March 2012.
Dr Mark Thompson served as President of the Anglican Church League 2005–2012.