The Anglican Communion

[Chapter 5 of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.49-56]


[49] The post-Reformation Church of England was not the result of a theology. It had no Luther, no Calvin, and nothing comparable to the massive system of the Council of Trent. Political expediency played a large part in the shaping of its course, and in the determining of certain of its characteristics.1 Within the comprehensiveness laid down by the Elizabethan Settlement, the Church of England included those who learned their doctrine chiefly from the continental Reformers, those who gave greater value to the appeal to the ‘Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops’, and those whose outlook owed most to the learning of the Renaissance. It is commonly said that these three types of Anglican have their successors in the Evangelicals, the Anglo-Catholics and the Liberals. This comprehensiveness opens the way for the Church of England to be a school of synthesis over a wider field than any other Church in Christendom. Within it people of very diverse points of view use the same Prayer Book, and join in the same services. Hence there exists a way of approach, which is common to different types of Anglican, not by seeking to agree on cut-and-dried formulations, but by regarding the truth as a mystery whose full understanding is beyond us, but which can be elucidated by the interplay of different minds seeking it from different angles. It is a matter not merely of reaching right conclusions, but of seeking them in the right way.

The Anglican Reformation embodied principles from which some degree of return to the fulness of the Christian Tradition might be made. There was the appeal to the ancient Tradition of the undivided Church to which the ‘Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops’ bore witness. There was also a freedom to learn from Protestantism and from the Renaissance, without falling under the domination of any contemporary dogmatic system. Hence there has been a true Anglican witness to the fulness of Christian Tradition; and the history of Anglican theology shows that it possesses a power of construction which has made for synthesis rather than for division.

[50] But it is important to notice whence this power of construction has arisen. It has not arisen from taking the Anglican formularies as a self-contained system: the XXXIX Articles are not a ‘Confessio Anglicana’ comparable with the Confessions of the reformed Churches of the Continent. Nor has it arisen from taking the opinions of our Reformation divines as binding on us, or even as classical opinions for our guidance: for while the appeal to Scripture was the common property of these divines, their own interpretations of it were often affected by the lop-sidedness of post-mediaeval controversies. Rather, the power of construction in Anglican divinity comes from theologians who, recognising loyally the limits laid down by our formularies, were able to combine the appeal to Scripture and to sound learning with the appeal to ancient Tradition in its fulness and, as a result, could escape from the blinkers of sixteenth century systems and controversies. With Hooker this power of construction made its first significant appearance. Though his doctrine of the Church was influenced by the Calvinist idea of an invisible Church, Hooker broke away from Calvinist presuppositions in making the Incarnation the centre of his theology, in linking the Sacraments directly with the Incarnation, and in rejecting the tendency to draw a closed circle around the inward and spiritual. Hooker was a pioneer. There followed the Caroline divines, who went still further in the recovery of the fulness of Tradition. Significantly some of these divines strove to go behind the controversies of the West in a renewed study of the theology of the East. Lancelot Andrewes in his Preces Privatae prays

For the whole Church
our own …

and in the Church of England there has been a recurring interest in Eastern divinity and a recurring recognition that the fulness of Tradition is not to be found either in the West or in the East in separation.

The fruits of this Anglican way can be seen in our own history. In spite of party conflicts, there has been a true Anglican unity, a blending of the old traditions with a desire to interpret the faith in terms of contemporary life, a piety in which a love for the Church’s forms mingles with a sturdy sense of personal responsibility, an ability to avoid sectionalism and to touch the life of the English people widely. And in the stricter field of theology there has been a like fruitfulness. Work has been done to which the word ‘synthesis’ can justly be applied. One instance is the treatment of Holy Scripture. [50/51] Here Anglicans have been able to do what neither Roman Catholics nor continental Protestants were free to do. In Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort, and in not a few of their successors, we see a treatment of the Bible which is free from the assumptions both of post-Reformation systems and of modern rationalism, and does justice both to the divine and to the human elements in the Bible, both to the unity of Scripture and Tradition and to the modern perplexities consequent upon the revolution in historical method in the nineteenth century. Another instance is the doctrine of sacrifice in the Eucharist. Whereas in the sixteenth century the conflict between distorted views of sacrifice and violent denials was such that a constructive treatment of the doctrine was hardly possible, Anglican theologians have been able to go behind the conflict; and in the Responsio of the Archbishops of England to Pope Leo XIII in 1897 there is a real attempt to present the doctrine of Sacrifice in the Eucharist disencumbered of some earlier misunderstandings. In every instance the synthesis is approached, not by a mere piecing together of items from the three schools of thought, but by a single appeal to Scripture, Tradition and sound learning, that goes behind the partisan positions.


Yet it remains true that the possibilities of synthesis within the Anglican ideal are still largely unrealised. Often the various parties have jostled side by side, unreconciled and openly antagonistic. The three chief schools have represented not only certain positive elements of truth, but also the post-mediaeval lop-sidedness and distortion of those elements. It is by no means true that their mere juxtaposition produces the theological synthesis which is needed.

Nor do certain commonly-held ideas of ‘comprehensiveness’ really lead towards synthesis or do justice to the vocation of Anglicanism. Sometimes, for instance, it is held that the three schools in the Church of England represent the institutional, the intellectual and the mystical elements of religion described by Baron von Hugel: but the correspondence is palpably untrue. Sometimes it is assumed that the truth lies in a middle position which avoids both extremes, as if grey possessed the virtues of both black and white; and the result is an insipid centrality which misses the truth of Catholic and Evangelical alike, and is no more comprehensive than either of them. Sometimes it is assumed that theological conflicts can be solved by bringing together so many representatives from each school and piecing their views together; whereas the true solution demands an exploration of Scripture, Tradition and learning that goes far behind the [51/52] contemporary party views. None of these ideas of comprehensiveness has any power of furthering the work of synthesis, for the true comprehensiveness involves not a mere inclusion of diverse opinions but an embracing of the positive truths of our tradition in their depth and vigour.

Today it is only too apparent that, notwithstanding the genuine achievements of Anglican synthesis, the forces of disintegration are strong. There are those who, virtually omitting the doctrine of the Church from its place in the Gospel, replace it by a doctrine of the spiritual vocation of the English community. There are, on the other hand, those who are content to practise an introverted and pietistic ecclesiasticism under the name of ‘Catholic’ churchmanship. There are those who, intent upon the idea of Christian leadership in the march of progress, have twisted the Gospel into a sort of pragmatist panacea for human ills, instead of a Gospel of God’s truth, which makes its demands upon mankind just because it is true. There are, on the other hand, those who in their eagerness to preach Divine Redemption ignore (as does the Report on the Conversion of England) the doctrine of Creation which is its groundwork. The fulness of our tradition is often far to seek, and it is idle to be content that the Church of England includes a ‘rich variety’, if that variety represents distortion and fragmentation of the truth.

Above all, the problem of re-union is showing how sharp is the cleavage of outlook within the Anglican Communion, and it is here that the strain is most evident. It is often remarked that steps towards re-union with other Christian bodies cannot be made in any one direction without the creation of disquiet and alarm in some other quarter. Though the conflict expresses itself chiefly in differences about the doctrine of the ministry, there lies at its root a divergence in the idea of the Church. It is this divergence that causes churchmen to be at cross-purposes, hampers a common policy about re-union, hinders the creation of a new Province in more than one region of the Anglican Communion, and gives perplexity to many consciences.

The position is the more serious inasmuch as two things which have in the past safeguarded our unity are significantly ceasing to do so. One of these things is the connection with the State; the other (and far more important) is the Book of Common Prayer.

(i) It would be utterly wrong to ascribe our Anglican unity to the connection with the State: the fact of the Anglican Communion belies this. Yet the Establishment has played a big part in the holding together of diverse elements within a single body. Now, however, the weakening of reliance upon the State, as a source of unity and authority, is apparent from a number of episodes in our recent history. In the early decades of the nineteenth century the expansion of the [52/53] Anglican Church was largely State-directed. In 1841 George Augustus Selwyn, about to be consecrated to be Bishop of New Zealand, had to protest against a statement in his Letters Patent that the Crown gave him ‘power to ordain’; and the latitude and longitude of the portion of the Pacific Ocean within his jurisdiction were determined by Act of Parliament (S. C. Carpenter, Church and People, pp. 434-435). But in 1895 we see Archbishop Benson refusing to withdraw the Anglican Bishop and clergy from Madagascar when the territory passed from British to French possession (A. C. Benson, Lift of Edward White Benson, Vol. II, pp. 668-669). And still more significant was the same Archbishop’s decision to try the case of Bishop King of Lincoln in his own Metropolitan Court and there to reverse earlier decisions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The course of events since the rejection of the Revised Prayer Book by the House of Commons in 1928 shows even more clearly that it is not the State-connection which holds the Church together or determines the limits of its teaching and worship.

(ii) The Book of Common Prayer has played an incomparably greater part in the fashioning of our unity. It has moulded our religious outlook and given us a lex orandi wherein our lex credendi has been defined and expressed. It has held the warm allegiance of men of all parties and of none. But in our recent history its failure to remain the bond of unity, which once it was, is freely admitted. On the one side the Catholic movement, once content with the Prayer Book as being patient of a Catholic interpretation, sought a richer liturgical and devotional use, and the practice of supplementing the Prayer Book from other sources became widespread. Both a Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline forty years ago, and a Revised Prayer Book Measure twenty years ago, admitted that the Book is too narrow for the Church’s needs. And on the other side there are those who, finding satisfaction in the piety and theology represented by Songs of Praise, are out of sympathy with the Biblical pattern of truth set forth in Morning and Evening Prayer, and feel free to distort the structure of the services at will. That the Prayer Book still teaches our tradition to countless Anglicans cannot be denied. That it is an effective authority for unity in worship and teaching can hardly be claimed. Nor is any revised Prayer Book likely to acquire such an authority unless it arises out of a common theological understanding.

In face of the decline of these two factors which once carried authority and made for unity, the Church of England is hampered in the task of synthesis. Hence the pressure of certain temptations is very great–to resort to short cuts and expedients, to endorse the popular ideas of the moment, and to let an administrative pragmatism [53/54] do duty for theological principle. And meanwhile the Bishops, burdened by vast administrative duties, often seem to be estopped from fulfilling their apostolic function as the guardians and exponents of our theological tradition. Yet this theological tradition remains. Amid all hindrances its vitality survives, and we believe that it contains within itself that power of creative synthesis which the Anglican Communion needs for its task.

In speaking of its own tradition the Anglican Communion is wont to refer to the Lambeth Quadrilateral as the statement of its principles. It is upon the Quadrilateral that it insists, as the condition of Anglican fellowship and as the basis of the re-union of Christendom. But there are two ways in which the Quadrilateral can be used. It can be used as a set of separate items, necessary for re-union partly for reasons of principle and partly for reasons of expediency. It can also be used as a symbol of the undivided wholeness of the primitive Tradition that lies behind. And it is only in the latter sense that it points the way towards unity in the truth.

Unfortunately the Quadrilateral has sometimes worn the aspect of four somewhat unrelated items or expedients. It is so used whenever the Episcopate is commended as an expedient for re-union which carries no necessary doctrinal meaning, although the Lambeth Report of 1930 gave the plain reminder: ‘The Historic Episcopate, as we understand it, goes behind the perversions of history to the original conception of the Apostolic Ministry’ (p. 115, italics ours). It is not however as four items, but as a symbol of the fulness of Tradition that the Quadrilateral can point the way towards unity within the Anglican Communion, towards synthesis in theology, and towards the healing of schism in the Church at large. Thus the appeal to Holy Scripture and the Creeds will mean the recovery of the pattern of the Biblical faith in God, Creator, Redeemer and Judge. The appeal to the sacraments of the Gospel will mean the recovery of the primitive fulness of Christian initiation by Baptism into Christ and the sealing with the Holy Spirit in Confirmation2, and the primitive fulness of the Eucharistic life. The appeal to the historic Episcopate will mean the recovery of the true place of the Bishop in the Church, not as the organiser of a vast administrative machine, but as the guardian and exponent of the faith, as the bond of sacramental unity, and as an organ of the Body of Christ in true constitutional [54/55] relation to the presbyters and people. In itself the Quadrilateral is a bony skeleton: clothed in the flesh and blood of the fulness of the Tradition it may be used by God to bring unity in the truth.

Of the growth of Christ’s people into unity in the truth, the task of theological synthesis is one aspect, and the task of re-union is another. If we are true to the seventeenth chapter of St John, we dare not separate the two. To grow together into the fulness of Christian faith and life, that is the task of every part of Christendom. It is for those who at present are without certain elements in Catholic faith and order to receive them, not as bare expedients for unity, but in the conviction that they are true. It is for those who at present possess these elements of Catholic faith and order, to let their use of them be criticised and corrected in the light of primitive standards, and in the light of truths to which Christians of other traditions have borne witness in separation. Our unity in the Father and the Son, and our sanctification in the truth, are both gifts of God: and dare we expect that He will grant one of them unless we are seeking for both?


There remains the last question which Your Grace, in our Terms of Reference, has asked us to consider: namely, where synthesis between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ traditions has not been attained, ‘can they coexist within one ecclesiastical body, and under what conditions?’

We would shrink from any general answer. Spiritus ubi vult spirat. But as it is precisely this question that arises within the Anglican Communion, it is possible to consider what is the principle upon which the Anglican Communion, despite the tensions within her, is one and may remain one.

It seems to us undeniable that our unity in the past has rested upon the assurance that certain things remain constant as part and parcel of the very structure of Anglicanism. Some of these things belong specifically to our Reformation heritage, some of them belong to our Catholic continuity, and it is vital to our unity that both are constant and unalterable. The Anglican knows that wherever he worships throughout the Anglican Communion he will find the Holy Scriptures read and public worship conducted in the vulgar tongue; he will find the historic Creeds recited alike in the rite of Holy Baptism and in the Offices; he will find the Sacrament of Confirmation administered by the Bishop; and he will know that the celebrant at the Eucharist is a priest whom a Bishop, standing in the Apostolic Succession, has ordained. These things may be differently valued by [55/56] churchmen, and even by theologians, but it is upon the constancy of these things in one single pattern, that the unity of the Anglican Communion rests, with the frank recognition that parts of the pattern which are not held to be of the esse by some Anglicans are held to be of the esse, with conviction, by others.

It is by a principle of constancy in Scriptures, Creeds, Sacraments and Apostolic Succession, that the Anglican Communion, for all the diversity within it, remains one. If this principle may be called, at the lowest, the historical condition of our unity in the Anglican Communion, we believe it to be at the highest the precondition of the task of theological synthesis to which the Anglican Communion is, in the Divine Providence, called.


1. One of these, summed up in the phrase of Queen Elizabeth about ‘not opening windows into men’s souls’, was the desire of the State to content itself with external conformity, without going on to demand theological consent ex animo.

2. The separation of Baptism from Confirmation in the West has given rise to a number of difficult questions, upon which we do not wish to dogmatise. But a doctrine of Christian Initiation which puts the whole weight upon Infant Baptism apart from the response of faith and the seal of the Spirit, does not represent the fulness of the primitive Initiation. We regret that the Encyclical Letter of the Lambeth Conference of 1920 has given encouragement to this defective notion.