There are a number of points that need to be made…
Firstly, a distinction needs to be made between a ”˜confessing’ church and a ”˜confessional’ church. A ”˜confessing’ church is any church that confesses Christ and the gospel before the world as all Christians are called to do. A ”˜confessional’ church, on the other hand, is a church that adheres to certain specific statements of belief.
Secondly, it is clear that Anglicanism is not only a ”˜confessing’ tradition but also a ”˜confessional’ tradition in the sense that there are specific statements of belief to which the churches of the Communion individually and collectively subscribe. For example, the Catholic Creeds and the three ”˜historic formularies’ (The Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal) are accepted as doctrinal authorities by the Church of England26 and for the Communion as a whole the Lambeth Quadrilateral sets out the Anglican understanding of what the visible unity of the Christian Church involves.
In his essay ”˜Where shall doctrine be found?’ in the 1981 Doctrine Commission report Believing in the Church, NT Wright suggests that a ”˜confession’ is a document: ”˜”¦in which the Church says to God, to the world, to itself and to the next generation, ”˜This is where we stand, and what we stand for.’’27 If the term ”˜confession’ is defined in this way it is clear that there is a strong confessional element to the Anglican tradition in the sense that are some documents that are seen by the Church of England and the other churches of the Communion as declaring where they stand and what they stand for.28
The issue of whether Anglicanism is confessional in nature has been confused by a long standing debate about (a) whether the Thirty Nine Articles should be seen as a confession of faith in the same sense as the confessions of faith produced by the Lutheran and Reformed churches during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and (b) whether the Articles have the same status within Anglicanism as, for example, the Augsburg Confession has within the Lutheran tradition or the Westminster Confession has had in parts of the Reformed tradition.
The answer to (a) is that from a historical point of view the Articles should be viewed as one of the confessions of the Reformation period. Much of the material in the Articles came from the Lutheran Augsburg and Wurtemberg confessions, the Articles had the same function as other Reformation confessions (namely to make clear what the Church of England stood for both in terms of its fundamental theology and in relation to specific issues of controversy) and the Articles were regarded as the Church of England’s confessional statement at the time when they were produced.29
The answer to (b) is that the Articles have had a rather different status to that enjoyed by the Augsburg or Westminster Confessions in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions because within Anglicanism the role of the Articles as a doctrinal authority has been balanced by the doctrinal importance that has been given to the liturgy and, in many parts of Anglicanism, to the witness of the Fathers of the first five centuries.
However, acceptance of this latter point does not negate the confessional nature of Anglicanism. It remains the case that there are documents that are seen as declaring, either explicitly or implicitly, what Anglicanism stands for. This in turn means that an Anglican covenant that re-stated where the churches of the Anglican Communion stand and what they stand for would not be alien to the Anglican tradition.
Thirdly, the fact that Anglicans have been willing to say either explicitly through statements of belief or implicitly through the liturgy ”˜This is where we stand and what we stand for’ means that Anglicanism already excludes those who are not able to accept in terms of either belief or practice what Anglicanism currently stands for. Thus someone who cannot make the Declaration of Assent contained in Canon C1530 cannot serve as either an ordained minister or a Reader in the Church of England. Similarly, a church that could not accept one or more of the elements of the Lambeth Quadrilateral could not be a member of the Anglican Communion.
This means that the development of a covenant will not mean a move from a non-confessional to a confessional Anglicanism or from a situation where everyone is accepted to a position where some begin to be excluded. The Anglican Communion is already, in the way just described, a confessional body of churches and, as such, one that upholds certain specific beliefs and practices to which not everyone is able to sign up.
What it might mean, and this is what people are afraid of, is that as the result of the covenant process the confessional basis of Anglicanism will become more detailed, with the forms of acceptable expression of Anglican theology being more precisely defined and the number of things that have to be accepted in order to be Anglican being increased, and that this will mean that some people who are currently part of the Anglican Communion will be forced out.
However, and this is the fourth point in this connection, there is nothing inevitable about a process whereby the development of a covenant leads to a narrower definition of Anglican belief and practice than that which currently exists. The churches of the Communion will decide collectively what the covenant contains in and it is entirely possible (and indeed likely) that what they will decide to do is simply ratify existing statements of Anglican belief and practice without adding to them in any way.
In any event, nothing will be able to be imposed on the Communion without the consent of the churches of the Communion and this means that any attempt to narrow down the confessional parameters of Anglicanism could only succeed if the Communion as whole decided to go in this direction and after a process in which opponents of such a move would have plenty of opportunity to argue their case.
It should also be noted that there is also a concern about exclusion among many conservative Anglicans. They fear that unless what they see as a drift towards unacceptable theological liberalism within Anglicanism is halted by clear theological boundary markers being laid down in an Anglican covenant, such liberalism will become the norm and they will end up being excluded either because of intolerance of traditional Anglicanism by liberal church authorities or because they will be conscientiously unable to remain in churches that deny the basic tents of Christian belief and behaviour.
“Anglicanism is not a confessional church” is one of the many false mantras one hears as almost a liturgical chorus these days from numerous leaders of The Episcopal Church. It is not only false in that it is not accord with our history, as Dr. Davie shows, but it is also contradicted every week in TEC nationwide in the liturgy when those participating in eucharist confess their faith in the Nicene Creed. The question rather is: Anglicanism is a confessing church in what sense? Read it all-KSH.