Gavin Dunbar–Reformed and Catholic

In a previous…[written piece] I sketched the ancient Catholic roots of Anglicanism, and its 16th and 17th century development under the influence of the Reformation, such that the 17th century opposition of Presbyterian and Episcopalian reflected differences not so much about Faith as Polity (form of church government), Order, and Liturgy. The 17th century division points in two ways. On the one hand, Anglicans may and do hold reformed or evangelical convictions substantially the same as those found in Protestant churches. On the other, Anglicans of all stripes accept as parameters certain distinctives of Liturgy and Order – including ordination of presbyters (priests) by a bishop in historic succession. Thus alongside (and sometimes, as in the case of John Wesley, mingled with) the reformed or evangelical legacy Anglicanism is shaped by “high” churchmanship as well ”“ “high” in its regard for the church, its
worship, and ministry.

There were impeccable precedents among the 16th century reformers for the high churchmanship of the 17thcentury. Cranmer’s reformed theological views were grounded in a extensive and careful study of the ancient Catholic Fathers; Calvin’s influential teaching promoted a high view of the Sacraments and the Church (on which he took the same view as the St. Cyprian, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the church is no salvation”); Archbishops of “Calvinist” views like John Whitgift (d. 1604) vigorously defended episcopacy against presbyterian criticisms; and the Prayer Book and the Cathedrals maintained the Catholic liturgical tradition in its essentials. To these the high churchmen of the 17th
century added a concern for the outward beauty of the liturgy, as well as reverence for catholic antiquity.
In the 19thcentury Anglo-Catholic revival, such “high church” views were sharpened further. Against secularizing, utilitarian views, it affirmed the divine institution of the Church, its ministry and sacraments. Its faith, worship, and ministry are not something to be reinvented according to human agendas or utility. There followed a revival of medieval ceremonial (to a greater or lesser extent) as a means to express the sacred nature of the priesthood and sacraments, and also a sympathetic engagement with medieval doctrine and devotion.

These were developments of permanent value to Anglicanism. Unfortunately Anglo-Catholics became embroiled in a narrow and often unhistorical and untheological polemic against the Reformation, with the result that Evangelicals (and indeed High Churchmen of the old school) came to regard it as a betrayal to popery. The hostility and suspicion that warfare engendered has lived on long since.

My own theological mentors were Anglo-Catholics and Anglican Evangelicals who had not abandoned their core convictions, but were determined to look beyond party warfare, and discerned a shared heritage of ancient catholic faith,
as articulated in the western church chiefly by Saint Augustine, but enriched by countless others, including the great theological tradition of the Eastern church. Within that common heritage, western Catholics and Evangelicals have
much to share and to learn from one another.

Outside Anglicanism, the same acknowledgement of common ground in doctrine and mission has animated the religious conservatives in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” movement. The Roman church, long a bastion of embattled polemic against other churches, has engaged sympathyetically with Christians outside its jurisdiction, including (explicitly) the churches that emerged from the Reformation, in which it acknowledges the presence of “elements of sanctification and truth”. In documents like the Papal Encyclical of John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, the Roman Church, without giving up its historic claims, has committed itself to work for ecumenical reconciliation both theologically and

I do not take the Roman view of these matters as definitive: but they are suggestive. If we are secure in our identity as Anglicans, including our commitment to the legacy of Catholic Faith and Order as set forth in the 16th century Prayer Book and Articles of Religion, we can afford a generosity of spirit that looks beyond denominational or party lines.

I think this generosity of spirit is necessary to Christians both catholic and reformed. We do not commend one side by the disparagement of the other. Nor can we speak as if there are first- and second-class Christians. God bestows
the gifts of his grace in ways that confound our the boundaries of denomination, taste, and custom: it is surely a hint that we are meant to seek a deeper unity in the truth, both theologically and practically. God must give that unity, in and when he wills: it is not something we can fabricate or negotiate, nor do we have the right to surrender the distinctive of our patrimony – but it does mean that we are to acknowledge the unity that already exists, by learning from and
working with Christians who stand within the common inheritance we have received from our fathers in the faith.

—The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of Saint John’s, Savannah, Georgia


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