Understanding origins key to Anglican identity

In thinking about the question of identity we must honestly examine our beginnings as a national church, as a global Anglican Communion, as a nation, writes Rhys Bezzant.

By Rhys Bezzant

March 1 2020
During recent Brexit debates, more thoughtful journalists have alerted their readership to another moment in history when, under England’s dominance, Britain removed itself from the tyranny of the European continent to go it alone, namely the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. It is an intriguing parallel, and one which Brexiteers would cheer with delight. After all, England before the Reformation did not have the wealth or imperial reach of Spain or Portugal, nor the status of France. But England after the Reformation did have renewed confidence demonstrated in the Elizabethan Golden Age, extended its influence in the north American colonies, and went on to fight the French for a hundred years or more in worldwide campaigns for both soft and hard power, creating an unrivalled Empire on which the sun would never set. I see how attractive the logic is, though it can smother less desirable motives animating insularity. But I also see how diminished a view of the Reformation lies at the heart of the claim. How we tell the story of the English Reformation deserves better than this. 

During recent debates over the date of Australia Day, the purpose of Australia Day, or the propriety of Australia Day, we have also witnessed a raft of questions concerning our national identity and how well we tell our national story. So few people know much about Aboriginal history or language groups, and they rightly point out that until we make peace with the Indigenous nations of this land, our identity as Australians will be compromised. The story of the First Fleet and British colonialisation is likewise a closed book to many. Preaching this year on Australia Day, I had perhaps a dozen people come up to me to remark that they had never heard the story that this fleet was not to be a slave fleet, that it was generously provisioned by evangelical Christians close to the Prime Minister, and that Sydney Cove was a colony of convicts but not a penal colony. How we tell the story of national identity deserves better than we have done in the past. 

Our identity as Anglicans is likewise under great pressure in Australia and beyond. How we tell the story of the Anglican Church, especially in its globalised guise, is of great concern in present debates in the church concerning sexuality, Biblical hermeneutics, structures of authority, and how we best serve the nations in which God has called us to witness. There are several strategies for building Anglican identity used commonly in our national church. Sometimes we highlight our liturgical credentials and draw attention to the genius of the compilers of the Prayer Book, and the ways that their language and theology has sustained generations of English Protestant Christians. Sometimes we celebrate the nature of the parish system, and the ways that it reminds us that every square inch of the nation deserves our love and spiritual care, and how beautiful is the incarnation in which God aligns the physical with the spiritual so wonderfully. Sometimes we demonstrate our thanks for an episcopal polity, which provides stability, allows for dispersed authority, and reminds us of the deep things we share with our Roman Catholic friends. 

But the element of Anglican identity most loudly applauded concerns the via media, or the middle way. The argument runs that we have chosen a path which is neither Roman Catholic, nor Puritan, thus avoiding the extremes on offer in the sixteenth century, with such moderation the supreme characteristic of Anglicanism. And that the English have never been beholden to slavish mimicry of other nations and have promoted their own independence of spirit. So Anglicans don’t have to choose between the authority of Scripture, the authority of tradition, and the authority of reason, but take a sounding somewhere in the middle of them all to form something unique. We are not Roman, nor German, nor Swiss, but English (or Australian as our missiological context demands). And the dominance of the British Empire from the middle of the eighteenth century has impressed itself on our self-belief as Anglicans, so of course our way is superior in political and religious terms, we tell ourselves. 

But there is no tonic like going back to the beginning of the story to see how our DNA has been formed. And we discover there that the English church at the time of the Reformation was not insular but internationalist in its aspirations. It was not trying to be distinct from continental versions of Protestantism, but rather trying to unite those versions and to take its place in that Reformed stream. Cranmer invited continental scholars to teach at Oxford and Cambridge, and he wanted to convene an ecumenical Council in London which would provide a distinct alternative to the Catholic Council meeting at Trent. Here was not a distinctive English way, as Suzanne O’Day reminds us, but a distinctive Reformed way (The Debate on the English Reformation, 2nd edition, p260). Cranmer negotiated the theological contours of the Reformation by trying to steer a course between Wittenberg on the one side, and Geneva on the other. He wanted a Reformed church, not with a small “r” but with a big “R”. This was not merely the reform of Catholicism, but a theologically driven agenda to situate the Church in England as a leading partner with other theologically Reformed churches of Europe. Though the language of the via media was not used at the time but first used much later, if there was a path to pursue, it was the path between various brands of Protestantism. 

As Diarmaid MacCulloch, the great doyen of English church history says, “Cranmer’s middle way was between the quarrelling reformers of Europe, between Zürich and Wittenberg and also the newly-emerging Protestant centre created by John Calvin in Geneva. His middle way was to bring these people together. He could not have imagined a middle way between Rome and Protestantism … So in that sense Cranmer is not an Anglican, nor is he … a Euro-sceptic … Here is a man who you might say was a Bolshevik, a man who was part of an international revolution, who had no sense of anything specially English about what he was doing.” (Who was Thomas Cranmer? p7) 

And when we look beyond the life of Cranmer and investigate the identity of the Church of England during the reign of Elizabeth, the same is true. She was excommunicated by Rome and held off an invasion by Spain, so was in no mood to conciliate Roman Catholics. She was after all the daughter of Anne Boleyn! Richard Hooker, often applauded as the inventor of Anglicanism, never used the term Anglican nor via media, and in his voluminous writings was essentially concerned with the question of authority within a Reformed church. He disliked trying to find a divine command to resolve questions of adiaphora, and instead appealed to natural law, but this did not mean that for Hooker a middle way was prized that levelled the authorities of Scripture, tradition and reason. Article XX makes clear that the Word has the unique role of judging the church and her ceremonies. MacCulloch again: the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 was not so much a religious compromise but was instead “an unmistakably Protestant regime in Westminster” (Anglicanism and the Western Christian Tradition p27). 

These reflections are not of merely antiquarian interest. Our identity as a global communion, as a national church, as a metropolitical diocese, pivots on our understanding of our common beginnings and impacts our recruitment of future clergy. How we understand our engagement with ecumenical endeavours must start by acknowledging the ways we have been shaped by our history. Of course I am not trying to argue that our identity has not been shaped by four hundred years of renewal in our church after the Reformation, whether that be the Evangelical Awakening of the eighteenth century or the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth. What I am trying to argue is that no one benefits if we are not prepared to be honest about our beginnings, namely our place in debates of the sixteenth century. The via media is too important to leave unexamined and unremarked. Beware unintended consequences for not thinking carefully enough about the historic roles which England has taken up in international movements for social, political or religious renewal. 


The Revd Canon Dr Rhys Bezzant is Senior Lecturer at Ridley College Melbourne, a Visiting Fellow at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia

This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA)