Church HistoryMinistry

The Myth of the Via Media, and other Canterbury Tales – Part 4

Mark continues from part 3 of his Gafcon 2022 talk. You can read the entire text here.

  1. Authentic Anglican Identity

So, we have said a lot about the myth of the Via Media and the Canterbury tale of the Three-Legged Stool – perhaps too much!? But if these are neither historically grounded nor theologically desirable approaches to Anglican Identity, then what is an authentic approach to Anglican Identity?

Well, a common mistake is to answer this question sociologically. That is, Anglicanism understood as a worldwide phenomena of churches which are connected to the Archbishop of Canterbury and have some semblance of shared liturgical heritage. Indeed, this approach to Anglicanism does not get us very far at all. Anglican ecclesiologist Paul Avis says that this only supplies Anglicanism with “a somewhat elusive ethos.”[1] In other words, we’re back to ‘fudge’. Now that might be an accurate description of the present reality, but it is certainly not an ideal. In fact, to my mind, this sociological approach to Anglican Identity seems only useful insofar as it lamentably legitimises the ‘fudge’, and thereby the extreme and morally deviant fringes of the Anglican Communion.

I think a far more helpful (and accurate!) answer takes an historical and theological way of understanding Anglicanism. This approach focuses upon the foundational theological documents that forged Anglicanism in the crucible of the Reformation. We use the word “formularies” to describe these documents, which include the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (through which the Book of Homilies is incorporated).[2]These are trustworthy anchors for authentic Anglicanism. And we can observe the persistent influence of this triumvirate of formularies throughout various vibrant centres of Anglicanism today.[3]

These mighty Reformation documents are as practically relevant now as they were five hundred years ago. Today, in the Anglican Church of Australia, we make solemn promises at our ordination which involves assent to what is confessed in these three major formularies at their ordination. So we might say that these are Reformation resources from the past which, when appreciated, regulate and positively influence the present. And it was because of them, these anchors of authentic Anglicanism, that J.I. Packer, the great evangelical theologian and honorary canon of Sydney’s Cathedral of St. Andrew, once made the claim that “Anglicanism embodies the richest, truest, wisest heritage in all Christendom.”[4]

Therefore, with such a glowing – perhaps stunning – commendation, what are the components of this heritage which make Anglicanism so rich, so true, and so wise? In other words, what is an authentic Anglican identity? Let me suggest seven – short! – defining characteristics of Anglicanism. This is, in fact, Jim Packer’s list, with a Mark Earngey twist here and there:

  1. Anglicanism is Biblical (Eph. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16). We believe that the Holy Scriptures are the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice, the norming norm which guides the church, and the magistrate which governs the church. We believe that the church has, and may still err, but that the Word of God has not, and will never. Therefore, our church services are saturated in Scripture, and our blood is, or ought to be, “bibline”, to quote the great Charles Spurgeon.
  2. Anglicanism is Reformed (Rom. 4:5; Lk. 22:19; Matt. 28:19). We believe that God justifies the ungodly though faith alone in Christ alone. What a man-liberating, and God-glorifying reformation truth! And we believe that there are only two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We love to baptise children and adults into the flock of Christ. And we love to see them, partaking of the supper by faith, and strengthened with the body and blood of Christ. We do not have Roman Catholic, nor even Lutheran sacramental theology. The Thirty-nine Articles elaborate on all this, and they place the Church of England rather close to Zürich on the reformed sacramental spectrum.
  3. Anglicanism is Catholic (Heb. 12:22; 1 Cor. 10:32). Not Roman Catholic, nor Reformed-and-Catholic in a via media sense. But Catholic in the best sense. Kata-holos, according to the whole church. Just like the reformers, we believe in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Just like the reformers, we enshrined orthodox Christological and Trinitarian doctrines into our confessional documents.[5] And just like the reformers, we appreciate and appropriate the wisdom of the church from previous ages. We believe that the church exists beyond us, and the church existed before us.
  4. Anglicanism is Episcopal (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22; Tit. 1:5). We are glad to have a three-fold order of ministry: deacon, priest (presbyter), and bishop. This affords us organisational benefits over large geographical areas and, at its best, this enables faithful gospel ministry to flourish through careful licensing of ministers for word and sacrament ministry, and through careful disciplinary action when necessary for the protection of the people of God.
  5. Anglicanism is Liturgical (1 Cor. 14:6-25; Acts 2:42-47). We prize Archbishop Cranmer’s principle of intelligibility and work hard to communicate the Christian faith at every service. This means we use regular rhythms and set forms of words to build up in the gospel, the diverse range of men, women, and children to come to our churches. So, we love to confess sins together, reinforce our catholicity through the creeds, sing, say, speak the Scriptures from both testaments, teach the Bible, pray general intercessions and particular petitions such as the Lord’s Prayer, and so forth. We do not do things in our services which disregard the doctrine of the Thirty-nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer. We need not expect our churches to look and sound all the same for our services to be recognisably and gladly Anglican.
  6. Anglicanism is Pastoral and Evangelistic (Ezek. 34:16; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). We have a big vision for ministry and mission, and our parish system demonstrates our commitment to serve all people – rich and poor, young and old, city and country, indigenous and non-indigenous – with the gospel of Jesus. Our clergy are ordained to be shepherds among those to whom they are sent. We love to seek out the lost sheep, restore the stray sheep, bind up the wounded sheep, strengthen the weak sheep, and feed and guard the healthy and strong sheep. The Good Shepherd is our model for ministry, and we love the lambs for whom the Lamb of God was slain.
  7. Anglicanism is Neighbour-Loving (Mark 12:30-31). Anglican churches care for the society around them. This is partly a function of the historic and confessional connections between the civil and ecclesiastical realms, and partly a function of the parish minister’s responsibility to those who live in a geographical area. The historic and parochial structure of Anglicanism has bequeathed it a culture of concern for the welfare of the society it inhabits. This heritage manifests in myriad ways, from diocesan social issues committees to parish fundraising for the local poor. We do not believe in a social gospel, but we believe that the gospel brings benefit to the society around us. We love our neighbour, because God first loved us.


So, Anglicanism is Biblical, Reformed, Catholic, Episcopal, Liturgical, Pastoral and Evangelistic, and it is Neighbour-Loving. It is a very short seven-point sketch of what an authentic Anglican Identity looks like. I believe that these characteristics are faithful to the Anglican formularies and I believe that, most importantly, they are faithful to the Lord who has given his written Word to us. It is, however, only a sketch. More could, and perhaps ought to, be said. What it is not, however, is Anglican ‘fudge’. Indeed, this sort of Anglican identity is a far cry from the myth of the via media, and from the tall Canterbury tale of the Three-Legged Stool. So, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, let us have nothing to do with such godless myths and old Canterbury tales. Rather, let us train ourselves to be godly and authentic Anglicans.

[1] Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011), 24.

[2] Of course, the range of formularies can and should be extended out to include authorised catechisms, primers, and other legal documents.  For more, see T. Patrick, Anglican Foundations: A Handbook to the Source Documents of the English Reformation (Milton Keynes, UK: Latimer Trust, 2018).

[3] For example, the Church of England Canon A5, the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, and the Jerusalem Declaration associated with GAFCON.

[4] J. I. Packer, “Speculating in Anglican Futures”, New Directions 1 (1995).  Originally given as an address at the Bishopsgate Conference of Reform, June 30, 1995.

[5] Of course, the magisterial reformers of the sixteenth century were grateful recipients of far more than this. Let Trinitarian and Christological doctrines be symbolic for the vast corpus of medieval theology that the reformers built upon.