If you’re looking for a brief introduction to Anglicanism written by a well-known and conservative Anglican theologian, then you should take a look at Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition (Lexham Press, 2021, 166p) by Gerald Bray.
Building upon his previous accessible commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (The Faith We Confess), Bray, a research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, has put together an informative introduction to the history and doctrine of Anglicanism in just over 150 pages.
A Reformed Catholic tradition
Before diving into this book, however, “Angli-curious” readers should note that, like so many other things within the Anglican tradition, the very meaning of “Anglican/Anglicanism” is hotly contested. For a taste of Bray’s historical and theological interpretation of Anglicanism, his opening paragraph is worth quoting in full.
“Anglicanism as we think of it today is essentially a nineteenth-century invention. The elements that make it up are much older than that, of course, but it was only from the 1830s or so that the particular configuration that Christianity assumed in the post-Reformation Church of England and its sister churches came to be regarded as something unique. Before that time, most people assumed that the Church of England was a Protestant body that had separated from Rome in the sixteenth century along with several other churches in Northern Europe. Everyone knew that the details of the separation were unusual, and that political factors had played as much of a role as theological ones, but these secondary matters did not affect the basic principle. The English church happened to have preserved a number of medieval features, like a territorial episcopate with cathedrals that continued to function much as they had before the Reformation. This gave it a certain traditionalist feel, which might look to Protestants like remnants of Roman Catholicism, but this was more in appearance than in reality. Almost all members of the Church of England saw themselves as Protestants and regarded Rome with varying degrees of enmity.”
Say what you will about Gerald Bray, the man gets right to his point! In Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition, the emphasis is on the word “Reformed.”
What’s in the book?
Keep in mind that Bray is well aware of the debate about Anglican definition:
There is “no definition of Anglicanism that will satisfy everyone. The best we can do is revisit the history, try to understand how we arrived where we are, and ask ourselves whether some theological trajectories are more consistent and more faithful to the ongoing Anglican tradition than others are (5, emphasis added).”
This, then, is what Bray sets out to accomplish in chapter 1 “What is Anglicanism?” At 53 pages, this is by far the longest single chapter in the book. But that’s quite understandable, seeing as Bray covers both Anglican history and theology, beginning with the pre-Reformation Church of England and ending with the state of the Anglican Communion and Anglican theology today.
Chapter 1 includes Bray’s argument for the necessity of engaging with the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion if one is to understand Anglican theology.
“Today, many would claim that Anglicanism does not have a confession of faith, and there is certainly no teaching authority equivalent to the papacy, but this claim needs some qualification. There is no Anglican confession that is theologically comprehensive and no document that defines the tradition in the way that the Westminster Confession does for Presbyterianism. But there is a statement of faith that was produced at the time of the Reformation and remains fundamental to Anglicanism as a distinct type of Christianity, because it expresses the Anglican position on the main points that caused the Church of England to maintain a stance independent of Rome and distinct from other Protestant churches. This is the text known as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (43).”
Fittingly, then, the rest of Bray’s book is largely devoted to a discussion of the content of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.
- Chapter 2 (“The Catholicity of Anglicanism”) covers Articles 1–8.
- Chapter 3 (“The Reformed [Protestant] Character of Anglicanism”) covers Articles 9–33.
- Chapter 4 (“The Local Articles and Matters Indifferent”) covers Articles 34–37
- Chapter 5 (“Miscellaneous Provisions”) covers Articles 38–39.
After this overview of the Articles, in chapter 6, you’ll find an overview of the history and contents of the Book of Common Prayer, focusing on the 1662 BCP. Chapter 7 discusses the basics of what Anglicans have had to say about Church government and ecclesiology. Finally, in chapter 8, Bray gives a very brief overview of the current Anglican world today and offers a few closing thoughts on the difficulties involved in predicting the future of Anglicanism.
What I liked about the book
Simply put, Gerald Bray is a treasure trove of information. As the saying goes, he’s forgotten more about Anglicanism than I’ll ever know!
Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition is especially valuable because, in under 200 pages, you’ll get an expert’s overview of Anglican history and doctrine. I love that the book contains a mini commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles. And Bray brings a global Anglican perspective, specifically his familiarity with Anglicanism in England, that’s very valuable for Anglican readers like myself in the USA.
What’s more, it’s a beautiful book, as is almost every book that Lexham Press publishes!
What I did not like
Nevertheless, even though I’m no Anglo-Catholic (nor an Anglo-Catholic’s son), I thought Bray’s rhetoric about Anglo-Catholicism on pages 29–30 was unnecessarily overheated. Here’s what I’m referencing:
“Basically, Anglo-Catholics rejected the Reformation, blamed the liberalism of modern society on Protestantism, and sought to revive what they thought was the Catholicism of the primitive church. To that end they rewrote the history of the Church of England, claiming that Anglicanism could be traced back to Roman times and that it was as independent of the papacy as were Eastern Orthodox churches. Over time they became more ritualistic in their religious practice and often copied Roman Catholic examples. The more extreme (or logical?) Anglo-Catholics tended to convert to Roman Catholicism as they realized that the Church of England was not truly “Catholic” in the way that they wanted it to be, but a significant number remained within the Anglican fold and sought to re-Catholicize it as much as they could. […] Historians have also demolished their interpretation of church history, making it clear that what they claimed was a return to the sources of the faith was in fact a radical innovation without precedent in the Anglican world.”
At the very least, Bray should have referenced some sources here to back these claims up. I assume that he goes into much more historical detail in his recently released The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland: From the First Century to the Twenty-First. But he still should have given readers of this book some leads to follow (“Historians such as X, Y, and Z have also demolished…”).
This bothered me so much that I reached out to Dr. Bray asking for reading recommendations regarding his claims about Anglo-Catholicism. In response, he referred me to the work of Peter Nockles. Specifically:
- Continuity and Change in Anglican High Churchmanship in Britain, 1792-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
- The Oxford Movement in Context. Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
For those interested, it also looks like The Oxford Handbook to the Oxford Movement contains a lot of valuable information, including a chapter on “Histories and Anti-Histories” by Nockles.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think Bray’s bashing of Anglo-Catholics ruins the rest of the book. And I hope that my passing along the references to Nockles’s work is helpful for those interested in further research. Nevertheless, I think this particular passage reveals a failure of charity from someone who definitely has the historical and theological chops to have been a bit more nuanced and detailed in his negative assessment of Anglo-Catholicism. If you’re an Anglo-Catholic, suffice it to say that you will probably not enjoy Bray’s introduction to Anglicanism!
If you’re looking for an introduction to the Anglican tradition, Gerald Bray’s Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition is well worth your consideration alongside other introductions (such as our own Simply Anglican or Thomas McKenzie’s The Anglican Way). And, if Bray’s brief overview of the Thirty-Nine Articles in this volume whets your appetite, you should read his longer (though still brief and accessible) commentary on the Articles, The Faith We Confess.
Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher for an honest review.