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  • Adam Embry

The Anglican Approach to Formation

By The Rev Canon Kenneth D. Gillespie, The Jurisdiction of Armed Forces & Chaplaincy

But here someone perhaps will ask, since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason, – because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters…Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic interpretation.[i]

– Saint Vincent of Lérins

These words of Saint Vincent ring ever true today as we consider the splintered nature of Christianity. The church has been carved into more than thirty-three thousand splintered groups,[ii] each representing their own perspective on the correct understanding, interpretation, and application of Holy Scripture. The Anglican spiritual tradition (not “denomination”) is the inheritor of an approach to formation congruent with the wisdom of Saint Vincent, which in our contemporary context, is often disregarded.  

Holy Scripture is most respected and held in highest regard when it is received in proper context, through the lens of the apostolic tradition. Christians, in the Anglican tradition, are not baptized to be independent agents, but rather as members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the body of Christ. As such, our formation, as we seek to mature and to be agents of maturity, occurs entirely within that context.

Effective practice of Christian faith occurs within the context of the Church, or as Saint Athanasius puts it, “the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave, the Apostles preached, the Fathers and Ecumenical Councils preserved. Upon this tradition the Church is founded.”[iii] It was this tradition that guided the English reformation, and it is this tradition that continues to serve as the foundation of formation within the Anglican tradition.

Anglicans are a people under authority, and it is this authority by which we are formed. Holy Scripture – authoritatively supreme – together with apostolic tradition, the episcopacy, and the Anglican formularies all form the foundation of authority by which Anglicans are guided. Intentional formation in light of authority, properly understood, is essential to navigating the ecclesial, theological, and ethical challenges facing the church today.

St. Paul encourages the Church at Thessalonica to hold fast to the traditions that they had been taught, either by word or epistle.[iv] This advice holds as true for the church today as it did for the Thessalonians two-thousand years ago. St. Irenaeus affirms Holy Scripture as the “ground and pillar of our faith”[v] and clearly uses apostolic tradition[vi] as a means of guarding right interpretation of scripture and establishment of right doctrine against heresy. This has been further reinforced within a distinctively Anglican context when, during the 1948 Lambeth Conference, the following statement was issued by the bishops of the Communion:

Authority, as inherited by the Anglican Communion from the undivided Church of the early centuries of the Christian era, is single in that it is derived from a single Divine source, and reflects within itself the richness and historicity of the divine Revelation….. It is distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the witness of saints, and the consensus fidelium….. It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralized authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check each other; these elements together contributing by a process of mutual support, mutual checking, and redressing of errors or exaggerations to the many-sided fullness of the authority which Christ has committed to His Church. Where this authority is to be found mediated not in one mode but in several, we recognize in this multiplicity God’s loving provision against the temptations to tyranny and the dangers of unchecked power.[vii]

The goal and intent of the English Reformation was not to separate from the faith once delivered[viii] but to hold true to the faith and practice of the apostolic church. One need not read too deeply the English reformers to discover their desire to see the doctrine and practice of faith within the realm of England be based first and foremost on Holy Scripture and remain entirely congruent with the faith and practice of the apostolic fathers and the primitive church. Further, the clear intent of the English monarchy, following King Henry VIII, through the centuries has been clearly to retain the independent catholicity of the English Church.

Throughout his Apology, or Answer, in Defense of the Church of England, Bishop John Jewell clearly relied upon apostolic tradition to define right doctrine and practice of faith and clearly reinforces the intent of the English reformation to return to the teaching of the Apostles and fathers of the church.[ix] From a perspective of formation this has far reaching practical consequences for the church that should continue to guide contemporary formation.

In 1571, the bishops of the Church of England met in convocation and produced a series of Canons which included the following instruction to preachers  “… chiefly they shall take heede, that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe, and believe, but that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the olde Testament, or the newe, and that which the catholike fathers, and ancient Bishops have gathered out of that doctrine.”[x] Imagine how such guidance, rightly followed, might impact the church today.

The Anglican intent to recover and return to the faith and practice of the apostolic church remains true today. The theological statement provided by the Anglican Church in North America culminates in a quote from the ninety-ninth Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Geoffrey Fisher, which echoes the sentiment of Anglican Bishops throughout the centuries:

“The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.”[xi]

This perspective clearly recognizes that authority for formation of right belief and practice lies on the proper foundation of Holy Scripture as it has been rightly received and understood by the apostolic church.

Approaching authority for formation in such a manner retains the alignment of the Anglican tradition with the apostolic and primitive church and most clearly establishes a path forward on many of the divisive issues facing the communion today. In his homily on Second Thessalonians, Saint John Chrysostom expressed an understanding of Saint Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians to “stand fast and hold to the tradition of the Church,” as clearly recognizing apostolic authority inherent to tradition, and understanding the right relationship of tradition to Holy Scripture.[xii] As we engage in formation of belief and practice through our Anglican way of maintaining the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, this model not only retains an appropriately high view of apostolic teaching, but arguably, the highest view of Holy Scripture.

In the contemporary context, where terms are often applied loosely, and as such take on an ambiguity which dilutes their usefulness to the point of futility, it becomes necessary to first affirm an understanding of the term catholic in such a way that not only captures the universality implied in its use, but also the distinctive nature of the term as well. Saint Vincent provides what is probably the most widely accepted and most useful definition of the term:

Moreover, in the catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.[xiii]

St. Vincent’s definition, focusing on universality, antiquity, and consent, provides a timeless framework for not only understanding the term ‘catholic’ but also all that the term itself represents. This understanding is of paramount and utmost importance to proper formation within the Anglican context as it rightly establishes the complimentary relationship between Holy Scripture and tradition, both, as essential to catholic formation; if not also pointing back to the Holy Spirit’s establishment of the conciliar nature of the church’s apostolic tradition.

Any view of formation not grounded in Holy Scripture, as it has been received, interpreted, and applied throughout the traditions of the conciliar church, is in danger of placing individualistic reason, personal convictions, and private interpretation, at the center, rather than Christ, His Apostles, and the traditions of which Saint Paul speaks. Each individual, communion, or denomination interprets Holy Scripture according to their own tradition[xiv], even if that be a tradition of one.

The faith delivered through the apostles and preserved in the church[xv] is what allows the faithful, whether they be from the primitive or contemporary church, to resist the myriad of opinions and persuasions which deviate from the truth, and to truly remain a faithful man of God.[xvi] Faith, as it is has been received, guarded, and passed down by the church catholic, is one of the greatest gifts the Anglican tradition has to offer, i.e., a truly Apostolic foundation for formation.

Without this solid foundation individual believers are left to the authority of their personal readings and convictions, or those of other individuals, resulting in the thousands of interpretations and confessions of what is presumed to be the true faith, which is nothing less than the application of individualistic relativism as the authoritative hermeneutical principle. Yet the Apostle Peter wrote, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”[xvii]

Most familiar with the Anglican theological tradition will be expecting some mention of human reason to accompany Holy Scripture and tradition in order to more completely represent the Hookerian triad. Human reason is in fact significant to the process of spiritual formation, but less so as a source of authority to guide formation, and more as a means by which formation occurs.

The ascendency of individualistic relativism over the church’s historical interpretation of Holy Scripture is culpable for much of the splintering and sectarianism, both within Christianity as a whole, as well as within the Anglican Communion distinctively. Richard Hooker, who sought to address this sectarian entropy, understood that the divine character of Holy Scripture can only be discerned by reason,[xviii] therefore, Holy Scripture is not self-authenticating or self-interpreting.

Human reason however, in and of itself, is insufficient and often prone to an expression of individualism incompatible with the apostolic faith. Therefore, reason, in order to properly discern the nature of Holy Scripture must first be informed and transformed by Holy Scripture and catholic tradition, and inspired by God the Holy Spirit. And so, the three sources of authority as outlined by Hooker – Holy Scripture, inspired reason, and catholic tradition – are intrinsically linked, inseparable without destroying both the collective and idiosyncratic integrities.

Reason, with respect to its inherit nature, is not a means of formation, but rather a means of discerning God in Holy Scripture and catholic tradition, the revelation of which is consequently formative. A succession of rationalizations and spirit of individualism have benumbed the church to the enfeeblement of tradition. No longer seen as efficacious in extrapolating contemporary pursuance of Holy Scripture, apostolic tradition often goes unheeded.

Contemporary Anglicans must preserve a commitment to formation that is congruent with that of catholic Christianity – which is classical Anglicanism. Consider the charge presented in the exhortation of those seeking ordination to the priesthood:

Therefore, consider the purpose of your ministry to the children of God. Work diligently, with your whole heart, to bring those in your care into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of God, and to maturity in Christ, that there may be among you neither error in religion nor immorality in life. Finally, equip and lead your Congregation to proclaim tirelessly the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[xix]

It is only by retaining a true and proper understanding of Holy Scripture as it has been received, understood, and applied by the church catholic, that any may hope to fulfill such a grave undertaking. The two together, Holy Scripture and catholic tradition, as they are understood by human reasoning first shaped by these two and inspired by God the Holy Spirt, form the backbone of what it means to be an Anglican Christian, and right formation, properly grounded, is the best answer to navigating the myriad of challenges facing the church today.


[i] Saint Vincent of Lérins. Commonitory: 2:5.

[ii] David B. Barrett and George T. Kurian and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, (Oxford: Oxford Univ Press, 2001), 10.

[iii] St. Athanasius, First Letter to Serapion.

[iv] 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

[v] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies: 3.1.

[vi] Ibid. 3.2

[vii] The Lambeth Conference, 1948:The Encyclical Letter from the Bishops, Together with Resolutions and Reports, (London: S.P.C.K., 1948), 84.

[viii] Jude 1:3.

[ix] Jewel, John, The Apology of the Church of England, (London, Paris, New York and Melbourne: Cassell, 1888), https://

[x] Collins, William. The Canons of 1571 in English and Latin: With Notes in English and Latin. (London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1899), 76.

[xi] Theological Statement. Anglican Church of North America.

[xii] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Second Thessalonians.“Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no further.” 

[xiii] St. Vincent, 2.6.

[xiv] James B. Torrance, “Authority, Scripture and Tradition,” The Evangelical Quarterly 59.3 (July-Sept. 1987): 247.

[xv]Saint Irenaeus, 3.2.

[xvi] Saint Clement of Alexandria, “Scripture the Criterion by Which Truth and Heresy are Distinguished,” The Stromata. book VII, Chapter XVI.

[xvii]  2 Peter 1:20

[xviii] (Richard Hooker, The Works, arranged by John Keeble, 7th ed, Book III, 3.8.10 (Herschberg, Nachdruck, der Ausgabe Oxford, 1888) 371.)

[xix] The Book of Common Prayer. (Huntington Beach: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 489.


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