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Sykes, S., Anglicanism and the Anglican Doctrine of the Church

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

By: Benjamin Knoll

Stephen Sykes, “Anglicanism and the Anglican Doctrine of the Church”, from Unashamed Anglicanism. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1995.

GIST: It's wrong to say that Anglicanism doesn't have any special doctrine of its own. Instead, it has implicit emphases that are largely found in the BCP.

It's part of Anglican apologetics to say "our doctrine is Christianity: the scriptures, two creeds, and first four councils - same as everyone else!" (not really true, though)

  • Anglicanism sometimes says "we're these things, and the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Orthodox added to the basic doctrine, and we've got the pure essence."

  • Sykes says NO - this is not true.

  • Some Anglicans believe that the 39 articles are authoritative because it's from a church council, same as the early councils. Some Anglicans accept and look to these but others do not.

BOTTOM LINE: Anglicanism has to assert that there are a sufficient number of beliefs, and THUS is no longer is Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, etc. It DOES specific beliefs. Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilaterial isn't sufficient.

There are the 39 articles. These should be seen as a weighty authoritative lens to interpret scripture and creeds, but are not understood to be infallible. BUT some Anglicans worry about these and others don't.

So what is something that all Anglicans have in common?

Doctrine is found in the PRAYER BOOKS.

Doctrine is a "way of ordering the worship of the people of God."

The BCP teaches doctrine, but doesn't insist on resolving ambiguities.

It is a pedagogical instrument, but is not didactically driven (patronizing teaching)


An effective response will identify accurately Sykes’s thesis as being that

1) the notion that Anglicans have “no special doctrines of their own” (NSD) is wrong, and that, at least, Anglicans have a particular doctrine of the church, although it has been mostly implicit;

2) that our reluctance to articulate this doctrine explicitly is not a sign of humility, but an irresponsible evasion and a sign of arrogance; and finally

3) that Sykes attempts to rethink the nature of doctrine by re-examining the connections between the creeds and Scripture, considering how this might illumine the task of articulating an Anglican doctrine of the church, of which he sketches an outline through examining Anglican prayer books and their doctrine of the church.

An effective response will, further, take a clear stand on the correctness or otherwise of Sykes’ case, offering substantial support for the position taken. (There is not a “correct” answer to this part of the prompt, only a more or less well argued case.)

Summary of Sykes’ case built to support his three-part thesis, above:

1) NSD is wrong/ Anglicans have (some kind of) doctrine of the church: “All denominations are…obliged to justify their own claims by showing:

(a) that their view of the extent of Christian doctrine is a sufficient expression of the catholic faith, and (b) that their denomination has the authority to declare that body of doctrine to be the full expression of the catholic faith.” (p. 104) - This first claim (“sufficient”) is made routinely by Anglicans, yet not all Christians would agree with them. - In light of this disagreement, some account of a denomination’s authority to so declare is needed, and this, Sykes argues, is precisely what is missing.

“…it is apparent that it could not be adequate merely to assert a certain number of doctrines as though their sufficiency was a self-evident fact…The issue of the authority of the Church of England, and of the Churches in communion with her, to declare in the absence of contemporary Christian unanimity that such-and-such constitutes a sufficient statement of Christian fact is unavoidable….the affirming of these doctrines to be sufficient entails a further doctrine, M, which can only take the form of an Anglican doctrine of the Church. But this doctrine could not, by definition, be common to other bodies, except those which defined the Church’s doctrines in precisely the same way. Anglicans, therefore, must have at least one special doctrine of their own.” (p. 106)

2) Our reluctance to do so has not been mere humility

Paradoxically, our claim to catholicity (i.e. to being in common with others) has actually served to distinguish us from others, making it seem as if this catholicity is particular to Anglicans. (p. 103) - The NSD claim serves to place us above other denominations, putting ourselves in a position designed to be unassailable and unquestionable. (p. 109) - Our reticence is not seen as modesty by other Christians, but as “fear and pride”. (p. 119) Pride, in wanting to be above it all, perhaps to defend our unearned privileges; fear, for not wanting to “formulate a responsible account” on behalf of those who’ve grown unaccustomed to doing serious theology. (p. 120)

3) Re-thinking the connections between Scripture and creeds.

- Scripture constitutes an overarching narrative which cannot be replaced by abstract propositions - The two creeds are themselves narrative in form: a sufficient statement of the Christian faith. They refer to the narrative world of the Bible, which, it turns out, is our world. - The context for reading Scripture is worship, which connects Bible readings with, e.g., baptism, canticles, and “public recitation of the faith of the church.” Creeds serve to provide a broader context of the readings, and serve to show that there is a “hierarchy of truths”, and Scripture is not meant to be read flatly. - The creeds refer to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, which is both the people of God in OT & NT, and also those who are making that profession. This is a “self-involving profession”. (113) - Sykes specifies that Anglican ‘doctrine’ is not identical with, say, Lutheran or RC doctrine, in that for Ls and RCs doctrine “is conceived in principle to be the elucidation of a document or documents specific and fundamental to a denomination.”

Yet the differences between Anglicans and these other churches are more quantitative than qualitative. Sykes brings together Anglican prayer and texts for worship in order to begin to outline an Anglican doctrine of the church. - Some outlines of the Anglican doctrine of the church, as particularly divined from the prayer books of the communion: o Prayer books serve for 1) the ordering the worship of the people of God, both conduct and conviction. Common worship is a “pedagogical instrument, but is not didactically driven.” (117) This order is not just “for the sake of decorum” but is ingredient to “the search for conformity to the mind of Christ, and to koinonia with God and with one another.” (117) Prayer books thus would be expected to express with clarity but not overdefinition an understanding of the unity of the church. (117) o This order ought to 2) “express and embody the priority of Scriptural symbols.” (117) This comes through selection, public reading, repetition, creeds, etc. Moreover, this is lived out by the Scriptural symbols taking priority over later Christian thought, although the latter may be present in a “subordinate position”.

3) Ordered worship is a nurturing environment, bringing a wide variety of people into a single environment in which they may learn from each other. (118) o

4) Finally, the Anglican prayer books “insist upon a unity of worship and practice within the theological category of sacrifice”, particularly understood as selfsacrifice. (119)

Some key points/ quotations:

“[The notion that Anglicanism has no distinctive doctrines] emerges as a thoroughly confused and confusing piece of Anglican apologia whose paradoxical purpose was to distinguish Anglicanism from all other denominations and one of whose astonishing consequences has been to create a view of the catholicity of the Church private to Anglicans.” (p. 103)

“The purpose of writing an Anglican doctrine of the Church would be, rather, to raise to consciousness those aspects of the Church’s life which are worthy, justifiable, Christian, and true. It would articulate an open criterion by which failure in the past and present could be judged. It would give Anglicans the opportunity of arguing with one another, with reference to the acknowledged ‘ultimate standard’ of their corporate life, in a way which could only be constructive and healthy. It would provide nonAnglicans with a clear, even if controversial, rationale for comparing and unifying traditions with differing histories.” (p. 119)