The Doctrinal Foundations of ACNA

house of bishops acna procession

Although the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) released a catechism, the catechism itself carries no doctrinal weight on its own (as far as I know). It is only useful as an explication of the doctrinal standards that are enshrined in ACNA’s Constitution. In the future, when there are doctrinal conflicts in ACNA, I envision appeals being made to what the Constitution says about doctrinal standards.

Before I look at what the Constitution says, it may be helpful to recall how it came into being. The Constitution imports language from the Common Cause Partners Theological Statement.1 A “Governance Task Force” drafted the Constitution, and that Task Force consisted of: Hugo Blankingship, Chair – CANA, Philip Ashey+, Esq. AAC, Larry Bausch+ FIFNA, Travis Boline+ Kenya, Jerry Cimijotti+ Southern Cone, Kevin Donlon+ AMiA, +Robert Duncan Southern Cone, Cheryl Chang, Esq. ANIC, Bill Gandenberger+ Southern Cone, +Royal Grote REC, +John Guernsey Uganda, Matt Kennedy+ AAC, +Martyn Minns CANA, +Bill Murdoch Kenya, +Chuck Murphy AMiA, Jim McCaslin+ Kenya, Ron Speers, Esq. Uganda, Scott Ward, Esq. CANA, Barclay Mayo+ ACiC, Wick Stephens, Esq. Southern Cone, Scott Ward, Esq.CANA and Robert Weaver, Esq. Southern Cone.

I am told that Kevin Donlon was front and center during the process. A participant told me that he “…had a lot of objections and suggestions and effectively vetoed some of the Reformed stuff people argued for.” We have a brief overview of the process in this press conference, but as with all such events, it did not in any way delve into the actual nitty gritty of what happened. Organizations necessarily put on a “sunshine and roses” take on their own deliberations, and the way to the truth is usually found when talking to participants off the record. I doubt we will see such an accounting of this process given the participants.

I tried to conceptualize what the Constitution says in the following chart:

Taken from the ACNA Constitution
Taken from the ACNA Constitution

The Constitution uses three words regarding the doctrinal standards: confessaffirm and receive. If the words imply weight to the different sources of doctrine, then I take confess to be the strongest, affirm the second strongest, and receive the weakest word. Even if they are weighted in such a way, the Constitution does say, “we identify the following seven elements as characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership.”

The GAFCON Statement and Jerusalem Declaration are affirmed in the Preamble, probably because they were issued very late in the process of drafting the Constitution, and so were presumably included at the last minute and not as one of the “essential elements” for membership.

Early on, Dr. Ephraim Radner pointed out the different weight that the Constitution’s words carry, and noted a move towards “indefiniteness” on the part of the writers:

The identification of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal, and the Thirty-Nine Articles as “standards” and “principles” has struck some as overly and perhaps impossibly precise. After all, have not Anglicans, through the Lambeth Conference now over 100 years ago, made formal the lack of explicitness with which these formularies are to be held as standards for all Anglicans. at least as it determines Communion-related “Anglican” identity? Yet we note the care with which the Constitution has cloaked these standards with a certain indefiniteness: “We receive the Book of Common Prayer…as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline” and as “the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship”; “we receive the Thirty-Nine Articles…, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles…”.

The clear implication is that there may be other legitimate “standards”, and that the BCP of 1662 is rather one among many, although obviously an acceptable one. Clearly, that the early BCP’s represent the standard for “the tradition” of Anglican worship is incontestable as a historical claim. Furthermore, a “tradition of worship” is itself a loose referent and already indicates an acceptance that the BCP’s of the Reformation and post-Reformation are no longer in explicit use among many Anglicans. Finally, it is hardly constrictive, let alone historically odd, that the Thirty-Nine Articles would be received as holding doctrine appropriate to its time of composition, that continues to express certain “principles” that cohere with “authentic Anglicanism”. For the Constitution does not claim that the Articles articulate necessarily all such principles, exhaustively, or straightforwardly (since “principles” can only be gleaned from historical records aimed at local moments and controversies), nor that all “authentic Anglicanism” is bound by them in any exhaustive way. None of this should surprise us, however, given that the proposed new province contains both Anglo-Catholic and evangelical churches and bishops, who, vis a vis the Thirty-Nine Articles, for instance, hold very different views, and for whom there are, therefore, perforce several “standards” and “principles” at work.

On this score, we must note the difference in the Constitution’s language from the GAFCON “Jerusalem Declaration” (no. 3) regarding the Thirty-Nine Articles “as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today”. Even this statement is open to some latitude in doctrinal reference however – does “authoritative for Anglicans today” mean for “all” Anglicans, necessarily? Can one be an “Anglican” and hold to some different (though perhaps not conflicting) standard? That the doctrine in the Articles is “true” does not clearly imply “exhaustively” true. And what exactly does “authoritative” mean in this context? Is it similar to the claims to salvation-status granted to certain beliefs by the Athanasian Creed? Probably not; indeed by their own standards, they are authoritative only to the degree that they are clearly supported by Scripture’s own teaching. Still, while the Jerusalem Declaration is itself hardly explicit in many ways, there is a definite move towards indefiniteness in the Constitution, one that is clearly by design, and most likely involves the reality of catholic and protestant sensibilities and commitments seeking incorporation in the same church. The Constitution “affirms” the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration (1.10), but such “affirmation” is itself general and necessarily loose in its meaning.

The “taken in their literal and grammatical sense” line about the Articles of Religion is the famous Anglo-Catholic evasion from Newman’s Tract 90, which reads: “For its enjoining the “literal and grammatical sense,” relieves us from the necessity of making the known opinions of their framers, a comment upon their text;”.2 This same kind of move away from the Reformed tenets of Anglicanism occurred during the second GAFCON meeting in Nairobi, as you can read here.

These moves to placate the famous “three streams” are understandable if you think of the Anglican realignment in America as stitching together a diverse group of Anglicans who do not agree doctrinally. Archbishop Duncan said that the Constitution provided, “flexibility, recognizing the diversity of Godly approaches common among the partners coming into union.” I believe that the Formularies, Prayer Book and Ordinal (alongside the Bible of course) provide us with enough tools of persuasion to make the case for Augustinian orthodoxy even in the current confused doctrinal environment of ACNA, but we should not be deceived about the fact that there are many camps under the banner of ACNA.

The reality for those of us who hoped for a Reformed rebirth in the realignment is that ACNA is a “here comes everybody” church. What we might hope for in the long run is a decade or two of Reformed church planters, Reformed clergy moving into the role of bishop, and an eventual change of the Constitution to read that “the Articles of Religion are confessed as the doctrinal standard of ACNA as proved by Holy Scripture.”

  1. Proposed Theological Statement of the Common Cause PartnersWe, the representatives of the Common Cause Partners, do declare we believe the following affirmations and commentary to contain the chief elements of Anglican Reformed Catholicism, and to be essential for membership.1) We receive the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Scripture as the inspired Word of God containing all things necessary for salvation, and as the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.2) We confess the historic faith of the Undivided Church as declared in the Catholic Creeds.3) We believe the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures, and have been held by all, everywhere, at all times.4) We hold the two sacraments of the Gospel to be ordained by Christ Himself, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, and to be administered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution and of the elements ordained by Him.5) We accept the 1549 through the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its ordinal as the foundation for Anglican worship and the standard for doctrine and discipline.6) We believe the godly Historic Episcopate to be necessary for the full being of the Church.7) We affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as foundational for authentic Anglican belief and practice and as correctives to doctrinal abuses.  
  2. See this post for another take on the issues.

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