If it is true that Thomas Cranmer set the English Church a godly standard, a righteous plumb line, in the 16th Century – that is that the “doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ” are what a faithful church and people must maintain and live, as I believe it is right to assert, then the question that must be asked is this: Have Anglicans maintained and propagated the essential truths of the gospel as they were first preached in the apostolic era, and as they first came to Britain?
The early Church expanded spontaneously for centuries when those truths were preached and lived, and the same reality accompanied its arrival in Romano-Britain. For centuries there was apostolic and evangelical faithfulness, until nearly every corner of Britain was churched. The truth of the gospel became the heart of the culture for several centuries. Seasons of faithfulness produced stunning achievements, in arts, architecture, and literature. Monastic communities blanketed the land. The age of the cathedrals left a mark that remains breathtakingly inspirational. Yet gradually England became more and more nominally Christian, with periods of grace and light interspersed with darkness. External religion, for many, supplanted the heart reality. By the time of the Reformation the clear preaching of the gospel was rare indeed. When the Reformation prevailed in England the leaders were determined to change that. A Reformed Catholic Church was bequeathed to us.
For nearly five hundred years faithful Christians in the Anglican Family have believed they were maintaining the truths we are discussing. Good and holy men and women died rather than deny them. Yet little by little the effect of that reform has diminished into inconsequence, so far as the great majority of the English People are concerned. The proportion of that nation that is actively involved in the life of the Church of England has been in decline for centuries. Today it is less than 3% of the total. But the patterns of the 16th Century continue unabated. The clergy struggle to care for those in their parishes following ministry patterns that have long since ceased to be effective for the spread of the kingdom of God. Pastoral care defines “the ministry,” rather than obedience to the great Final Command.
The pastoral captivity of the Church did not occur suddenly. The source is written in the DNA of 16th Century Anglicanism, and has continued to express itself in every age since. When men have risen up to challenge it, the institutional forces of the established order have generally done one of two things. The most noticeable is to domesticate them. An old joke runs: “How does the Church of England deal with prophets? She makes them bishops.” The second pattern, and the most common one, is she excludes them. Formally or informally, canonically or culturally, those who do not conform to the received patterns are separated out from the family.
The pastoral care of the converted is a dominical command. But so is the mission of taking the gospel to all people.
Next Week: The Marks of Faithfulness?