On the eve of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, we face the same question the Augustinian monk faced: authority. Be it a pope in the Vatican or a Baptist pronouncing truth as though he were pope Christians face the same question as to who, or what, is authoritative in the Christian life.
The Reformers answered the question by pointing to Scripture as the primary authority. The English Reformation agreed that as it pertains to matters of salvation, sola scriptura wins the day. (Art. VI of 39 Articles of Religion). The tradition of the church and church fathers were not discarded, as one can plainly read in the writings of the magisterial reformers and in the numerous citations to the church fathers in the Anglican two Books of Homilies. Instead, the Reformers set the writings of the church fathers beneath the Scriptures to ensure that authority started and rested with the Word of God.
Unfortunately, contemporary Protestantism has forgotten the works of the Reformers and their actual teachings. Protestants today are typically more likely to read Scripture and interpret it as they subjectively feel and without any guidance of the church, much less ancient church fathers. Shockingly, many denominations and their followers, have not the slightest idea about the confessions the Reformers subscribed to that detail their reformed or reforming Catholicism.
However, not everyone in Protestant circles have forgotten that Protestantism, at its best, is a reformed Catholic religion. The Reforming Catholic Confession is an effort to demonstrate the highest common denominator of Protestant catholicity and is an effort to be commended, although certainly not a perfect exercise.
The lack of authority and trading in one pope in the Vatican for a dozen in every Bible study is not a uniquely Protestant problem, but a modern one. The Bible study (or Christian denomination) that trades objective truth for “my truth” or “this is how I read/understand this passage” is not what the Reformers had in mind. This stereotype serves as cannon fodder for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic polemics (which ignores the same problem that infects both churches as well – this is a modern, cultural issues that does not limit itself to Protestant circles).
Indeed, the Anglican Communion has lost her way in holding to an authority that transcends the globe and unites multiple national churches behind a common belief. In the spirit of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses, the Anglican churches and her members must remember what unites them as Anglicans. In order to do so, Anglicans must remember what makes them Anglican.
Ultimately, the basis of our rule of faith is the Holy Scriptures, with the Apocrypha included for the edification of the Christian but not as a source for doctrine. This decision to include the Apocrypha as useful instruction but not for determining doctrine firmly lies within church history by relying on the church fathers. Article VI of the Articles of Religion cite St. Jerome for this proposition. The ultimate rule as to our salvation comes from Scripture alone. But what if the Scriptures are silent? Article XX explains that the church has the authority to determine rites and ceremonies in addition to determining controversies but the church must never contradict the ultimate authority of Holy Scripture.
Anglicans have another guide to walking and living life as reformed Catholics, namely the 39 Articles of Religion. They have been tossed aside to small print and behind the section “Historical Documents” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer or used as a weapon by those with Genevan sympathies to erect a hardline Calvinism. But the 39 Articles are a work of genius that were enacted in the Elizabethan settlement and walk in and out of the theologies of Geneva and Wittenburg with a solid foothold on historic catholic teaching. I dare say the 39 Articles embody the essence of a reformed Catholicism with the insight of Luther, Calvin, and historic Christianity. All the while without throwing any babies out of the bathwater.
The old saying is the rule of prayer is the rule of belief: lex orandi, lex credendi. Enter the next guideline for Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer. The classical prayer book serves as the source for public worship for reformed Catholics in the Anglican tradition. The abbreviated daily office (from seven to two offices) allow the laity to worship in a manner similar to the Rule of St. Benedict. The Eucharist is restored to the laity and encouraged to be performed often. And the Ordinal attached is the defining fence post for church leadership and the role of ordained minsters.
Fortunately, the three “guideposts” defining Anglicanism: the Book of Common Prayer, 39 Articles, and Ordinal are all included within published versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One can even purchase the Holy Scriptures (with Apocrypha) and Book of Common Prayer (with 39 Articles and the Ordinal) in one bound volume (see picture at top).
As it relates to family oratories, the primary authority of Scripture, followed by the guidance of the Book of Common Prayer, 39 Articles, and the Ordinal serve as the backbone of practicing reformed Catholicism in the home. The 1928, 2003 REC, and to a lesser extent the ACNA Books of Common Prayer also have the benefit of including family prayers to guide family praise, worship, and petitions. Additionally, the church catechism provide a succinct overview of the Christian faith and life easily digestible for children and adults alike.
Singing can also be accomplished through singing the Psalter included in the Book of Common Prayer. Since plainsong, chant, or metrical tune is rare (but if you want to learn check this out), the authorized hymnal can provide the source for singing in a family context. Indeed, hymnals with theologically rich songs serve as a lesser authority to the Anglican formularies outlined earlier, but nevertheless can support the mission of an oratory to disciple children and adults in the faith.
Finally, a forgotten “semi-guidepost”, are the two Books of Homilies. These sermons were officially written by the Church of England and although several are dated, can still be useful in the home when teaching and useful for laity in understanding the church’s doctrine. Although not on the same level as the Book of Common Prayer and Articles of Religion, Article XI cites directly to one of the homilies for a deeper understanding of the official position for Anglicans on justification by faith. This homily (Homily on Salvation, but cited as Homily on Justification in Article XI) refutes the typical polemic that Protestants reject good works by explaining succinctly:
Faith alone, how it is to be understood. Nevertheless, this sentence, that we be justified by faith only, is not so meant of them, that the said justifying faith is alone in man, without true repentance, hope, charity, dread, and the fear of GOD, at any time and season. Nor when they say, That we be justified freely, they mean not that we should or might afterward be idle, and that nothing should be required on our parts afterward: Neither they mean not so to be justified without good works, that we should do no good works at all, like as shall be more expressed at large hereafter. But this saying, That we be justified by faith only, freely and without works, is spoken for to take away clearly all merit of our works, as being unable to deserve our justification at GODS hands, and thereby most plainly to express the weakness of man, and the goodness of GOD, the great infirmity of our selves, and the might and power of GOD, the imperfectness of our own works, and the most abundant grace of our Savior Christ, and therefore wholly to ascribe the merit and deserving of our justification unto Christ only, and his most precious blood shedding.
They that continue in evil living, have not true faith. For how can a man have this true faith, this sure trust and confidence in GOD, that by the merits of Christ, his sins be forgiven, and be reconciled to the favor of GOD, and to be partaker of the kingdom of heaven by Christ, when he lives ungodly, and denies Christ in his deeds? Surely no such ungodly man can have this faith and trust in GOD. For as they know Christ to be the only savior of the world: so they know also that wicked men shall not enjoy the kingdom of GOD. They know that GOD hates unrighteousness (Psalms 5.5-6), that he will destroy all those that speak untruly, that those which have done good works (which cannot be done without a lively faith in Christ) shall come forth into the resurrection of life, and those that have done evil, shall come unto the resurrection of judgement: very well they know also, that to them that be contentious, and to them that will not be obedient unto the truth, but will obey unrighteousness, shall come indignation, wrath, and affliction, &c.
The bottom line is a Christian must be governed and rooted in an authority, the question is who or what? Although contemporary Protestantism, Anglicanism, and frankly Christians of all persuasions have deviated to following what their gut, emotions, or a bad piece of cheese (as C.S. Lewis puts it) provide, there are guideposts that fence-in the beliefs and interpretations of reformed Catholics. Families seeking such a guidepost for their own discipleship should look to the Anglican path as one that provides a number of resources and tools that are catholic and reformed in the best sense of both words, and both worlds.