Resetting Global Anglicanism as Reformed and Catholic

What gives global Anglicanism today its identity and coherence? After decades-long tensions reached a breaking point in early 2023, the global Anglican communion has entered a new era for its members’ relationships to one another and to the world. This provides a singular opportunity to recover and bolster the reformed and catholic character of global Anglicanism, and offers a pathway towards renewal.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has historically been an influential means for Anglican unity around the world, being recognized as a first among equals in the college of bishops in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been regarded as neither an Anglican equivalent to the Pope in terms of ecclesiology and institutional power, nor as merely one more bishop among others, given the significant influence and potential to foster voluntary unity historically associated with the See of Canterbury. But a realignment has been underway for several decades, and a drastically different conception of what unifies the Anglican communion is now assumed by the overwhelming majority of Anglicans worldwide.

Tensions that had been mounting for decades reached a pivotal moment in February of 2023, when the General Synod of the Church of England voted by a majority to commend the blessing of same-sex couples/unions. Subsequently, the Global Anglican Future Conference and the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches–which combined represent an estimated 85% of Anglicans worldwide in predominately non-Western countries–gathered in April of 2023 in Kigali, Rwanda to produce the Kigali Commitment, which has urged the leadership of the Church of England to repent, and called for a significant reset of how global Anglicans understand themselves and relate to one another. The Kigali Commitment’s summons to reset the global Anglican communion especially envisages a recovery of Holy Scripture as the final authority of the church’s belief and practice, in at least three regards. Lamenting current divisions caused by “failure to hear and heed God’s Word undermines the mission of the church as a whole,” the Kigali Commitment declares:

The Bible is God’s Word written, breathed out by God as it was written by his faithful messengers (2 Timothy 3:16). It carries God’s own authority, is its own interpreter, and it does not need to be supplemented, nor can it ever be overturned by human wisdom. God’s good Word is the rule of our lives as disciples of Jesus and is the final authority in the church… this fellowship is broken when we turn aside from God’s Word or attempt to reinterpret it in any way that overturns the plain reading of the text in its canonical context and so deny its truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency, and thereby its authority (Jerusalem Declaration #2).

Further, the authority of Scripture is identified as the issue at the heart of recent crises in the Anglican communion, declaring that “despite 25 years of persistent warnings by most Anglican Primates, repeated departures from the authority of God’s Word have torn the fabric of the Communion.” The most recent precipitating event from early 2023 is thus described as undermining of “biblical teaching,” and the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders are charged with having betrayed their vows “to uphold and defend the truth taught in Scripture.” The constructive alternative that the Kigali Commitment foregrounds that “‘communion’ between churches and Christians must be based on doctrine,” declaring “Anglican identity is defined by this and not by recognition from the See of Canterbury,” thus summoning the Archbishop to repentance and the global Anglican communion to renewal. In short, we might ask, how does the Kigali Commitment envisage what unifies global Anglicans? Rather than bare communion with a bishop or a set of common practices or aesthetics, the glue holding global Anglicans together is commitment to certain theological doctrines whose authoritative basis is Holy Scripture.

Perhaps the strongest critique that has been raised about the Kigali Commitment from within conservative Anglicanism is the June 2023 First Things essay by Hans Boersma, Gerald McDermott, and Greg Peters entitled “Is the Anglican ‘Reset’ Truly Anglican?” The authors are not concerned about the Kigali Commitment because they hold a progressive outlook on recent controversies, but rather:

We applaud our Anglican bishops’ willingness to reject neocolonial demands to accept the hegemony of the sexual revolution. But we are concerned that in an admirable attempt to resist the liberal project, they unwittingly have themselves opened the door to the use of Scripture for liberal ends. The Kigali Commitment repeatedly appeals to the authority of the Bible alone and fails to mention either the authority of the Church or the role of tradition, describing the Bible as “the rule of our lives” and the “final authority in the church” without mentioning that Scripture functions within the context of tradition—in particular, the common liturgy of the Church and the Book of Common Prayer—and the Church’s teaching authority.

Boersma, McDermott, and Peters agree with the Kigali Commitment that “the divine Scriptures are indeed the ultimate authority for matters of doctrine. The Church has no authority to define dogma that the Scriptures do not already contain or to admit heretical teachings that contradict them.” However, they are concerned that “a strict sola scriptura hermeneutic, which fails to recognize the Bible’s origin in the ancient Church and its authoritative interpretation by the Church fathers and creeds, opens the way to a liberal method in which every reader serves as his own authority.” Where the Kigali Commitment asserts a “plain reading” of Scripture, its “clarity,” and that Scripture is “its own interpreter,” Boersma, McDermott, and Peters contend “the Church cannot avoid interpreting the Scriptures, and she must do so faithfully, in line with sacred tradition. Without tradition as norm and guide, the canonical context and clarity of Scripture are meaningless… Kigali’s strict ‘Bible alone’ viewpoint is also a departure from the approach of the English Reformers,” from Thomas Cranmer through bedrocks of Anglican theology such as John Jewell and Richard Hooker.

The critique offered by Boersma, McDermott, and Peters is helpful and stimulating in many ways. A biblicistic disregard for the rule of faith, ecclesiology, and the Great Tradition indeed can have disastrous consequences in the life of the church. Does the Kigali Commitment’s theological prolegomena and hermeneutic unintentionally undermine its commendable aims? It is of dire importance that our reimagination of the global Anglican communion proceed on sound theological grounds, informed by theological practices that have preceded and will also long outlast us. Indeed, for Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, as well as magisterial Reformers such as Calvin and Luther,[1] the authority, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture were never imagined to mean that everything in Scripture is clear to everyone. Sola Scriptura after all, is a statement about Scripture’s authority, rather than a hermeneutical principle. Even at that, it might be better to say Prima Scriptura rather than Sola, since Holy Scripture is the highest, final, and primary authority for the church’s faith and practice, rather than the only authority.[2] If the Kigali Commitment indeed envisages an individualistic biblicism as the hermeneutic governing the church’s life, wherein every individual interpreter’s reading of Scripture becomes the final arbiter for faith and practice, abstracted from ecclesial structure, then indeed its efforts are in vain. That would be to cede the church’s theology to the whims of political biases and self-autonomous individuals, rather than the church’s reading of Holy Scripture being ordered to the rule of faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), a torch passed down through the ages for us to pass on to others, especially in the ecumenical creeds and their early exposition and defense by the Church Fathers. But is that indeed the theological program and hermeneutic advocated for by the Kigali Commitment?

If we take into consideration the context assumed by the Kigali Commitment, then concerns of a biblicism that disregards Anglican tradition and the rule of faith are allayed. When the Kigali Commitment mentions the plain sense of Scripture in its canonical context, it cites the second statement of the 2008 Jerusalem Declaration. That section, and the two which follow, declare:

  1. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.
  2. We uphold the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic Creeds as expressing the rule of faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
  3. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.

While these commitments to a catholic and evangelical theology under the historic and conciliar rule of faith are not made in the Kigali Commitment itself, the Kigali Commitment’s citation of the Jerusalem Declaration on this matter arguably means these concerns are part of the wider context within which the Kigali Commitment should be read. Hence, the character of Anglicanism as distinctively Reformed and catholic, a continuing witness to the church’s ancient catholic faith and the recovery of the apostolic gospel from the English Reformation, is well accounted for by the context of the Kigali Commitment and by the prior commitments of the Anglican bodies that created it (GAFCON and GSFA). More broadly, the Kigali Commitment is not a confession of faith, nor should we expect it to be all-encompassing. The Kigali Commitment is not itself the reset of the Anglican communion, but a public recognition that realignment is well underway, and a summons for Anglicans worldwide to self-consciously undertake the work of resetting and renewing our global communion. I want to suggest three areas of focus towards that end: a focus on being Reformed; a focus on being catholic; and a focus on what living as Reformed catholic community in our particular contexts might look like.

Focus #1: Reformed

First, while there has been range of theological diversity throughout the history of Anglicanism, the historic formularies of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty Nine Articles, and the Ordinal (along with the Two Books of Homilies) give Anglicanism an enduring Reformed character on key doctrines such as justification, the sacraments, and ecclesiology. An account of whatever it means to be global Anglicans must foreground that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ is the head of his worldwide church. Christ is the head of the church, Christ himself is the Chief Shepherd of his people, and Christ himself is the source of the church’s life, unity, mission, and telos (Ephesians 1:20–23; 2:1–10, 19–22; 3:8–10; 4:12–14; and Eph 5:32). Cyprian of Carthage in the fourth century famously taught that no one can know God as ‘Father’ unless the church is our ‘mother,’ a view shared by Augustine that deeply informed the ecclesiology of Reformers such as John Calvin, and Richard Hooker for whom “the Church is to us that very mother of our new birth in whose bowels we are all bred, at whose breasts we receive nourishment.”[3] Many factors spurred the magisterial Protestant reformations across sixteenth century continental Europe and the British Isles, but a driving theological concern across them all was a desire to recover the patristic notion that Holy Scripture is the final authority for the church’s faith and practice. In this vision, a confession such as the Thirty Nine Articles can be regarded as norma normata, an authority that is itself subservient to the highest authority of Scripture, but only Holy Scripture is the norma normans, non normata, that is, the rule or standard that rules all else, but is not itself ruled. The Thirty Nine Articles articulate this position well in Article VI, that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation,” and also in article VIII on the creeds, that “the Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” As the late Anglican theologian John Webster argued, Anglican polity finds its ultimate basis in the gospel itself, that “a ministry of oversight is a necessary implication of the church’s confession of the gospel,”[4] and Webster thus exhorts:

It is vital to trace the connection between gospel and [ecclesial] order if we are not to fall prey to the individualism and anticlericalism which have affected a great deal of modern Protestant theology and historiography of ministry. The protests of the magisterial reformers against inflated claims for the mediating power of the church and its orders of ministry have in modernity often been translated into assertions of the primacy of private (or perhaps congregational) judgment, and of the merely secondary character of community order in relation to the fundamental reality of unmediated encounter with God in Christian experience.[5]

Recovering a theological account of the connection between the church and the gospel will also help Anglicans amidst the realignment of our global communion as we discern how best to relate ecumenically with non-Anglican Christian communions. The ecclesiology and doctrine of Scripture envisaged in the Thirty Nine Articles is something close to a Reformed outlook that Karl Barth describes as follows:

Under the Word and therefore under Holy Scripture the Church does have and exercise genuine authority. It has and exercises it by being obedient, concretely obedient, by claiming for itself not a direct, but only a mediate authority, not a material but a formal, not an absolute but a relative. It has and exercises it by refraining from any direct appeal to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in support of its words and attitudes and decisions, by not trying to speak out as though it were infallible and final, but by subordinating itself to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in the form in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is actually present and gracious to it, that is, in His attestation by the prophets and apostles, in the differentiation from its own witness conditioned by its written nature. Therefore, it has and exercises it in the concrete humility which consists in the recognition that in Holy Scripture it has over it everywhere and always and in every respect its Lord and Judge: in the incompleteness of its own knowing and acting and speaking which that involves, in the openness to reformation through the Word of God which constantly confronts it in Holy Scripture.[6]

Such a disposition is neither the doctrine of revelation and clerical authority held by the Roman Catholic Church, nor the anarchy of biblicist individualism. For Anglicans Scripture is not the only authority in the church or the Christian life, but it is the final and highest authority, governing other authorities.

Focus #2: Catholic

Second, Anglicans are catholic because the scope of the gospel is universal in its claims and we are united with Christians not only around the world today, but across the ages. Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and John Jewell’s Apology for the Church of England are thus replete with appeals to the Church Fathers throughout, arguing that the Anglican church’s existence was not an innovation but a continuing witness of received, patristic faith. The sacramental theology of union with Christ in Hooker’s Laws is a sterling synthesis of conciliar trinitarian and Christological theology and its pastoral import.[7] Hooker contended against the ‘regulative principle’ as practiced historically by Puritans and Presbyterians, who held that Christians are only permitted to do in public worship what is expressly commanded of us in Scripture; as such, holidays, such as Christmas, or wearing certain vestments, such as the surplice, were forbidden by the regulative principle. Instead, Hooker taught that while we should not do anything Scripture forbids, and our corporate life and worship should be ordered well, Scripture does not speak explicitly or immediately about every circumstance of the Christian life or the church’s worship, we should continue the historic practices handed down to us by Christian tradition unless they can be shown to be at odds with something God expressly says in Holy Scripture. Whereas Puritan and Presbyterian traditions did away with the historic episcopate and some aspects of historic Christian liturgy, the tradition of Prayer Book worship that emerged in the Anglican church preserved many ancient forms of Christian worship not found explicitly in Scripture that have proved to be reliable across the tests of time. The distinctively Anglican way at once couples both these patristic traditions of catholic worship and polity while also inculcating robustly evangelical and Reformed doctrines even in the church’s liturgy itself, from its earliest versions under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to its long-established form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and reflected in the ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer.

If we are to be a church that continues the witness of our Anglican forebears, then we urgently must shore up the ruins of formal theological education. An Anglican theological imagination will practice not only interpersonal but also chronological hospitality. Again and again, in constant dialogue with the communion of saints who have gone before us and who even now are in Christ, we listen afresh for the voice of God speaking in Holy Scripture, read according to the rule of faith. Global Anglicans should furnish their interpretive imaginations with the best theological insights of the Protestant Reformation and the writings of the patristic and medieval Church Fathers. Richard Hooker and John Jewell were able to make constant use of patristic sources across their theological writings and scriptural interpretation because they were highly skilled readers of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and more; they did not have convenient access to cheap, English translations. Do we want to cultivate these skills and follow in their footsteps? A century or more ago, Anglicans in the West probably could not have predicted which specific crises would lead to the realignment of our global communion; they certainly would not have anticipated that a call for a reset of the global communion would come from the Global South!

Today, we can scarcely imagine what theological questions and ethical problems the church will face decades and centuries from now in our time of cultural revolution and social acceleration.[8] What time-tested sources will be drawn upon in future Anglican preaching, teaching, and decision making? What first principles of biblical reasoning, what theological instincts, are being formed in us now to prepare for that time? What habits of mind, heart, and body do we want to so imbibe as to become second nature, so that they endure amidst unknown crucibles before us? As many seminaries and Christian colleges in the West face significant challenges to financial viability, prompting some to require a less rigorous curriculum and others to almost wholly online learning, a form that drastically affects the content of theological education and formation. Fluency in ancient languages, and familiarity with the church’s great tradition, alone will not safeguard a faithful bequest of the gospel to future generations of Anglicans. But apart from them, we have scant hope it will be both Reformed and catholic.

Focus #3: Context

Finally, global Anglicanism is, and should be, a counter-testimony to how the non-Christian world conceives of membership in a global community. In the twenty-first century, global Anglicans have been presented with a missional opportunity to belong to one another and to the local places God has sent us in a mode of hospitality and attentiveness, doing so as those part of a global fellowship whose Anglican way has been handed down to us, to hand on to others.

Global Anglicans should embody an alternative form of life to the economic and political forces of globalization and Neo-Liberalism. Comparatively wealthier Westerners know ourselves to be part of some form of global community whenever we walk into a store and buy bananas, coffee, and fresh bouquets of flowers, regardless of whether they are in season at home. We live a form of life abstracted from the topsoil, animals, people, and climate of our own home. We easily forget this, and there are incentives to not recognize or remember this, especially as we use and discard cheap electronics and fill our cars with petroleum imported from countries on the other side of the planet. The wide availability of cheap material goods, luxuries, and comforts for individual Western consumers often have come at the expense of local community life at home, the well-being of impoverished workers overseas, and unsustainable ways of depleting, poisoning, and eroding our land, filling our water with plastic, and our air with poisons.[9] Unlike all prior epochs of human history, with the ubiquity of smartphones, televisions, and personal computers in our lives today, many of us devote more time and attention to spectacle on digital screens than the places where we are physically located and the people around us. Distinctively Anglican practices of corporate worship, such as gathering with others to pray the Daily Office together, should form us to inhabit the particular times and places where we live in with an attentiveness that contradicts the totalizing forces of modern globalization that erode and deplete local places, both at home and abroad. Such a disposition can make our churches beacons and shelters of love and hospitality in an increasingly isolated, fragmented, polarized, and individualistic world. As such, global Anglicans have missional opportunities to improvise alternative communities in which virtue is forged amidst the hollowed out urban and rural communities left in the wake of economic and ecological devastation.

We must do so, especially in the West, with a posture of grateful humility and hopeful fortitude. We are not the center of the world, or even the geographic center of Anglicanism; we too are the Gentiles, the pagans, at the ends of the earth unto whom the gospel came, branches that have been grafted into the root of mercy undergirding Israel’s tree (Rom 11). Now the gospel has come to us again from our brothers and sisters in the global South, urging us to build alternative structures for an orthodox Anglican presence in the West. Wherever we are located, we are sent to be faithful missionaries to our particular time and place (Acts 17:26), but we do so as part of a global body that is seeking the face of God together. Perhaps we might even dare to pray, not merely with others in mind, but primarily ourselves:

Eternal and gracious God, who art slow to anger and of great kindness: Have mercy upon thy faithless and backsliding church. We mourn and confess to thee our sins, the poverty of our devotion, and the weakness of our testimony. Pardon, cleanse, and restore us, we humbly beseech thee. Fill us with the power of the Holy Spirit, that we thy people may be humbled and sanctified, and that the multitudes who are lost to thee may be convicted of their sins and converted to their Saviour, for the glory of his saving name. Amen.[10]

Joshua Heavin is a transitional deacon and curate at the Church of the Resurrection (ACNA), an adjunct professor at Houston Christian University, and an instructor of religion at West Texas A&M University.

  1. See Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.6.1–4; I.7.1–5; see also Martin Luther’s response to the papal bull Execrabilis: “This is my answer to those also who accuse me of rejecting all the holy teachers of the church. I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred,” in Luther’s Works, trans. and eds. George W. Forell and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1958), 11. See esp. Todd R. Hains, Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith: Reading God’s Word for God’s People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).

  2. See John W. Yates III, “Sola Scriptura,” Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today’s Global Communion, eds. Ashley Null and John W. Yates III (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 77–104.

  3. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Volume Two, Book V, ed. by Arthur Stephen McGrade (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), §50, 138. On Cyprian, Augustine, and Calvin, see Jaeseung Cha, “Calvin’s Concept of the Church as mater fidelium (Mother of Believers), Viewed through His Concept of Accommodation,” Journal of Reformed Theology, 9.2 (2015):182–201.

  4. John Webster, “The Self-Organizing Power of the Gospel of Christ: Episcopacy and Community Formation,” in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2006), 192.

  5. Webster, “Self-Organizing Power,” 192–193.

  6. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: Volume I: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, trans. by G.T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), §20, 586.

  7. See Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Volume Two, Book V, ed. by Arthur Stephen McGrade (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), §50–57, 138–166

  8. Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, trans. by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013).

  9. See Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1977).

  10. Eds. Samuel L. Bray and Drew N. Keane, The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 676–677.


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