Stephen Neill (1900-1984), Anglican missionary, bishop and scholar, presents an appealing picture of Anglicanism in his 1958(*) book, simply titled, Anglicanism.

One of the things I've been trying to un-learn while reading it has been the idea that it is perfectly normal for there to be numerous churches and denominations, all formally independent of each other.

At the time of the Reformation, there was but one church—one Catholic church—in the Western world. This church was in desperate need of reform, and so great was the need for reformation that some parts of the one church took it upon themselves to enact various reforms on a local level. Other parts of the one church weren't happy about this, and made that clear. So the consequence was, not multiple churches, but still one Catholic church, albeit with impaired fellowship between the different parts of that one Catholic church (for example, the Roman part of the one Catholic church, and the English part of the one Catholic church).

It's not a familiar way of thinking, but Neill presents the history of the Church of England in that light (and charts the subsequent spread of this English style of Christianity around the world, in the global Anglican Communion).

This view of the (capital-C) Catholicity of the Church of England runs through to the final chapter, "What then is Anglicanism?". It's a pleasure to read, but whether it is as believable in 2013 as it was in 1958 is perhaps not easy to say.

What are the special theological doctrines of the Church of England and of the Anglican Churches in fellowship with it?

The answer is that there are no special Anglican theological doctrines, there is no particular Anglican theology. The Church of England is the Catholic Church in England. It teaches all the doctrines of the Catholic Faith, as these are to be found in Holy Scripture, as they are summarised in the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, and as they are set forth in the decisions of the first four General Councils of the undivided Church. Firmly based on the Scriptures as containing all things necessary to salvation, it still throws out the challenges: 'Show us that there is anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach and we will teach it. Show us that anything in our teaching or practice is clearly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.' … [T]he faith of the Church is to be found in the Bible and in the Prayer Book; and on that faith the Anglican Churches have, in the four centuries since the Reformation, never compromised (pp.417-8).

(Was that really believable in 1958? Is it very different today? Still, it's a good ideal to aspire towards.)

Anglicanism is therefore very hard to define. However, Neill identifies various elements "on which Anglicans throughout the world would probably agree as characteristic of their own faith and experience" (p.418). I counted ten:

  1. "the biblical quality by which the whole warp and woof of Anglican life is penetrated",
  2. that "Anglican churches are liturgical churches",
  3. an "intense sense of continuity" with the church throughout history,
  4. "the Anglican insistence on episcopacy and the episcopal ministry" (but note that "Good Presbyterians who fear prelacy would be much consoled, if they could realize how little it is within the power of the English bishop to be prelatical", p.440),
  5. "the Anglican tradition of theological learning",
  6. "a general Anglican willingness to tolerate for the time being what appears to be error", recognising that "heresy trials" generally cause even greater harm,
  7. a "confidence in the truth that makes the Anglican Churches demand so much of the faithful",
  8. an appeal "particularly to the conscience", expecting people "to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God",
  9. "the unbroken tradition of saintliness in the Anglican Churches", which nurture people of "diligence, humility, humour, and a transcendent holiness", and
  10. that "From the beginning the Church of England has tried to be comprehensive", seeking to hold together "those who are agreed on the fundamentals of the Christian faith", while leaving room for "a measure of latitude in interpretation" (pp.418-426, emphases in original).

On that last point, it is worth quoting (as Neill does) from the Report of the Committee on Unity of the Church of the Lambeth Conference of 1948:

The co-existence of these divergent views within the Anglican Communion sets up certain tensions; but these are tensions within a wide range of agreement in faith in practice. We recognize the inconvenience caused by these tensions, but we acknowledge them to be part of the will of God for us, since we believe that it is only through a comprehensiveness which makes it possible to hold together in the Anglican Communion understandings of truth which are held in separation in other Churches, that the Anglican Communion is able to reach out in different directions, and so to fulfil its special vocation as one of God's instruments for the restoration of the visible unity of His whole Church. If at the present time one view were to prevail to the exclusion of others, we should be delivered from our tensions, but only at the price of missing our opportunity and our vocation (p.427).

This goal—of the visible unity of the whole Church in agreement on the fundamentals of the Christian faith—is one to which we should all aspire. But to me it is an open question whether Anglicanism (or English Anglicanism, to be more specific) is journeying in that direction. I think it might be, but it's hard to say, and it could well be said that "the Church of England is no longer defined by its confessional and doctrinal basis, but is defined much more by that caricature that Neill abhors—perpetual compromise and an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable", as Jake Belder expressed it in a recent post discussing this same book.

(*) I have the second edition, 1960, in which "No extensive rewriting has been possible" (p.8). I believe there were subsequent editions in 1965 and 1977, but I don't know whether they were significantly revised, and I can't persuade Google Books to show me…