Evangelical Anglican Reflections from Rome

So what does an evangelical Anglican make of spending two weeks at an Extraordinary Synod of the Church of Rome?

I was at a very nice dinner in the English College early in the second week. Cardinal Vincent Nicholls was our host. We were reminded, amidst the splendour of the college and the delights of the hospitality, that forty-one of the first priests who trained here at the end of the sixteenth century were martyred in England. It was a sobering thought. That week, in our calendar we remembered Ridley and Latimer, similarly martyred a few years earlier under Mary's Catholic reign. Then, right at the end of the week, we remembered the Ugandan martyrs and a point was made publicly that Anglicans were similarly martyred; indeed later that day I had a brief conversations with Pope Francis and he wanted to emphasise to me that the Anglican martyrs were equally to be remembered. We shed each other's blood at one stage; we are bound by common shed blood today.

During the meal I was asked by the two archbishops and priest with whom I shared a table about my own Christian journey. I was able to make a comment about how, in my early years, I could never have imagined being where I sat right then; one archbishop quipped back ‘no Christians in Rome, eh?’. It opened up a really good conversation about just how Rome was depicted as almost the great Satan in some pre-millennialist writings of the early 1970s. How the Pope was seen by some as the anti-Christ. But equally how those of us outside Rome were viewed very sceptically indeed. We reflected how much both our personal understandings had changed, but also how much movement there had been at official levels.

One clear illustration was conversations with a variety of those at the Synod about the use of Alpha and the Marriage Course in their many and varied nations. Quite a number had been over for the Alpha Conference and valued it enormously. It was suggested (and it may be true) that around the world more Catholics than Anglicans are engaging in Alpha courses. One archbishop noted how uncertain Nicky Gumbel had been when the idea of Catholics using Alpha was first mooted. How times and events change us.

On the middle Sunday I chose to worship at the English language 'Caravita' Catholic service. Someone described it to me as ‘the best Anglican worship in Rome’. It was ecumenical as members of the Catholic-Methodist dialogue were also present and we sang two Wesley hymns (from the Catholic hymn book). What was most notable though was the sermon. It was one of the clearest and best straight Bible expositions I have heard in quite a while, and it lasted 25 minutes. My Reformed Presbyterian fellow fraternal delegate was bemoaning later that day that the sermon at the Presbyterian Church had been 'all stories and no Bible'. Indeed the amount of use of the Bible, including occasional detailed debate on the Greek text, was a feature of the Synod itself. Yes, reference to the Magisterium was strong, but so too was the desire to get people reading their Bibles and continually remembering that the Scriptures are our foundation.

During the Synod and in times of worship I remain perturbed by the Marian doctrine and how it is expressed. I struggle with the apparent unwillingness to consider changing anything within Humanae Vitae, and indeed some other parts of the magisterium. I find the insistence on the sacramental nature of marriage which leads to indissolubility and the strange handling then of annulment baffling and unconvincing. But I rejoice in the commitment to trying to help ensure marriages work and stick rather than the all-too-easy acceptance of divorce and remarriage which I fear we have slid into ourselves. I find the idea of the family home being a 'domestic church' rich in possibility and one that we as Anglican evangelicals (as well as Protestants of all shades) would do well to reflect on and develop further. Indeed I think we are actually in a stronger position to look to the Holy Family as a model than are our Roman friends. I say this because we believe Mary and Joseph had a full sex life which produced other children. The idea of perpetual virgin risks promoting an unhealthy view of God’s good gift of sexual intercourse within marriage.

During the Synod the lay witnesses - who shared their experiences and work with families in need in every imaginable way - were inspiring. I want to learn more about their work and see what we could replicate; for example, Retrouvaille and their insistence that the only people who can deliver their three-month programme are those who have already had their marriages rebuilt through it. It is absolutely wounded healers offering healing balm to other wounded people. Love for Jesus and his ways shone out so often.

Which leads me finally to Pope Francis. He is truly a remarkable man. He listened so intently and summarised not just what was said but how it was said and the attitudes from which it was said in a masterly way. He is unfussy and unhurried. He is warm and prayerful. He is passionate for the poor and needy. He is insistent on going to the margins and accompanying people in need. He is clear that the good news is all about Jesus Christ and he wants people to know God's love for them found in Jesus Christ the Lord.

During the Synod I wrote to my Dean that I thought I would return 'more Protestant and more Catholic'. I think that is true. I returned loving being an Anglican and convinced afresh of why evangelical insistence on the Cross, grace and the Scriptures matters. I also returned more appreciative of my Catholic brothers and sisters who taught me much in those two weeks and with whom I look to discover ever more the riches of the mystery of the gospel.


Bishop Paul’s reflections during the Synod and other writing can be found on his blog, “Through the Eyes of A Bishop…”.

15 thoughts on “Evangelical Anglican Reflections from Rome”

  1. (corrected)

    Phil, OP means Original Post. The OP here is by Paul Butler.

    Yes, a ‘dysangel’ is ‘bad news,’ and ‘dysangelical’ describes a counsel of despair where we would expect the gospel, stones where we would expect bread.


    You probably agree with Tom Wright on the conscientious, personal reading of scripture.

    Wright believes that his hermeneutic for the pauline letters supports the position of the Reformers. “The point is not that the Reformers had a faulty hermeneutic, therefore the Catholics must be right. Get the hermeneutic right, and you will see that the critique is all the stronger. Just because they used a faulty hermeneutic to attack Rome, that does not mean there was nothing to attack, or that a better hermeneutic would not have done the job better.”


    However, although Wright agrees with the Reformation gospel of ‘justification by Christ through faith,’ he agrees with Alistair McGrath that one cannot naively read it off the top of the text as was once thought. Moreover, to avoid eisegesis, Wright usually avoids the terminology of Protestant scholasticism in exegesis. Some feel the loss of naive reading more than the power of Wright’s hermeneutic.

    Graham Kings’s metaphors of the river, canal, and falls of evangelical religion are strong enough to support a few interpretations. Where ‘resourcement’ is pursued as a strategy for disruption and renewal (eg Erlangen School, Luther Renaissance, Finnish School, etc), we might also speak of evangelicals at the ‘headwaters.’

    Although we do see Reformed evangelicals avoiding the tides and tributaries in the canal, we also see relatively ‘open’ Reformed scholars retrieving their headwaters sources of the C 16-17. The results of their return ad fontes are interesting– disruptive to C 19 systems (eg Myk Habets, Bobby Grow et al on ‘Evangelical Calvinism’) but also inspiring in our own time (eg Julie Canlis on Calvin’s theology of union with Christ. Do enjoy your meditations on St Paul, and let us know what you find.”

  2. Phil has modestly omitted the link to his Churchman article on private judgment and the internet.


    His plea is entirely reasonable.* If anything, he understates his case.

    We should indeed have a theological discourse that is more open and transparent than the simoniacal one that charges so much for expensive books about sacred things slowly published at great cost for a tiny circulation. This racket abducts knowledge of God and holds it for a ransom that only a few hundred research libraries can pay. Indeed, fiscally prudent churches should ask, as universities already do, why in the age of the digital file they must pay publishers for access to the scholarship that they have already paid the authors to produce in the first place.

    Nor is this only a problem for zealots and hobbyists. As Larry Hurtado has pointed out, the high prices of books and paywalls have also excluded theologians and pastors in ‘developing’ countries from participating fully in contemporary scholarship. That must also be true of many in ‘developed’ countries who are marginalised by limited means. This is very disquieting.

    So why should not churches agree to drag all their theologians fully online where physicians, scientists, and economists increasingly already are? A massive independent database for theology similar to Pubmed Central, Public Library of Science, arXive, or the SSRC would support both evangelism and ecumenism worldwide.






    And why not some MOOCs (massive online open courses) such as those developed by EdX?


    And finally, thinking again of Phil, there is room in cyberspace for a Bible that is, not just linked to the usual study aids, but is itself a sort of discussion room. We have seen that it can be profitable to discuss the text of scripture here, but also that exchanges of messages are a cumbersome way to do this.

    Synods of bishops from around the world, such as the one recounted in the OP, are an ancient sign of the unity and universality of the Church through space and time. Canterbury, Rome– and next year Constantinople**– are bringing it into the C21. An online archive hosting a forum like that which Phil describes is also such a sign– indeed its necessary complement and counterweight– and it may be one for which evangelicals feel a special affinity and responsibility.

    Break eggs; make omelet.


    * “Contra Bowman I, like the Anglican Bishop Ryle, believe in the right, duty and necessity of Private Judgment…” I have no idea what Phil means by this “contra”.

    ** Following a preparatory synod in 2015 similar to the one described in the OP, the Patriarch of Constantinople plans to convene an ecumenical council in 2016. By Orthodox reckoning, this will be the first such council since 787.


    • Bowman
      Thank you for your supportive comments. From your response to my ‘contra’ it looks like I have misjudged your stance on private judgment. Sorry.
      Phil Almond

      • No, Phil, thank you for your positive proposal, which is the truly visionary response to the OP.

        On private judgment, I do not see any daylight at all between what I take to be your views and what I know to be Tom Wright’s views. On this side of the pond, the most magisterial have objected that his construal of St Paul’s dikaiwsis is not the Reformed scholastic understanding of the word. Indeed, we have seen clergy tried for heresy in some presbyteries out west for reading St Paul as Wright does rather than as the Westminster divines are thought to have done. Wright and the accused have replied that the stable meaning of the scriptures cannot be subordinated to a ‘scholasticism’ of the confessions. This position, it seems to me, presupposes a private judgment about that stable meaning.

        Wright himself contrasts such private judgment about the scriptures with the practise of the Roman church–

        “…let us make no mistake: this debate is about Scripture and tradition, and about whether we allow Scripture ever to say things that our human traditions have not said. Here there is a great irony… I was the Anglican observer at the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops two years ago, when for three weeks the cardinals and bishops were discussing ‘The Word of God.’ Some of the bishops wanted to say that ‘the word of God’ meant, basically, Scripture itself. Others wanted to say that it meant Scripture and tradition. Others again wanted to say, ‘Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium.'”

        So it is not only Anglicans who have disagreements about quite basic matters. You and Kenneth have both described views common in the Roman church. Wright continues with his own view–

        “I, naturally, wanted to hold out for a sense of ‘word of God’ in which Scripture held the prime place and was allowed to question tradition and magisterium alike. That, I take it, is the historic Protestant position. Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called ‘biblicism.’ I’m not sure what that is, exactly. What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin: that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture.”

        There it is. Tom Wright is sculling down what Graham Kings has described as the open ‘river.’ Wright goes on about critics dragged by a mule down the closed ‘canal’–

        “To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious. To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse. To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther— ‘How dare you say something different from what we’ve believed all these centuries’—again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history. I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said? On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics.”


        So far as I can see, my own view of private judgment does not differ from his or yours. However, more than most who post here, I do view the gospel (eg Apostle’s Creed) as the Bible’s intrinsic hermeneutic, preaching as freeing the listener with the dialectic of law and gospel, and ministry as a divine institution that enables saving faith. Those not expecting to hear echoes of Luther’s robust theology of the Word hereabouts could find such evangelische notes puzzling.





        • Bowman
          I don’t understand everything you have said in this last post here but a few observations on the bits I do understand.
          It may be, from the NTW quotes you gave it probably is, that he and I agree about private judgment. But of course that does not mean that we agree about the issues he has raised about justification etc. From my sketchy, imperfect, second- or third-hand knowledge of his views and the views of those who agree with him, I think he and they are wrong and I and those who agree with me are right. When I have completed my meditation on Paul’s letters and what he says in Acts, and related matters, and finally confronted myself with his first-hand strongest arguments I may be persuaded that he is right and I am wrong, or I may be confirmed in my current view that he is wrong and I am right. But that result, as far as I am concerned, will be decided solely on what the Bible says and means.
          I don’t agree with your use of Graham Kings river and canal. I agree that the canal closes the things which the river keeps open, but that is because in our view the Bible, (not the Reformed Tradition), closes them, whereas the river keeps open what the Bible closes. I know it is an argument from silence but the failure of the Fulcrum Leadership Team to say they agree with me on original sin, the wrath of God, the propitiation of Christ, eternal punishment, illustrates this.
          By the way, I realise I should probably know, but what, please, is OP?

          Phil Almond

  3. ‘………..Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.(6)
    10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)
    But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
    It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls’.
    The above extract from the Dogmatic Constitution on divine revelation, Chapter 2, Second Vatican Council, paragraphs 9 (part of) and 10 shows that Roman Catholics, if they are obeying Vatican 2, recognise another source of revelation alongside of and with an authority equal to Scripture’s. It also shows that the right of private judgment is denied by Vatican 2. Herein lies I believe the fundamental disagreement between Rome and Protestants. But I agree that Roman Catholics do take sin seriously and do believe that we all need to be saved from the wrath of God – unlike many ‘Protestants’.
    Phil Almond

    • I think that’s a little too simplistic. There is an awful lot in that document to be unpacked, and I’m not at all convinced that “the same sense of loyalty and reverence” means equal authority, especially when the passage goes on to explain that the Teaching Office is subject to Scripture in interpreting it.

      Roman Catholic teaching on authority is extremely complex, with its Hierarchy of Truths and subtle interplay of these three strands of its Tradition, and I’m not sure even its leaders really understand it completely, which is probably why John XXIII raised the question of a distinction between doctrine and the Deposit of Faith. Therefore they continually review and refine their position, and ecumenical engagement enables us to play a small part in that process.

      We do not recognise a Teaching Office, but Rome could well point to those ‘Protestants’ who consider themselves among the 99 who need no repentance as evidence of the consequence of the lack of one.

      • Kenneth Petrie
        When you say ‘…especially when the passage goes on to explain that the Teaching Office is subject to Scripture in interpreting it…’ I assume you are referring to the statement, ‘…This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed’. If you are referring to that statement I point out that ‘the word of God’ has already been defined as, ‘Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God’. So the Teaching Office is not subject to Scripture, as you claim, but to Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture – ‘one sacred deposit’. Clearly, if language means anything, these two must be taken together in declaring what is divinely revealed.

        It is true that the CofE does not have an authoritative magisterium. But it does have 39 Articles which, again if language means anything, all ordained persons have stated they believe are true. How many such persons do believe them ex animo? Especially articles 9, 10, 17 and 31?

        Phil Almond

        • What language principally means is what those using it intend it to mean, and I think we’ve now reached a level of interpretation where there is little to be gained by two Evangelical Protestants raking over words written by a different tradition and trying to impose our understanding on them. We almost need to remember what we have here is a translation (albeit an official one) of a Latin original, and sometimes different translations are used to reflect a different interpretation of the original. I think to get any further with this we would need the guidance of a theologically trained Catholic as to what the RCC generally understands by these words and how they relate to our understanding. That’s what dialogue is all about.

          • I also have to say I have a strange experience in this comment section of my words being altered after I have written them (by spelling correction software?) I wrote ‘also’ and ‘almost’ was printed. In an earlier post I wrote ‘imagine’ and ‘image’ was printed. It’s most disconcerting.

    • If Rome had written the Constitution on Divine Revelation in Calvinish, it would have been short and propositional– “(a) The scriptures are inspired; (b) the canon of scriptures is closed; (c) the scriptures require authoritative interpretation; (d) the ‘regulative principle’ is crazy; (e) we are are not always right, but the Church is protected, as the scriptures are, from being harmfully wrong in matters touching eternal salvation.” Or shorter still– “In God’s only economy of salvation, (f) he has inspired reliable scriptures, and (g) he illumines what he has revealed in his Church.”

      Surveying anthropologists ‘wandering to and fro through the earth’ like Satan in Job would find no stable church anywhere that does not empirically believe all this about itself. The fissiparous few who would reject (d) would also reject each other, and are not stable. Our anthropologists would report, “the Catholics openly declare beliefs that nearly all Christians in fact have, although in many circles it is not polite to admit this.”

      We might be sceptical of this report. Surely, the evangelical churches, say, the Southern Baptist Convention in the US, do not believe in (c)? “No,” our anthropologists would reply, “all churches in practice close ranks around those interpretations of the Bible that protect their traditions, and all ultimately regard those who differ as misguided. The Southern Baptists have a more decentralised polity, of course, and so doctrinal control takes a different form, but they are just as likely to enforce their consensus as the Roman Catholics are and they have been just as effective. In that respect, they are as enthusiastic about (c) as the historic papacy. We find no difference.”

      • Several points:
        Contra Bowman I, like the Anglican Bishop Ryle, believe in the right, duty and necessity of Private Judgment, as I tried to set out in an article in the Anglican Journal Churchman, Spring 2010, 124/1.

        Kenneth Petrie’s ‘What language principally means is what those using it intend it to mean….’ has echoes of this exchange in ‘Through the Looking Glass’:

        “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
        Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
        “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
        “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
        “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

        I am not trying to ‘impose my understanding’ on the extract from Vatican 2. Language and words do have meaning and we all try to choose words to accurately express the meaning we wish to convey. Sometimes the response of the person we are trying to communicate with show that we are not being understood. Then we have to choose different words, which hopefully avoid the misunderstanding, to express our meaning. Sometimes on reflection we realize that the words we have used do not accurately reflect the meaning we wished to convey; we then have to use more accurate words to express our meaning. Sometimes we change our mind on the truth we want to convey and we have to choose words which convey this altered meaning.

        I am all in favour of those who regard themselves as Christians discussing and debating where they disagree on some aspect of Christian truth. I want to see this happen much more on the internet and to see theologians and pastors join in, providing the online forum is open to all. It is a great pity that the Women Ordination disagreement did not happen on line like this and it is a great pity that the Wright/Piper disagreement is not happening like this rather than by writing books. So I would welcome the contributions of a Roman Catholic Theologian to give us his view on what the extract from Vatican 2 means. I only stipulate that the process of discussion and debate must leave open the possibility that, when all misunderstandings have been ironed out and all clarifications made, we are left with real disagreement – see the point I have made about this on the Indaba thread.

        Phil Almond

  4. It’s always refreshing for Evangelicals to meet people near the top of the RCC and discover they’re as concerned for the Gospel as we are and not somehow trying to undermine it.

    When I met people at that level in 2006 I sensed a degree of frustration in getting the full message down to the ordinary believers at parish level, because there are so many layers of authority and so many vested interests that things get diluted or blocked in the chain, and speculated that might be why the Roman Curia sometimes come down so heavily on a teacher who deviates from the official line. Are they desperately trying to assert their authority over a body that’s only partially under control?

    I too find the Marian emphasis disturbing, although it’s probably true that as Protestants we don’t value the part our Lord’s mother played in our Salvation. When I was at theological college in the late 80s we had a visiting lecturer who advanced a model of atonement which included the fact Jesus, in accepting his mission had said “yes” against the implied “no” of man’s Sin. Yes, there was a “yes” at Gethsemane, but without the yes at Nazareth there wouldn’t have been a Gethsemane, so one could argue that model put the yes one generation too late. It was Mary’s acceptance of her mission which marks the turning point in those terms. I think it’s probably true that the Catholic over-emphasis has poisoned the Marian well somewhat for the rest of us and we are afraid to drink at all, lest we be misunderstood.

    I am also aware there are still many sound Evangelicals who still regard Catholics as the enemy, especially outside the C of E, and will not participate in ecumenical dialogue because they image it to be a negotiation in which compromises and doctrinal trades are undertaken and everything gets diluted. If they did participate they’d find it to be the opposite, where doctrine is examined ever more closely and refined. Very often our disagreements either don’t exist at all or are dross which has accumulated from the lack of criticism which excluding some from the debate produces. Ecumenists are frequently driven to Scripture, because it’s the only thing we all hold in common, so it’s the only source we can all recognise.

    • Up to a point, some veneration of St Mary, the ‘theotokos’, is a good thing. Martin Luther did not hesitate to invoke her prayers for his forcibly reforming Commentary on the Magnificat. Reverence for her reminds us that, in Christ, God himself was deep in the flesh, and it forfends dematerialising, gnostic error. Before the Enlightenment, it may well have safeguarded the Protestant understanding of salvation as ‘union with Christ’. Indeed, our discomfort today with devotion to his mother may be the long shadow cast by modernist theologies that neglected his person for his work. One wishes to avoid being a log-eyed mote-picker, and might reconsider what practise best reflects the scriptural reality. But a little veneration goes a long way.


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