Be honest, when you hear the name John Jebb, you don’t immediately picture an early nineteenth-century Irish Anglican bishop. I picture a guest star from The Dukes of Hazard (“Well, it looks like the boys have gotten in some trouble now, but hopefully old John Jebb can get them out … ”). Even for Anglicans, Jebb is not a familiar name. His work does not garner a place on the curriculum in many seminaries, let alone inquirers’ classes in parishes. Yet his 1815 tract on the Peculiar Character of the Church of England gives arguably the most clear and succinct apologetic for Anglicanism ever written.
According to Jebb, what makes the Church of England different from all other Christian communions is her teaching that Christian doctrine is to be derived from Scripture first, but not alone:
The Church of England, in the first instance, and as her grand foundation, derives all obligatory matters of faith, that is, to use her own expression, all “that is to be believed for necessity of salvation,” from the scripture alone: and herein, she differs from the Church of Rome. But she systematically resorts to the concurrent sense of the Church Catholic, both for assistance in the interpretation of the sacred text, and for guidance in those matters of religion which the text has left at large: and herein, she differs from every other reformed communion.
Jebb says this “principle is our church’s special characteristic,” by which, unlike all other Christian churches, the Church of England has been able to inculcate in her members “discursiveness with consistency, freedom of inquiry with orthodoxy of belief, and vigorous good sense with primitive and elevated piety.” To be sure, much of this is hagiography mixed with an overly simplistic and unfairly polemical view of the teachings of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Nonetheless, Jebb goes on to illustrate — using primarily the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion — that the reformed Catholicism of the Church of England is something rare and precious, something that Anglicans ought to celebrate and fight to protect. Jebb’s perspective on this was not new, although in our own time it has become rare. Jebb was simply taking up the mantle of the 17th-century Anglican divines who were his chief influences and heroes.
Jebb’s understanding of the uniqueness of Anglican doctrine runs counter to the narrative popularized in the twentieth century that there is no such thing as Anglican doctrine. As Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher famously put it:
We have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and these creeds we hold without addition or diminution.
Jebb would have had no quarrel with the second part of Fisher’s statement. Jebb believed that Anglicanism teaches the Catholic faith, given in the Catholic Creeds, and held without extras. His argument was not that Anglicanism is novel in what it teaches, but that in the divided state of the Church since the Reformation, Anglicanism has been blessed with the charism of preserving a bedrock theological principle that has been obscured to one degree or another in other places.
Jebb’s view also runs contrary to that other great twentieth-century innovation in how we Anglicans understand ourselves, the notion of an ever expanding “comprehensiveness.” According to the comprehensiveness narrative, Anglicanism’s great purpose is to create a Church in which everyone has his or her own doctrine and none of it matters. As Bishop J.C. Wand put it in his 1962 book Anglicanism in History & Today:
It is surely a good, even a splendid, thing, to have groups of people so unwilling to surrender any particle of the truth as they see it, and yet maintaining their unity in one communion and fellowship.
While Anglo-Catholics continue to hold onto the Fisher model, Liberal Anglicans and many Evangelical Anglicans have embraced Wand’s perspective that unity is worth the price of theological incoherence. Neither Jebb nor his predecessors in the 17th century would have been able to understand this argument, let alone respond to it. It is ludicrous on its face and runs counter to what even the most extreme partisans of the prior century and a half would have said. Yet despite having no historical basis whatsoever, this idea has captured large swaths of the modern Anglican Churches and continues to hold them captive.
My own experience of both the Fisher and Wand approaches left me shipwrecked some years ago, unsure of my place as an Anglican Christian. Having been raised Roman Catholic, I had found in my entry into the Episcopal Church in college a whole tradition of Catholic faith and practice that looked nothing like the guitar Masses, boring homilies, and kitsch that had colored my childhood experience of church. Yet, as I began to see how radically different Anglicans of one stripe or another approached the faith, I began to wonder if I had not walked into a house of mirrors. What does it mean to be Anglican? Is there any real substance to it or is it all just a sham? My ruminations left me dangerously close to the edges of the Tiber and the Bosphorus, looking wistfully towards Rome and the East as places that seemed to have it all figured out, even if they had not yet figured out quite what to make of each other.
Then, on retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in 2009, I stumbled upon a copy of More and Cross’s Anglicanism, a compendium of writings from the great Anglican thinkers of the seventeenth century on all manner of topics. I was surprised to learn that there had been anybody at all worth reading between Richard Hooker and the Fathers of the Oxford Movement. I read voraciously, following the citations back to their sources and reading the original writings of Jeremy Taylor, William Beveridge, Herbert Thorndike, John Cosin, and many others. I followed the thread of their thought backward and rediscovered Reformation figures like John Jewel and Nicholas Ridley. I also followed it forward and dove into Peter Gunning, Joseph Butler, and eventually John Jebb. In the writing of these figures, I found what I would call today classical Anglicanism. It is a well of almost inexhaustible depth.
In January of 2011, my exploration prompted me to create a blog to try to document what I was discovering. I figured no one would care much about such an obscure topic. I was wrong. Four years later, the Conciliar Anglican continues to get a large amount of daily traffic, even though my posting there has slowed down considerably. I also continue to get questions emailed to me from all over the world by young men and women who are hungry for what classical Anglicanism has to offer. All that interest just from me dusting off some old books and copying what they have to say.
Claiming that Anglicanism actually is something is not always popular. In fact, it seems often to confuse people. Evangelicals write me off as too Catholic, and Anglo-Catholics as too Evangelical. Yet the writing of the early Anglo-Catholic movement, particularly that of E.B. Pusey, is highly influenced by classical Anglicanism, including Jebb’s tract. Similar appeals to classical Anglicanism are found in early Anglican Evangelicals like Charles Simeon who saw in the prayer book the means for creating the very renewal in the life of the Church that they hoped to see come to light. It is only in the many years since the founding of these movements that they have become self-contained, drawing their theology from sources outside of Anglicanism first and looking towards Anglican history only as an afterthought.
Some people may question whether it is fair to identify any one stream of theology and practice in the history of the Anglican Churches as the classical Anglicanism. After all, there has never been just one Anglicanism, but multiple movements within the Anglican Churches competing for attention. There is some truth to this, yet I believe it is fair to say that the approach forwarded by men like Jebb actually is Anglicanism qua Anglicanism. Unlike all of the other movements that have wrestled for the heart of Anglicanism, only the Jebb school actually views Anglicanism as already being a complete and viable theology on its own. That is to say, while the Puritans thought that the Anglican Reformation did not go far enough and some schools of Anglo-Catholicism felt (and still feel) that it went too far, the Jebb approach joyfully proclaims that the Anglican Reformation did exactly what it should have done.
Thus, the Jebb school builds itself upon the Anglican formularies as they arose out of the Elizabethan Settlement: The Book of Common Prayer from 1559 onward, the Ordinal, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Catechism, and in a slightly different way the Books of Homilies. Classical Anglicanism does not look on any of these as perfect and therefore never in need of interpretation or reform. They are, of course, products of their time, and the idea that they would need to be revised on occasion was woven into them from the beginning. Nevertheless, they are our starting point for any serious reflection on what it means to be Anglican Christians. They are not merely relics of history to be tossed aside on a whim or blatantly contradicted. They are our shared inheritance as Anglicans. The prayer book in particular is our magisterium.
There is, understandably, some great hesitance among many contemporary Anglicans to admit that Anglicanism has something unique at its heart. For some, that hesitance comes from worrying that if Anglicanism is unique then it must be just another denomination built upon an idea that no one ever had prior to the sixteenth century. For others, the hesitance is that we will lose our party distinctiveness, as well as our individual freedom, if we must suffer the yoke of another layer of authority.
Both concerns are unfounded. The simple reality of holding a unique position does not reduce us to just another sect, particularly if Jebb’s claims about the Anglican principle hold true. What Anglicanism offers us is a place where a key element of the Catholic faith has been carried on and preserved. Other parts of the Body of Christ have their own gems to offer, but this is ours. Likewise, we need not fear that embracing classical Anglicanism means erasing the distinctiveness of Anglo-Catholicism or Evangelicalism. Rather, it means restoring them to what they were both meant to be in the first place: reform movements that were designed to bring Anglicanism back to its classical roots and recover something important which had become obscured.
We do not need to be ashamed of being Anglicans. Nor should we act as if Anglicanism is just some convenient perch for us to land on until something better comes along. It is so much more than that. It is beautiful and it is holy. It is a gift from God for the sake of the Church and the world.