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Donald Robinson on the Origins of the Anglican Church League

This reflection was published today on the Anglican Church League website:

History matters. It makes us question things we take for granted, it helps us to understand who we are, and it gives us a broader perspective on the issues we face today. One example – relevant for evangelical Anglicans, especially in Sydney – is an essay in Donald Robinson Selected Works, volume 4 (recently published by the Australian Church Record and Moore College).

Donald Robinson Selected Works volumes 3 and 4

The essay is called “The Origins of the Anglican Church League” (pp. 125–52). It’s a republication of a paper given in 1976 by Donald Robinson (1922–2018), former Moore College Vice-Principal and later Archbishop of Sydney. In the paper, Robinson traces some of the currents and issues that led to the formation of the Anglican Church League in the early twentieth century. The essay is classic Donald Robinson: full of surprises, yet definitely still worth reading today to help us gain perspective on issues for evangelical Anglicans past and present.

One surprise in the essay is that Robinson doesn’t say very much about the Anglican Church League itself! That’s because he’s not too sure about how it started. About two thirds of the way through the paper, after describing in some detail several predecessors to the ACL, he notes:

You will be wondering what has happened to my subject, the Origins of the Anglican Church League. To tell the truth, I am at a loss to give a clear explanation of its origins, or to trace the steps by which it was organised. (144)

So if you’re looking for a detailed history of the ACL over the twentieth century, this essay is probably not for you.[1] But if you’re looking for some key insights into issues that evangelical Anglicans faced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and some helpful perspectives on where we’re at today, this essay is certainly worth delving into!

1. Issues leading to the ACL’s Formation

At the turn of the twentieth century, evangelical Anglicans were deeply concerned by two issues: an alarming increase in “ritualism”, and a (related) alarming increase in the authority of bishops. This might seem surprising to us today. When we look around at worldwide Anglicanism, we can take for granted that there is a lot of ritual, and that bishops have quite a lot of power. But it wasn’t always so – and in the nineteenth century, these things weren’t a “given”. Nevertheless, they were on the rise, and evangelicals were trying to stop them. Robinson mentions, for example, the Churchman’s Alliance, which was formed in 1893 as a response to increasing “ritualism” and as a counterpoint to societies that had formed to promote Anglo-Catholicism (133–35). The purpose of the Church Alliance was “To maintain and diffuse abroad the principles Catholic and Protestant of our holy religion” (134).

Robinson devotes much of his paper to a group called the Protestant Church of England Union (PCEU), which owed much to the efforts of Canon Mervyn Archdall (135–39). Significant for the PCEU was promotion of Reformation preaching, and regular prayer meetings were a core of their work (139, 142). The key issues the PCEU faced and sought to address were (140):

  • The Lambeth Conference in England which had begun to claim too much authority for bishops in being able to change the liturgy of the church.
  • The fact that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had taken on themselves authority to speak for the whole Anglican communion.

As I mentioned above, we might feel these things are a “given” for today’s Anglican Communion. But at the time, Lambeth and the power of Canterbury weren’t so central for Anglicanism. And evangelicals saw the increasing power of Lambeth and Canterbury as a real problem. The object of the new PCEU (1898) was:

to maintain and extend the efficiency of the Church of England as the original representative of evangelical truth and apostolic order in our country, and as a witness to the principles of the Reformation. (141–42)

So the PCEU promoted constitutional government over against the authority of bishops (144).

2. The ACL’s Formation

What of the ACL itself? According to Robinson, it was founded at some point between 1909–1912, around the election of Archbishop Wright, though the exact circumstances weren’t easy for Robinson to discern (145).  Constitutionally, the ACL was affiliated with the English National Church League (NCL), who saw prayer book revision and ritualism as key issues that needed to be addressed (146). It appears that the ACL started as a group that was a little more “centrist” than the PCEU. Robinson writes:

In 1914 we find Canon Gerard D’Arcy Irvine saying that the ACL “stood for central churchmanship, which implied spiritual, strong, and scholarly churchmanship, and fought for the principles of the Reformation upon which the character of future generations depended”… His use of the term “central churchmanship”… reflected the view of the evangelicals that their position was not a partisan position, but was true to the central and authentic character of the Church of England as “catholic, apostolic, protestant, and reformed”. (148)

However, as time went on, conservative evangelicals realised the need for the ACL to be even stronger on Reformation principles against a growing trend of liberalism. Thus, by 1933 the ACL had come to a place where it was opposing not only ritualism, but also liberalism (149).

Even though the ACL was (and still is) constituted as a national body, Robinson notes that the ACL’s main influence has always been within Sydney:

It does not seem to have succeeded to any extent as a national body, though it promoted consultation and offered advice in connection with some elections of country bishops in NSW. Without doubt it consolidated the strength of evangelicals in Sydney, and almost all diocesan leaders have been associated with it at some time or other. (151)

3. What can we learn?

Robinson’s paper is not a comprehensive historical treatise, but it is a fascinating historical reflection. What can we learn from this history?

Firstly, we can gain some worthwhile historical perspective. Ritualism, the authority of bishops, and liberalism are not simply “givens” for Anglicanism! They do not define historic Anglicanism; in fact, not too long ago, they were innovations that needed to be protected against. This perspective can give us renewed courage to continue to defend, promote, and maintain historic, evangelical, reformed Anglicanism.

Secondly, this history reminds us that constitutional, rather than episcopal, government, is definitely worth maintaining and promoting. In our own situation in Sydney, where historically the bishops have by and large been friendly to the evangelical faith, we could feel we can relax and hand more power over to the bishops for the sake of efficiency. But bishops, like all of us, are fallible human beings. Increasing episcopal power is something to continue to watch, and we should be alert to the need to maintain constitutional government.

How do we do that? By all of us (clergy and laity) getting in there, doing the work of governance, finding people for committees to help make decisions for the good of the gospel in the Diocese, and not leaving it all up to the bishops. Robinson’s paper reminds us that the work of the ACL continues to be a significant one for the cause of the gospel and the salvation of men and women, in our own city and diocese, and beyond.

The Rev Dr Lionel Windsor
ACL Council Member and Moore College Lecturer.

Endnotes:

[1] Some further research on these matters has been done by others. For a general history of the ACL, see Ed Loane’s talk at the ACL Centenary dinner in 2009. See also Judd & Cable, Sydney Anglicans, Sydney: AIO, 2000 (Stephen Judd’s PhD was on the ACL).

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