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What hath Geneva to do with Canterbury?

Why are Presbyterians worshiping like Anglicans? Why do some PCA churches have Ash Wednesday services? Why are they preaching the lectionary and following the church calendar?

An Episcoterian (the term used for Presbyterians who ape the Anglicans) is a relatively modern phenomenon.

In the late nineteenth century, the mainline Presbyterian Church started down the Canterbury trail. But in more recent years, many conservative and confessional Presbyterian churches have followed suit.

Perhaps this fascination with Anglicanism has something to do with the love affair that some Presbyterian churches are having with N. T. Wright.

Whatever factors have given rise to Episcoterian worship, one thing is clear, Presbyterians are abandoning their liturgical heritage.

Historically, the Reformed church has argued that in matters of worship, Geneva and Canterbury are incompatible.

In Presbyterian theology, the church’s authority is not legislative but ministerial and declarative (cf. OPC Form of Government III.3).

Consequently, when the leaders of the church determine what shall be done in worship and direct the saints to participate in worship, they must not impose practices on the saints that are not prescribed in holy scripture.

This teaching is typically referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RPW sets the Reformed church apart from the Anglican Church, which rejects the RPW in favor of what’s commonly known as the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW).

In the vestments controversy that centered around John Hooper and in the “Black Rubric” controversy that centered around John Knox, both Hooper and Knox used the RPW to defend their views. But Archbishop Thomas Cranmer emphatically rejected it and even characterized it as “the chief foundation of the error of the Anabaptists, and of diverse other sects.”

Cranmer said that the RPW is a “subversion of all order as well in religion as in common policy.” Likewise, Richard Hooker characterized it as legalistic and irrational.

Thomas M’Crie quipped that the RPW separated Canterbury from Geneva. The school of Canterbury “held that what was unforbidden in Scripture might be treated as indifferent,” while the school of Geneva held that “what was unbidden in Scripture must be rejected.”[1]

For example, Article Twenty of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England states that “The Church has power to decree Rites or Ceremonies” provided that those rites and ceremonies are not contrary to the scriptures.

Article Thirty-four adds,

Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, does openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly (that others may fear to do the like), as he that offends against the common order of the Church, and hurts the authority of the Magistrate, and wounds the consciences of the weak brethren.

This was why Puritans and Covenanters could be disciplined or persecuted for refusing to submit to man-made rites and ceremonies. John Owen traces the bloodshed and persecution of many saints back to this rejection of the RPW.

The principle that the church has power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God … beyond the observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ Himself hath instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution, and wars, that have for long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world.[2]

Furthermore, the Puritans, following the teaching of Calvin, pointed out that the corruption of the human heart rendered man unable to determine acceptable forms of worship. The heart of man is a perpetual factory of idols, argued Calvin.

William Young puts it this way,

The total corruption and deceitfulness of the human heart disqualifies man from judging what is to be admitted into the worship of God. It may be that before the fall, our first parents had written on their hearts the law of worship and by looking within the depth of their own beings, could read off the commandments of God. Yet even then, they were not without direct external communication of the will of Him who walked and talked with them in the garden. Since the fall, however, though the human conscience still witnesses in all men that worship is due to the supreme Being, no information can be gained from the heart of man as to how God is to be worshiped.

In rejecting the RPW, Anglicans failed to recognize the danger of allowing fallen men to determine liturgical rites, traditions and ceremonies. The RPW guards against the idolatrous nature of the corrupt human heart.

The RPW also addresses the nature and extent of church power or authority. The authority of the church is limited by the Word of God to the Word of God. The church has no authority independent of scripture.

The RPW restricts the power of the church and, therefore, protects liberty of conscience. No mere human authority has the right to bind one’s conscience in matters of religion.

The Belgic Confession says,

We believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those who are rulers of the church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church; yet they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And, therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatsoever.

Likewise, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that man’s conscience is “free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (20:2).

The distinction here in the Confession is between “civil matters” and “religious matters.”

In other words, the distinction is between those aspects of life governed by church-officers versus those that are not governed by church-officers.

James Bannerman explains,

The direct object of the Confession in this passage is no doubt to assert the right and extent of liberty of conscience; but along with that, it very distinctly enunciates the doctrine, that neither in regard to faith nor in regard to worship has the Church any authority beside or beyond what is laid down in the Bible; and that it has no right to decree and enforce new observances or institutions in the department of Scriptural worship, any more than to teach and inculcate new truths in the department of Scriptural faith.

Again, this is contrary to the Anglican position, which limits matters of faith to scripture but not matters of worship. Presbyterians, however, limit the authority of the church to what is expressly taught in scripture in all matters religious—whether doctrine, polity, worship or discipline.

So the RPW guards the Christian’s conscience from being bound by human authority in matters of religion.

The NPW, however, says the church has the right to require acts of worship as long as those acts are not forbidden in scripture. On this principle, the church can invent all kinds of ceremonies and rites and impose them on the saints so long as the required actions are not in themselves sinful.

Crossing oneself, smearing ashes on the forehead, fasting during Lent, anointing with oil, burning incense, lighting candles, etc. There are many activities that are not in themselves sinful and yet, as acts of worship, they are unlawful because they are not prescribed.

To be fair, Anglicans argue that the NPW does not mean that anything goes in worship as long as it’s not forbidden in scripture because whatever ceremonies or rites the church invents must be deemed beneficial and edifying for the church for them to be appropriate.

Article Thirty-four states,

Every particular or national church has authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

This principle of edification keeps Anglican worship in check, so to speak, but if man-made worship is, in fact, unlawful (that is, if the RPW is true), then no act of worship invented by man can be deemed edifying for the church.

Episcoterians (or Wanglicans, which is short for wannabe Anglicans) have ignored the liturgical theology and heritage of the Presbyterian church. Perhaps this is the real reason that Episcoterianism came to exist in the first place.


[1] Thomas M’Crie, Annals of English Presbytery (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1872) 110.

[2] John Owen, Of communion with God the Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost, each person distinctly in love, grace, and consolation, or, The saints fellowship with the Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost, unfolded (Oxford, 1657) 170.


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