Good books

Author: Stephen Neill
Publisher: Mowbrays (1977), 421 pp.

I have always felt somewhat ashamed as an ordained Anglican minister for not having read anything on the history of the Anglican church itself.  One day, many years ago, I trotted down to the library of a Bible school (I shall not mention which!) to see if I could locate the book.  It could not be found under “Church history” or “Denominations”.  I eventually located the book in the section entitled “Cults & Isms”.  In the words of Charlie Brown: “The theological implications are staggering!”

Twenty years down the road, this wayward Anglican suddenly woke up one morning to decide that he did not want to lose that vast heritage of spirituality inherent in historic Anglicanism.  So began my personal pilgrimage in the attempt to recover an Anglican spirituality.  Part of that pilgrimage involved using the Prayer Book for private devotions, observing the ecclesiastical seasons and fasts, and reading up on the Anglican church.  And this is where Stephen Neill’s Anglicanism comes in.

While Neill’s work is not exactly a dry chronicle in the way history texts are generally perceived to be, it would still be presumptuous to think it possible to sum up adequately a work of some 400 pages that spans as many years.  Hence I propose to pick out gems of truth in this work that I find so incredibly stimulating.  Hopefully this would interest even non-Anglicans to take a dip into this book by a first rate scholar, linguist, and missionary churchman.

My chief purpose, as I believe would have been Neill’s as well, is to help clear up misconceptions about Anglicanism.  I assume readers are familiar with the joke of how the entire Anglican church is founded upon a misconception.  Well, more misconceptions have been spawned since, and the resultant miscarriage of theological justice should be addressed.

It is commonly believed that the Anglican church is a theological umbrella for sundry belief systems, which it actually is or has been.  A negative view of this “via media” culture is that it is a compromising church.  Stephen Neill sees it differently, and expresses it in his Preface thus: “…this is a fellowship in which it is possible for me to proclaim all that I believe to be true, and in which I am not required to teach anything I believe to be untrue.”  Would to God this remains true of the Anglican communion for all time!

Far from being easy-going and compromising, historic Anglicanism is in fact an exacting discipline.  Again, in Stephen Neill’s own words: “Anglicanism is a form of the Christian faith that demands and expects a great deal from ordinary people (p.54).  How so?  In explicating the work of Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Prayer Book, Neill points out that in no other church anywhere is the Bible read so regularly and extensively as in an Anglican service of worship (p.54).

The hallmark of Anglican worship (at least up until recently) has been the Bible and the Prayer Book (p.130).  And the Prayer Book itself is a work of such theological density that, in Neill’s mind, a course of sermons could be preached on the General Confession alone (p.80f.).  What makes for the quality of the Book of Common Prayer (which I refer to as the “Prayer Book”) is, of course, not only Cranmer’s theological astuteness, but his mastery of the method of English prose (p.59f.).  What I find stimulating behind this defence of the Prayer Book is really the idea that there is such a thing as language fitting for use in the worship of Almighty God.

In the chapter of the Reformation, Neill also affirms the identity of the Anglican church as being solidly a part of this current.  “Show us anything clearly set forth in Scripture that we do not teach, and we will teach it; show us anything in our teaching and practice that is plainly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.” (p.119)

One other interesting line of thought in Neill’s work is the role and effectiveness of the clergy.  Neill highlights Cranmer’s concern for the development of a devout, educated and preaching ministry (p.85).  In the chapter on the 17th century, he points out the profligate poet John Donne who, upon entering the ministry, preached with such eloquence as to be unrivalled since (p.137)!  He also shows how one could form an impression of what Anglicanism was from the life and poems of George Herbert.

On the Wesleyan revival, Neill draws attention to the theological content of John Wesley’s sermons as being rivalled only by Calvin’s Institutes.

There are other facets of the church’s history we could have drawn attention to, such as the impetus for the church's missionary endeavour.  For lack of space here, we shall have to leave them to the reader’s diligence.

In his epilogue, Stephen Neill makes an assessment of trends in recent decades (which is still surprisingly relevant for being two decades behind!).  He discusses the influence of the charismatic movement, the rise of evangelicalism and its impact on theological education, and ends with some fascinating ruminations on the nature of truth and orthodoxy, as well as the theological implications of liturgical changes.

His conclusion is typically ecumenical.  While he appreciates the uniqueness of Anglicanism, he sees the ideal church as one which exists in union, and endorses the South Indian experience as a realistic goal worthy of emulation.

Whether we agree with Neill is, I feel, not terribly important.  Personally, I am somewhat mixed.  As an Anglican who has wandered through many another sheepfold, I appreciate the fellowship in the Gospel that I have shared with many other churches and pastors.  Yet I cannot but feel that every Christian should be aware of the unique distinctions of the local church or denomination to which he belongs.  What I find useful  about Neill’s work is that it has made me think more deeply about what churchmanship (or church membership) means, and where the churches of today are going.

In the wake of the rift caused by the endorsement of homosexuality by the Episcopal Church of USA, Anglicans really need to review their church’s heritage.  Separation is clearly one option, but it may be too easy an option.  The multiplicity of splinter churches in Singapore is evidence of a lack of theological clarity.  Church leaders go separate ways when they disagree, taking their supporters with them. But are there not things about which we ought to agree and work together for?  And are there not things about which we ought to stay and “fight” for, as an expression of our duty to “contend for the faith”?  Might Stephen Neill’s Anglicanism help us think through what being a church is all about?

(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)


Chapel last week was conducted by Joan Teoh, a student at BGST, and she spoke on the theme of “servanthood”.

 Joan began with some reminiscences about her Sunday School experience and her involvement with NavTeens.  In essence, it was about a philosophy of excellence.

She then recounted the turns of fortunes in her school life.  While she did well in primary school, her secondary school career proved disastrous.  Her turning point came in her third year at secondary school when she was confronted by a Christian teacher.

Later in life, Joan adopted for herself Jesus’ model of servant-leadership, as epitomised in His washing of the disciples’ feet.  This was to be affirmed by Paul’s account of Christ’s taking on of human flesh (Philippians 2).  Her goal, like Paul’s, was to be “crucified with Christ”, and she saw Jim Elliott’s sacrificial work as being worthy of emulation.

Chapel ended with Joan sharing about her impending trip to the Philippines , the possibility of taking up a course in nursing, and how this could lead to greater involvement with the medical missions efforts her church has been engaged in.  

Chapel next week on 3th December will be led by Dr Philip Satterthwaite.

by Prof R. Paul Stevens


Date/Time: 11 Dec, 
Thursday, 7.30-10.30pm

Venue: 4 Bishan St 13, 
Sanctuary, Zion BPC

Admission is free.  


Prof R. Paul Stevens will also
conduct the following courses:

The Christian Life
(11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19 & 21 Dec, 7.30-10.30pm )  

Marketplace Ministries Seminar
(13 & 20 Dec, 2.00-9.00pm )

Note: A 50% rebate on the course fees will be granted for the 2 courses taken on an audit basis.

For more details, please contact us at
tel. 63538071 or email:


Ms Koh May Fern  24/11

Ms Carol Cheang  24/11

Mr Lim Teck Sin  25/11

Mr Paul Kendagor  25/11

Mr Henry Toi  28/11

Ms Rebecca Ng  28/11

Rev Song Young Hak  28/11

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