If you’ve been a Christian for the past ten or twenty years, you don’t need a cutting-edge sociological study to tell you that denominational identity doesn’t mean nearly as much today as it used to. People attend the churches where they perceive a good “fit” with the values, beliefs, and ministry opportunities that are presented much more often these days than they look for a familiar name on the church sign. That is not in itself a bad thing, although it can (and, sadly, often does) lead to a consumerist mentality that only wants what will “meet my needs.”
I’m one of the odd ones who cares about things like theology and spiritual heritage. I may yet change brands, but only for the most significant of spiritual reasons, and only because the long tradition of the new brand was compelling—not just the attractions of a particular local expression of it.
Does that make sense? I’m saying that if I ever decided to join XYZ Lutheran church, I think it should be because I have come to appreciate Lutheranism as such and not just because XYZ Lutheran church is a great congregation. Every denomination has great congregations.
Actually, my level of appreciation of several denominational families has grown to the point that I am almost persuaded to join them. Perhaps top on the list is the Anglican Communion. (My apologies to anybody who lost money betting on Rome.) Here are some of the things that draw me down the Canterbury Trail:
1. Deep Roots
Although the Protestant Reformation was spark that made the Church of England what it is today, Anglicanism has a deep sense of connection with its pre-Protestant roots. We see this in its forms of spirituality and worship, in the heroes they celebrate. Pick up a Book of Common Prayer and you’ll see commemorations of numerous saints from the ancient church, and especially ancient Britain.
2. Via Media
Part of the genius of Anglicanism is to try to find a middle way (Latin, via media) between Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestantism is at its best when it is thoroughly catholic. In fact, Protestantism is is grave danger of devolving into a cult when it is let loose from its catholic moorings (Jim Jones, anyone?) At the same time, Catholicism needs the scriptural critique Protestantism can provide.
3. Spiritual Inclusiveness
That is the terminology used on the Anglican Communion website to describe Anglican spirituality. It describes an attitude of openness to the possibility that God could be at work outside of conventional church structures:
Gregory advised his missioners … to conserve whatever they possibly could of pre-Christian—pagan, as some would label them—customs and beliefs. In other words, don’t anathematize: baptize! …. This involved more than a kind of cultural courtesy. Gregory the Great had grasped a principle ever since known to Anglican spirituality—even before there was such a thing as Anglicanism proper: that the Holy Spirit is not confined by or to various churches, but rather “blows where it listeth” (John 3.8). The pre-Christian religion of the Angles and the Saxons was not, then, a species of demon-worship to be destroyed and forgotten. It was, in its own way, a preparation for the Gospel.
I appreciate Anglicanism for trying to contextualize the gospel message over a thousand years before the first “seeker-friendly” church was started.
4. Ecumenical Engagement
The Anglican Communion has been an active ecumenical partner with Rome. They have also opened lines of communication with Baptists, Lutherans, Old Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox. They are, in fact, in full communion with many Old Catholic churches as well as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India. This is in part the fruition of Launcelot Andrewes’ famous dictum, “One canon, two Testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of fathers in that period determine the boundaries of our faith.” To the extent that these efforts are centered on core gospel convictions and the earliest Christian practice as Andrewes enumerated, I applaud them all.
5. Liturgical Balance
Here, I want to make two brief comments. First, although Anglican worship is indeed liturgical, there does not seem to be much formalism, i.e., the sense that it must be done “just so” in order to be valid or proper. There is a degree of freedom in how the liturgy is performed, from Anglo-Catholics all the way to low-church Anglican Evangelicals. There are even charismatic Anglican churches, such as Holy Trinity Brompton, home church of the Alpha Course.
Second, the liturgy itself is both simple and (at least in the US and the UK) eclectic. Anglicanism maintains the simplicity and sobriety that has always epitomized the best of the Western/Latin tradition, while also looking Eastward for inspiration. (I’ve heard it said that every revision of the Book of Common Prayer has brought it in some sense closer to the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church). The 1979 American BCP has half a dozen Eucharistic prayers in two Rites, with instructions for adding even greater variety into the order of service. There are also six forms for the Prayers of the People. I believe the new Common Worship resource of Church of England has at least as many options. While some of these are deemed unsatisfactory by some Anglicans, the Baptist in me appreciates the leeway given for diversity in worship styles.
6. The King James Bible
Yes, it has since been surpassed in accuracy by the discovery of far more reliable Greek texts, but the King James Version of the Bible is still a masterpiece of the English language. I’m not, however, listing the KJV for its literary excellence but for its approach to Scripture itself. The 1611 KJV included all the books found today in Roman Catholic Bibles, although it set apart those not found in the Hebrew canon (Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, etc.) in a separate section labeled “Apocrypha.” It was, in fact, a crime to publish a King James Bible in England that did not include these additional books! By including them, the King James translators maintained a link to their Catholic spiritual heritage; by setting them off in a separate section, they followed the lead of early translators such as Jerome who considered them “deuterocanonical.” They are there for our edification and, as the lectionary calls for it, they are read in Anglican churches to this day; but it is still admitted that they are of a different character than the books of the Jewish canon.
For an interesting take on the ecumenical challenges posed by the diversity of Christian Old Testament canons, see “On the Confusion of ‘Canon’” by Kevin P. Edgecomb.
(A side note: I really wish those who insist that the “1611 King James Bible” is the only English Bible of which God approves would be consistent and preach from a Bible that has all the books actually found in the 1611 KJV!)
7. And Finally…
A final point in Anglicanism’s favor is barely deserving of mention, but since seven is such a good, biblical number, perhaps I should include it. Before they found their way to America, Anglicanism was my family’s religious heritage. In fact, several of my forebears (back when they still spelled their name Percivale) were baptized at Manchester Cathedral in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even multiple-great-grandfathers can be wrong, of course, and if I really wanted to practice the religion of the vast majority of my ancestors, I would undoubtedly have to become a pagan! Still, there is a personal connection with the Church of England that might help make it feel more like coming home than abandoning my roots.
Since the purpose of this post is to praise Anglicanism, not critique it, I’ll stop here. I’ll refrain from sharing the reasons I prefer not to join the local Episcopal or Continuing Anglican church. Suffice it to say that, for the foreseeable future, Spitalfields remains preferable to Canterbury.