Making Sense of Christianity’s Branches: Meet an Anglican
Do you ever wish the church would stop fighting about sex and politics? Me too.
The Anglican tradition emerged in the midst of these social dynamics. There was conflict between Pope Clement VII and Henry VIII. Influential theologians were wrestling through Luther’s and Calvin’s articulations of faith. There were diverse and indigenous Christian expressions throughout England. What do you do when political life becomes toxic and unstable, when basic assumptions are shifting dramatically, and you long to be faithful to Jesus?
Anglicans have learned to see the churning conflict of each generation as an opportunity for worship, witness, and welcome. Anglicanism is unique among Protestant traditions in its attempt to organize around a “way of being” rather than precise theological formulae. Sometimes articulated as via media or “the middle way,” Anglicans blur the lines between Protestant and Catholic, Reformed and Anabaptist, liberal and evangelical. This is our church’s greatest strength as well as its most profound weakness.
In the USA the largest expression of the Anglican tradition is the Episcopal Church, which tends to be more theologically progressive. There are also missionary expressions of Anglicanism, including the Anglican Mission in North America, which is more theologically conservative. I will use Anglicanism below as an inclusive term, including the Episcopal Church, and Episcopal to focus on the more specific expression.
If I close my eyes tightly and imagine, I can still smell the oil soap, still feel the smooth cool wood pew against my cheek while noticing the shards of light refracting through the stained glass. My earliest memories are of St. David’s Episcopal Church in western Massachusetts. The words we used in worship were elevated—a special language for a special God: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep . . .” There were also times that we sang simple songs to guitar accompaniment. People raised their hands in joy and wonder. Sometimes we waved branches and processed in long lines around the church. Sometimes we stayed up late and worshiped in quiet tones by candlelight.
These Anglican roots implanted in my heart a connection between worship and beauty. We adore that which we find truly beautiful. Anglicans are drawn to the beauty and wonder of the gospel as it’s expressed liturgically, sacramentally, communally, and in mission. Even through a season where I distanced myself from church and Christian faith, the connection of beauty and adoration remained strong.
If you couldn’t already tell, worship in the Anglican tradition is liturgical and sacramental. There’s a procession following a cross. Worship leaders wear vestments. Worshipers stand, bow, cross ourselves, and kneel. The order of worship has a liturgy of the Word, often a reading from the Old and New Testaments and a psalm, followed by a Gospel reading and a sermon. Unlike some of our Protestant siblings, the pulpit is not at the center of an Anglican worship space. While there are powerful, well-known, Anglican preachers—Desmond Tutu, John Stott, N. T. Wright, Michael Curry, C. S. Lewis, and J. I. Packer, to name a few—Anglican worship culminates in the Eucharist. Tom Wright captured this sentiment when he said, “Jesus didn’t simply leave us a set of instructions, he gave us a meal.”
There are weaknesses to our worshiping tradition. Like any liturgical and sacramental church, Anglican worship and symbols need to be regularly learned and interpreted or else they become stale and inaccessible. Unchurched visitors may really struggle to understand what’s happening in worship. Why are those guys wearing white dresses? What’s going on now? Why are we standing up? As an evangelist I sometimes shudder at the missed opportunity that happens when I see kids zoning out (through no fault of their own) in worship, or watch visitors puzzle over what’s happening. For the initiated, opera can be transcendently beautiful; for many it’s just a bunch of people singing loudly in unfamiliar languages. The same could be said for Anglican worship.
Despite the discomfort that many Episcopalians have with evangelism, the Anglican Church is globally expansive. After Catholicism, and all Protestant denominations put together, Anglicans make up the third largest Christian community in the world, and we are thoroughly committed to mission. The Alpha Course, a leading tool for sharing the gospel, was created by an Anglican church. And recently, Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA (in addition to preaching at the royal wedding), named witness and evangelism as among his top priorities for the church.
I appreciate being a part of a church that preaches the gospel every week. After the sermon and a time of prayer, Anglican worship continues with an articulation of the gospel in prayer. It often begins with praising God for creation, for God’s call of Israel, and for God’s word through the prophets, and then focuses on Jesus, who, after we had sinned against God and become enslaved to sin and death, offered himself on the cross in obedience, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. I’ve heard these words more times than I can count, but every time, no matter who says them, I’m struck afresh with the generous and costly love of God in Jesus.
This prayer concludes with the congregation pledging to remember Jesus’ death, to proclaim his resurrection, and to await his coming in glory! At the end of the service, the cross is marched out of the church as a symbol that we, who have been fed with Christ, are to go out into the world as faithful witnesses. (It’s like an Urbana conference every week.)
Of course, it’s possible to allow these moments in worship to roll right by without catching their significance. It’s possible for the richness and nuance of the liturgical language and symbols to simply be inane babble, empty repetition, lifeless tradition.
And some Anglican worship can create unhelpful distance between the gospel of the liturgy and the gospel communicated in the sermon or homily. For example, a more theologically progressive church may lean away from doctrines like sin, or atonement, only to have these themes articulated strongly in the liturgy. We once had a visiting preacher deny substitutionary atonement, but a few minutes later the worship leader said, according to the prayer book, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself in obedience, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” This disjunction can undermine a worshiping community’s confidence in its articulation of the gospel.
Welcome is essential to an Anglican sensibility. This stems from a long history of gathering together communities with different confessions into one worshiping community. Where other Protestant churches developed confessions and theologies, Anglicans developed the Book of Common Prayer. This book does include theological commitments (the 39 Articles of Religion), but the emphasis from our history has been on common prayer over common belief. Do Anglicans speak in tongues? Do Anglicans pray the rosary? Do Anglicans practice centering prayer? Do Anglicans perform same-sex unions? Do Anglicans ordain women? The answer to these questions is the same. All, under the right circumstances, may. Some can. None must. It’s not hard to see how difficult it is to hold a community together across differences. The Anglican Communion has been struggling for years in living out this aspect of its calling.
My parish might provide an example. Located in Manhattan, All Angels’ is a worshiping community of investment bankers, diplomats, artists, students, academics, undocumented immigrants, domiciled, housing insecure, homeless, and court-involved people. We come from a variety of church traditions, theological traditions, and political philosophies. We are multiethnic and class diverse. We sing hymns, gospel music, and Hillsong. We’re engaged in ministry to and with the poor. We worship with influential political and economic leaders.
While it’s overwhelming to think about holding a community like this together, it’s also profound. Seeing us all gather around the table to receive from Jesus in the Eucharist and commit to go out into the world in peace to love and serve him is a visceral reminder of the body of Christ. We are unified not by class, race, gender identity, politics, or ideology, but rather are held together by the mysterious indwelling power and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps that’s the answer to the question I posed earlier. What do you do when political life becomes toxic and unstable, when basic assumptions are shifting dramatically, and you long to be faithful to Jesus? Perhaps you embrace the muddy middle, anchor yourself in worship, welcome everyone, and witness to the gospel. At least, that’s why I’m Anglican.
Thanks for joining us at the blog for our series on some of the different streams and traditions that make up the broad body of Christ. If you missed the series intro, you can read it here. InterVarsity is an interdenominational ministry that welcomes students and faculty from all denominations and backgrounds. If you’re curious about what we believe theologically, you can check out our Statement of Faith, which our staff and student leaders sign each year. And feel free to comment below telling us what you love about your church/denomination!
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
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