Anglicanism Redux

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This post was originally published in the Living Church.

What does it mean to be an Episcopalian anyway? [1] We are on important questions divided among ourselves. Our differences nowadays take on global dimensions. On other matters all the Churches seem to have similar prospects and struggles in our consumerist age. The diversity in the way that we worship, rendered yet wider in our age of online resources, seems to have taken the ‘common’ out of ‘prayer.’ The most cynical of neighbors tells us it all goes back to the lusts of a king long ago and far away. In many parts of the USA Episcopalians have in large measure defined themselves as not someone-else: Catholics, Baptists, etc. The pat answers of an earlier generation seem to satisfy less.

   As if this were not enough, a deeper question nags at us. To what extent should we even care about a satisfying answer. Isn’t the question ‘what does it mean to be a Christian?’ enough? This is after all the point of no less an Anglican than C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. Start with, and emphasize throughout, those basic commitments of faith, which Christians of all denominations share. To be sure, core and denominational addendum are not so easily bifurcated. Mennonites think war and peace are central, Roman Catholics think the same of the question who can reliably decide disputes over Scripture, so do Lutherans on the nature of grace itself, etc. Just the same, there is something profoundly true about the idea of ‘mere Christianity.’ The very existence of a creed preserved over centuries and employed across denominational lines, not to mention the fact that baptism is recognized across those same lines, attest to something true about the claim. It should be added that Anglicans, in a turn from humility to pride, have gone on the assertion that what makes them distinctive is their refusal to add to this consensus! [2]

     Let us put the matter another way: it is only as we ask the real question, ‘what is a Christian?’ that we can see, as if in our peripheral vision, what it would mean to give a properly Anglican answer. The latter is a particular style of answer, with some frequently found emphases. But our answer is not unique, nor should it be. It is to the answering of the ‘Anglican’ question, along the way as we answer the ‘mere’ question that we now turn.


Two ‘Negotiations’

     Let us start with one of the most common of accounts we have given of ourselves over the past century, namely that we are made up of ‘High’, ‘Low’, and ‘Broad’ streams. Anglicans are characterized by a ‘comprehensiveness,’ which overarches all three. By the ‘Broad’ party is meant not only the influence of modern science and philosophy, but also tendencies going back to the 17th and 18th centuries[3].   Claims like comprehensiveness serve as shibboleths, as tribal markers. But in fact they obscure as much as they explain. We do well to look carefully at our history. More specifically, our tradition as we know it today is the child of two conflicts over ‘mere Christianity’, or perhaps two negotiations in the light of these conflicts. Every account of Anglicanism is implicitly a position vis-à-vis both moments.

       Anglicanism was indeed born in the time of the Reformation, in the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, though not as some golden mean or admixture, devised in retreat or abstraction. It was the child of specific historical circumstances and contingencies. These have had a decisive effect, and in them some see providence, others an inherited blight[4]. It was in doctrine a Reformation Church determined, by inclination first of Henry, then of Elizabeth, and finally in the Restoration, to keep as much of the liturgical inheritance as was possible. Whether this resulted best in a high Lutheranism, or a moderate Calvinism, or, later, in a Eucharistic Methodism, the effect was similar. Secondly, through the peculiar genius of Thomas Cranmer, the stratagem of displaying this catholic and reformed faith in the form of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ had a special place in the English Church, which both made fellowship possible and papered-over differences. We still tend to wrestle with one another through liturgical alternatives. Thirdly, the fact that English Christianity was much older than the 16th century was never lost. This reaching back continued, for example in the interest in the earliest Fathers, or in the inheritance of the churches themselves. There have been many offshoots of this: the interest in the Christian East, Anglo-Catholicism, and the Benedictine recovery in spirituality. Fourthly, The English Reformation was the only one created by an act of Parliament![5]. So the crucial question of authority was deferred; once that civil authority was removed, as in the New World, a new solution would have to be sought. My point is simply that these four elements make up a kind of Anglican DNA, from which can be traced both its strengths and challenges to this day. They affect the way sense has been made of the 16th century divide.

        There is, however, a second struggle in all of Christendom, like a second overlay on an old-fashioned projector, which we must also take account if we are to understand what we see in the Church today. In the modern period, in all the denominations, there was a battle about how to understand religious claims and how to make sense of religious language. Debunkers of the faith, from the 18th century on, said that claims like ‘risen from the dead’ were either myth, or else they were to be taken in some other way, for example as a description of an experience of new hope out of despair. Maybe they were metaphors for religious feeling and fulfillment, or else, children’s talk for a philosophy of history, or even an old code for class struggle. Along then came Christian thinkers who wanted to save the day by finding some common ground with these radical reinterpretations.   To be sure, the stories of the Bible are indeed personally fulfilling and politically liberating, but do such explanations exhaust their meaning?

     In other words, from the 18th century on, there has been a battle, often covert, over how words like those in the Creeds are to be taken. Anglicans tried to wall off this reinterpretation repeatedly. It has not often been clear what position people were taking by their language. So as a result, both the manuveuring between Catholic and Protestant, and that between traditional and modernist, have gone on at the same time and at two different levels. It is important to see that, in the modern debate, the traditional cause was a serious theological enterprise, as it tried to reaffirm traditional claims of the Creed under these new challenges.

     Let us pause a moment to see how this historical observation helps to make sense of our situation. If someone argues in a sermon that Lazarus emerging is really about coming ‘back to life’ emotionally, or that the Gospel promise is really achieving political liberation, their claims are heirs of this modernist trend. We can see how, underneath our present debates, are also found the effect of this deeper conflict. Finally we need to note that, while in the first, Reformation disagreement, all the combatants shared the Creed, but disagreed on other matters, in the case of the modern debates over doctrine, Scripture, and authority, the disagreements often cut closer to the bone.

   We have already observed that the first debate had contingent historical features and so too, with the second contest. The historian of mission Andrew Walls has said that, just as European Christianity entered an era of crisis, it sent out its seeds to the Majority World in the form of the churches born of the missionary movement. Their parents are also the movements of reclamation and renewal like Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism. The younger churches both resemble their parents and show a profile all their own.


Three Streams, Once More

         The question of identity has to do, by definition, with what endures over time. Were it not so, “Anglican’ would crumble into a thousand local instances. After this strong dose of historical background, let us consider our present situation, with its practical difficulties in sight. Ours is a formal tradition in an era of informality. On the other hand, its appeal may seem to some as something throw-back and English, as if we were Downton Abbey at prayer. Too many congregations are ‘silvertop,’ not to mention the clergy. Our debate on sexuality reflects our political divide, with worrisomely less and less to do with the Bible.   The market’s admiration for change, marketing, and strategy is at loggerheads with the idea of a tradition itself. Our calling is not to accede to these forces, but it is to make ourselves understood in the time and place God gives us.

       What if Anglicanism is not a substance, nor a spirit, but rather a task in each such setting: to express and embody a reformed and catholic understanding in continuity with the Prayer Book inheritance in our modern circumstance.  It must express the substance of the Gospel, mere Christianity, since the second negotiation involves a contest and debate in every circumstance. Our continuity, our Anglicanism, is not an unthinking repetition but a retrieval, some version of what the Catholics in the last century called ‘ressourcement’.

     How might we restate those three streams as just such an attempt? Imagine explaining ourselves to someone who comes new to the parish: what can we say that is true first to the Gospel, and also genuine with respect to the inheritance?

       ‘Deep and wide.’ Into the Church are summoned people from every ‘family, language, people, and nation.’ At the same time the Church is ‘apostolic.’ It passes on the Gospel of ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ across the centuries. This reach across continents and centuries is a point at which the Gospel and the Church its servant imply one another. Anglicanism makes claims to be just such a ‘deep and wide’ tradition, and as such makes it witness in contrast to independent and transient expressions of the Church.  It is just this feature that we can attribute the phenomenon of the ‘Canterbury Trail’ in recent decades.[6] We might consider this a way to rename the catholic impulse in Anglicanism. But again, these features cannot simply be assumed but must be practiced: we have to live out the apostolic continuity of the Gospel in the way we honor the inheritance and maintain the ‘bonds of affection’ with fellow Anglican Churches.

“There is a crack, a crack running through everything.’ (Leonard Cohen).           Affection for the Prayer Book includes appreciation of its language and a wistfulness for the world it evokes. But more importantly, the Prayer Book presents a way to assimilate enduring features of the Christian theological inheritance. The features themselves are ‘merely’ Christian, but the mode is particular to our tradition. For example, in the Offices the sanctification of time found preeminently in the Benedictine life of prayer is now made available to the laity as a whole. There too the people of God are exposed to the hearing of the whole of the Scriptures.[7] One might equally point to the nuance with which the Prayer Book presents the doctrine of the real presence. But it is elsewhere that I want to lay the emphasis.

In our era the siren call of pluralism is heard by Christians who have forgotten the uniqueness of Christ’s saving work.   That which He overcame, the thrall of sin, meets incomprehension. The Prayer Book embedded the Reformation’s emphasis on the finished work of Christ, and hence on His uniqueness, in the Eucharistic prayers: ‘…oblation of himself once offered, a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the whole world, “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table, but He is the same Lord whose property it is always to have mercy…” [8]While these doctrines are a part of ‘mere Christianity,’ the emphasis upon them may be seen as a centerpiece of the ‘low’ or evangelical inheritance.


Good disagreement… The more diffuse and patient kind of authority in Anglicanism has, at its best, made room for theological searching, for questions, for the pursuit of a range of allowable answers. We need quickly to add some qualifications. Again, this is not unique to us in any way. And at time this margin of exploration has been understood to be Anglicanism itself! One hears people who have come to our tradition because it is more ‘about questions than answers.’ Actually diffuse authority is still supposed to be authority, and questions can persist even as the Church claims that it has some answers. Reciting the creed, teaching the catechism: these are the Prayer Book warrants for this a sense of teaching consistent with being the catholic and reformed tradition we suppose ourselves to be. Another way to put the matter is that we ought to understand ourselves in a dialogue longer than our immediate circumstance. A church with diffuse authority, a fellowship of global churches, and ample room for debate will be a church slow to make dramatic changes.

   Let’s summarize. What does it mean to be an Episcopalian today? It means first that we are Christians, creatures of God, forgiven sinners because of the work of Jesus Christ, part of the people of God led by the Holy Spirit, waiting for the final coming of His Kingdom. This account of ‘mere Christianity’ is shared by many denominations. It also involves practice, which, in the midst of the confusion of the postmodern condition outside and inside the Church, reaffirm and articulate that faith in typically Anglican ways. It means remembering that we are part of a catholic and apostolic fellowship. It means that we are recalling the uniqueness of Christ’s work by his death and resurrection, it’s overcoming of sin and death, and the gift of grace. It means that we appreciate a fellowship confessing these truths also open to patient and candid debate.



[1] I write as an Episcopalian, but address myself to North Americans in general, and indeed to Anglicans further afield. I will use the term ‘Anglican’ as a general one for everyone who appeals to this common inheritance.

[2] See Stephen Sykes’ surgical little book of critique, The Integrity of Anglicanism.

[3] For example the Latitudinarians.

[4] For a sharply negative view, see Aidan Nichols’ The Panther and the Hind.

[5] The bon mot is from Dickens’ The English Reformation, which has in mind the Act of Uniformity.

[6] See the book of that name by Robert Webber.

[7] Ephraim Radner has been prominent in expounding these themes.

[8] Likewise the PB collects as exemplifying a strong doctrine of grace may be found in Paul Zahl’s

Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.