I’m writing this post to announce that my family and I are moving to Myrtle Beach to join the staff at Trinity Church, an Anglican Church in the ACNA. This of course means that our family will become Anglican. (For more info on Anglicanism itself: read “What is an Anglican?”)
Why are we doing this? This decision comes after a long and arduous journey investigating church history. I began this journey after being challenged by a Roman Catholic friend to investigate the claims of the differing church traditions. And so I read through the history of the church, and was surprised by what I found! When I read the church fathers, I encountered a different world from mine; a different way of looking at the scriptures, the worship of the church, the sacraments, church authority, and so on. This search is what eventually led me to Anglicanism.
But why did I land at Anglicanism? Here are some brief reasons:
First: Anglicanism’s rootedness in church history. Anglicanism is an apostolic faith. And by that I mean that Anglicanism is not properly a “denomination”. It is not even a church created during the time of the Reformation, though it is a Reformation faith. Anglicanism is more (though not less) than that. Instead, Anglicanism is an expression of what the Nicene Creed calls “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. It retains the historic succession of bishops as an inherent part of the Christian faith, the ancient creeds and councils as authoritative, and the ancient liturgy. With that said, Anglicanism’s rootedness in history is different from the other apostolic churches. There is a certain balance that Anglicanism holds when it comes to its claims to apostolicity.
After going far down the rabbit hole of Roman Catholicism, I realized that I simply couldn’t hold to the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, or the claim that church tradition and scripture were on equal footing. At the same time, I could no longer hold to a very common idea within evangelicalism that tradition is inherently bad. There are many who believe that tradition instinctively corrupts; that, like the Pharisees who “make void the word of God for their traditions” (Matthew 15), any church tradition is inherently wrong. No, far from it. I had come to realize fairly early on in my studies that not only did the early church hold to a tradition, but that everyone holds to some sort of tradition. By that, I mean, no matter how you conceive of it, every person reads the scriptures with a “tradition-lens”, or to put another way, with preconceived doctrines and assumptions.
Even more than that, tradition is a positive concept in the Bible! Paul told the Thessalonians to “hold fast to the traditions” he had passed down, “whether by word or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Paul also talked about the gospel, which had been “handed down” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). This phrase “handed down” is the Greek word for tradition. Tradition isn’t inherently bad; rather, it is the handing down of certain world views and assumptions from generation to generation. Anglicanism understands this and roots itself in the apostolic church with its practices and traditions handed down through the centuries.
However, another important point must be made: tradition isn’t scripture. Scripture alone is God’s address to his church. It alone is his voice to his people. Tradition is instead the church’s interpretive lens of God’s divine address. Of course, what is assumed is that even this interpretive lens is guided by God’s Spirit. The Spirit dwells in the church, and therefore enables the church to be guided into all truth, as Jesus himself promised. Anglicanism understands all of this. And for this reason, Anglicanism at once affirms the legitimate authority of the church, its councils and creeds, while it also positions the scriptures above the church. Mind you, the Bible and tradition, or the Bible and church, do no contradict one another — they go hand in hand. Rather, they fit one on top of the other. For this reason, Anglicanism is commonly called Reformed Catholicism.
Second, Anglicanism’s broadness. Anglicanism is a Reformation church. Nevertheless, unlike other Reformation churches, Anglicanism is a church that has a broad theological range. To be an Anglican, you must subscribe to the 39 Articles of Religion. However, when you read the 39 articles, you notice almost right away not only how short it is, but how embracing it is. There are your typical polemics against Roman Catholic theology, as is to be expected.
However, unlike other confessional documents, the articles are rather slim and short, leaving wiggle room for dialogue. What this means that there is a spectrum within Anglicanism. There are high and low Anglicans. There are Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics. Indeed, many of Anglicanism’s greatest theologians disagree with one another on fundamental things. NT Wright and John Webster both sit at the table. Rowen Williams and Allistar McGrath fellowship with one another. For this reason, Anglicanism is catholic in the real sense of the word: it embraces a broad spectrum. It understands that creeds and confessions are guardrails rather than slammed doors. The creeds are protective buffers to protect orthodoxy, but at the same time, they are buffers for broad streets allowing a multiplicity of people within.
Third, liturgy. Over the past several years, I’ve come to realize that much of contemporary worship revolves around a certain assumption. I say this as someone who had this assumption without even realizing it. The assumption goes like this: if worship is to be truly authentic, it must be extemporaneous. Structured liturgy stifles this extemporaneous worship, and therefore worship services must be unstructured. I do affirm the gift that contemporary worship is, but I strongly disagree with this assumption. There are two reasons why.
First, there is no truly unstructured worship service. There is always some sort of order. Even if it’s three songs and a sermon, that’s order. But second, structure is necessary for improvement in every area of life, so why not the worship of God? If I want to get into shape, I must discipline myself to run, exercise, to achieve that goal. If I want to graduate from college, I have to discipline myself to study. It is not the case that I should only run when I feel like it, or study only when I enjoy it. No there are structures I put in place to achieve the goal I want. Likewise, if I want to worship God with increasing vigor, it follows that discipline and structure does not hinder but aid my goal. This is what liturgy is. It is a disciplined way of worshipping God that does not impinge but rather aids worship of God.
And indeed we see certain liturgical disciplines in the scriptures. For instance, we are told in Acts that the early Christians prayed three times per day, something that the Jews did before them. In fact, we are told that even after they had become Christians, Peter and John would go to the temple for the daily prayers “during the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1-6). This means the apostles retained the Jewish practice of thrice-daily prayer in the temple. We have evidence that the early church did this after the apostles as well.
Or, take the heavenly visions in Revelation as an example. Revelation is a book that gives a glimpse into the heavenly worship of the saints and angels, and it’s filled with liturgy! Revelation 4:8 tells us that angelic creatures, day and night, never cease to sing in unison, “holy holy holy, is the Lord God almighty!” Revelation 5:11 likewise tells us that the whole company of heaven, “thousands and thousands”, said together: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing”. Revelation 8:3 tells us that angels offer incense to God in prayer. We are told that there is kneeling and prostration. If this is what is happening in heaven, should our worship include this as well?
Another example is Paul’s mention of hymns and early forms of the Apostles’ creed. For instance, Paul quotes an early form of a hymn in Philippians 2:5-10. Or, in 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul quotes an early version of the creed. He does the same in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. What this means is that elements of the earliest Christian liturgy not only informed Paul’s theology, but they were so well known among the early churches that Paul could quote them without explanation.
What all of this means is that liturgy is an embedded part of the Christian faith. Anglicanism understands this, and includes the ancient liturgy in its worship.
Lastly, the sacraments. I worked with the assumption for many years that sacraments were something I did for God. I got baptized to say something about my faith. Baptism was, in essence, my work of response to God’s salvation. The Lord’s Supper is something the church does to celebrate and mentally remember Jesus’ sacrifice. However, as I read the early church fathers in tandem with the New Testament, I realized that the sacraments are never referenced as human actions, but as divine actions. Of course, the sacraments are things humans do. But in our doing them, it is God working and willing to save. Take baptism for instance: Paul says in Romans 6 that “we were buried with [Christ] in baptism”. Notice the passive language: we were buried. This is something that happens to us. Likewise, in Titus 3, Paul explains: “[God] saved us not according to works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration”. What is that washing of regeneration? Most commentators agree it is a reference to baptism. The key here is that baptism is a passive affair for Christians. It is not something we do, but God does. This is why the 39 articles says,
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church. (XXVII)
Notice the wording: “not only…, but…”. It is not only a sign of profession; rather, those who receive it rightly are indeed grafted into the church. What this means is, as Peter says in 2 Peter 3:21, “baptism now saves you”. Or to put another way, God uses baptism as an instrument of his gift of salvation. It is important to notice that the articles clarify that baptism must be received “rightly”. To put it negatively, baptism doesn’t work automatically. Baptism doesn’t mean auto-salvation. Rather, it must be received with faith. Especially in case of those baptized as infants; baptized children must grow into their baptism with lively faith in Christ. If, down the line, they leave the church, their baptism becomes not a means of salvation but a means of damnation. Nevertheless, all things considered, baptism is an instrumental means of salvation.
Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is not a symbolic action done by the church, but rather an action of Christ whereby he feeds us and sustains us with his very life. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Paul assumes that the bread and wine somehow participate in Christ’s body and blood; and, that in the partaking of these elements, Christians really and truly partake of him. As the 39 articles say, the “Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper”. Mind you, not carnally (we aren’t cannibals); rather, as the articles clarify, we feed on Christ “only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith” (XXVIII). The mechanism of feeding is by faith. We don’t munch on Christ with our teeth. The bread remains bread and wine wine. Rather, through the sacramental action of the church, with faith, we mystically, spiritually, but really and truly, feed on Christ. Again, notice the way the 39 articles don’t try to figure out Christ’s presence in the supper. There is much more negation in the articles than affirmation. We do this, not that or that. This is the point: sacraments are mysterious and strange means of God’s salvation.
I certainly have not explained everything, but you can take this as a starting point! I hope it’s informative/helpful.