Posted by: dacalu | 4 July 2012

Why I love Anglicanism

Dear Friends, I realized recently that I have never spoken directly on why I choose to be an Episcopalian.  I was saying something about this to my friend Hester this morning, and thought I’d try to lay out some of the main reasons.

Many people have asked why I belong to the church I do.  It’s true that I grew up in the Episcopal Church and it certainly was a default faith until about the age of 16.  At the time of my confirmation, I studied Christian denominations and other religions.  Even then, I can’t say I really had a good grasp.  It was not until seminary that I really fell in love with my tradition.

The Anglican tradition in Christianity traces its roots back to the Christian church in Brittania, Caledonia, and Hibernia as early as the 2nd century AD.  The idea of Celtic Christianity has, no doubt, been romanticized by reformation and modern authors.  Nonetheless, Irish and Scottish monasteries fostered a unique and influential take on Christianity at least as early as the 6th century (e.g., Columbanus, 540-615).  Their ideas would inspire continental theology, even while Rome was asserting liturgical dominance (Synod of Whitby, 664).  Nor should the influences of Anselm of Canterbury (satisfaction atonement and ontology, 11th c.) or the Oxford Franciscans (substance, faith and reason, 13th c.) be neglected.

Nor would I wish to underestimate the close ties between Canterbury and Rome.  Island Christians have been heavily influenced by continental and specifically Roman theology throughout their history.  The English church declared its autonomy from Rome in the 16th century, but then as now considers itself to be catholic, that is a member of the church universal, and only ambivalently Protestant.  It’s been a complicated and messy history.  This is not the place to defend (or decry) the split.  I simply wish to say that the Anglican tradition draws both on the English church’s unique history and its connection to the larger church.

A specifically Anglican theology starts being laid out in the late 16th century, but self-consciously evolves through the 20th century.  For most of this time, Anglicans have identified with a few core principles that I find particularly wonderful.

Via media

Common rhetoric limits this notion to the “middle way” between Rome (Papal Catholicism) and Geneva (Calvinist Reform).  Indeed, we have sometimes split the difference on issues such as vestments, saints, sacraments, and priests.  The original idea of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), turns out to be much broader.  Hooker argued that we mush weigh the thoughts of all available authorities, giving each its proper due.  He said he would accept “neither a Pope nor a paper Pope.” In other words, neither the tradition and hierarchy of the church nor some reading of scripture could be taken as definitive.  Rather, we must take both into account and think critically about God’s will.

Likewise, Hooker is credited with the “three-legged stool” of scripture, tradition, and reason.  Such a stool must balance on all three pillars and will fall if even one is missing.  Like “via media” this is somewhat recast from the original.  Hooker actually gives all authority to Scripture, but he says that we cannot understand the Bible without the wisdom provided by the traditions of the church.  Similarly, no-one can interpret scripture and tradition without using their God-given ability to reason.  He argues that if you think you’ve bypassed your reason – you must be fooling yourself.

Anglicanism calls for a reasoned, self-aware, humble, and communal epistemology.  Knowledge, even religious knowledge, requires hard work and careful listening to whoever you can find.

Common Prayer

In the wake of the Wars of Religion (1524-1648) the English were tired of theology as an excuse for bloodshed.  In a movement that came to be known as the Elizabethan compromise, Anglicans said I don’t care what doctrine you hold, as long as you worship together, as long as you worship alongside the rest of the country.  We created a book of “Common Prayer” that laid out how we would pray together, rather than what we would all believe.  Theologians label this orthopraxy – right action – as opposed to orthodoxy – right belief.  From the 16th century, Anglicans have never been credal (in the sense of being defined by a common creed) nor dogmatic (in the sense of having unquestioned and unquestionable beliefs).

Among other important consequences, this orthopraxy shapes Anglican ideas about ethics and science.  On the ethical front, we favor common methodology over common conclusions.  We say that a troubled individual should talk to God, consult the community (particularly experts), look to reason and personal conscience.  We trust them, having done those things in good faith, to come to a good decision.  As to private confession (and the requirement to have church or priestly approval for an action) that “all may, some should, none must.”  It makes it difficult to pin down the Anglican position on difficult issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.  On the other hand, it empowers individuals – in fear and trembling – to bring their problems directly before God and follow their own conscience.

This openness to reason mirrors the Anglican position on science.  Just as Anglicans value orthopraxy over orthodoxy, so scientists value observation overa priorireasoning.  (Scientists follow Auguste Comte’s dictum of method over doctrine.)  Indeed, this is not entirely surprising given that Francis Bacon, “the father of empiricism” was Anglican (as was William of Ockham).  This orientation toward practice means that Anglicans can value the methodology of science before asking whether they accept the conclusions.  After looking at the conclusions, we must weigh their merit against all other lines of evidence (via media) before coming to a conclusion.  Particularly in the case of Charles Darwin and Natural Selection, this meant the church of England could unstintingly support science while struggling with (and ultimately accepting) an idea that challenged traditional doctrines about humanity.

Creation Oriented Spirituality

Christians have long struggled with two competing myths (explanatory frameworks – not fictions) regarding the world.  Both appear in the Bible and in tradition and, though they are not mutually inconsistent, they emphasize different things.  The doctrine of creation emphasizes God’s ability to createand sustain a good world (Genesis 1, John 1).  The doctrine of fall and redemption emphasizes humans’ ability to separate themselves from God and the need for God to rescue them (Genesis 2-3, Romans, Hebrews).  Do we view the world as primarily good or primarily corrupt?  The resurrection may be viewed in either light (as recreation or as atonement).  I think Christianity would be incomplete without one or the other, but I also think it can easily be deceived by overemphasizing one too much.  Both the Roman Church and the Reform churches focus on the redemption narrative in a way that makes them the dispenser of grace (as sacrament or gospel, respectively).  It’s effective in making converts, but encourages a very low opinion of humans, a profound separation from God, and a divine impotence in not creating a more resilient world.  A focus on creation allows us to appreciate the ongoing goodness in the world, the goodness in one another, and the omnipotence of God.  (And if it goes too far, it results in pride and Pelagianism.  Not a big surprise, given Pelagius grew up in Brittania.)  I was taught, growing up, that Anglicans did not have a crucifix because Jesus was no longer on the cross.  We celebrate that the cross is now empty.  What’s more, the Anglican (or Celtic) cross has a circle to represent the Sun and the presence of God in all creation.  The world was now a fusion of the original creation (Genesis) and the new creation (II Corinthians).

The Priesthood of All Believers

I have great respect for the Anglican notion of priesthood.  In the Roman tradition, the priest holds a power that none other holds.  He “confects” sacraments, conveying grace that cannot be felt without him.  On the other hand, Protestants claim that no-one holds such power.  They only have ministers.  Anglicans have been somewhat schizophrenic on this issue, with some of us holding each position.  I cannot claim to speak for all Anglicans on this, but I think I speak for most in presenting avia mediacompromise.

Anglicans hold that all Christians are priests.  All Christians have the power to forgive sins, to make new Christians, and yes, even to bless and sanctify bread and wine as a representation of God’s grace.  At the same time, we value the traditional symbolism and methodology of the priest.  We say that God’s grace is everywhere, but often hard to see.  The sacraments of the church do not create grace, but make it easier to appreciate.  We say that, in the Eucharistic feast (the sharing of bread and wine), the priest does not stand in the person of Christ (as in the Roman tradition) but in the person of the Church.  We recognize that it means something to do these things together, as Christ commanded us to do, and in apostolic communion, with all those who have gone before.  Jesus is really present in the bread and the wine; Jesus is really present in the gathered community and in the great cloud of witnesses (Christians past and present); and the two cannot be separated.

This value on the community has made us leaders in the ecumenical movement, an occasional bridge between Rome and Geneva, and has also led us to give the people a strong voice in the governing of the church.  (Admittedly, that last bit has developed more in the last to centuries.)  Anglican churches are governed by powerful clergy beside powerful laity.  Though the relative powers differ by country, the ethic is always there – that God acts not only through ordained priests, but through all Christians.  In short, we say that their is meaning and value in the “priesthood of all believers” but also in the ordained priesthood.

As usual, the Anglican tradition argues for both/and instead of either/or.

In an age when people, particularly young adults are asking for religion with reason, community without tyranny, and a scientifically informed way to make meaning of the world, I truly believe Anglicanism offers what the world needs.  I truly believe it is not only good news, but the best and most relevant presentation of the good news for this time and place.



  1. […] Anglican theology starts with the via media, the middle way.  The via media suggests that theological and ethical questions should begin with […]

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