05 January 2012

Essay: "I am an Anglican"

You may recall my mentioning an essay contest from the Anglican Communion back in October. This is the text I sent as my entry. Now that the deadline has passed, the Eve of Epiphany and my 50th blog entry is as good a time as any to publish it here. Comments and pokes in the eye with sharp sticks are welcome.

I am an Anglican

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Given the stormy seas of the Anglican Communion in recent years, I believe Anglicans the world over need to remind themselves of just why we are Anglicans, and why we should remain so in spite of our own discomfort or disagreements.

This article will provide many such reasons of my own, in hopes that others may share in them and build on them with their own. I have divided them into seven parts – an auspicious number, since it is the number of the Messiah, in Whose name and (hopefully) with Whose help I write these words.

I am an Anglican, and I ask you to read these words and join me in sharing our wonderful and glorious faith.

Part I: Expressions of koinonia and communion

I am an Anglican because I believe Anglicanism is the best hope in the world for providing a model for the unity of all Christians. If all the major denominations were to suddenly heed Christ’s prayer that they all may be one, the result would look remarkably like our Anglican Communion, with the Bishop of Rome taking on a position analogous to our Archbishop of Canterbury, as a focus of communion but not the leader of it.

I am an Anglican because our Anglican Communion is the best living reflection of the dictum quoted by Pope John XXIII and usually attributed to Augustine of Hippo: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas – “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in everything compassion.”

I am an Anglican because our church is such a large tent. Where others see weakness, division, confusion, inconsistency, and disharmony, I see a great family united in its diversity. A jewel only reveals its beauty when it has many facets, and so it is with our Communion. Only in our Anglican Communion can one find such a wide range of theology and practice, and yet somehow we stay together, with God’s help. Where there is dissent, we seek to resolve it through dialogue, not by threat of punishment; by communication, not excommunication.

I am an Anglican because we as a Communion can agree to disagree, such as on the issue of women’s ordination. Some member churches practice it, some don’t, some only partially, and there is no pressure from above to conform at an international level. Within some member churches, attempts to make careful provision for those who cannot in good faith accept women’s ordination have been made. Regardless of the success or merits of these attempts, this is a step which goes to show what lengths we Anglicans are willing to pursue to preserve our unity, something which is practically impossible in other churches. Thus we show a way forward to a future where all Christians are united not just in our baptism, but in the communion of our churches as well.

Part II: Expressions of faith in worship

I am an Anglican because of the richness, poetry, and power of our liturgical tradition. Along with the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the words of the Book of Common Prayer are one of the greatest pillars of the English language, sounding immediately familiar to anyone hearing them. No other English-language liturgy comes close. No adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer by other churches, be it the Book of Divine Worship, the Liturgy of St. Tikhon, or others, compares to the majesty of the original language in its entirety.

I am an Anglican because of our glorious musical heritage, from Anglican Chant to Elgar to Prichard to Wesley to Merbecke to Ellerton to Purcell to Byrd to Vaughan Williams. That tradition is second to none in the English-speaking world, perhaps even in the whole world.

Part III: Expressions of koinonia and communion in ecumenism

I am an Anglican because we welcome and engage in dialogue with other churches like no other. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is a unique invitation to all Christians to transcend our differences and to come together as one Body of Christ based on four simple ideas. Similarly, the Bonn Agreement with the Old Catholics shows the way for true communion and fellowship in a model that is unique in its simplicity, forthrightness and mutual respect. The same goes for our agreements with the Philippine Independent Church, the Mar Thoma Church, and so on. And, of course, at a local level member Anglican churches are forging ahead in joining with other churches, such as the “Called to Common Mission” agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church in the United States, or the Anglican-Methodist Covenant in Britain, or the Porvoo Agreement in northern Europe, or the Churches of North and South India.

I am an Anglican because we do not declare other churches or Christians are deficient, invalid, or substandard. Instead we invite them in love to share our faith and to find common ground in humility and charity.

I am an Anglican because we invite all baptized Christians to join us at the table for Holy Communion. As Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt 7:1). It is not our place, nor the place of any institution on Earth, to judge others and decide for them whether they are worthy to receive the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Part IV: Continuity and reason

I am an Anglican because on the one hand, we have an unbroken continuity going all the way back to St. Augustine of Canterbury and the Irish Church, and through them to the Apostles themselves and thus to Our Lord Jesus Christ, while not being suffocated under the rule of a single leader or Magisterium or endless statements and confessions of faith.

I am an Anglican because we do not presume to speak in God’s name infallibly on our own. Instead, we walk together the path of Christ to find and follow God’s Will, wherever that path may lead.

I am an Anglican because our church does not try to explain the unexplainable, as in the case of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, preferring as Richard Hooker did to simply accept that sacraments are mysteries and let God do the rest.

I am an Anglican because our church does not presume to second guess science. Instead, Reason is one of the three pillars of our faith, along with Scripture and Tradition, and Church and science live together in harmony, not as rivals, but as complementary pieces of the Truth. Indeed, the motto of the Anglican Communion is the words of Our Lord Jesus, written in Greek in the windrose that symbolizes our Communion: ἡ ἀλήθεια ἐλευθερώσει ὑμᾶς (“the Truth shall set you free,” John 8:32b).

I am an Anglican because I am proud and delighted to be in communion with scientists like Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, Robert Hooke, Lord Kelvin, and Sir John Polkinghorne, as well as with the members of the Society of Ordained Scientists or the Episcopal Church Network for Science, Technology and Faith in the USA.

Part V: Communion of saints

I am an Anglican because we adopt and honor Christians of all denominations as our saints. It is hard to imagine any other church having Martin Luther King (Baptist), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran), Óscar Romero (Roman Catholic), and Elizabeth Romanova (Russian Orthodox) commemorated together as statues on the walls one of its most significant churches, as we do on Westminster Abbey, together with “our” modern saints like Manche Masemola and Bishop Janani Luwum.

I am Anglican because we choose to honor certain saints even when it means admitting and highlighting mistakes of the past made in our church’s name, such as Thomas More, John Fisher, and Charles King and Martyr.

I am an Anglican because we join with all the saints in a great communion transcending death each time we celebrate the Eucharist, while not sliding into plain superstition or cults that divert from Christ Himself.

Part VI: Manifestation of the Church Catholic

I am an Anglican because I believe the Anglican Communion is a full and complete reflection of the ideals of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Church Fathers. It contains the full essence of the koinonia, the community of the early Church, in its episcopal governance in apostolic succession and with territorial jurisdictions, with bishops acting together as equals. The Church has no head but Christ Himself, and in His name the leadership is shared by all bishops together. All bishops, not just the Bishop of Rome, are the true successors of Peter.

I am an Anglican because as Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Apostolic Traditions, our bishops are commonly “chosen by all the people,” not appointed from above by a distant prelate with little or no consultation of the full body of believers. In this way truly all the parts of the Body of Christ play equally important roles in its vitality and continuity, regardless of whether one is clergy or lay. By this, the Holy Spirit works through each and every one of us to our fullest potential, and it also has the virtue of preventing any one individual from taking the Church in a way it was never intended to go.

I am an Anglican because our priesthood and bishops are closest to the descriptions we find in the Epistles, especially when it comes to having families: In the letter to Titus, bishops are described not as celibate or monastic, but being “the husband of one wife”. The Church Fathers clearly believed all Apostles except John were married and had families, which is supported in numerous parts of the New Testament (e.g. Mark 1:29-31, Matthew 8:14-15, Luke 4:38-39, 1 Timothy 3:2+12). One example is in 1 Corinthians 9:5, where it says: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Even the so-called “first Pope”, Peter, was himself married, as mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, and at least one Pope, Anastasius I, was succeeded by his own son, Innocent I. Even as late as Pope Honorius (died 1287), there were Popes who were married and had children. Therefore there is no logical reason on the basis of Scripture or Tradition that married people should be excluded from Holy Orders at any level.

I am an Anglican not because Anglicanism is a “Catholic alternative” to Rome, but because it is a true living manifestation of the Church Catholic: a priesthood of all believers where all are one in Christ. As it says in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”, and in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. Thus the whole body of Christ takes part in all decisions in its synods of all believers, rather than being beholden to the decisions of one man or a tiny elite.

I am an Anglican not because it is “Catholic and reformed” or “reformed Catholic”, but because as a local church celebrating the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist, the Anglican Communion is a full expression of the Church Catholic without excluding other churches from being the same. So too are we a full manifestation of the Church just as each person of the Trinity is a full manifestation of God. These are the central aspects of how the Church Fathers describe the polity of the Church (cf. Leuenberg Documents 11, p. 93), therefore from the view of the Church Fathers’ ecclesiology, we are not “reformed” Catholic, nor are we “part” of the Church Catholic, we are Catholic.

I am an Anglican because our Catholicity is reflected most clearly in the fact we celebrated the sacraments in the vernacular centuries before it became common practice in the Roman church, allowing all to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. This has sadly been forgotten in other churches, which continue to uphold dead languages as a gold standard, so that few even understand what is being said, whether it is Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Greek or Aramaic. The irony is that the Latin Mass, today so bitterly defended by Western traditionalists versus the vernacular, was instituted originally because the people of Rome didn’t speak Greek, which at the time was the only language used. Latin was the vernacular at the time, so for the same reason the old Roman church celebrated in Latin, we celebrate in our own languages without question or controversy.

Part VII: Homeward bound

I am an Anglican because I searched for years for a church to call home in a place where all churches seem to be slowly dying, with widespread church closures and empty pews, and where committed Christians are now in the minority. In no other church outside our communion partners did I find the same Catholic essence, such as the emphasis on the Blessed Sacrament of Communion or the historic episcopate, combined with the comprehensiveness that is so integral to what it means to be Anglican. In no other church do I clearly see the past in unbroken tradition, the present in being accessible and relevant to the people of today, and the future in its supple institutions and vibrant activity so finely balanced. Once I found a place to live as an Anglican again within our communion, I came home, and that is where I shall stay.

I am an Anglican. I am home, and I hope you come home, too. +

John Grantham
25 November 2011
Hannover, Germany