In our Mark 4:30-32, Jesus compares the Kingdom to a mustard tree with large branches on which the birds make their nests. As we look at our own walk in the Kingdom, we find ourselves sheltering on the Anglican branch of this tree, but what exactly does it mean to be ‘Anglican’?
I am often asked this very question. Unfortunately, it is not an easy one to answer. I sometimes try to answer with the breadth of the worldwide Anglican Communion of 85 million people from 165 countries organized into 39 provinces linked together by a common liturgical heritage. I am sometimes tempted to answer by comparing the Anglican Church in North America with the Episcopal Church with whom we share our history. I sometimes resort to full geek-mode and begin with the history of the English reformation. None of these responses feels quite right.
At the synod for our diocese in June 2018, I asked our keynote speaker, a church planter from Georgia, how he answers the, “What is Anglican?” question. His response provides a good starting point. He described the Anglican Church as:
“A Biblical faith, rooted in ancient tradition, relevant for the questions and challenges of today, and with a bright hope for the future.”
A Biblical Faith
While this is an accurate description of Anglicanism, I hope that it describes most other Christian churches equally well. It describes the full mustard tree. How can this answer help us understand our place on a particular branch of the tree?
Let’s start with “Biblical faith.” One of the beauties of the Anglican tradition is the ability to comprehend and include a wide variety of liturgical and theological positions. However, each of these must ultimately be weighed against the canon of Scripture. The Articles of Religion hold that the Scripture of the Old and New Testament contain all things necessary for salvation (Art. VI) and warn that no single portion of Scripture should be elevated above others to the degree that it becomes repugnant to the whole (Art. XX). These two guidelines provide instruction as to how we are submitted to the authority of Scripture as individuals and as a church.
Our Biblical faith is also reflected in our liturgy and Prayer Book. The Sunday Lectionary guides us through Scripture in a way that prevents us from skipping over the difficult parts and the Daily Lectionary guides us through the majority of the Bible over the course of a year as we pray Morning and Evening Prayer. The collects we pray in the course of the liturgy are steeped in Scripture and teach us how to pray God’s Word back to Him.
Now let us briefly explore the ancient roots of our faith. Our faith heritage goes back even before the Incarnation of Christ. The Biblical foundations of our faith include the Hebrew Scripture and go back to the very beginning when God created heaven and earth. We affirm the roots of our faith in the creation of the world as we recite the historic creeds of the Church within our corporate worship, the Nicene Creed as we celebrate the Eucharist and the Apostle’s Creed in the Daily Office. These creeds root our faith in the foundations of Christianity as the Apostle’s Creed dates back to the earliest days of the Church as the foundational set of beliefs for Baptism and the Nicene Creed represents the basic beliefs which have bound the Church together since the 4th Century AD. This creed defines the Church as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. We celebrate and maintain our connection with the Apostolic church through our continuance of the three orders of bishop, priest, and deacon within the church. In the laying on of hands by bishops, we maintain the Apostolic succession of these orders.
Our liturgy also recalls our ancient heritage in celebrating the sacraments ordained by Christ in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our liturgy preserves the words of institution in the Eucharist as given by Christ and prescribed for the Church by St. Paul in his instructions to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 11:23-26). In doing so, we indeed join our voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in the eternal liturgy of praise and thanksgiving.
Distinctive to the Anglican tradition is the manner by which we bring the ancient roots into the contemporary practice of the parish. Prior to the English Reformation of the 16th Century, the Eucharist was celebrated in a language that was largely unknown to the people and the daily prayers were recited in monasteries and not parish churches. The great beauty of Cranmer’s Prayer Book was the translation of the Eucharistic celebration into the common language of the people and the consolidation of the monastic hours of prayer into the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer. We begin to see the way that the ancient roots of our Biblical faith are brought to bear on the daily challenges and concerns of everyday people in our Anglican heritage.
Relevant for Today
How does this ancient and Biblical faith prepare us for the questions and challenges of today? Instead of trying to generalize about contemporary culture, I will talk about the ways the Anglican tradition speaks directly into my life.
I find the order and discipline of the lectionary and the liturgical calendar a great comfort in the rapidly changing pace of daily life. The lectionary forces me to consider portions of Scripture that I might otherwise skip over and the liturgical calendar orders the seasons in a manner that orients me to the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the continued work of His church. In particular, the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer grounds each day in prayer and Scripture. Through the Daily Office, I am carried through the Psalms each month. The Psalms give name and prayer to the full spectrum of human emotion and experience. They invite and instruct me to pray with full honesty and feeling.
I find the community inherent to Common Prayer a stabilizing factor in an uncertain world. In the liturgy of the Eucharist, we rehearse together the Gospel of Christ and join together in the mystery of Holy Communion. We are nourished spiritually in a way that is beyond description. However, it is our ministry at the assisted living facility that has truly revealed the formative, transformative, and sustaining nature of our sacramental liturgy. When nothing else remains, the words practiced over years of worship and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist continue to minister to our hearts.
Several contemporary writers have described in more or less detail the relevance of our Anglican practice to daily life. Robert Webber’s classic Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail describes how Anglican worship and practice fill in the spiritual and sacramental gaps of the Evangelical movement. Rev. Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary describes her experience of Anglican spirituality in the daily life of a working mother. In a recent blog post, Rev. Dcn. Joshua Steele concludes that “within the Anglican tradition the Holy Spirit can teach us:
To value community in a world of rampant individualism,
To value history in a world of idolized novelty,
To value lasting beauty in a world of wasteful materialism,
To value steady reverence in a world of frantic busyness,
To value submission to authority in a world of radical independence,
To value unity-in-disagreement in a world of tribalized conflict.”
Hope for the Future
We will conclude by exploring the ways we celebrate our hope for the future within the Anglican tradition. While the certain hope that Christ will return in glory is common to all Christians, there are ways that the Biblical and liturgical tradition of Anglican practice remind us of this hope.
We mentioned last week the way that the Psalter as we pray through it monthly in the Daily Office teaches us to express the full range of our human emotions in the presence of a holy and loving God. In particular, the Psalms of lament teach us to hope in God in the darkest moments. I talked with someone recently who wondered how there could even be a God with all of the pain and suffering in the world. This is the first part of any lament, but without the other parts, we are condemned to a life without hope. Lament teaches us to see the suffering and pain within our lives and the world around us and bring the rawness of this pain before God crying out that the current situation is intolerable, that we are powerless to change it, and that God must act. Then we wait in the midst of our lament. This waiting is not marked in the Psalms of lament, but if we look closely, we can see the fruit of this waiting as the Psalm of lament moves from sorrow to hope and ends in praise of God who is faithful and just. While we may not see resolution to the pain and suffering we brought before God, we experience the mystery of hope by the consolation of the Holy Spirit. Lament reminds us that our hope is in God alone and not in our own plans and efforts.
We also act in faith in a hopeful future as we pray whether in the liturgical prayers and collects of the Book of Common Prayer or in our personal prayers for ourselves or for others. This hope is well summarized in the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom which concludes Morning and Evening Prayer:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications to you; and you have promised through your well beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
Our Eucharistic liturgy is filled with hope for today, tomorrow, and for the age to come. It is in hope and faith that we join the eternal liturgy of praise, singing the Sanctus with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. In singing together with all the communion of saints, we experience today the joy and hope of the resurrection. In the prayer of consecration, we acknowledge not only the certain hope of spiritual nourishment in the Body and Blood of Christ, but also the certain hope that we will see Jesus face to face when we enter into the fullness of the Kingdom. As we conclude the Eucharist, we pray that having been nourished and strengthened in faith, we will be sent out into the world in the hope that God has prepared good works for us to do and prepared us for those works of love and service.
In our Anglican tradition we celebrate our sure hope in the power and love of God and the glory of His Kingdom for the next moment, the next week, and the next age.