When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of the parish and the drunken section,—that is, he went to church, but yawned privately by the time the congregation reached the Nicene creed, and thought of what there would be for dinner when he meant to be listening to the sermon. Or, to state his character as it stood in the scale of public opinion, when his friends and critics were in tantrums, he was considered rather a bad man; when they were pleased, he was rather a good man; when they were neither, he was a man whose moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture.
-Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
A Life more than a Corporation
I have very little desire to defend an ecclesiastical corporation, as such, I make no defence for the Anglican Communion conceived as a legal institution. The Anglican Communion as a global body only emerged in 1867 when the first “Lambeth Conference”, or gathering of bishops from across the Anglican churches, took place. The Anglican Church began first as a national/state Church of England and later on spread to all parts of the British Empire. With the demise of the empire, the Anglican Communion remains that fellowship of Anglican churches across the former British colonies. It has not been and is not a legal or political or institutional corporation.
I intend however to defend a form of life which is distinctly Anglican, wherever it be located on earth, however imperfectly it may be practiced, whether in farmers who superstitiously rattle off the words of the prayer book in the hopes of getting the gate open or in crazed SJWs clerics seeking to bless homosexual unions or priestesses. Not that I actually approve of them, I do however defend the principles which constitutes that form of life no matter how distorted or imperfectly it is realised in this empirical world. Perhaps it could be said that I defend, not the Anglican Church per se, but simply Anglicanism.
Of course in order for me to make my defence, I would first have to state the more fundamental theological principles from which I would evaluate the Anglican life.
Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, in that Order
The Anglican life is not self-justifying, it doesn’t exist for itself, and it is subject to greater ends and founded upon more fundamental principles. What are those principles? The Anglican life is to be evaluated according to the extent to which it makes evident the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is simply a means to an end, a way for one to be a Christian and to practice the Christian faith, especially in relation to one’s own life situation. As would be evident later, one of the merits of Anglicanism is that it does not by itself exclude other theological traditions or churches manner of living the Christian life as adapted to other life situations, which brings me to my next point.
Catholicity, in the proper sense of universality and wholeness. Being Anglican is simply a way of being Catholic, of partaking in the life of the Church as a whole. The Anglican form of life is to be evaluated to the extent to which it facilitates and enables communion with the whole Church of Christ. In the words of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher:
The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.
And finally the last principle is Protestant. I state unargued upfront that I begin with the premise of the primacy of the Word and the immediate presence of the Word as both foundational and constitutive of the Church’s life. The Christian life itself is founded upon faith and reception of the immediate kergymatic presence of Christ the Word, whether as preached from the pulpit or searched from the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Christus.
I make no apologies or defence here of these theological principles from which I would evaluate the Anglican life or Anglicanism. I simply state them in the interest of full disclosure. Theologically, my principles are constituted by, more or less, the principles of the Magisterial Protestant Reformation. I do not seek to defend the theology of the Anglican Church or Confessions in themselves. I seek only to defend the Anglican form of life as the best way whereby the Christian life, as articulated by the principles of the Reformation, maybe lived.
Making Present the Word of Life to all of Life
I shall begin my apology in the reversal order from which I stated my theological principles. One of the core features of Anglicanism is succinctly stated in Article 24 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England: “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.”
Even before the English Reformation, already English Proto-Protestants like Wycliffe were determined to make accessible the Word of Life to the masses and the people via his translation of the Bible, boldly declaring that he would “cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself”. What is not well known however is that second to the King James Bible, Anglicanism’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has the largest impact upon the English language, “For better for worse”, “peace in our time”, “We do not presume”, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, etc.
While all Protestants share in the common heritage of an English Bible, but it is the Anglican Church’s BCP which has formed and made present God’s word to the Anglophone culture. From birth to marriage to death, from morning to evening, Cranmer’s English liturgy has sought to draw those aspects of daily life under the light of God’s word, uniting them in his liturgy, formed by Protestant and biblical principles, constituted by adaptations and extensive direct quotations from Scripture.
While of course the Bible itself is a sufficient guide for life, and ideally everyone should know it from cover to cover, however in practice this isn’t always the case. Thus Anglicanism’s Book of Common Prayer provides us with a ready made template for private devotion as well as a concrete guide for every aspect of life, formed on Biblical Protestant principles, constituted by Scriptural words. It does not only teach us about marriage, it gives us prayers to reinforce it, it does not only exhort us to pray with biblical arguments, it gives us the words to do so. When we English speakers read and recite those words, we remember millions of English speaking Christians before who have been also edified by those same form of words and those same verses and passages of Scripture.
Because of the BCP’s entrenched status in the Anglican Church as a theological standard, no other denominational or theological tradition actually has anything on par to the Book of Common Prayer which preserves and transmits a store of theologically and scriptural sound devotional practices and guides in common for all the Anglophone world, impacting and uniting millions of Anglican worshipers across space and time in one common pattern of prayer and exhortation. To use the Anglican BCP is to share in the same life as great figures like Newton, Boyle, Berkeley, Coleridge, Blake, the very British monarchs themselves, etc, as with the lowest farmer and villager in England, the Americas, Africa, Australia, or Asia, etc. To be an Anglican is also to have access to the hymns, examples and writings of thousands of Anglicans from all walks of life, presenting their humble efforts unto the Lord, exemplifying for us the universality of God’s grace and the reach of Christianity from the simple plough unto the grandest choral tradition, all who were shaped by the very same pattern of words which we now recite in our churches and in the privacy of our homes.
Catholic Fellowship in the Bond of Peace and Charity, not Canons
Of course my arguments about how deeply the BCP has penetrated the Anglophone world do not quite recommend itself to those who are not part of the Anglophone world. While we could discuss the usefulness and extent to which we should, or can, translate the BCP’s liturgy into other languages, but the thing is that ultimately, there is no theological necessity to adapt the form of the BCP into other languages for Anglicanism does not present itself as necessary or constitutive of the Christian life as a whole. As Article 18 of the 39 Articles states: “They also are to be had accursed that presume to say that every man shall be saved by the law or sect which he professeth… for the Holy Scriptures doth set out to us only the name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”
Therefore Anglicanism recognises that it does not exist for itself, to expand itself or present itself as supreme. It exists in service of the Word, it exists to facilitate and communicate it in both life and preaching, but it does not by itself constitute it. The name of Christ and his Word alone is constitutive of salvation, and Anglicanism merely performs a service in aid of that end in whatever situation it finds itself in, in particular to the Anglophone worlds. If in other situations or life contexts there are other traditions or denominations which better communicates the Word of God and fosters sanctification, then praised be to God and Anglicanism extends the hand of fellowship to such.
In this Anglicanism exercises a true Catholicity as practiced in the bonds of peace, charity and faith, not a catholicity of canon laws or a narrow confessionalism. As Canon A5 of the Church of England states,
The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrines is to be found in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.
The confessional standards contain those doctrines, but they are not themselves those very doctrines nor do they constitute it. The standards are a resource for sound teaching and their general orientation broadly, but not restrictively, definitive of the Anglican Church.
This of course doesn’t mean that therefore individual Anglicans or even Anglican churches cannot have more definite theological stances, or even very firm theological convictions. It merely means that at the end of the day, we may be able to disagree about predestination or apostolic succession or adaptations of the liturgy, but we can still fellowship together, share a Christian life together and eat from the common Lord’s Table. As has been often said, we are justified by believing in Christ, we are not justified by believing in justification by faith alone. To be sure, there is a core confession which is constitutive of salvation and the Christian life, the Lordship, death and resurrection of Christ, etc. However as we move beyond the centre of Christ, complex explanations and developed systems about how salvation work may have an empirical effect upon our sanctification or salvation, but those explanations are not themselves constitutive of sanctification or salvation, and as such, do not make or break Christian fellowships. Our subscription to those sort of more advanced theologies is to be determined by a pastoral sense towards its practical effects rather than with an inquisitor’s eye decisive of salvation or damnation.
Naturally there are some differences which are a bridge too far; however, excommunications and breaking off of fellowship are pastoral issues, to be decided with close attention to the particular details on the ground by particular pastors or bishops. As the denomination with the most impressive canonical machinery has shown us, even with the most stringent canon laws most of its laity (and not a few clerics!) can still go doctrinally rogue and deny legally declared definitions of the faith in defiance of their documents and remain in fellowship. Better for there to be a horizontal split and separation from those whom we believe we cannot in good conscience fellowship with, than to have the illusion of doctrinal uniformity in a set of rarely enforced canon laws collecting dust in the Vatican. This is also the example of St Paul and St Barnabas who, when they disagreed, simply went each their own way.
If internally Anglicanism prefers a true Catholicity “in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life” (BCP), then externally as well Anglicanism also extends the right hand of fellowship to other denominations or theological traditions and recognise that our particular form of practice of the Christian life is not constitutive or definitive of it, and that our fellowship is wider and greater than ourselves, centred upon the shared confession of Christ’s name and a conformity to God’s word, not upon ecclesiastical documents or canon laws. Though our life takes on a definite shape, it does not exclude the invisible and spiritual bonds of communion which unites us behind our linguistic, liturgical or even confessional form. Especially because of Anglicanism Magisterial Protestant descend, it stakes out no self-contained or tightly policed boundaries of tradition, to be defended at all costs against the rest, but is happy to receive the best lights from the Fathers, from Medieval Catholicism, from the Eastern Churches, and all the various traditions of the Protestant Reformation.
For myself personally, I have explored a very vast range of theological options and opinions, changed my minds numerous times, but ever I have remained a member of the Anglican Church since I was first confirmed in 2008. Sometimes I would visit other Protestant churches on some Sundays, but ever always liturgy and life of the Anglican church was the one constant throughout my theological explorations and my prayer book my daily spiritual companion. Such, I think for me, is the breath and depth of the Anglican tradition which is able to edify and daily minister to someone with an as extreme an dialectical personality as mine.
Conclusion: One of the Best Ways to be Christian
When one speaks of the benefits of being Anglican, we’re often tempted to appeal to the majesty of our choral tradition, the beauty of our liturgies, the breath and depth of our theological scholarship. If we’re feeling a little more idealistic, we could speak of the organic unity between faith and culture which the Church of England, and Anglicanism has forged within the Anglohpone cultures.
The choir is glorious though
However great and wonderful these things are, and they have their proper place in this world, we cannot forget the ultimate end for which all creaturely things exists, to reveal Christ and his life, and ultimately it is to the will of God revealed in Christ whereby all creation shall be judged, both great and small, beautiful or plain, noble or humble, wise or foolish. The Anglican life, if it is to commend themselves to Christians and not aesthetes, must prove themselves consonant with the will of God.
In aid of such a proof, I see the Anglican form of life as one of the greatest attempt to draw all of life under the reign of Christ and God’s will. It avoids the error of the high church denominations which separates a holy clerical/monastic life or ecclesiastical corporation as the especial location of the realisation of God’s will or Christ’s kingdom while relegating all other aspects of life as qualitatively inferior with respect to religion. (The Roman Catholic Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon X, still anathemises anyone who says that “it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony”.)
Yet in opening the fullness of the Christian life to all and in all aspects of life, the Anglican life does not overburden the masses or ordinary life with excessive or esoteric spirituality. A simple piety enunciated in the BCP is sufficient for daily religiosity, while temporal or natural life maybe participated in all its glorious this worldly joys and pleasures without the need for some intrusive or all encompassing religiosity since creaturely life itself already “graced by God”. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
…to long for the transcendent when you are in your wife’s arms is, to put it mildly, a lack of taste, and it is certainly not what God expects of us. We ought to find God and love him in the blessings he sends us. If he pleases to grant us some overwhelming earthly bliss, we ought not to try and be more religious than God himself. For then we should spoil that bliss by our presumption and arrogance; we should be letting our religious fantasies run riot and refusing to be satisfied with what he gives.
As the Anglicans once replied to the Methodists with their overzealous piety, be not over righteous! Rather with a heart renewed by the Spirit and a conscience cleansed by Christ’s blood, we are free to engage and live this temporal life in all its bodily fullness, in spirit and in truth, according to its own meaning and integrity, without the next world intruding upon it. For Christ did not come to create a new set of Mosiac laws but to abolish it, that we might obey nature’s law as it was first ordained by God. Thus has the Church of England encompassed man from a broad range of life, from peasants to kings, from scientists to philosophers, from soldiers to sailors, from adventurers to manufacturers, all whose life in this world, great or humble, are in fundamental synchrony with the simple piety of the Anglicanism.
In aid of this end, the Anglican form of life has received the best of the English culture, a proper respect for common sense and reason, and while it affirms that the Scriptures are supreme and tradition of the Fathers are to be revered, but ultimately they restore and perfect, not replace, our reason and common sense, whereby we may live our life in this world in accordance to the will of God, ordained in the structures of nature, perfected in the revelation of Christ. For that I pray that, God willing, I may so remain an Anglican for the rest of my life.