What does it mean to be an Episcopalian anyway?[1]

We are onto important questions in the midst of our divisions. Our differences nowadays take on global dimensions. On other matters, churches all around the world seem to have similar prospects and struggles in our consumerist age. The diversity of ways that we worship, rendered yet wider in our age of online resources, seems to have taken the “common” out of “common prayer.” Cynical neighbors tell us it all goes back to the lusts of a king long ago and far away. In many parts of the USA, Episcopalians have in large measure defined themselves as not someone-else: not Catholics, not Baptists, etc. The pat answers of an earlier generation seem to satisfy less.

As if this were not enough, a deeper question nags at us. To what extent should we even care about a satisfying answer? Isn’t the question “What does it mean to be a Christian?” enough? This is after all the point of no less an Anglican than C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. Start with, and emphasize throughout, those basic commitments of faith that Christians of all denominations share. To be sure, core and denominational addendum are not so easily bifurcated. Mennonites think war and peace are central, Roman Catholics think the same about the question of who can reliably decide disputes over Scripture, so also Lutherans on the nature of grace itself. Just the same, there is something profoundly true about the idea of “mere Christianity.” The very existence of a creed preserved over centuries and employed across denominational lines, not to mention the fact that baptism is recognized across those same lines, attest to something true about the claim. It should be added that some Anglicans, in a turn from humility to pride, have gone on to assert that what makes them distinctive is their refusal to add anything to this consensus! (See Stephen Sykes’s surgical little book of critique, The Integrity of Anglicanism [1978].)

Let us put the matter another way: it is only as we ask the real question “What is a Christian?” that we can see, as if in our peripheral vision, what it would mean to give a properly Anglican answer. The latter is a particular style of answer, with some frequently found emphases. But our answer is not unique, nor should it be. It is to the answering of the “Anglican” question, as we answer also the “mere” question, that we now turn.


Two “negotiations”

Let us start with one of the most common of accounts we have given of ourselves over the past century, namely, that we are made up of “High,” “Low,” and “Broad” streams. Anglicans are characterized by a “comprehensiveness” which overarches all three. First, by the “Broad” party is meant not only a group open to the influence of modern science and philosophy, but also to “Latitudinarian” tendencies going back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Claims like comprehensiveness serve as shibboleths, as tribal markers. But in fact they obscure as much as they explain. We do well to look carefully at our history. More specifically, our tradition as we know it today is the child of two conflicts over “mere Christianity,” or perhaps two negotiations in the light of these conflicts. Every account of Anglicanism is implicitly a position vis-à-vis both moments.

Anglicanism was indeed born in the time of the Reformation, in the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, though not as some golden mean or admixture, devised in retreat or abstraction. It was the child of specific historical circumstances and contingencies. These have had a decisive effect, and in them some see providence, others an inherited blight (see Aidan Nichols, The Panther and the Hind [1993]). It was in doctrine a Reformation Church determined (by inclination first of Henry, then of Elizabeth, and finally in the Restoration) to keep as much of the liturgical inheritance as was possible. Whether this resulted best in a high Lutheranism, or a moderate Calvinism, or, later, in a eucharistic Methodism, the effect was similar.

Second, through the peculiar genius of Thomas Cranmer, the stratagem of displaying this Catholic and Reformed faith in the form of the “Book of Common Prayer” had a special place in the English Church, which both made fellowship possible and papered over differences. We still tend to wrestle with one another through liturgical alternatives.

Third, the fact that English Christianity was much older than the 16th century was never lost. This reaching back continued in later periods: for example in revived interest in the earliest Fathers or in the inheritance of church buildings themselves. There have been many offshoots of this: interest in the Christian East, Anglo-Catholicism, the Benedictine recovery of spirituality.

Fourth, the English Reformation was the only one created by an act of Parliament! (See A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation [1973]). So the crucial question of authority was deferred; once that civil authority was removed, as in the New World, a new solution would have to be sought.

My point is simply that these four elements make up a kind of Anglican DNA, from which can be traced both its strengths and challenges to this day. They affect the way sense has been made of the 16th century divide.

There is, however, a second struggle in all of Christendom, like a second overlay on an old-fashioned projector, of which we must also take account of if we are to understand what we see in the Church today. In the modern period, in all the denominations, there was a battle about how to understand religious claims and how to make sense of religious language. Debunkers of the faith, from the 18th century on, said that claims like “risen from the dead” were either myth, or else they were to be taken in some other way, for example as a description of an experience of new hope out of despair. Maybe they were metaphors for religious feeling and fulfillment, or else, children’s talk for a philosophy of history, or even an old code for class struggle. Along then came Christian thinkers who wanted to save the day by finding some common ground with these radical reinterpretations. To be sure, the stories of the Bible are indeed personally fulfilling and politically liberating, but do such explanations exhaust their meaning?

In other words, from the 18th century on, there has been a battle, often covert, over how words like those in the Creeds are to be taken. Anglicans tried to wall off this reinterpretation repeatedly. It has not often been clear what position people were taking by their language. So as a result, both the maneuvering between Catholic and Protestant, and that between traditional and modernist, have gone on at the same time and at two different levels. It is important to see that, in the modernist debate, the traditional cause was a serious theological enterprise, as it tried to reaffirm the claims of the Creed under new challenges.

Let us pause a moment to see how this historical observation helps to make sense of our situation. If someone argues in a sermon that Lazarus emerging is really about coming “back to life” emotionally, or that the Gospel promise is really achieving political liberation, their claims are heirs of this modernist trend. We can see how, underneath our present debates, are also found the effect of this deeper conflict. Finally we need to note that while during the first disagreements of the Reformation era, all the combatants shared the Creed, but disagreed on other matters, in the case of the modern debates over doctrine, Scripture, and authority, the disagreements often cut closer to the bone.

We have already observed that the first debate had contingent historical features. So too with the second contest. The historian of mission Andrew Walls has said that, just as European Christianity entered an era of crisis, it sent out its seeds to the Majority World in the form of the churches born of the missionary movement. Their parents are also the movements of reclamation and renewal like Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism. The younger churches both resemble their parents and show a profile all their own.

Three streams, once more

The question of identity has to do, by definition, with what endures over time. Were it not so, “Anglican” would crumble into a thousand local instances. After this strong dose of historical background, let us consider our present situation, with its practical difficulties in sight. Ours is a formal tradition in an era of informality. Its appeal may seem to some as something throwback and English, as if we were Downton Abbey at prayer. Too many congregations are “silvertop,” not to mention the clergy. Our debate on sexuality reflects our political divide, with worrisomely less and less to do with the Bible. The market’s admiration for change, marketing, and strategy is at loggerheads with the idea of a tradition itself. Our calling is not to accede to these forces, but it is to make ourselves understood in the time and place God gives us.

What if Anglicanism is not a substance, nor a spirit, but rather a task in each setting: to express and embody a Reformed and Catholic understanding in continuity with the Prayer Book inheritance in our modern circumstance? It must express the substance of the Gospel, mere Christianity, since the second negotiation involves a contest and debate in every circumstance. Our continuity, our Anglicanism, is not an unthinking repetition but a retrieval, some version of what Roman Catholics in the last century called “ressourcement.”

How might we restate those three streams (High, Low, Broad) as just such an attempt? Imagine explaining ourselves to someone who comes new to the parish: What can we say that is true first to the Gospel, and also genuine with respect to the inheritance?

“Deep and wide”

Into the Church are summoned people from every “family, language, people, and nation.” At the same time the Church is apostolic. It passes on the Gospel of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” across the centuries. This reach across continents and centuries is a point at which the Gospel and the Church its servant imply one another. Anglicanism makes claims to be a “deep and wide” tradition, committed to unity, stability, and geographic and temporal reach. As such it witnesses in contrast to independent and transient expressions of the Church. It is to just this feature that we can attribute the phenomenon of “evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” in recent decades. We might consider this a way to rename the Catholic impulse in Anglicanism. But again, these features cannot simply be assumed but must be practiced: we have to live out the apostolic continuity of the Gospel in the way we honor the inheritance and maintain the “bonds of affection” with fellow Anglican Churches.

“There is a crack, a crack running through everything.” (Leonard Cohen)

Affection for the Prayer Book includes appreciation of its language and a wistfulness for the world it evokes. But more importantly, the Prayer Book presents a way to assimilate enduring features of the Christian theological inheritance. The features themselves are “merely” Christian, but the mode is particular to our tradition. For example, in the Offices the sanctification of time found preeminently in the Benedictine life of prayer is now made available to the laity as a whole. There too the people of God are exposed to the hearing of the whole of the Scriptures.[2] One might equally point to the nuance with which the Prayer Book presents the doctrine of the real presence. But it is elsewhere that I want to lay the emphasis.

In our era the siren call of pluralism is heard by Christians who have forgotten the uniqueness of Christ’s saving work. That which he overcame, the thrall of sin, meets incomprehension. The Prayer Book embedded the Reformation’s emphasis on the finished work of Christ, and hence on His uniqueness, in the Eucharistic prayers: “one oblation of himself once offered, a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the whole world …;” “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord whose property it is always to have mercy …” (so Paul Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer [1999]). While these doctrines are a part of “mere Christianity,” the emphasis upon them may be seen as a centerpiece of the “Low” or evangelical inheritance.

“Good disagreement”

The more diffuse and patient kind of authority in Anglicanism has, at its best, made room for theological searching, for questions, for the pursuit of a range of allowable answers. Of course, we must quickly add some qualifications: This patience is not unique to us in any way. And at times this margin of exploration has been misunderstood to be Anglicanism itself! One hears people who have come to our tradition because it is more “about questions than answers.” Actually, diffuse authority is still supposed to be authority, and questions can persist even as the Church claims that it has some answers. Reciting the Creed, teaching the catechism: these are the Prayer Book warrants for a sense of teaching consistent with the Catholic and Reformed tradition we suppose ourselves to be. Another way to put the matter is that we ought to understand ourselves in a dialogue longer than our immediate circumstance. A church with diffuse authority, a fellowship of global churches, and ample room for debate will be a church slow to make dramatic changes.

Let’s summarize. What does it mean to be an Episcopalian today? It means first that we are Christians, creatures of God, forgiven sinners because of the work of Jesus Christ, part of the people of God led by the Holy Spirit, waiting for the final coming of his Kingdom. This account of “mere Christianity” is shared by many denominations. This account also involves practices that, in the midst of the confusion of the postmodern condition outside and inside the Church, reaffirm and articulate the Christian faith in typically Anglican ways. It means remembering that we are part of a Catholic and apostolic fellowship. It means that we are recalling the uniqueness of Christ’s work by his death and resurrection, his overcoming of sin and death, and the gift of grace. It means that we appreciate a fellowship confessing these truths, yet also open to patient and candid debate.

With such a description, we can make what is particular serve under what is Christianly shared, we can balance deliberate and contingent factors, and we can address the modern predicament with a properly traditional account. Yes, we extol our “goodly heritage,” even as the false way needs continually to be eschewed (Ps. 16).

George Sumner may be found here. The featured image of Liverpool Cathedral comes via Loco Steve, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 


[1] I write as an Episcopalian, but address myself to North Americans in general, and indeed to Anglicans further afield. I will use the term “Anglican” as a general one for everyone who appeals to this common inheritance.

[2] Ephraim Radner has been prominent in expounding these themes.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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