When the Anglo-Catholic chitchat begins here I feel a homeless stray! As bouts of High Church repartee break out, I realize this is a wholly different world from the one that has for decades shaped and formed me.
Let me explain: I am an old-style Anglican evangelical, committed to the wholeness and unity of the Church, but very much a spiritual product of the Reformed end of the spectrum. I was raised in a post-Christian home. If it had been left to the anemic liberal Anglican Catholicism of the parish church in my hometown, or the chapel of my English boarding school, mine would have been a thoroughly secular life. An evangelical priest guided me to faith in Christ when I was in my teens and in the process introduced me to the robust tribe of Anglican evangelicals.
I have worked in the United States and in England at different points in my life. A few years ago I returned to England to work at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, for a few years prior to retirement. There I discovered that the British, evangelical Anglicanism that had nurtured me has now morphed almost entirely out of recognition — often setting aside the very things that I love, that have shaped me. Behind all this is the assumption that what is inherited from the past cannot speak to the inhabitants of a secularized pagan culture. (Our recent experience in a traditional village church near Cambridge suggests this is a shortsighted misapprehension.) Moreover, while I was away from the USA, the majority of my more evangelical peers were in the process of absconding from the Episcopal Church.
The priest who led me to Christ guided me in the direction of his old seminary when I went to train for ordination: London College of Divinity (now St. John’s, Nottingham). There, we imbibed the faith with the Bible in one hand and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in the other (in the late ’60s liturgical revision was hardly on the cusp of breaking out). Morning and Evening Prayer were mandatory, we read or sang the Psalter in its entirety, and we left for ordination with a working knowledge of Hymns Ancient and Modern. These were building blocks for my maturing faith.
Arriving in the USA soon after its bicentennial in 1976, I was introduced to higher church liturgical ways in the Episcopal Church, to which I have over the years adjusted. Yet something deep inside me misses the unembellished simplicity of the Lord’s Supper administered with the priest planted firmly at the north end of the Holy Table, as well as the language and theology of Cranmer’s liturgy, as repackaged in 1559 and then 1662.
Bible in one hand and the Book of Common Prayer in the other meant that the faith was meted to us primarily as obedience to Scripture, the canonical books of Old and New Testaments, and we read Scripture’s theology through the prism of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as plainly understood.
However, this did not mean that our faith was anti-intellectual or theologically naïve. While at London College, I was exposed to the broader face and beliefs of the Church of England, while taking part in one of the most demanding liberal university theology departments. Several contemporaries in our wider student network are among the finest scholars and apologists of our time, Tom Wright and Os Guinness being prime example. The rigor of our education prepared us well for the life of a comprehensive church, equipping us to speak Christ into the increasingly hostile world of the emerging Western culture.
At the heart of our evangelical faith was a rich and varied spirituality, shaped by perceptive biblical preaching. Evangelical spirituality is missional at heart. We were encouraged from our first week to be involved in evangelistic activity: teams regularly went out for missions in parishes throughout the country, and a devotion to global mission was fostered. My time at college witnessed my first encounter with the Daily Office, but also my involvement in the pre-dawn prayer meeting focusing on facets of world mission. It was hard to enter ordained life without a global vision as well as the necessary tools to guide serious seekers to a living faith in Christ.
This background, however, has made me a strange duck in the Episcopal Church.
The rending of the church in the wake of 2003 was one of the most agonizing experiences of my life. Colleagues whom I had worked alongside for many years left; in some instances, friends accused me of apostasy for staying. In the wake of all this I have found myself in closer fellowship with those on the Catholic end of our tradition.
Evangelicals like me may now be an oddity in the Episcopal Church, but the Anglican evangelical tradition thrives in so many corners of the Communion. While a priest in good standing of the Episcopal Church, theses days I see myself belonging more to the Communion than one particular province. I was ordained in the Province of Canterbury, have been canonically resident in the Episcopal Church for 40 years, and am privileged to be an honorary canon of Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Owerri, Nigeria.
I praise God for the richness of Anglicanism’s texture and would be out of place in a setting that did not in some way reflect our tradition’s wholeness. I am grateful for the theological grounding I received both at university and at college. I give thanks for the fiery, Low Church Protestant Irishman, whose clear mind and silvery preaching deeply rooted me in a Christ-centered scriptural faith, and was an early mentor. Yet I give equal thanks for a former bishop: his theology was far to the left, but during my darkest hours he was a pastor to me and my family in such a way that a temporarily tottering faith was sustained, and my life, marriage, and ministry were saved.
J.I Packer, one of the towering figures of post-World War Two Anglican evangelicalism, befriended me in the early years of my ministry. Some years ago when we were driving to the airport in Nashville, we found ourselves talking about the nature of Anglicanism. Jim leaned across to me as we waited at a light, touched my arm, gave a little grin, and said, “Despite all its shortcomings, the Anglican way seems the best to be a Christian.” Amen to that!
The featured image comes via Flickriver user Lute 29.