What Does it Mean to Be Anglican?
Noted church planter, Alastair Sterne, breaks down the particulars of Anglicanism … and what every church planter can learn from the denomination.
“Why Anglicanism?” It is a question that I have heard with increasing frequency, and doubtlessly will continue to hear over and over throughout my Christian journey. My burgeoning association with Anglicanism has raised many a brow.
Certainly, at times, said brows are not merely raised, but decisively furrowed. “Why Anglicanism?” The tonal accent landing precisely on that word — Anglicanism — as if some sort of dirty word passed through one’s lips, or as if a curse was evoked upon my Christian faith, or even as if one’s mother was insulted.
“Anglicanism” need not be a dirty word, and it is far richer than the caricature cast by those who abuse its heritage (and let’s admit it, the heresy that plagues much of Anglicanism also plagues other denominations as well). Anglicanism, at its best, is beautiful. I have many reasons for affiliating with the Anglican church, but I will focus on a few that sealed the deal for me.
They are mostly theological and practical. Let me also say this as a qualifier: Anglican does not necessary have to mean robes, incense, bells and cathedrals. It can be very Evangelical and “contemporary” (for lack of a better word).
First and foremost, I am an Anglican because it is gospel-centered.
It reads Scripture with a salvation focus, understanding that the gospel is how we are saved, how we are transformed, and how the entire cosmos is ultimately reconciled to God. There is not one aspect of the human experience that the gospel does not impact, and Anglican spirituality seeks to embrace this reality.
It seeks to apply the gospel to all areas of the human experience forming our bodies, minds and senses as we stand, kneel, speak, hear, taste, touch, smell and sing. It seeks to transform our experience of time, as the Church calendar roots us in the story of the gospel. In short, every effort is made so that people might fully inhabit the gospel of God, because it is the center of our faith and salvation.
Secondly, I consider myself an Anglican because the Christian faith is Scripturally and historically bound.
Anglicanism keeps Scriptural primacy, yet embraces what can be affirmed throughout history, rooting the Church in the Creeds and Apostolic faith. Rather than a narrow, critical view of tradition, Anglicanism embraces Scripture’s dynamic approach to tradition. Within the Gospels, Jesus critiques the traditions of the elders, and quite harshly. But Paul also speaks positively of Apostolic tradition.
Anglicanism rightly embraces this, and approaches theology first from Scripture, then tradition, then reason and finally experience. Tradition can serve as a safeguard for navigating the challenges of culture and testing modern interpretations of Scripture. Yet the tradition affirmed by Anglicanism will never contradict what is revealed in Scripture, and if it does it will be corrected.
Thirdly, Anglicanism offers a robust missiology.
It rightly sees missiology flowing inseparably from ecclesiology and the Trinity. The Church is not solely an instrument to be used by God for his purposes. When the “mission” ends — narrowly understood as evangelism and reaching the nations — at the consummation and return of Christ, the Church still remains because it has an ontological significance — it is the body and bride of Christ.
The ultimate mission of the Church never ceases: giving praise to God’s glory. Anglican worship is structured around this distinct understanding: The mission of the Church is to be what it is, the body of Christ. The entire arc of the liturgy is rooted in the people of God as gathered and commissioned people, who are set apart for the sake of the world.
Fourthly, Anglicanism offers a holistic understanding of discipleship, especially in light of how people actually change.
James K. A. Smith makes a brilliant argument in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, that people are not fundamentally “thinking-beings,” or even “believing-beings,” but “desiring-beings.” The way we derive a sense of identity, meaning and purpose is not simply through our cognitive faculties, but also through noncognitive processes.
It is the social structures and stories that we embody that shape these noncognitive levels, which ultimately shape the intention and aim of our hearts. This is precisely what liturgy does. Mark Gallis writes, “Liturgy teaches about the story … but it does more, it also embodies the Christian story in its very structure.”