4B. Anglicanism Is Traditional
Last time, we expressed our love of the tradition of Anglican Christianity, in two senses. The first sense considered tradition as the ancient history of the Church: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church located in the British Isles. We love this “tradition” because it demonstrates that the Anglican Church is not a “new” church or a denomination that arose out of the Reformation (though it did, certainly, reform in the 16th century). It is not named after a man or a theological system, but instead, is simply the Church of Christ in a location throughout time. You can read the first part here.
This time, we turn to the second aspect of tradition, namely, the theological traditions of Anglican Christianity. Simply stated, Anglican Christians seek to believe that faith “which has been believed always, everywhere, by all.” This quote, from St. Vincent of Lerins in the early 400s AD, captures what Anglican Christians believe theologically. Anglican Christianity, properly done, eschews novelty and innovation, instead searching for the truth embraced by Christians since the time of Christ. Another way of summarizing (loosely) Anglican theology is that we subscribe to: one canon (the Bible), two testaments (Old and New), three creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian), four general councils, and the first five centuries of the history of the undivided church.
Of course, as we explained earlier, the Bible holds the highest place of authority for us. But, we do not interpret Scripture in a vacuum. It is not “every man (or woman) and his (her) Bible” for us. Scripture, in its content, contains all that is necessary for life and godliness. But we only need to survey the fragmented nature of Christianity to see that it’s not enough to interpret the Scriptures for ourselves. Many Christians cannot even agree on what the essentials of the faith are, let alone on the details of those essentials. We bring baggage or our own worldview to Scripture when we read it. In doing so, we end up often substituting our own interpretation of Scripture as the infallible Word of God, when it is not—it is Scripture that is infallible, not us. This is why we think it’s vital to be rooted in the history of the Church and its teachings.
Some may not like this idea, but Jesus gave us some assurance on this point. In John 14, Jesus promised his Holy Spirit—“another Advocate to be with you forever.” In doing so, He would not leave His Church as orphans. In John 16, Jesus promised that this Spirit would guide the Church “into all truth.” In Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples (the first leaders of the Church), that all authority had been given to him, and therefore, they were in the position to go out and make disciples, “teaching them” to obey all Christ commanded. He also promised He would be with them. In John 20, Jesus, who had full authority from the Father, passes that same authority on to the Church’s leaders—“As the Father has sent me . . . I am sending you.” The Spirit of Truth did come, of course, at Pentecost. St. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” he taught, whether in person or by letter. 2 Thess. 2:15.
G.K. Chesterton sums it up this way:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
In sum, Anglican Christianity recognizes that Jesus created the Church; the Bible didn’t. Jesus vested the Church with authority to teach and interpret the Bible. And the promise of His Spirit assures us that we can trust the Church to teach the truth, particularly on key things (like who Jesus is, the Trinity, salvation). In effect, we test the teaching of the Church against Scripture’s plain language, but in those areas where there may be some question (such as, what happens in baptism? or who should be baptized?), we look to the consistent teaching of the Church through the ages and defer to it. We recognize that some parts of Scripture are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16). We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We trust Christ’s promises to guide the Church into truth. And this is one more reason we love being Anglican Christians.
This is part 4 in a series on what we love about Anglicanism. To see the previous articles, click here. This week is the first of a two-part article on the traditional nature of the Anglican Church.
4A. Anglicanism Is Traditional
The fourth reason we love Anglicanism is because of its tradition. Tradition is often seen as a bad thing in the eyes of some Christians, but Anglicanism embraces it to the extent it is not inconsistent with Scripture, which, as explained earlier, is the highest authority. There are two types of tradition, different in nature, that we will discuss. The first one refers to the history of the Anglican church. It is not a “new” church and it is not a “denomination.” Instead, it is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, which has existed in the British Isles since, perhaps, the first century A.D. The second aspect of tradition, which will be discussed in the next installment, concerns theological traditions.
When did Anglicanism start? Many history students will answer: with Henry VIII’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon. This is not an accurate assessment, however. The English Church existed long before Henry VIII claimed to be its head in 1534. What about 597, when St. Augustine of Canterbury, on a mission from Pope Gregory, arrived on Great Britain? That’s certainly a key moment in the life of the English church, but the Church started much earlier than that.
Though it cannot be proven, there is a tradition that Joseph of Arimathea visited the British Isles in the first century A.D. While this may or may not be accurate, it is rooted in the truth that Christianity appeared in Great Britain, which was a Roman territory at the time of Christ, at a very early date. In one writing, dating to around the early 200s, an Aristobulus (thought to be, perhaps, the one in Romans 16:10) is mentioned as having visited Britain in the first century. Whether this is true or not, we have writings from Tertullian and Origen that confirm ancient, apostolic Christianity in Great Britain as of their own times (mid-second to mid-third century).
Tertullian wrote that even “the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.” St. Jerome, in the fourth century, wrote of the British church and stated that it had the same faith as all the other churches, with bishops of equal dignity as successors of the apostles (thus, the British Church was episcopal then, like the entire church at the time, as it is now). This British Church, in fact, sent its own bishops to the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. There are several other early church historians who mention Christianity in Great Britain before the arrival of St. Augustine, the Roman Catholic Pope’s emissary, in 597.
It is certainly true that the English church voluntarily subjected itself to the Roman Church at and after the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D., but this admission underscores the fact that the English Church existed, independent of Rome, for nearly 600 years before that. Thus, another reason we love the Anglican Church is that it is a historical, traditional church that traces its roots not to the reformation, but to the apostolic, or immediately post-apostolic age. It is now, and has always been, part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
This is the third part of a series on what we love about Anglicanism. The first part, on the gospel-centrality of Anglicanism, is here. The second part, on Anglicanism's high view of Scripture, is here.
3. Anglicanism Embraces the Sacraments
The third reason we love Anglicanism is that it embraces God’s work through the sacraments. You might be asking, what is a sacrament? According to our Prayer Book, a sacrament is “[a]n outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” So, a sacrament has four parts. First, it includes an outward and visible sign. Second, it includes an inward and spiritual grace given unto us. Third, it causes internally what it signifies externally: the outward sign was ordained by Christ as a means by which we actually receive the grace represented by that sign. Finally, it is a pledge to assure us of the foregoing.
In response to this, some might ask: why would God use physical means to give us His grace? Aren’t we spiritual beings who worship only in spirit? Because God is invisible and wants to be known (Romans 1:20-21), He has used visible means to convey His attributes to mankind in creation. God’s pattern of using physical substances to convey spiritual reality did not end with creation, however. God has employed physical things as avenues for mercies, as evidenced by Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, Moses’ rod splitting the Red Sea, and the trumpet blasts at Jericho. These actions (i.e. washing in water, touching a rod to the sea), in and of themselves, are powerless, and yet, God has invested them with power symbolically and sacramentally to accomplish His purposes.
As our priest has frequently said, we are not simply “brains on a stick.” Our whole being—soul and body—needs saving. To treat Christianity as a merely an intellectual exercise is to risk falling into Gnosticism, which treats the material world as sinful and salvation as lying in doctrinal understanding and assent. The sacraments, then, speak to both our souls and our bodies. They signify in a sense what God actually conveys by His grace by symbolizing what God intends to do for us. God uses physical material to say to our bodies what His Word says to our souls, and, because we are body and soul, these physical and spiritual communications are joined in the sacraments, which have both physical and spiritual components.
To be clear, the Anglican position is not that the inward grace is conveyed automatically, without qualification. Instead, while a sacrament may be validly performed, it will not be effective without faith. God, in fact, gives grace and works through the sacraments, but the grace conveyed in the sacrament will only be effective in the life of one approaching the sacrament in faith.
While there has been a debate between Protestants and Catholics (and even between Protestants) as to how many sacraments there are, all sides agree that the two major sacraments are Baptism and Holy Communion. In Baptism, the outward and visible sign is the water in which the person is baptized. The inward and spiritual grace is “a death unto sin, and a new birth, unto righteousness; whereby we are made the children of grace.” Thus, the Anglican position is that baptism is an outward sign that actually conveys the inward graces of regeneration, death unto sin, and adoption. In Holy Communion, the outward and visible sign is the Bread and Wine. The Body and Blood of Christ, who is truly, sacramentally present in the Bread and Wine, are the inward part of the sacrament. And through this sacrament, God strengthens and refreshes our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are strengthened and refreshed by the Bread and the Wine.
Most Anglicans celebrate Holy Communion every week, and we love to do so, because we know that God is at work! And this is another reason we love Anglican Christianity!
Last week, we started a series on things we love about Anglicanism. You can read the first installment, about the Gospel, here. This is part 2 of the series.
2. Anglicanism Exalts Scripture
The second reason we love Anglicanism is that it exalts Scripture—certainly in theory, but especially in practice! The Articles of Religion explain that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” What does this flowery, Elizabethan-era language mean? It means that what we need to know about salvation God has revealed in Scripture. While Christians may believe doctrines traditionally held by the Church (e.g. that Mary was perpetually a virgin), if those doctrines are not proved from Scripture, one need not believe them to be saved or to be a member of an Anglican church.
This exaltation of Scripture is clearly manifested in our services. In our Morning and Evening Prayer services (as found in our Book of Common Prayer), we read at least one Psalm (usually more), an Old Testament reading (usually a whole chapter), and a New Testament reading. That’s just the Scripture readings—the Prayer services themselves are laden with prayers and canticles (liturgical songs, such as Mary’s Magnificat) that are, themselves, repetition of various Scripture passages. Depending on the church, we use a lectionary that takes the Christian through most of the Bible each year and the Psalms every 30 or 60 days.
Our Divine Liturgy (or Holy Communion Service) is even more-Scripture heavy. Each Sunday, we hear the Word of God read from the Old Testament and New Testament. We also pay special attention to a Gospel reading each Sunday, when the priest moves among the congregants to read the events and teachings of Jesus’ life. This action by the priest is meant to remind us that Jesus went among the people to teach and preach. On top of this, we sing a Psalm each week. Then there’s the homily, which is focused on Scripture. All in all, about 85% of the words, phrases, and language of our weekly worship service are directly from the Bible. Our homilies (or sermons) may be a little shorter than those in a typical Protestant evangelical church, but we more than make up for it with a super-abundance of Scripture reading. God’s Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword—we believe this truth and it is reflected in our practice. And it’s one more reason we love Anglicanism.
This is the first installment of a series on what we love about Anglican Christianity. This is intended to be a positive assessment of Anglicanism, rather than a negative assessment of other traditions. As such, any statement about a positive feature of Anglicanism should not be viewed as taking a negative view of any other tradition.
Learn more about Anglican Christianity.