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What is good about the Anglican Church.

18 July 2010


There is story told about a deacon of the Episcopal Church who was sent by his bishop to a small town in Wisconsin. When he arrived in town on a Saturday evening, he stopped and asked one of the locals where the Episcopal church was. The man responded, “The Episcopal Church What is that?, I’ve never heard of it!” The young deacon, fresh out of seminary and just brimming with information, proceeded to tell the man that the Episcopal Church was part of the worldwide Anglican Church, in communion with the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The man replied, “England! Then what are you doing here in Wisconsin?!” 

That deacon that had that experience went on later in life to become a quite notable bishop. But he said that that question always stayed with him. “What are you doing here in Wisconsin?” 

First, I’ve got to say that Anglicans, or Episcopalians, have only one thing to offer; the Gospel- the Good news of Jesus Christ. That is something that we have in common with all other Christian Churches. Without that good news the church has no reason for existence, except perhaps to be another social service agency devoted to good works, however, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists are all in America. And they are all preaching the Gospel as well. So why is the Anglican Church needed? What makes it distinct? 

Despite the response from the man from Wisconsin who didn’t know about it, the Episcopal church is in fact a well-established institution in America. Anglicans (a word that I’ll use virtually interchangeably with Episcopalians) were probably the first denomination to establish a permanent presence in North America. We arrived with the establishment of the Jamestown Colony. Episcopalians in America, though small in numbers, (about 2 million today) have had an influence on society that is disproportionate to their numbers. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians (at the time Church of England). George Washington and James Madison were. Thomas Jefferson was born and Episcopalian. Ben Franklin was at best nominally involved in the church, but was Episcopalian. Betsy Ross was as well. Eleven of our presidents were Episcopalians including George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, the senior George Bush, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, and Gerald Ford. The Episcopal Church has included bankers and industrialists like J.P. Morgan, but also lesser known social reformers like Vida Scudder or Fredrich Huntingdon people who were labor organizers or helped immigrants in eastern cities. Many Episcopal clergy were active in the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. One Episcopal seminarian, Jonathon Daniels, was murdered in Selma, Alabama while he was involved in the civil rights movement. 

I’ve listed so many names because I want to give you a feeling about just how broad and various are the people who are Episcopalians. To name drop, we range from people like The former Secretary of State Colin Powell to the comedian Robin Williams. A very diverse group of people. 

The Episcopal church is also part of the Anglican communion a community of Christians in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and elsewhere in the world whose customs, practices, and ways of life are quite different from those of Americans, yet who are united by a common belief in Christ as their Savior. The Anglican communion that the Episcopal Church is a part of actually now numbers more Africans or Asians than it does people of European or British origin. I’ve been told that there are more Anglicans worshiping in Uganda on any given Sunday than there are in the British Isles, North America, Australia, and New Zealand countries combined. 

All of these national or regional churches, which include something like 80 million people, are Anglican because they are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. They are grounded in Scripture, tradition and reason. They have a common liturgical tradition, and recognize the Eucharist as the central act of worship. They worship using at least some form of the Book of Common Prayer. The communion has no single monolithic structure however. It has no distinctive body of doctrine other than those things which we share with all other Christian churches. Which is to say the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Nor does it have a Pope or any other body which could establish a distinctive body of doctrine. What it HAS are common roots and many common traditions and teachings. 

The official description of the Archbishop of Canterbury explains that he is “Primus inter pares” -or first among equals- of the various Archbishops of the Anglican communion. Each of the various National and Regional churches is self governing. And The Episcopal church is just one of those self-governing churches in the world wide Anglican communion. 

The Episcopal Church, as does the rest of the Anglican communion, traces its roots back to the Church of England, and explaining what is distinct about the Anglican communion involves talking at least a little about the Reformation period of the 16th century. As you undoubtedly know, the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII, who wanted an annulment of his marriage so that he could marry again and thus hope to obtain a male heir to the throne. . . . Well, that wasn’t the only reason for the Church of England splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. It was really just the political impetus for Henry to conspire along with that element in the church who had been influenced by the reformers on the European continent, and those who remembered that there was a time when there was a form of Celtic Christianity existing in the British Isles before the imposition of Papal authority. Henry’s actions began a long period of confusion that only began to be settled during the reign of Elizabeth I. 

It was not until the early 17th century that theologians in the church of England began to develop theological rational for all the upheaval and change. They wanted to satisfy themselves that on the one hand they had not abandoned the Catholic faith and tradition, as the Roman Catholics charged; and on the other hand, they wanted to show that it had gone as far as it could & should in terms of reform in order to satisfy the Puritan critics of the Church. 

The theologian who responded most successfully to all the opponents of the Church of England was Richard Hooker. If you had to sum up the question, “What is distinct about the Episcopal church in America?” in one phrase, it would probably be Richard Hooker’s phrase “via media”-or the “Middle Way.” Hooker meant by that that he was justifying the Anglican way as a middle way between the Roman Catholics and the Puritans, and between their conflicting claims of infallibility, whether of the Bible, or the Pope. He sought a balance that would be more than simple compromise or expediency, more than that it was a way of moving forward between those claims and differences. For Hooker, this way of mediation rested upon the assurance of our faith in the incarnation of God in Christ combined with a willingness to accept the limitations of our knowledge in any matter that is secondary to that. 

So, on the one hand, he rejected the claims of the Roman Catholic Church to make dogmatic assertions that did not derive from Scripture and on the other hand he rejected the extreme Protestant claim that the only source of Christian belief about God and the practice of the church is to be found in the Bible. 

In the Anglican (Episcopal)church, authority does not come from either an infallible Pope, or from an infallible Bible. Authority for Anglicans comes from Scriptures which “contain all things necessary for salvation” but which also must be interpreted in the light of the Church’s Tradition, and also reason. This is what is usually referred to as the “3 legged stool” Scripture, tradition, and reason upon which Anglicans believe our beliefs must rest. 

Over time, this belief that the incarnate Christ is the only source for the identity and authority of the church has stood us in good stead through many crises and conflicts. It has enabled us to be a church that can incorporate new forms of thought and new discoveries into our understanding of the Christian tradition of belief and practice. It is that ability that gives Anglicanism it’s sense of identity. 

In speaking about our faith, there is for Anglicans/Episcopalians an unwillingness to draw boundaries too quickly, in case we might leave out something essential. In other words, its not a suspension of judgment because we can’t decide, or because we are not interested, or that it doesn’t matter, but it’s a feeling that we need to be careful about using a language that is large enough to take in some quite definitely conflicting thoughts and insights, and that willingness to give some time to take in potentially conflicting insights is what I think is good about this Anglican middle way. 

It’s not just an unhappy compromise between extremes, not just a vacillating position, but trying to stand in a place where you can hold on to things which might otherwise fall apart. We are a community of belief and practice that as a rule can live with a great deal of change, and the diversity that results from change. 

We were not as troubled, for instance, by Higher Biblical Criticism the way many other denominations were, and still are in some cases, because Anglicans have long appreciated the authority of Scripture within the context of its witness to the Incarnate Christ. The Bible is not the only or the last word of God to us. It certainly is the “Oracle of God”, as Hooker said, but it is also a historical book written by human beings who themselves were fallible. 

We can believe that, by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, its writers were led to witness authentically to the revelation of God in Christ, but most Anglican biblical scholars and theologians as well as ordinary Episcopalians would agree that it always needs to be interpreted and understood within the Church itself -in light of Christ, and making use of tradition and reason to help us understand. 

I’ve stressed the openness of the Anglican-Episcopal church, but I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m telling you that we don’t believe in anything in particular. When as a community, we try to hear and discern the truth as made known to us in Christ, we do need to express what we believe that truth to be. Our chief way of doing that is through our worship. For the Episcopal church and for other churches of the Anglican communion this body of belief and practice as it has developed over the centuries, has its fullest and most authoritative expression in the Book of Common Prayer. 

It is to the Book of Common Prayer that we turn when we want to say “This is the Anglican way of believing; this is what we mean when we say we believe in God.” All those who are ordained and who have authority to teach in Anglican churches and the Episcopal churches must promise to conform to the teaching expressed on the Book of Common Prayer. There are some parts of the Book of Common Prayer that are more doctrinal, such as the Catechism and the Nicene Creed, (explain what the catechism and the Nicene creed are) but most of it is liturgical, meaning how we worship. 

This is how the Book of Common Prayer functions for Anglicans: we learn to understand the Bible and our faith through the way we worship as a community. So, we often say that “if you want to know what we believe, come and worship with us” and what we mean by that is that our way of worshiping expresses our way of believing. Another way of saying this would be to say that it is not as important that you understand the doctrine of Holy Trinity as it is for you to pray to the Father, through the Son, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. 

In the Book of Common Prayer, the Holy Eucharist, or communion is the normative act of worship for the church because it is our recollection in this present time of the event that makes us Christians. The event of Christ’s death and resurrection 

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