Pursuing an Anglican Identity

I’m new to Anglicanism. I journeyed on the Canterbury trail along with many recent pilgrims from my Baptist homeland. Sometimes, this fact makes me self-conscious. Was I young, restless, and Reformed because it was cool then? And now that liturgy is cool, I’m Anglican? The question does not bother me enough to keep me up at night, but it’s an honest concern.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Bob Odenkirk (of Better Call Saul fame) was describing the appeal of sketch comedy for your people. He said, “For this reason, most people have a phase of liking sketch comedy, and it ends around 30. And I get it, because it’s just ideas and ideas and ideas, and somewhere around that age, life clicks in and people can’t take 10 more ideas every night. They go: ‘Can you just have the friends show up and do the same thing and behave the same way? I have enough going on in my life.’”

What Odenkirk realizes in sketch comedy, I think is true of evangelical culture as a whole. When I was young, I was seeking fancy words to describe God, more concepts, new experiences. But I had come to the end of myself. I needed a place where “life clicks in” and I couldn’t “take” the new ideas. I needed to stop adding theological verbiage and to start living and doing the same things. All I had was words, ideas, and experience. There was no form or practice to live into. I needed friends to show up and do the same thing and behave the same way. And in many ways, that’s the appeal of the liturgy.

On various social platforms, I sometimes see my fellow Anglican newcomers criticized. The story goes that former-whatever’s (Baptists, Nazarenes, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.) come into Anglicanism, because it’s a big tent and therefore theologically vacuous. We, the recent converts, are not drawn to the theology of Anglicanism but only to its form: a sort of hip, cosmopolitan, “vintage” appeal. We’ve rejected the conservative culture that we came from and are seeking more liberal pastures in a less doctrinaire church. Have the liberals come among us unawares?

A Generous and Confusing Orthodoxy 

It was a Saturday night, and I was texting with my priest about Sunday’s worship service. He came down with a sickness during the week, and in the year of COVID-tide, you don’t really risk it. At this point, I was a transitional deacon, so I couldn’t celebrate the Eucharist. We opted for an Evening Prayer service. He was walking me through it. I was asking basic, typical new-guy Anglican questions: First Sunday of Epiphany (green vestments?) but also Jesus’ baptism (white?). White. But it’s evening prayer and not Eucharist. Stole or Tippet? His response: “Either would be fine.”

Fine? Well, what would be right? What would be best? I’m not a “fine” guy. Perhaps it’s my recovering perfectionism, but “fine” isn’t really an answer I’m looking for.

I think at the heart of this “fine” problem is a larger tension of the Anglican communion. At our best, there’s a generous orthodoxy. This big tent Anglicanism creates a missional flexibility that can be attractive to those from more rigid traditions. Evangelical or Anglo-catholic? Either would be fine. 39 Articles? Most of them are fine. (Most of them?) There can be a mystery and wonder that leads to generosity. What we have in common is greater than our differences.

But here’s where I think those critics may have legitimate questions: when does generous missionary flexibility become theological eclecticism? When does generosity just turn to confusion? When do wonder and mystery lead to dysfunction? When does it stop being “fine” and start being unhealthy? When someone takes unorthodox positions or at least a dangerously contentious doctrine, and they think, “It’s fine. Lots of other things are fine, so what’s wrong with this?” Universalism? Fine. Administering the Eucharist to a same-sex couple? Fine.

One response to this dilemma is to do what my recovering Baptist voice wants to do: limit our positions and have our unity be tied to our uniformity. This is what I was told growing up: the more and more we hold in common, the more united we will be. The problem is with the generosity of the Anglican position without clear doctrinal lines. The problem is “squishy” leaders with “no backbone.” So, in the social world, it appears we have two types of Anglicans: squishy ones and angry ones.

 Liturgy and Love

There’s a second approach to Anglicanism beyond doctrinal rigidity. For those run exhausted by “ideas and ideas and ideas”, the church offers a place of friendship where people show up and do the same thing, the same way. For newcomers in the Anglican tradition, I’m not sure the best way forward is to critique why they came into the tradition. They needed the practices and the sameness that is the liturgy in order to find rest. And maybe we need to offer a gracious hospitality to those burnt out as they find their feet.

This is the work we believe the liturgy to do: God is forming us and shaping us through the practices where people will be formed in a distinct direction. That’s the beauty of Anglicanism: it’s not just distinct in theology. It’s not evangelicalism with an emphasis on sacraments and baptizing babies. The form shapes the theology as the theology shapes the form—but both are and need to be distinct. Lex orandi, lex credendi: The way we pray leads to the way we believe.

To be fair, the other error would be to assume these new catechumens do not need doctrinal teaching—as if the liturgy can do everything. One can look to the Episcopal church and see the fruit of such an approach. The big tent of Anglicanism was attractive to me, but it was not the lack of distinctions that was compelling. It was a distinct theology was embodied in a form.

But rather than police with harsh doctrinal lines, perhaps we need to invite others into a way of praying. We need robust catechism—especially for our kids who aren’t raised with “ideas and ideas and ideas” (else they turn into the new age of moralistic therapeutic deists). But we trust the liturgy to do its work with a gracious invitation that God shapes his people by the way we pray.

I find it easy to be a curmudgeon. I like being right. It’s nice, because I don’t have to think about being wrong. Being angry and finger-pointing comes naturally to me. It’s easy for me to police as a liturgical purist or theological pedant. In my former days, I liked being doctrinally astute and aligned. In recent days, I like church sacramental and the liturgy high.

But I’ve also realized that people don’t often change by being chastised, and I’ve never changed my position by being called an idiot. Sure, Jesus and Paul used some harsh words at times. But the way of love outlined in 1 Corinthians 13 is not squishy. Jesus’ cruciform life was not without backbone. The beauty of such a life is compelling.

So rather than a “you’re wrong, get off my lawn” approach, my plea is for a patience and kindness that seeks to embrace. Like Bob Odenkirk, maybe the newcomers have arrived with enough going on in their life. They just need to rest in the liturgy and do the same thing over and over. And as they pray, it will shape their belief.

Alexander is an Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College. He also serves as Assisting Priest at Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville, NC. His popular writing has been featured in Mockingbird, Front Porch Republic, Christ and Pop Culture, Fathom Magazine, and Fare Forward.

'Pursuing an Anglican Identity' have 4 comments

  1. May 23, 2022 @ 10:03 am sudduth cummings

    In contrast to the writer, I was attracted to Anglicanism (via the Episcopal Church– this was back in 1970 when I was in college) because of the creedal character of the church and the orthodox firmness of the Book of Common Prayer–but then, I accepted a call to ordained ministry at a Disciples of Christ summer church camp when I was fourteen and was already enjoying reading theology. Karl Barth was the first serious theologian I started reading.


  2. May 23, 2022 @ 3:11 pm Fr. Ricky McCarl

    You know alot of people started out in good faith and then just got tired of C4SO calling them racist and misogynistic every time they said “hey! Thats not Anglican.” That’s really where the anger comes from. The squishy Anglicans make us mad and then take to social media and say “I just can’t figure out why they’re so mad all the time.”


    • May 29, 2022 @ 2:49 pm Rob

      Apparently this anger also extends to (now former) parishioners in non-essential matters unrelated to theology!


    • June 6, 2022 @ 3:57 pm Sudduth Rea Cummings

      Over time I’ve observed that it seems in the very DNA of liberals/progressives/woke folk or whatever they want to call themselves to be angry and condemning. Can it be said that their only true joy is in constant protest and the denunciation of others? It is obvious from secular and religious history that constant, unending dissatisfaction with the current state of life and church is simply part of how they see the world and the church. Or should we call it a form of righteous indignation? But would that imply a self-righteousness and a form of “justification/sanctification by discontent/criticism?


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