I can think of no other religious tradition that embodies the heart of the gospel more fully than Anglicanism. Its history, its theology, its structure, and its future are all stories of grace. Why Anglicanism? Although it isn't perfect, Anglicanism is the most grace-filled, gospel-centered expression of religious or philosophical thought I can think of.
This week, the Acts 8 BLOGFORCE team is calling for responses to the second of its three-part series on reforming the church. This week's question is "Why Anglicanism?" which is a topic very close to my heart. My thoughts on the topic are wide-ranging, but I'll offer three brief reasons and wrap it up with a tie-in to Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 18:15-20).
First, history and theology, which are intertwined. Anglicanism is a product of the Protestant Reformation. Its origins belong in the same crucible as the reforming of the continental churches by Luther, Calvin, and their successors. It was born during a search for a church that is re-grounded in scripture. It comes from a desire to dismantle the human-centered institutions and recapture the basics of the church of Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles. Although politics and money and sex all had a role in the process, the Reformation ostensibly was a return to the gospel-first approach to church, hence the five solae--sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus, sola Deo gloria. Yes, Anglicanism's history is different (and that's important), but its Reformation origin is central to its unique place in Christendom.
Things were different in England, and the political process steered the Reformation process in a parallel but substantially mitigated fashion. Henry VIII was a faithful Catholic, but, for personal reasons enshrined in catchy tunes like "I'm Hen-e-ry the Eighth I am.,." he rejected the authority of the Bishop of Rome. His halfhearted reforms, combined with the back-and-forth of Protestant and Catholic that accompanied the successions of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, left Anglicanism somewhere in the middle. Finally tired of killing people on the wrong side of the Tiber-divide, the leaders of the church and nation, under Elizabeth I, decided that faithful inclusion simply meant showing up and worshiping together. Catholic-leaning clergy and people were allowed to stay in the church as long as they stayed in the church. The uber-Protestants were unable to completely reform the church to their liking. As a result, Anglicanism was born, and its grace-focused foundation was laid. It is Protestant, but it is open. It is Catholic, but it is congregational. It is worship-focused and prayer-focused rather than doctrinally-exclusive.
Second, structure. Something special happens when you take centralized authority and divvy it up among local people. And something really special happens when you take that authority and invest part of it back in hierarchical institutions. We are a congregational church. Decision-making happens at the local level. Congregations call their own clergy. Congregations are responsible for the use and upkeep of their property. Congregations make decisions for themselves. But we are also a hierarchical church. We have bishops (a narrowly reached decision that almost left us without people in purple), and they are the chief pastors and priests and teachers and theologians in a particular diocese. We rely on bishops to ordain clergy. Congregations cannot leave the authority of the bishop without leaving the church entirely. Anglicanism is built on a structure that values the individual's role and ministry in the church, but it also reflects our belief that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. We are subject to the authority of the church, and the church is guided by us. That's grace at work. It is not forced or dictated, nor is it subject only to the whim of the individual. The relationships at all levels of the church are important and interdependent.
Third, future. If you had to predict the role of Christianity in the world in 500 years, what would that look like? Another way to ask that question is this: what sort of church would attract a new, previously unchurched believer in 2514? I have a feeling it isn't the kind of church that says, "We know better than you do what's good for you, how the world works, and what your future is." Instead, I think it's the kind of church that says, "Want to explore life's meanings in a community that supports you and takes your experience and knowledge seriously? Come join us."
I define fundamentalism as an approach to the world that allows religious beliefs to take unquestioned precedence over other beliefs. Decide to ignore what science tells us about creation or evolution? You're a fundamentalist. Decide to ignore what experience tells us about death and resurrection? You're a fundamentalist. Think the bible or the creed or the church's teachings are immune to the skepticism of contemporary inquiry? You're a fundamentalist. Churches that grip tightly to their own world view and refuse to adapt--or are even reluctant to adapt--will have no place in the future. Because of its history, theology, and structure, I believe Anglicanism is more willing to change and adapt to the changing world than any other religious tradition. We are defined as traditional yet reformed. We start by worshiping together rather than discriminating along doctrinal lines. We are built to value the input of the individual, and we are bound to one another in our shared identity. We are not threatened by the future, nor do we seek to govern it.
This Sunday, we have a difficult passage from Matthew as the gospel lesson. In it, Jesus gives unbelievable authority to his disciples--the power to loose or bind on earth in ways that have a heavenly impact. But Jesus also places incredible responsibility on the shoulders of Christians--the requirement that we address brokenness within the church head on. To me, that sounds a lot like Anglicanism. We recognize that the church is carrying out God's work in the world, and we see remarkable, God-given authority invest in its leaders. But we also recognize that the work of ministry is done by everyone. Fellowship among believers is important. The emphasis is on relationship, not doctrine. Jesus lays out steps for making sure that the congregation is of one heart even if it is not of one mind. In a very real way, that's Anglicanism in miniature.