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Being a living tradition

My college mates and I spend plenty of time wondering about church identity (eg, see the list of posts here).  There’s just been an interesting discussion on the blog of Australian theologian Michael Jensen.  Having observed a lack of Anglican identity amongst ministers and students at his own evangelical Anglican college, he argues that actually, “being Anglican is a great way of being evangelical”.

He gives three reasons why:

  • The Anglican stuff (the 39 Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, etc) all subjects itself to Scripture
  • These formulations keep the non-essentials non-essential
  • Anglican networks are great for mission

Interestingly, Michael goes on to say that Anglicans “urgently need a liturgical renewal or even revival”.

He immediately notes that the solution is found in the Anglican tradition, which contains the idea “that in diverse times and places new expressions of corporate life will [be] needed to embody and embed these [gospel] truths — showing us that the content and not the form was the thing that mattered.”

Wait a minute, though.  Why would Anglicanism need a liturgical renewal if its structures were doing their job?  The thing is — if you will permit me a generalisation — Anglican gathering and liturgy is not dynamic.  The norm is that Anglicans simply appropriate past practices, continuing in ‘the way of things’.

I figure this means that what’s steering the ship is not in fact a dynamic theological framework but a mere inherited form.  The 39 Articles may well show that content is all-important and not form, but do Anglicans believe this?  Anglican practice says no.

This suspicion of Anglicanism comes out in the comments, where others have pointed out that you can happily be evangelical without being Anglican.  Michael responds, “You can’t have the software without the hardware.  You need to have an ecclesiological hardware system to go with your evangelical software to make it usable.  Evangelical on its own doesn’t do this”.

I think this is true.  The theological software can’t run without the container/interface that denominational traditions provide.  Denominations matter immensely, because denominations are where local church happens.  Whatever we end up committing to in terms of church, it will involve a denominational commitment, with all its fuzziness and frustrations.

But at what point would I proudly own my Anglican connections?  If Michael is right, the Anglican tradition is inherently dynamic and self-renewing and promotes continual reimagination — which is hugely appealing.  But one of the commenters points out that a reforming church must progressively update its hardware.  The very things that make Anglicans Anglican need to be reappropriated and reimagined and even abandoned if they can’t properly run the software.

The problem is, I don’t see Anglicans taking this seriously.  There are certainly plenty of Anglicans expounding the greatness of Anglican tradition, but I want to see a living tradition, a tradition that self-consciously builds on the past and refuses to merely copy or recycle.  Such a tradition would remain authentically Anglican while proactively reshaping itself with each new generation.

A prime example is the Prayer Book.  As excellent a tradition as the Prayer Book may be, I can only describe its usage in present-day Anglicanism as a failure of Christian imagination.  What if we truly recognised that the Prayer Book is nothing in itself, and instead reimagined the ideas that first animated its authors?  The rewritten product would revolutionise Anglican gatherings.  It might ‘only’ be a change in form, but it would surely reawaken our commitment to the content.  After all, the gospel is so dynamic that it can never be contained in a particular set of hardware.  We shouldn’t be afraid of letting it loose!

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

  1. Are you suggesting that the language of the Prayer Book needs to be revised, or that the forms/rubrics need to be changed?

    The language itself, particularly in the main prayers, is marvellous in my opinon – clear, theologically profound, and in many cases quite beautiful. The prefaces and introductions can be done in your own words and made as engaging as you’d like. As for the rubrics, the services are generally quite flexible as to the kinds of prayers and songs and teaching that goes on. I can’t see what can really be improved on in a ‘paradigm shift’ kind of sense, though if you have any practical suggestions that would be great.

    Though not having read Michael Jensen’s article, I agree that a renewal of the proper use of liturgical forms would help make evangelical services better. I’m tired of going to services where there is no real shape and depth to the presentation.

    The question about ‘dynamism’ I think is more about the wider spiritual life of the church in terms of prayer, sanctification, commitment to mission and service.

  2. This is such an interesting and relevant thing to bring up. Having grown up in sydney anglican church, gone away and then returned to a forward thinking, outward focussed anglican church I am really interested in the relevance of anglicanism to society. I think there are quite a few churches that sit under the anglican banner (in sydney at least) that do think outside the box, do think outside itself, and certainly don’t go back to the prayer book…. though admittedly the apostles creed gets a workout.

    I agree with andrew that the language in the prayers, and even in the creeds, is spot on theologically (with the exception of the he descended into hell line) and at times beautiful. However, I don’t think it is necessarily culturally appropriate to be reciting prayers and creeds in our current cities, and that while beautifully worded they are unlikely to be seeker friendly, and indeed do put many people off. But I guess we need to question our intent when we do incorporate them into services – the dual purpose of feeding followers and growing them, and reaching out to those who are yet to turn to god.

    Even though I grew up in an anglican church, and was in a fabulous anglican church (church by the bridge in kirribilli – more recently, I would still say I am a christian, not an anglican. Even on the census form – christian is the box i would tick…..

    Not all anglican church, services or practices are necessarily old fashioned and irrelevant, but we do need to be considering the appropriate use of tradition. I love what you wrote:

    “…I want to see a living tradition, a tradition that self-consciously builds on the past and refuses to merely copy or recycle. Such a tradition would remain authentically Anglican while proactively reshaping itself with each new generation.”

    Spot on :)

  3. Cheers Andrew

    I think you’re right that the real question is about what happens *outside* Sundays — about the way Anglicans think! I guess the question of liturgy and Prayer Book is just a microcosm of this.

    I’m talking about wholesale revisions.

    We could well say that Anglicanism has a built-in expectation of change according to changing contexts. For example, Cranmer provided five principles for revising future Prayer Books. The 1662 PB was itself a revision of earlier PBs. The Australian versions of the PB have altered the forms as well as the language; I was interested to find that the entire 2nd Order was written only in the 1970s. See pp 324ff at

    So I guess the question is not if or when changes will occur, but *how* they will be made. What I’m looking for is an Anglican ecclesiological rationale — what are the guiding principles for the inevitable changes? It’s not enough say, “it’s via media” or, “it’s reformed”.

    I can also appreciate what you say about the built-in dynamism/flexibility of the PB, but many Anglicans use it as a set text. The PB itself may be fine, but how can we ensure it’s *used* dynamically?

    But, having thought more about it, I doubt the PB is a good basis for Anglican identity precisely because it is a *form*. By making the PB part of Anglican identity, we could well be pinning content on form, rather than the other way around…

    Thanks for commenting, Liesl! :)

  4. So here is my terribly inaccurate take on church history and Anglican identity (we know Tim F reads your blog, so lets hope Rhys doesn’t :p )

    Anglicanism was founded by a bunch of radical clerics (eg. Ridley, Crammer, Latimer). They did something radical and made theology accessible to the every day uneducated layman (repetition of services so they would learn, in their own common language). They were pioneers of culturally relevant mission and ministry.

    That’s our heritage, and if you do that, you’re truly an Anglican… What a church! :)

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