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!
Categories: Written by Arthur
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.