Authentic Anglicanism, first of all, seeks always to present itself as biblical Christianity.
Of course, to say that is not self-explanatory. You have to begin with a belief that everything taught in Scripture is to be trusted as truth from God, and you have to add further the thought that for the interpreting of Scripture you have to be careful and ensure that your principles of interpretation come from within Scripture and are validated by Scripture, not imposed on Scripture by external, arbitrary means.
Otherwise either you can go adrift in the liberal way—not taking seriously everything that is taught in Scripture but making your own private selection. Or else you could end up with Roman Catholicism, which says that of course all Bible teaching is truth, but you need the church to interpret it. And you need to know some specific things the church has defined which, granted, Protestants do not find in their Bible but which you need in your mind in order to interpret Scripture properly.
The evangelical stands apart here from both liberals and Roman Catholics. And a person has to make that clear straightaway in order that others may know what that person means when he or she talks about being biblical. The Bible—interpreted from within, by itself, and interpreted as a whole—must always have the last word. That has been an ingredient of the Anglican mainstream ever since the Reformation.
Second, Anglicanism is liturgical. Anglicanism, as it inherited liturgical forms, has always had a Prayer Book setting the standard for worship. Every large geographical section of Anglicanism has had its own Prayer Book standard. And that is because Anglicans—both evangelicals and others—believe that the worship of God is central to the Christian calling in this world, and that the worship of God is best done when we do it together as the church has in fact been doing ever since the second century.
Liturgies emerged naturally in the Christian church at a very early stage on the same basis on which hymnology emerged. The emergence is spontaneous, because you do not have to argue that the best way to honor God is do it together—so let us have a liturgy—and to sing his praise together—so let us have a hymnbook.
You may find this thought rather hard to digest if you come from a Christian tradition that thinks of itself as nonliturgical. But chew it over. Suck the substance out of it, and you will see it makes sense.
None of us would deny that one of the best ways to praise God is to sing his praise; so let us have music, hymns, choruses. That has happened spontaneously. It did so in the sixteenth century, as in much earlier centuries. Christians were producing hymns since at least the third century. And it seems that they were singing psalms right from the apostolic era onward. Perhaps they were writing hymns that early also. A popular hypothesis in New Testament scholarship is that some of the sentences in the New Testament Epistles are quotations from hymns. It is very likely true.
There is no argument of principle about the emergence of these songs. We sing God’s praise, it is a good thing to do, so let us have songs and hymns.
And I am saying it really makes just as much sense—and it has been just as much a natural development—for Christians to say, “Let us have a form of words, as best we can come up with, so that we worship God together.” And so you get liturgies, and in due course you get a Prayer Book.
That is what Anglicans have always thought. Liturgical worship is so natural that it really does not need any justification. Some people fear that in getting into liturgy, they will find it a boring formality, something deadening to the spirit rather than enlivening to their souls. But those concerns shouldn’t occupy us for long. When people get into liturgical worship, they find that it is not like that in the least.
C. S. Lewis is very good on that point. In 1963 he wrote about the alternative services that were constantly being produced at the time, and he allowed himself to deplore the fact that so many clergy had what he called “the liturgical fidgets.”1He expressed most poignantly his wish that the clergy would simply avail themselves of the Prayer Book they had and give worshipers the chance to get properly into it so that it becomes part of them in the way that favorite hymns become part of people—natural expressions of their devotion to the Lord, expressions that pop up in their mind as the perfect way of saying what they want to express just at the moment.
Good hymns do that; liturgy does that as well. Some of us have already discovered this and are enthusiasts for the Prayer Book as a result. You, perhaps, haven’t yet discovered it; but let me assure you it is there to be discovered. Anglicans as a body are a community of those who claim to have discovered it, so we employ liturgy in our public worship.
Some of the modern liturgies are quite bad, but that is a different issue. Some modern hymns are very bad too. But we are talking in terms of ideals, and the Anglican ideal is good liturgy; and some of us believe we have superb liturgy in the Prayer Book.
On to the third quality that is integral to the Anglican mental makeup. The Anglican Church is evangelical. That means that our worship and our thinking about Christian life, testimony, and influence center always on the gospel, a full-orbed gospel, which includes the incarnation, atonement, bodily resurrection, present reign, and forthcoming return of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ fills the mental horizon of mainstream Anglican believers; the claim and the purpose is that in all we do, we are seeking Christ’s glory and furthering his kingdom. If you are not doing that, you are a bad Anglican; everybody will agree on that. And in your devotion, you do not get away from Christ and his cross any more than you get away from Christ and his glory and lordship, or Christ as the coming King, to whose return we look forward.
We know this, of course, from Anglican public worship. It is what real Anglicans are meant to be. And we are not very Anglican if, in fact, Christ is not central in our personal devotion in this way.
This evangelical mindset leads us in all our worship, our personal devotion, our discipleship, our theological thinking, and our attempts to exercise an influence in this world. Real Anglicans are evangelical.
The evangelicalism is defined, as a matter of fact, very effectively in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which were adopted by the Convocation (a gathering of bishops and clergy summoned by Elizabeth I) in 1563 as a confession of faith. They were an edited version of Cranmer’s Forty-Two Articles (1553) and received their final form with very minor revisions in 1571. I am an enthusiast for the Articles. They are in the Prayer Book, and they focus that evangelical perspective and are Christ-centered in the way I have described—which is the driving force, the heartbeat of Anglican believers in all they do.
We do not get away from Christ and his cross. On the contrary, real Anglicans have always made much of the Lord’s Supper. There are some evangelicals in this world, to be sure, who do not make much of the Lord’s Supper, but that has never been the typical Anglican evangelical way. We make much of the Supper not only because it is there in the Prayer Book, where we are encouraged to participate in it regularly, but also because it is there, incidentally, in a marvelous liturgical frame that projects the thoughts of our sin, God’s grace, and our faith, in a most telling fashion—actually, as by three turns of a screw.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was brilliant in the way he built his Communion service. It is a wonderful projection of the gospel, and it both illuminates and celebrates what we do at the Lord’s Table in receiving the bread and the wine in a way that is, to my mind, unmatched by any alternative liturgy that Christendom has produced, including all current forms of alternative Anglican liturgy.
Everybody acknowledges that, fourth, Anglicanism is a pastoral form of Christianity. It took shape in a pastoral situation where England was already divided into something like ten thousand parishes, as they were and are called—local geographical areas, each with its own church and priest. That arrangement was in place before the Reformation began. And the Reformers were thinking of ministry in the parishes at every stage in their reforming work. They wanted to change the way Anglicans worshiped and the way in which Anglicans grew in their faith, but they wanted to do this in a way that would ring bells in the parishes, through the ministry of the parish clergy to the parish worshipers. Anglicanism everywhere in the world is still like that—very congregation-oriented, thinking everything out in terms of discipling folk in Christ.
The claim and the purpose is that in all we do, we are seeking Christ’s glory and furthering his kingdom.
In England, the original form of the evangelistic ministry of Anglicanism for Anglican parishes—the form it took in the sixteenth century when the Prayer Book was put together, and the form it was still taking in the seventeenth century—was catechetical. The vision was to promote the parishioners’ learning through an understanding of the substance of the children’s catechism (contained in the Prayer Book), and through taking part regularly in the worship of Morning and Evening Prayer and the Communion service. In all these, the themes of sin, grace, and responsive faith are embodied, embedded, and expressed; all of it would ideally have been properly explained by one’s clergyman. Thus parishioners would grow into a living faith in Christ.
That hasn’t always happened, however. And after the eighteenth century, people came to think of evangelistic ministry the way they still think of it today—as going out and reaching out and having special messages given at meetings or services specially designed to bring people to a firm, personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Already when George Whitefield and John Wesley were preaching by the end of the 1730s, they were making applications at the end of their services that we would call appeals, and the pattern of evangelism in the minds of evangelical people has been the same from that day to this.
That is bad because in our minds—both in the Anglican world and in other branches of the evangelical world—this image of evangelistic ministry has driven out the older thought of evangelism being conducted institutionally through a discipleship process that begins with catechism, that is, teaching young folk the faith. We do not do that now in Sunday school. Usually we just teach a Bible story. Catechizing is largely gone. But the older pattern was that you teach young people the faith in church, and you explain to them the reality of faith and worship. Thus you draw them into the worshiping fellowship so that they grow into personal faith.
Even today, as in fact has always been the case, the majority of people who come to faith do so gradually through involvement in some form of Christian worship, rather than by standing up in a meeting, signing a decision card, or going into the counseling room. The latter sort of conversion, of course, is always talked about from the pulpit and platforms as if it were the most important. Statistically, however, it is not.
Ask in any evangelical congregation: Have most people here come to faith basically through an institutional discipling process? Or was their conversion something like the apostle Paul’s, with the Lord confronting them in crisis form prior to their involvement in Christian activity, so that they came in from outside? You will find that the majority came in the first way, despite the prevailing mental image of people coming the second way.
Anglicanism has always been pastoral, always concerned with making Christians, primarily in the manner described, and then shepherding them. That concern is there in the ordinal of the Prayer Book. The minister is ordained, first and foremost, to find Christ’s sheep and then to walk with them as a shepherd, leading and guiding them from the beginning of their spiritual lives right through to the end.
In other sections of the evangelical world, the primary emphasis has often been on the pastor as preacher or controversialist, and the emphasis on his ministry as a shepherd of the Lord’s individual sheep has been secondary, sometimes quite minimal. Some pastors have only ever seen themselves as preachers, persons called to hold forth—and for the rest, well, let the congregation pastor itself. But that is not the Anglican way; it never has been and never will be. Anglicanism is pastorally oriented, and the Prayer Book guarantees that.
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), 14.
This article is adapted from The Heritage of Anglican Theology by J. I. Packer.
As we remember the life of J. I. Packer, join us in thanking God for his profound writing ministry and the legacy of his faithful service to the church.
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