A New Generation of Anglicans

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Today there is a new generation of Anglicans joining the Church. Through my work on the Word & Table podcast, and with Saint Paul’s House of Formation, I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking with many. In my experience, the majority of these converts are millennials from evangelical protestant traditions.

Over the last twenty years, these young American Christians concluded with Thomas Howard that “Evangelical Is Not Enough,” and entered just those traditions that were most remote from the experience of Evangelical Protestantism from whence they came: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. It is not a huge movement: a relative trickle, not a flood, of mostly white, liberal arts educated evangelicals. Still, the conversions have been remarkable for their consistency over the last few decades, and small beginnings may portend larger things to come.

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Joining the Church

When evangelicals convert to Anglicanism, it changes how they think about church. For me, it meant the discovery that the Church even exists.

This takes a little explanation. It is not only that evangelicals who have a preference for liturgy and enjoy thinking about theology report to me that they have found a church that works for them, it is rather that they have found the Church for the first time. Evangelicals convert to Anglicanism not only because they have found a worship style they enjoy or even a theology they resonate with, but even more significantly, to enter a Tradition that is capable of standing over them, instructing them in the Truth and unifying them into one mystical body. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).

Here is another way of putting it: evangelicals converting to Anglicanism go from being nominalists to realists about the Church. In medieval philosophy, realists were those who believed that something was what it was because it partook of a real essence. For instance, they believed there really is such a thing as ‘humanness,’ and individual humans all had a share, more or less, in that ideal. Nominalists said there are no essences, just individuals. There is no ‘humanness,’ only individual human beings. Similarly, evangelicals are nominalists when they see a personal relationship with Christ as the central feature of God’s presence in the world. Then, the church is nothing more than an aggregate of individual believers, gathering for study and encouragement.

Anglicans, by contrast, are realists about the Church. Anglicans believe that there is such a thing as The Church, that she exists in the world, and that individual believers partake in that essential, visible fact.

The Church and the Scriptures

But are not the scriptures the rule of faith, the source of truth, and the highest authority for the Christian? Evangelicals are not, by and large, leaving churches that have abandoned scripture. What else could there be to discover besides the Bible? Of course, Anglicans recognize no higher earthly authority than the Holy Scriptures, but they also recognize that they were meant to be read together by the body of Christ. This history of interpretation has been handed down from age to age, from the Creeds as its preeminent synthesis through the Ecumenical Councils of the first five centuries when the Church remained undivided. This is why Anglicans continue to hold the writings of the Fathers of that early period in high esteem as a trustworthy lens through which to understand the meaning of the scriptures. Like the theory of Originalism in Constitutional Law, we want to know what the Bible’s earliest hearers and expositors thought it meant.

Anglicans do not consider the meaning of the Bible to be up for grabs. The conclusions of individual readers are not co-equal sources of truth, no matter how learned. Scholars and university professors may shed light on the meaning of scripture, but it is the Church, throughout space and time, that delivers its authorized interpretation. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. At the time of the Reformation, England led the way in the rediscovery of the Bible and the Anglican Formularies signaled a robust, biblically-informed departure from the errors that had crept into the Church over time and opened the way for a return to its original synthesis. Thus, the Anglican Communion has ever since taken the familiar conciliar shape of the Early Church.

Why Anglicanism is for Everyone

And yet, evangelicals who convert do not find Anglicanism to be a foreign land. On the contrary, I get to hear from many folks from across the denominational spectrum that what they find in the Anglican Church is altogether familiar. When I converted, I did not find my Baptist heritage repudiated. I found that same zeal for mission and the Bible amplified and set comfortably alongside the emphases of other traditions. How is this possible? Is it that Anglicanism is just a disorganized mush of other ideas? While it may seem that way to those who need their religion to be tidily organized, the real reason for this is that Anglicanism has a history of unique openness to unity of the Church—not just as an ideal but as an assumption of fact—and a consequent fondness for the early historical period in which the church’s temporal shape bore witness to its spiritual unity. As the Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes famously put it:

One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period – the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.

That period of the first five centuries contains the seeds of all of the familiar emphases of the many traditions we have today. The Reformed emphasis on the freedom and sovereignty of God, the Wesleyan yearning for holiness, the Catholic focus on the sacramental life, the Charismatic expectation that God remains supernaturally active in the Holy Spirit. It makes sense that an emphasis on the early church brings traditions together, since we are all descended from that common heritage. Like tributaries of a river that has hit rocks and is running apart, we all find our source in that same stream.

When I introduce students and parishioners to the Anglican Tradition, I get to tell them that they will recognize distinctives of their own religious tradition in it, albeit with a whole lot more to discover besides. For divided churches, Anglicanism offers something like an irrigation system, through which divided streams may run together again and once again add their strength and wisdom to the one great river of the Church.

The Contribution of Evangelical Converts

As Evangelicals seek the fullness of the Church in Anglicanism, they also bring a desperately needed infusion of enthusiasm for mission and respect for the Bible as God’s inspired written word.

In recent decades, the Anglican Communion has seen controversy over the definition of marriage and gender, a controversy which has shaken the historic foundation of the Church. England herself, the ancestral seat of Anglicanism, seems well on her way to unbiblical and apostate ideas. Surely what is needed in this time is a renewed understanding and appreciation for the Great Tradition, firmly grounded on Biblical Truth, objectively transmitting “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

As the Anglican Communion seeks to define itself afresh for the 21st Century, she would do well to pay attention to what outsiders have sought her out to be: not merely a series of prayer books, or an intellectual way of practicing religion, or a restatement of 16th Century theology, but a way into that Great and Living Tradition of Christian Worship, a discovery of the Church in its fullness. Anglicanism has never claimed to be the One True Church exclusively, but she has always claimed a share in it. The Scriptures and the writings of the Early Fathers have never been more accessible than they are today. I can think of no better trailhead from which to chart our course.

What is Anglicanism after England? She is a current in the stream of the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and she is at her best when she has both the humility and audacity to put aside other childish interests and turn her focus toward that visible synthesis of what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. Doing this, she will find herself on sure ground, unified, a great tree in which many birds can take refuge, and vital for our world today.

The Role of Anglican Compass

My hope is that Anglican Compass and all Anglican digital ministries may become places to explore the riches of those boundaries marked out by Lancelot Andrewes. Learning Christianity is a lot like learning to speak a language. To learn that language, I believe we must immerse ourselves in that language—the Bible—and its earliest native speakers, the Fathers of the Church. Through prayer and immersion in the scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, we can learn to ‘speak Christian’ to an uncomprehending world.


Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

Author

Alex Wilgus

Fr. Alex Wilgus is Rector of Redemption Church in Frisco,TX. He is the creator of the Word & Table podcast and Director of Saint Paul’s House of Formation. He is married to Lauren, with whom he has four children.

View more from Alex Wilgus

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