It was a sunny day in Glasgow and the preacher was speaking to thousands of people in one of the large parks of the city. I had attended with a number of friends from a Christian campus ministry in Edinburgh where I was working on my PhD in Divinity (focus, World Christianity. Shameless plug: buy the book.)
The preacher in question was close to my heart—both an academic and a pastor like myself. Within his sermonette he specifically addressed the young people, saying, “I want to encourage all of you to develop a personal relationship with your Lord, Jesus Christ.”
In the words of Dr. Evil: Pretty standard, really. But the preacher in question was Pope Benedict XVI; the student ministry was the Catholic Student Association—the Anglican student ministry at Edinburgh was, well, underwhelming.
Now this is an article about evangelicals and Anglicans and mission, so why I am starting with a story about a German professor who later once upon a time served as bishop of Rome? It is precisely because the statement of Papa Ratzinger was so profoundly evangelical.
Bottom line: Yes
In this article I want to argue that Yes, Anglicans do care about global missions as much as any evangelicals. But, as Anglicans, we do think about and live out mission in a particular way that might be different from Baptist and other “free church” traditions.”
In the next section I want to reflect briefly on two words—Anglican and evangelical—and in the last section will summarize how we Anglicans envision and work out that mission which, yes, we do care about as much as your local Baptist or AG or non-denominational congregation.
Are Anglicans evangelical?
I was asked to address the following question: “Do Anglicans care as much about missions as evangelicals?” The first thing I thought was: but some Anglicans are evangelicals.
Now, I received my BA in philosophy. This meant the occasional ridiculous question, What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy? But it also meant learning to pay attention to words and their meanings.
So, consider the word “evangelical.” What is it? A noun and an adjective. Sometimes proper and sometimes common. Sometimes used to refer to specific institutions—the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Evangelical Free Church—and sometimes not.
What does “evangelical” mean?
I received my MA in theology from a Roman Catholic university. There I became familiar with the idea of a particular devotion. Some religious orders/societies were devoted to this or that—the sacred heart of Jesus, the blessed virgin Mary, the liberation of slaves, and so on.
I eventually concluded that evangelicals are those people who have a devotion to the Bible. We read it, we talk about it, we memorize it, we give it to other people.
In addition to that, let’s add two more characteristics of evangelicals: an emphasis on making a decision to form a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and the conviction that each and every Christian has the privilege and duty to spread the gospel.
As for the word “Anglican,” it refers to those churches, Christians, and traditions related to, derived from, or birthed from the ministry, mission, and thought of the Church in what is today known as England. (Etymologically, “Anglican” means “Angle-ish”—“of or related to the Angles.” Or, as you spell it, “English.”)
So, it is important to clarify that some Anglicans (and Roman Catholics and Orthodox) are indeed evangelicals, but not all of them are.
What is “mission(s)”?
What about the word “mission(s)”? The origin is Latin, from the verb for to send, which is incidentally the same root as mass, as in, “The mass is ended, go in peace.”
“Dad,” my 14-year old son said, “can I go on a mission trip with a local youth group?” My answer was, “No son, but you can go on a mission.” A little example of how we Anglicans tend to use this word in a slightly different—but important—way.
Anglicans tend to speak of the mission (singular) of the Church (universal), and place the emphasis on that. That one, single mission can be formulated in various ways, but why reinvent the wheel when we can just quote the Great Commission, which we all know?
There are missions: Patrick’s mission to the Irish, Francis Xavier’s mission to the Chinese, our own mission to the people of Madrid. But don’t belittle yourself by speaking of your ‘mission trip’ to Costa Rica. That makes it sound like a trip that just happens to be related to something vaguely spiritual, or as my doctoral supervisor, the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Koepping used to call it, tourism with a halo.
No: you and your youth group have a mission, because you have been sent by your local church in the name of Christ to be one, tiny, particle in the completion of the Church’s mission in and to the world.
Mission is clearly related to sending, birthed from sending. The original sending was Christ’s sending of the apostles (Greek: sent ones) known as the Great Commission, and each of the four Gospels contains its own variation on that sending.
There is also the NT office of the evangelist. What is the difference between the evangelist and the apostle/missionary? It is most likely that the apostle/missionary has a calling and gifting to cross some sort of boundary: linguistic, cultural, geographical, and perhaps even socio-economic. The archetypal response to this witness is the one vocalized by the Samaritan woman in John 4: Why are you—a Jewish man—talking to me—a Samaritan woman?
But what is the telos of that mission? We all know about a brief mission to this or that poor place where wealthy Christians “help” poor Christians. Is painting a wall mission? Is doing crafts with kids mission? Those things are clearly works of charity, which grant them a biblical and moral sanction.
In a recent article on this website Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter wrote about a missional ecclesiology. I personally don’t use the word missional at all, but he makes a valuable point when he writes that our vision of mission is “properly rooted in relational love (think of the persons of the Trinity) and sentness (or otherliness). Love for the sake of the other is core to the persons and activities of the Holy Trinity…”
But mission, understood in its apostolic sense, must be related to engraining the very DNA of Christ’s character and ethic within the distinct cultures of the world.
The Great Commission is actually about evangelizing culture, not individuals, and this is nothing new: it is an outworking of God’s covenant with Abram (Gen. 12) wherein he promised to bless all the peoples (i.e., cultures) of the world through the man and his seed.
(Now this will strike some of you as an outrageously bold claim. Is there a dichotomy between the evangelization of individuals and culture? No, but they are not the same. Don’t we change a culture by converting individuals? Speaking as a professor of sociology and church history, the answer is no. What is my biblical basis for the claim? Basically that the Pentecost event is the reverse-working of the Babel curse. But by all means, if you are interested in a full article on the topic, I’m game, just leave comments below!)
So, mission must follow this line of thought: crossing boundaries for the sake of witnessing to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Do Anglicans care about mission(s)?
After all that preamble we are in a place where the key question can be answered concisely.
Yes: some Anglicans—not all—are profoundly committed to mission. Some Anglicans are so committed because they are, in fact, evangelicals. But other Anglicans who are progressive or Anglo-catholic are also committed to such an endeavor.
At this point it is necessary to explore the intersection between (1) the Anglican heritage passed down from the very first centuries of the Church Catholic throughout the centuries and (2) the world as it is today. Let me argue here that the best evangelical witness can and should learn from the best of what our Anglican heritage has learned over 19 centuries of faith, hope and love.
Matter matters. Anglicanism is firm—in all its traditions—on this point. God made stuff, and it was good. God in his sovereign election has elected certain primordial pan-cultural things to operate as portals of his own saving presence and activity.
These things are humble: wine, bread, water, hands, man-and-woman, oil. All of this flows from and to the proclamation of the resurrection of all flesh. We don’t become angels. After our death our souls long to be reunited with our bodies in the new creation.
Anglican mission is not ashamed of this. Indeed, it is a great strength because the fundamental sacramental principal—that matter matters—is deeply ingrained in every human. Though yes, some of us in the West have somehow managed to deceive ourselves and believe the contrary.
The sacrament is the symbol that effectuates what it means; God binds himself to the sacraments, though he is not bound by them.
I am always confounded when fellow pastors say they have a “biblical” church. I think to myself, who would want to be a pastor of the church in Corinth or Jerusalem?
I am also disturbed by the tendency in much of the USA towards a cult of the pastor, wherein the pastor becomes a celebrity, and if on some Sunday he is not there people mysteriously don’t show up. There is something wrong with this.
What is the solution? Liturgy, which means “the work of the people.”
The work of the people is more important than the work of the pastor. People saying prayers together in unison is a beautiful thing: it draws attention away from the pastor and towards the people in their worship. The pastor has only a small space to express his own personal charisma, making the cult of the pastor nearly impossible.
Also, when there is a transition in leadership the people can be confident—they know their own pattern of worship.
Also, when disciples are traveling to another city or even country they know they will encounter a similar—not identical—pattern of worship, for it is Angle-ish.
Humans are liturgical creatures. Think of your children as you put them to bed when they are little. If you deviate from the pattern (liturgy) they will call you on it. Humans learn from identifying patterns. Humans need patterns.
All churches, including all evangelical churches, are in reality liturgical. The question is not should we have a liturgy? The only question is Is our liturgy good?
The Anglican liturgies balance history and contemporaneity, the local and the catholic. The Angle-ish heritage allows for humans to be humans; it resists the Enlightenment insistence that we are primarily creatures of the mind. We are not. We are animals made in the image of God who live in our patterns.
Yeah, so what? I just made up that word. But we Anglicans have a global communion, and a communion is not the same thing as a federation or confederation or what have you. This is what makes us the 3rd largest Christian community in the world.
I am an ordained presbyter (priest) in Spain, but I can go most anywhere in the world and, following the correct protocols, my ordination and office will be accepted there. You probably know that a lot of missionary work goes on among refugees and migrant populations. Sometimes a convert has to leave for safety. Having this global presence is a great blessing and asset for missionary work.
A Big Umbrella
If you are sure that you know all the right doctrines and that, in you, 19 centuries of biblical interpretation has reached its apogee and that you have finally gotten everything just right, then Anglicanism is probably not for you.
We’re not relativists, but we emphasize the historic core of the ancient Christian Church—the Trinity, the Incarnation—while not insisting too much on the fine details. I mean, you can believe in fine details if you like, but you can’t expect everyone else to believe in them too.
A good example of this is the traditional Anglican doctrine of the true presence of Christ in Communion. He is truly present. But what metaphysical language explains the manner and mode of that presence? Perhaps transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? The prevailing opinion is that we don’t really need to know, and that’s fine.
So, Anglicanism represents a big umbrella, and a lot of space for different expressions of Christianity—from Pentecostal to evangelical, from progressive to catholic. This doesn’t always work out well, but as an Anglican missionary and priest I really do feel that the benefits of this big umbrella outweigh the downsides.
Should evangelicals join the Anglican tradition?
In conclusion, I want to reformulate our original question. Let me put it this way: as an evangelical should I join the Anglican tradition?
If you are fruitful and joyful where you are, stay there.
But if not, consider this an invitation to communion. An invitation extended precisely for the sake of completing the mission our Lord Jesus Christ gave us.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Duane Miller for answering a question that many of our readers have asked! If you’re interested in Duane’s work with Muslims, you should check out this interview that David Roseberry did with Duane in 2017.