When introducing Anglicanism to family, friends, and acquaintances, I have found it helpful to summarize some of the key points of Anglicanism by outlining them as the four “P’s.” Other traditions hold one or two of these points in common with Anglicanism, but the Anglican tradition has, I think, combined them all in a unique way and, as I hope to show, for a specific purpose.
The study of early church teachers and pastors – labeled in technical terms as Church Fathers or “patristics” – was not until very recently a popular thing to do in the academy. Only in the last twenty years or so has the study of the first few centuries of the Church become commonplace among the academic guild; but Anglican theologians in the early- to mid-twentieth century, such as George Leonard Prestige and Dom Gregory Dix, were influential in shaping the renewed appreciation of the Church Fathers in the academic world.
But the careful attention to the Church Fathers goes much deeper in Anglicanism than simply the recent scholarly trend. Anglicanism stresses the need to live, worship, and believe in continuity with the early, post-New Testament Church in a way that is unique outside of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That is why, for example, the Anglican confession of faith from the Reformation, the Thirty-Nine Articles, does not hold as central a place for it as the Lutheran (Augsburg Confession) and Presbyterian (Westminster Confession) confessions hold for their denominations. While it is certainly confessional and reformed, and therefore different from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Anglicanism is primarily a creedal and patristic faith.
Growing out of its desire to be consistent with the early church, Anglicanism also features a threefold-office of ordained ministry, otherwise called an “episcopal” form of governing the Church. In addition to deacons and elders/pastors, which are common in other traditions, we also have bishops.
There are traces of the existence of bishops in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters (Acts 20:17-38; 1 Tim. 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-9). The position of bishop is a formal office of ordained ministry by at least by ca. 95 AD, when the Bishop Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthian church, and 110 AD, when Bishop Ignatius of Antioch gave instructions to his church while being carried to his martyrdom.
Bishops, in short, are supposed to be the “pastors of pastors” and to ensure that churches are teaching true, biblical doctrine (2 Tim. 1:14; Titus 2:1). But even in traditions where there is no formal bishop, like in the Baptist or non-denominational world, there can be “bishops” in practice, who simply minister under a different name. These and other traditions oftentimes strongly recommend that pastors should seek another pastor to be his or her mentor. This is the role a bishop is meant to occupy.
Anglicanism formally recognizes in its structure what many other denominations strongly advise in practice, though that structure alone has by no means been a guarantee of preserving Christian orthodoxy or effective Christian ministry.
Anglicanism also has a rich tradition of devotional works. It features poets such as George Herbert, John Donne, John Milton, C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot. Hymnists of many classic Christian songs were also Anglicans, such as Charles Wesley (“And Can It Be?”), William Cowper (“There is a Fountain”), John Newton (“Amazing Grace”), and Augustus Toplady (“Rock of Ages”).
These figures’ poems and hymns are rich meditations that teach people how to understand, pray, experience, and sing Scripture. Anglicanism, as these Anglican pastors illustrate, beautifully unites head and heart. Anglicanism sings its theology; its theology is devotional, practical, and experiential. Beauty is at the heart of Anglican worship—not beauty for its own sake, but beauty that arises out of a sinner’s grateful recognition of God’s abundant grace.
For the Anglican tradition, all of these aspects meet in prayer. If our theology, polity, and poetry do not lead us into deeper lives of prayer, then they are meaningless.
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is the wedding of discipline and doctrine in a poetic form of devotion. The prayers (or “collects”) are metered, heartfelt, and deeply biblical. It is sometimes said that the BCP is “the Bible arranged for prayer.” I have heard it remarked that the BCP is 80% Scripture!
As we sing the Bible in our hymns, and as we feel the Bible in our poems, we Anglicans pray the Bible in our prayer book. The BCP teaches us how to pray and how to read the Bible both devotionally and doctrinally. It helps to make prayer the natural, spontaneous, and poetic rhythm of our lives.
“But what about preaching?!” one might ask. Don’t Anglicans have a strong tradition of biblical, evangelical preachers like George Whitefield, John Wesley, and John Stott? Or what about the preaching of the Caroline Divines, like Lancelot Andrewes? Or of the Oxford Movement, such as John Henry Newman?
Why not, then, include ‘preaching’ among the “P’s” of Anglican emphases?
Simply put, it sadly seems like we Anglicans have forgotten our rich preaching tradition. Despite all the differences that divide them, what Anglo-Catholic (“high-church”) and Evangelical (“low-church”) Anglicans today do seem to hold in common is a lack of attention to our preaching heritage.
I have heard it said not a few times by some high-church Anglican pastors, “You might get an average or poor sermon from me here or there, but at least you still have Holy Communion!” And certainly there is comfort in knowing that, despite the failings of the preacher, we will still receive spiritual nourishment from the rest of our worship. But hearing this remark leaves you with the impression that sermons are little more than a warm-up for the “real” purpose of worship, Holy Communion. And Holy Communion potentially offers preachers a convenient excuse for not putting in the hard work of sufficient sermon preparation. (Perhaps this excuse similar goes some way towards explaining why Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox clergy, who also have a “high” view of Holy Communion, do not currently have a popular reputation for being good preachers either.)
On the other side, I have seen evangelical Anglicans think that the key to more vibrant worship is preaching, which is a half-truth. “Let’s just simplify the service,” they say. “Let’s cut out these extraneous, traditional parts of the service, so that we have more time for the sermon.” “If we just preach the Bible verse-by-verse, line-by-line, then we will make sure we are being biblical.” But they forget that, unlike today, the false teachers in the first few centuries of the church—from the Pharisees, to the Arians, and to the Nestorians—were the biblical ones! The heretics were the biblical literalists, who “just wanted to be biblical!” You can preach the Bible without preaching the Gospel, but you can’t preach the Gospel without preaching the Bible. (Never mind, by the way, that longer sermons don’t always mean better sermons.)
I don’t intend to develop a detailed definition of what Anglican preaching is. And I don’t intend to hold up that definition as a standard for showing at what precise points Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals go wrong in their approaches to preaching.
I just want to point out first, especially for those who are new to it, that Anglicanism, for all of its beauty, is not the ideal church above other churches. If you think that it is, you will be disappointed. The grass is not greener on this side. Sinners are over here, too.
Second, I want to suggest—both to Anglo-Catholics and to Evangelicals—that we see our preaching as an essential piece to a larger package.
For Anglo-Catholics, see that preaching is vital, just as vital in fact as the patristics, episcopal polity, Anglican poetry, and the prayer book. Even if the service does not depend on your sermon at the end of the day, preach as if it did!
For Evangelicals, rather than taking away from its importance, our patristic heritage, our episcopal structure, our poetic devotion, and our prayerful posture should combine to strengthen the quality of our preaching as Anglicans. These key aspects to Anglican identity are not distractions but aids to preaching.
We should practice our theology. We should sing our theology. We should pray our theology. But we should also proclaim our theology.