Whether you are a new believer or a long-time follower of Jesus Christ, maybe you’ve found a church in the Anglican tradition that you’d like to join. How do you do that? What does it look like for you to become Anglican? In this article, I hope to clarify what church membership is, how it is practiced in the Anglican tradition, and the steps you can take toward it.
In a word, Baptism and Holy Communion are the instruments of membership in the Christian Church. Since it pertains to joining the church (as opposed to Holy Communion, which is more about ongoing participation), let’s focus on Baptism.
Baptism is the initiating sacrament of Christianity. It is clear in Scripture and the tradition that Jesus intended baptism to be the physical marker of initial membership into his gathered people. By design, this sign of membership could be received by anybody, no matter their age, sex, ability, ethnicity, or status.
The service for baptism in the Book of Common Prayer 1662 affirms this reality. The opening exhortation says that they baptize so that the recipient “may be received into the Ark of Christ’s Church.” The priest prays that the recipient “may remain faithful in the number of [God’s] faithful and elect children.”
After the baptism is performed, the priest gives the climactic declaration, “We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock.” Through it, we are “grafted into the body of Christ’s Church.”
Very simply and sanely, the Anglican Church requires one thing for membership: a valid Baptism. Why? Because we believe what the Bible says about Baptism. In it, we are united to Christ and all Christians through the world and all time. We are welcomed into the company of God’s people through rebirth and union with Christ.
The Anglican Church in North America’s approved catechism says in question 127, “But in Baptism, through faith in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, I am made a member of Christ’s Body and adopted as God’s child and heir.” What a glorious gift!
Belonging to an Anglican Church means belonging to a church whose structure symbolizes the universal bond of all believers. The sign of our catholicity (universality) is the bishop. The bishop, as a successor of the apostles, is the chief shepherd in the church. In Anglican practice, the diocese, not the local parish, is the fundamental unit of the church. Though baptism unites us to Christ and the universal body of Christ, there are further measures that can be taken for placing oneself under the care and jurisdiction of a bishop. In so doing, we join ourselves to the church catholic.
The early Anglican practice of Confirmation was almost exclusively meant to be an opportunity for baptized children to confirm their faith for themselves and recommit to those promises made at their baptism. The essential character of this rite is maintained, in that a confirmand is brought before the bishop to confirm their faith in Christ and commitment to Christian service.
As the BCP 2019 explains:
“Confirmation is clearly grounded in Scripture: the Apostles prayed for, and laid their hands on those who had already been baptized (2 Timothy 1:6-7; Acts 8:14-17; 19:6). In Confirmation, through the Bishop’s laying on of hands and prayer for daily increase in the Holy Spirit, God strengthens the believer for Christian life in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Grace is God’s gift, and we pray that he will pour out his Holy Spirit on those who have already been made his children by adoption and grace in Baptism.”
For children who were baptized as infants, catechesis (training in the basics of the Christian faith) was the process of preparation for confirmation. In the 1662 BCP, children could not be confirmed unless they could “say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; and can also answer to such other questions, as in the short Catechism are contained.”
Today, the preparation process for Confirmation differs from place to place. Generally speaking, a new member should expect some instruction in Christian beliefs, Anglicanism, and perhaps spiritual gifting. Confirmation may be required in many parishes to hold positions of formal lay leadership.
Reception (and Reaffirmation)
In our day where believing adults may come into the Anglican church in greater numbers, it has been thought appropriate to recognize adult professions of faith in other Christian traditions by distinguishing Reception into fellowship and formal communion with the bishop from confirmation as such. For similar reasons, Reaffirmation has been added in order to give people a chance to reaffirm their previous profession of faith.
The BCP 2019 makes this distinction clear as it names the entire service “Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation.” Consider the following explanation of reception and reaffirmation, from the “Preface to Confirmation” (BCP 2019, p. 174):
“At the direction of the Bishop, and after public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises, those having made adult professions of faith in other Christian traditions (including those confirmed in other traditions) are received into the Anglican Church with prayer and the laying on of hands by a Bishop.
“Confirmed believers who are already members of this Church (including those received from other traditions as above, those returning to active Christian discipleship after lapsing, and those experiencing a renewal of Christian commitment or significant life transition) may also reaffirm the pledges made to Christ and his Church with prayer and the laying on of hands by a Bishop.
Even though Baptism is a sufficient means of membership in the church, and Confirmation joins us to our bishop for communion in the global church, other processes may be in a place at a local parish for the sake of getting more involved in the life of that community.
For instance, at my parish, we offer a membership covenant for people to sign after they attend a two-night course on who we are as a church. Signing this simply formalizes their commitment to our parish and our commitment to them. It is not required for participation in educational opportunities, Holy Communion, or small groups. However, we do require it for someone to be considered for a formal leadership position.
Some parishes may not have a covenant to sign. In either case, the covenant does not take the place of baptism as the point of initiation into the church. After all, the parish is an outpost of the larger church. It is not a self-contained unit of the church but exists dependent on the wider body of Christ. It is this universal body to which we all belong in Christ.
What Do I Do Next?
If you are interested in someone, you can ask their friends about them, you can read what they put on social media, but eventually, you have to date if you want to be in a relationship. If you are looking at the Anglican way from the outside and considering what it might look like to join the Anglican Church, it will only ever be hypothetical. When it comes down to it, being an Anglican is being in community—and communion—in a local parish.
Find a local parish and begin attending, try to spend some time with clergy or a staff member. Ask if they have a copy of the edition of the Book of Common Prayer they use, and spend some time in it. Each parish will approach the first steps of getting involved a little differently. As you begin living life in this community, you will hopefully get a sense of how their Anglican identity shapes their way of following Jesus.
After all, this is what the Anglican Church is committed to doing. It is committed to making disciples in word and sacrament who follow closely after the Lord Jesus Christ.