Why Anglican, By The Reverend Seth Snyder
A Reflection on my Journey to the Anglican Branch of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
Before my early college years, I had not heard of Anglicanism or the Anglican Church. Vague memories of an oppressive, authoritarian Church of England still lingered dimly in my mind from my elementary school “history” lessons, but only as the antagonist in a mythological narrative of Puritan liberation from religious persecution (of course, with the English Civil Wars, Cromwell’s Protectorate and the execution of King Charles I and Archbishop Laud conveniently left out). As a living Christian tradition, however, Anglicanism was unknown to me, and it wasn’t until I came across Richard Hooker while studying the history of jurisprudence that I became aware of it at all.
Like many Anglicans, I was raised in the American evangelical, non-denominational world, though the theological cocktail that was my religious upbringing also included a strong dose of Stone-Campbell Restorationism and a smaller, though no less potent dash of charismatic Pentecostalism (i.e. Evangelico-Pente-Restorationist Fundamentalism). After years of what might be described as “spiritual abuse”, including a couple delightful years of thinking myself eternally damned on account of my not having spoken in tongues upon my credo-baptism (what Pentecostals call “initial evidence”), I not unreasonably decided that the god to whom I had been exposed was a monster, and I eventually arrived at the lazy and carnally advantageous conclusion that there is no God at all. It was during this godless time that I began indulging in hedonism, and it was over the course of said indulging that I became interested in philosophy, literature, and other of the humanities, first in order to impress a waitress and community college student who was interested in those kinds of things, and whose attention I had hoped to grab by ably quoting Plato, Tolstoy, Lévi-Strauss, and any other (usually French) intellectual I could, but later on for their own sake. Over the course of my studies I came to appreciate the thought of Christian(ish) philosophers like Leibniz, Reid and Kant, who opened me up to the possibility that religion might not be irretrievably stupid.
So, now that religion/spirituality had become a live option again, I began studying and experimenting with different theologies. For a brief stint I was an Emersonian Transcendentalist; I went through a short-lived Buddhist phase; at one point I was even entertaining the possibility that Marcion, Valentinus, and some of the early, ante-Nicene arch-heretics had actually taught the true Gospel, but were suppressed by the more powerful and established proto-orthodox church (a very Marxist suggestion). It was around this time that I enlisted in the Air Force, and, while attending technical school, met a chaplain who introduced me to Reformed theology. I was impressed by the precision and systematic rigor of the Reformed dogmaticians, which helped redirect my spiritual searching to more broadly orthodox, Nicene Christianity. After tech school and beginning my Air National Guard Service, I decided to use my GI Bill and attend university, and began studying philosophy, history and classics at Ohio University. While at OU I fell in love with ancient and medieval philosophy, but above all patristics, even supplementing my daily readings of Scripture with the writings of the early Fathers. However, this presented a dilemma: I loved the theology and devotion of both the ancient Fathers and the Reformers, but they seemed to diverge from one another on multiple and significant points of Christian doctrine, so which should I choose? Should I be a Roman Catholic, a Lutheran, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, or maybe a Reformed Calvinist? If only, dear LORD, there was a theological tradition embodied in an institutional church that combined the wisdom and theology of the ancient Fathers with that of the Reformers! (Foreshadowing).
For reasons I can’t exactly remember, in a fit of madness I was convinced that I wanted to be an attorney, and so I began taking pre-law courses, including a course on the history of jurisprudence in the Western tradition. It was there that I encountered the legal and philosophical, and, incidentally, the theological thought of Richard Hooker. I saw in Hooker’s theology a seamless blending of my beloved patristic and Reformation traditions, and even the medieval scholastic tradition, into an elegant and coherent whole. His reading of Scripture through tradition, as well as his eminently practical and reasonable mode of thinking theologically, struck me as both simple (in an elegant sense, not as in simplistic) and profound. I did some Wikipedia searching and discovered that Richard Hooker was an Anglican priest, and so I began exploring Anglicanism more broadly and certain Anglican theologians other than Hooker (notably Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor and William Beveridge),
I’ve alluded to some of the merits of the Anglican theological tradition above, particularly in the thought of Richard Hooker, which segues neatly into the eponymous question: Why Anglicanism? What exactly was it that drew me to the Anglican tradition? First, and predictably given my evangelical Protestant background, I was drawn to Anglicanism in large part because of its serious and sophisticated engagement with Scripture. In contradistinction to the flat, positivistic reading of Scripture that I was used to from my time as a fundamentalist, Anglicans take a richer, more integrative approach to the biblical text, weaving together the doctrinal with the practical and doxological, frequently consulting the Fathers and other ancient sources, and applying reason (whether construed as scholastic refinement, philological learning or higher criticism) where appropriate. I found this mode of biblical exegesis, though more complex, much more holistic, nuanced, engaging, and, in my view, more thoughtful, which was very appealing to me. Not to mention Anglicanism’s small army of biblical exegetes and scholars, including such illustrious names as John Lightfoot, B.F. Westcott, Tom Wright, J.I. Packer, and a host of others, who are (or at least ought to be for anyone paying attention to biblical scholarship) the envy of all of Christendom.
Equally predictable given my time in the Stone-Campbell, Restorationist movement, with its principled Christian primitivism, I was very much drawn to Anglicanism’s commitment to the teachings and practices of the early Church. Put simply, the witness of antiquity and the early Middle Ages matters to Anglicans. Athanasius, Augustine, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nyssa, amongst a host of other Fathers, martyrs, monastics, and Mothers (alas, we sometimes discount the contributions of our ancient sisters in Christ, like Macrina, Perpetua, and the Desert Mothers), are not just historical figures, mere footnotes in the history of the Church, but living and authoritative voices that continue to speak to us Christians today. Anglicans, whether high church (e.g. William Laud, George Bull, John Cosin) or more Reformed-leaning (e.g. John Jewel, John Davenant, Joseph Hall), have always taken this dynamic and continuing witness of our Christian forebears seriously, and have always held themselves accountable to their collective voice (the consensus patrum). There is an eminently practical dimension to Anglicanism’s commitment to the early Church that appealed to me as well. It struck me as rather obvious that the Apostolic and Church Fathers, having indwelt more or less the same cultural, linguistic and intellectual world as the biblical authors themselves, and some having actually interacted with them, had a tremendous advantage over those of us at a 2,000 years remove from those same authors in interpreting their words, and so deferring to their judgment on matters of doctrine and biblical exegesis seemed to me the better part of wisdom and good sense.
Finally, the sacramental and liturgical character of Anglican worship was especially attractive to me during my period of discernment, as it was for many of us who have come into Anglicanism from non-liturgical Christian traditions. While a common criticism, evangelical, non-denominational Christianity does have certain Gnostic inclinations, such as tending to discount the body and its importance for worship. Not so in Anglican worship. For Anglicans, worship is holistic, involving not only the mind in hearing the Word,
but the senses as well. The tactile sensation of touching my fingers to my head and shoulders in making the sign of the cross, the bitterness of the wine in partaking of Christ’s blood, the uncomfortable but powerful feeling of the cold, hard ground on my knees while kneeling in confession, all drew me bodily into the worship of the triune LORD in a way that I had never experienced before. Liturgy also gave me a much more active role to play in worship than my previous ecclesial home. Protestantism has a much more performer/audience dynamic, with the preacher and the worship team performing and everyone else observing; but in Anglican worship, everyone is involved, whether in reciting the Creed, saying the Our Father, or walking up in front of the congregation to receive Holy Eucharist, while the Priest simply leads the people in this work (hence, liturgy’s meaning: “the work of the people”). These are some, but by no means all, of the Anglican tradition’s virtues that drew me into her communion.
Now, the abovementioned aspects of the Anglican tradition that appealed to me are not altogether unique or exclusive to her. Protestants take Scripture very seriously, while Eastern Orthodox Christians are intensely committed to the traditions of the ancient Church, and Roman Catholics are undeniably sacramental and liturgical in their worship and piety. But the way in which these different aspects are balanced in Anglicanism is unique, and, in my view, more excellent than in her sister communions/denominations. Indeed, no one can doubt Protestantism’s devotion to Scripture as the supreme authority in matters of doctrine and practice, but their sundry and diverse interpretations of Scripture are often unruly for lack of a theological center in the collective witness of the ancient and medieval Church; or, in the case of magisterial Protestantism, which is, admittedly, more indebted to sacred tradition, there is a tendency to cling too rigidly to the interpretations of a single authority (Luther, Calvin, etc.), resulting in an impoverished range of equally possible, legitimate interpretations. And while the Roman and Eastern Churches also uphold sacred tradition, the former errs in setting tradition up as a separate authority independent of Scripture, while the latter is rather miserly in its extension of tradition (not to mention Slavo-centric); but the Anglican Church, in her wisdom and moderation, maintains the more sensible view of tradition as the theological lens through which the Church reads Scripture rather than an autonomous authority alongside it, and also includes a greater variety of figures in its more generous, comprehensive view of Christian tradition than that of the Orthodox. Into the bargain, Anglican liturgy, with its beautiful shape, elegant language and measured duration, as well as its adaptability to local circumstances, gives to the tradition a distinctive advantage over the more rigid Roman and excessive Eastern liturgies of her sister communions, and especially over those denominations lacking liturgy altogether. While similar to the Roman, Eastern and Protestant churches in certain respects, then, Anglicanism is distinctive, and, in my view, superior in her unique approach to Scripture, refined and sensible ordering of traditional authorities, and beautiful, yet flexible, liturgy.
Everything I’ve said above presupposes a distinctive, question-begging view of what Anglicanism is, which, of course, requires something approximating a justification. I’m well aware that any statement on Anglican identity, however benign, will likely arouse suspicion, misgivings, perhaps even contempt. Nevertheless, Anglicanism does have a center, what one might call classical Anglicanism. This center, however, is elusive, and escapes any reductive or hypostatizing method of identification. The reason for this is that the Church of England has undergone a number of developments and transformations over the centuries, such that reifying any one of them and reducing the “essence” of Anglican identity to that one dismisses other equally, if not more important aspects of the tradition. Non-papal Catholics or Presbyterians with bishops simply won’t do. Identifying an Anglican center, then, requires a more synthesizing approach, one that can successfully comprise and account for general trends in theology and practice across different times, works of canonical divines, parties, and styles of churchmanship.
By applying this more synthesizing, comprehensive method of identification to the whole of Anglican theology across its history, I have come to an understanding of Anglicanism as both reformed and catholic, with its theology and practice rooted in Scripture, tradition and reason. Anglicanism is reformed, or, if you will, Protestant, in the sense that it has reformed and continues to protest certain abuses of the Roman Church, such as the sale of indulgences, papalism, mariological excesses, and so on. It is catholic in the sense that it adheres to the teachings and practices of the ancient and early medieval, undivided Church, as encapsulated in the Creeds, Councils, and the consensus of the Church Fathers, as well as in its continuing administration of the sacraments and use of a fixed liturgy. Scripture is the supreme authority for Anglican theology and practice, and sacred tradition and reason are the means by which the Anglican Church interprets the Scriptures. There is, to be sure, much diversity with respect to which of these aspects of the Anglican tradition gets emphasized in a given diocese or parish, and even certain embellishments that may be added without harm to this general definition (for example, some might define the Anglican Church as both reformed and catholic, and charismatic), but this definition remains the most balanced in comprehensiveness and exclusivity, including as many authentic strands of Anglican tradition as possible (low church, high church, latitudinarian, etc.) while at the same time excluding aberrations (Anglo-papalism on the high end, certain deficiencies in Sydney Anglicanism on the low end). This is, in my view, the correct and most generous way to define the Anglican tradition.
To conclude having now been an Anglican for seven years, I can say with confidence that becoming a member of the Anglican Church has been the greatest decision I’ve ever made for my walk with God. The richness of the liturgy, embodied worship, and the sense of belonging to something ancient and tested have given my life greater meaning than I could have hoped for when I set out on this wild, spiritual journey. Though God’s grace is not absent from the other Christian communions and churches, it is, I think, nowhere as full and abundant as in the Anglican Church. For this blessing I am eternally grateful.
The Reverend Seth Snyder is the Vicar at St. Mary the Virgin’s Anglican Mission in McConnelsville, Ohio, a family man, an Air Force Reserve Chaplain attached to RAF Lakenheath, and a Ph.D. candidate studying theology at the University of Cambridge, England.