Believing & Belonging | the Anglican way
Having just completed reading a fairly recent history of the Reformation (Diarmaid MacCulloch, London, 2005: it’s brilliant, fairly long, but worth the effort) I turned to the outcome of an online survey we carried out in May about who we are at St Giles and why each of us find ourselves here (my thanks to Wil James for this initiative), so that we might better understand how to appeal to, and retain, the allegiance of others. I realise that at first glance there is little in the scale of things that might seem to connect these two subjects, but in fact there is and it goes along the lines of ‘What does it mean to call ourselves Anglican?’
The question begs many other definitions. From MacCulloch I learn that it may well depend on what date is taken as a starting and defining point: do we go back to the heady days when Luther first appeared at Wittenberg (1517); or to one of the emerging and contrasting Protestant city states (the 1520s and 1530s); or to Calvin in Geneva (the 1530s onwards); or to Cranmer et al and its English variations in the reign of Edward VI (1550’s); or to the Elizabethan ‘Settlement’ following Mary (the 2nd half of the 16th century); or to James I and the Authorised Version of the Bible (in the early 17th century); or later still to the Restoration Church of Charles II and the re-introduction of the Book of Common Prayer (the second half of the 17th century) when a so-called ‘Anglican’ identity first properly emerged: or later still, should we perhaps turn to the various renewals and revivals of the 19th century?
Since coming to London, and especially since working as a director of ordinands with candidates from a huge range of parish churches, I’ve come to see that whilst ‘Anglican’ works as a classification for a range of church traditions when compared to others (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, community-based churches and so on) it seldom can be used to define any one of our churches in particular, and this because each of us in our different ways trace our theological and liturgical roots to different times, periods and histories. We are all Anglican but no one of us is just Anglican and no one of us is exactly the same kind of Anglican as another because of the way that past divisions have indelibly left their mark on who we are today.
In this way both evangelical and catholic Anglicans vary and differ from each other in ways which might not be apparent at first sight to the outsider; one church will call itself ‘Reformed,’ another ‘charismatic,’ another ‘open;’ one ‘Anglo-Catholic,’ another ‘modern Catholic’ and so on with almost infinite variations, each deriving their ethos and manner of faith from the way they have assimilated the biblical and theological perspectives of our 16th and 17th fore-runners.
Which brings me to St Giles. Where do we come in the procession of history? From where do we draw our inspiration?
Is it from the generations of Luther or Cranmer or Edward or Elizabeth or James, or Charles? From Luther, perhaps, with its return to the primacy of scripture and a theology of grace; or Cranmer and Edward and the evangelical temper of the first Prayer Books (1549 and 1552); or from Elizabeth’s dislike of extremes in piety and worship; or from James and the Authorised Version of the Bible which built on many versions before it and is still used by us; or from the restoration years and beyond, where evangelical fervour met with an established high church ethos?
The answer, of course, is ‘from all, but also from some more than others.’ Each of these sources, and doubtless many others, have flowed into the stream of faith and worship that has now become our inheritance at St Giles today and has made us an unusual amalgamation (compared to our neighbours) of the historic and contemporary, of scriptural commentary and cultural insight, of eucharistic practice and the diet of morning and evening prayer. A very particular piety occupies the soul of this Church, certain and sure of its place before God (penitent, modest, uplifting), hesitant to define acceptable identities and content to allow the ancient creedal pattern itself, and the scriptures which inform them, to remain our rule, rather than one devised and imposed by ourselves.
Perhaps above all else, therefore, our worship and life today draws its sustenance from the twin wells of Elizabethan piety (in having no desire to ‘look into men’s souls’) and Cranmerian polity (offering worship expressive of a common life) and shows itself in a willingness to allow personal faith to be unstated and, by others at least, unexamined. I like to think that we are able to be faithful without having to demonstrate this faith and to serve without always having to advertise our serving.
It is not, then, so much a common and precise doctrinal position that unites us as Anglicans at St Giles as much as being part of a ‘portmanteau’ of experience and faithfulness defined as much by temperament and a spiritual sense as by strict confessional certainties.
With this in mind, the questionnaire revealed how for many St Giles is a second place of worship: one third did not think of St Giles as their primary place of worship and 85% replied that they worship elsewhere from time to time. Already, then, our ‘Anglicanism’ draws from many other sources. In addition, of those who do attend, one third have not been baptised in the Anglican Communion and 22% have not been confirmed within it either. Although a smallish sample and fairly anecdotal, yet we have here discovered both the internationalism of those who worship with us and the variety of the traditions people bring with them, from evangelical denominations to the Salvation Army to the Quakers. With each one of us comes a particular journey of faith (which may itself already have undergone much change) and the histories and influences that have formed them.
So whilst Anglicanism may usefully designate a particular kind of independent, national and protestant religious way, among ourselves it has become in particular an understanding that holds together the disparate parts, and does so by welding them into a common spirituality centred on mutual respect, an unforced belonging and a vision of the Christ-like God explored through word, music and the sacraments.
And then in and through all those things, let me add a final touch: namely, being Anglican here, in this very particular place: to be a parish where a parish mentality scarcely exists among most people who pass this way. This too captures an Anglican-like spirit: to be embedded in a place - and what a place our ancient parish has been and has become! So I wonder whether there is something about the place itself that draws us together, a tension created by the resilience of ancient truths still being proclaimed within the present day search for success and pleasure.
Of course we come to a church like St Giles (or any church for that matter) because it speaks to some inner need or desire, but I like to think that we also gain from being part of a distinctive shared purpose to which might the name of ‘Anglican’ might truly belong: to continue to make possible the speaking of God’s word and the living of God’s life in the midst of our metropolis in this our generation. The priest cannot and should not seek to do this alone, but the household of faith can: and so we have Believing and belonging | the Anglican way - and perhaps it is something like this.