Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why Anglicanism? A Practical Christianity

This week's Acts 8 Blogforce question is Why Anglicanism?  Specifically, what is important and special about the branch of Christianity we consider our own?  To me, the beauty of Anglicanism is the practical teachings and tools that help us develop a deeper relationship with God and a loving community with one another.

The roots of this practical, community-building Christianity go deep.  The early combination of Celtic and Roman Christianity helped shape Anglicanism's future direction.  From the Irish came a solid foundation of monasticism as the center of Christian life.  Monastery-based faith wasn't just a ritual system, but a all-encompassing way to live in community for God.  At the same time, some of the excesses of Celtic monasticism, like extreme penitential practices, were tempered by a more rational Roman Christianity.  As Benedictines cross the English Channel, they bring what Benedict called his "simple rule for beginners" to the monastic traditions on the north shore.  The strong Benedictine monasticism that takes root (and is later refreshed by Archbishops like Anselm and Lanfranc) ensured that a focus on living successfully in community is a central component of British Christianity.

The Venerable Bede's history is another example of this practical spiritual bent, even while he tells a story saturated in miracles.  Medieval English spiritual works give us concrete ways to deepen our relationship with God and with our neighbors.  The showings and spiritual direction of Dame Julian, and particularly the Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous 14th Century English author, provide practical spiritual guidance.

The Elizabethan Settlement can be viewed as an intentional decision to create a practical church.  Eschewing (at least some) theological disputes, the Church of England almost adopts a mission to worship God in a way that helpfully brings together the people of England.  A more cynical slant might consider the church's mission as forming good subjects for the crown, but such mixed motives still require a church life that helps people live together in community.  The creation of The Book of Common Prayer is a concrete mechanism for bringing forth a church that allows everyone to pray together.  The prayer book takes the early monastic traditions and invites the entire church into the rhythms of its communal liturgy, envisioning a church that grows together practically in common worship.

As Hooker and other early Anglican apologists lay out their rationale for this new Protestant English Catholic project, they develop the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason.  In opposition to more radical Anabaptists, Anglicans defend the traditions of the church that work. Every tradition need not be kept, but the ones that have a proven track record of helping people love God and their neighbor should be.  Then, of course, reason tells us that seeing what works in our current context also plays a role in decisions about our church structure and liturgical life.  These ideas are in opposition to Christian traditions that either over-emphasize tradition, whether it is still valuable or not, or that look primarily to dogmatic theological concepts whether a community can realistically be built around them or not.

The Caroline Divines continue this practical emphasis.  George Herbert, rose-colored glasses not withstanding, writes about how to pastor for the good of the small country town.  Later, the Oxford Movement uses high church practices as mechanisms for building inner-city religious community.

Our Anglican Churches today continue their five-century emphasis on bringing people together to form communities that effectively love God and neighbor.  We sustain a rich liturgical life that can bring people from a variety of circumstances for common prayer.  The ancient chants of the church are shared on Facebook and Rite I burial services are Skyped to relatives in far away places as scripture, tradition and reason inform the choices that build up the Body of Christ.  We incorporate spiritual directors, healing prayer teams, labyrinths, daily offices, small groups, and a wide variety other spiritual practices, outreach ministries, and fellowship opportunities not according to a theological master plan, but based on what helps the people in our pews learn to love God and each other better.  Of the smorgasbord of religious activities, what gains traction in our congregations is generally the practices that work, and many of those practices are not new to the Anglican Tradition.

Anglicanism is a rich tradition, with much to offer.  I'm a part of it because I have found no place else as effective at helping people grow together into a community that loves God and one another.

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