Why am I an Anglican?

This essay was submitted as part of a portfolio of work for a module called “Denominational Ministry” in the spring of 2018, while I was training at Cranmer Hall. 

Why am I an Anglican?

essay photo 4 anglicans

Introduction

Growing up as the eldest son of an Anglican clergyman in rural Devon the majority of my friends were the children of farmers. There was an assumption for many that you would grow up to do the same job as your father. I always and repeatedly said, “No”. At age six I told the whole school in the end of term church service that I wanted to be a binman, because then I could have  shower everyday (apparently this is true for non-binmen too!). This prevailed while I studied philosophy at A-Level before deciding to study theology at the London School of Theology to figure out ‘if I was really an Anglican’. Three years of study later, having experienced all manner of churches in London, including an uncomfortable experience in a Baptist church where the bread rolls used for communion were thrown to the back to be made into bacon sarnies in the kitchen, and I had concluded not just that I am, in fact, an Anglican but, horror of horrors, felt called to ministry in the Church of England. I write this short essay here as I approach the end of training and my upcoming ordination at Norwich Cathedral. Doing so, three key figures of the Anglican tradition come quite naturally to my mind: Whitefield, Herbert and Williams.

Whitefield

My maternal grandfather was also an Anglican clergyman, though instead of devon much of his ministry was in and around London. I have a bookshelf of books which he gave me over the years to encourage me in my faith. When we stayed with them I would sleep on a camp bed in his study and when I woke I would often pick something from the shelves to read before breakfast and he would talk to me about it. One time, not long before I went to the London School of Theology, I picked up ‘Select Sermons of George Whitefield’ with an account of his life by JC Ryle. I remember that I read first the fifth of his six sermons; Walking with God, on Genesis 5:24. I have since enjoyed and appreciated the rest, and explored more of his writings but, encouraged by my grandfather, I often reread that first sermon during my studies. Several of his seven points (of his second point) have inspired me to cultivate habits to walk with God which are encapsulated in Anglican spirituality.

The first is that of believers maintaining their walk with God by reading his Holy Word.[1] The second, of secret prayer; that our souls might be kept in a praying frame.[2] Third and fourth are mediation upon, and observation of, what God is doing in one’s life.[3] Fifth, watch for the Holy Spirit and test suggestions or impressions by God’s Holy Word. ‘By observing this caution you will steer a middle course between the two dangerous extremes many in this generation are in danger of running into; I mean, enthusiasm, on the one hand, and deism, and downright infidelity, on the other’.[4] (Perhaps, reflecting on it now, the first instance of via media appearing in my theological considerations, though I know I thought of it then more as after Aristotle’s virtue ethics). Sixthly and seventhly, one should walk with God in ordinances and keep company with those who also walk with him.

Later he says, ‘take heed to yourselves, , and walk closer with your God than you have in days past: for the nearer you walk with God, the more you will enjoy of him whose presence is life… O do not follow Jesus afar off!… think of the love of Jesus, and let that love constrain you to keep near unto him; and though you die for him, do not deny him, do not keep at a distance from him in anywise’.[5]

Taking his words seriously helped me in the second year of my degree when I had fallen out of the habit of church, prayer and bible reading to regain those practices which have sustained me ever since. The concept of ordinances and fellowship led me to gravitate towards Emmanuel Church, Northwood; a local Anglican church whose assistant vicar in time would write a reference for my BAP paperwork. It also taught me the value of actionable advice in sermons.

Herbert

When I was 11 my school was included in a local schools anthology of poetry, and we were all encouraged to write something which would be published. This sparked my poetic streak which has remained with me ever since. During my late teens I discovered John Donne and while at the London School of Theology a lecturer suggested that if I liked Donne I should try Herbert. I started with The Church-Porch and was struck by the natural ease of language and the good advice contained within. The Sacrifice remains one of the most stirring reflections on the cross I’ve ever read, dampening my eye on more than one occasion. Further exploration led to delving into A Priest to the Temple which I read while in conversations with my vocations advisor.

The opening paragraph sets forth his fundamental conviction as to what a priest is: ‘A pastor is the deputy of Christ for the reducing of man to the obedience of God… [for] Christ being not to continue on earth, but after he had fulfilled the work of reconciliation, to be received up into heaven, he constituted deputies, and these are priests’.[6] He then goes on to outline the ideals of priestly service and behaviour whereby the priest is expected to uphold standards which glorify God in all he does. In some senses this can be quite intimidating, nevertheless there’s an honesty which in turn is inspiring. The section on prayer has particular significance for my Anglican spirituality. He exhorts pastors to, when reading divine services, compose ‘himself with all possible reverence, lifting up his heart and hands and eyes, and using all other gestures which may express a hearty and unfeigned devotion’.[7] While studying at the London School of Theology I embraced the charismatic evangelical style of raising hands during sung worship. During my time at Cranmer, I’ve discovered that genuflecting and making a sign of the cross also elicits within me the same sense of life-giving worship. All uses of body language as an expression of worship. I’ve also appreciated his exposition on the importance of priests blessing their congregations. This was twofold; first, the recognition that blessing comes from the office as priest (a deputy of Christ) and not the individual. The meaning that the work of the priest is, rightly understood, the work of God in and through the priest; as in the ordinal we acknowledge that we cannot serve apart from by God’s grace. Second, that it differs from prayers of request by speaking with confidence and power, ‘effectually applying God’s favour to the blessed’.[8] We should live and minister with hopeful expectation.

It seems increasingly unpopular to characterise ministry along the lines set out by Herbert. However, while our cultural context has changed I think the practice of visibility and being and intentionally holy presence within a community remains valuable for Anglican parish ministry.

Williams

Many people here in the UK will have a particular actor who they think of as “their” Doctor from the long-running TV series Doctor Who. Although I had seen both Eccleston and Tennant, I personally think of Matt Smith as “my” Doctor. In a sense, Rowan Williams is “my” Archbishop of Canterbury; with no disrespect intended to Justin Welby. Growing up in a clergy household, Williams was not infrequently mentioned and he was the serving Archbishop until midway through my second year of my theology degree; during which time I was intentional in ‘keeping up’ with his news appearances. For many of my (non-Anglican) friends studying with me, his debate with Richard Dawkins was about as interesting as he got. However, I’ve found his quietly persistent presence in bibliographies (in books I’ve read, and even of my own essays) a sign of the breadth of his intellectual curiosity.

This led me to reflect on his episcopal statements, in particular his Presidential Address at General Synod,  in February 2010. It was this speech which first drew my attention beyond a cursory knowledge of the Anglican Communion to, in his language, consider it in 3-D. For in his speech he addressed the delicate balancing act, and far-reaching ripples of consequences, which the Anglican Communion finds itself in. The ordaining of a partnered homosexual in The Episcopal Church affects Malaysian Christians, and anti-gay sentiments of African Bishops may harm the work of the gospel here in the UK.[9] He encouraged Synod to be joined in their disagreements, acknowledging what value others may have to offer; he uses the example of a Forward In Faith priest asking a female priest for spiritual counsel, or a ‘Christian feminist [may] recognise that the Resolution C parish down the road has a better programme for community regeneration than any other in the deanery’.[10] His desire that we be ‘all the more alarmed at the prospect of being separated’ struck a chord with me.[11] By his example I came to appreciate more richly the context of the Anglican Communion, the immense value of ecumenical (inter-church and even intra-anglican!) relationships and lastly, perhaps most significantly, following that particular synod I have since paid attention to those which followed; learning and appreciating more about the structure of the Church of England as, to quote the Bishop of Berwick, “Episcopally led, and synodically governed”.

It would be hard to choose a written work of his which was not engaging and informative. By way of a brief aside, I personally benefited the most from his chapter written in honour of John Webster: The Fourfold Chord. A beautiful reflection on the interdependence of the gospels, synoptics and John, in such a way that they lead, ‘the Church to encounter and participate in the Gospel; the reality of the living God who loves us with a love that overcomes death itself, and inspires our very being with life’.[12]

Thorp

Back in 2015 I wrote a series of three pieces on Church Symbolism. These articulate a theological stance which is decidedly, if subconsciously, Anglican. I stress the protestant cross over a Catholic crucifix because Christ is risen and the sacrifice complete.[13] The Altar is, in reality, a table of remembrance.[14] In the Bread and the Wine, ‘somehow, there is an overlapping between that which we see and experience, and the hidden and believed in… In the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine, the Holy Spirit… gives to us afresh, continually, and for always, the Lord who loves to meet with us at his table as we, the church, remember him’.[15]

And so I turn once again to the question: Why am I an Anglican? It has been helpful to reflect on the impact of Whitefield, Herbert and Williams, and indirectly on the role that the London School of Theology, my parents and in particular my grandfather had to play as well. Perhaps the clearest answer was articulated in a piece I wrote explaining my commencing training, where I wrote that it was during ‘my experiences of my first year [at the London School of Theology] where I began to recognise that I with my growing and developing theological understandings fit best into the Anglican system of beliefs (despite my baptist roommate passionately explaining his various perspectives until 4am on several occasions; and vice versa!)’.[16] By virtue of my experience, my curiosity (reason), the study of Church history and scripture I have found that ‘my’ theology when confessed harmonises with the Anglican confession of the faith.

 

End Notes

[1] Whitefield, ‘Walking’, 169.

[2] Whitefield, ‘Walking’, 171.

[3] Whitefield, ‘Walking’, 171-172.

[4] Whitefield, ‘Walking’, 174. Emphasis original.

[5] Whitefield, ‘Walking’, 181-182.

[6] Herbert, Complete, Loc 5703.

[7] Herbert, Complete, Loc 5785.

[8] Herbert, Complete, Loc 6578.

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/feb/09/full-text-archbishop-canterbury-speech

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Thorp, ‘Gospel’.

[13] Thorp, ‘Cross’.

[14] Thorp, ‘Altar’.

[15] Thorp, ‘Bread’.

[16] Thorp, ‘Personal’.

Bibliography

Herbert, George, The Complete Works of George Herbert, Digireads.com Publishing (Kindle Edition), 2013.

Thorp, Samuel, ‘A Personal Update: Starting Ordination Training’, Samuel S. Thorp Website, 27/07/2016 (https://thorp.blog/2016/09/27/a-personal-update-starting-ordination-training/ Accessed: 11/05/2018).

Thorp, Samuel S., ‘The gospels and the Gospel’, Medium Website, 28/04/2017. (https://medium.com/samuelsthorp/the-gospels-and-the-gospel-3e5304025ddd Accessed: 11/05/2018).

Thorp, Samuel S.,, ‘The Symbolism of the Altar’, Samuel S. Thorp Website, 24/07/2015 (https://thorp.blog/2015/07/24/the-symbolism-of-the-altar/ Accessed 11/05/2018).

Thorp, Samuel S., ‘The Symbolism of the Bread and the Wine’, Samuel S. Thorp Website, 28/07/2015 (https://thorp.blog/2015/07/28/the-symbolism-of-bread-and-wine/ Accessed 11/05/2018).

Thorp, Samuel, ‘The Symbolism of the Cross’, Samuel S. Thorp Website, 20/07/2015 (https://thorp.blog/2015/07/20/the-symbolism-of-the-cross/ Accessed 11/05/2018).

Whitefield, George, Select Sermons of George Whitefield, with an account of his life by JC Ryle and a summary of his doctrine by R. Elliot, The Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, 1958.

Williams, Rowan, ‘The Fourfold Chord: Theology and the Plurality of the Gospel Witness’, in Nelson, R. David, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis (Eds.), Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster, T&T Clark: London, 2015.