The Christian Church has been around since Jesus established it some 2000 years ago. And ever since the very early days of the Church, Christians have not agreed on everything theological or liturgical. Peter and Paul, two of the earliest apostles, are known to have been vocal in their disagreements with each other. And these disagreements have not always ended in reconciliation. Sometimes the Church splinters and divides, intentionally or otherwise. The Church in the East split from the Church in the West in the Great Schism of 1054. The Protestant Reformation and the English Reformation happened in the 16th century. The Methodists broke off from the Episcopalians. Lutheran sects continued to break off from each other. The Anglican Church in North America broke off from the Episcopal Church over issues like the ordination of women and beliefs about same-sex marriage. There are over 200 million Christians in the United States today, but their understandings of what the Church means can be vastly different. There are Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, Latter-day Saints, and more. We all came from the same starting point, but somehow, we don’t all see the world through the same eyes. Why is it so hard for Christians to see eye to eye, and how do we work to be in communion with each other and with our Lord Jesus Christ?
That’s exactly the kind of question that resulted in what would eventually be known as the Anglican Communion. Queen Elizabeth I, ruling over a tumultuous and theologically splintered Great Britain, is known for having said, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” In other words, “I understand Christians might not always have identical beliefs, and even if we understand things differently, we are still going to gather together, to worship together, and to be one in the Body of Christ.” Hence, Anglicans use a book called the Book of Common Prayer and not a book called the Book of Common Belief. We all say the same words, although there is certainly space for varied interpretations. So if Anglicanism is so inclusive, why is Anglicanism not the standard for what it means to be a Christian?
As an Episcopal priest in full communion with the rest of the Anglican Communion, I would argue that Anglicanism actually is the gold standard within the Christian Church. There are Anglicans of all Christian persuasions, from the most catholic and orthodox leanings to the most Protestant and evangelical (although most Anglicans probably fall somewhere in the middle). Anglicanism, which essentially allows for Christianity within varied contexts, offers Christians the freedom to build a strong theological foundation and to continue to build up a theological structure over the course of their lives. This is important because when we come across something that challenges our deep-seeded beliefs, we can examine it and see how it serves us in our faith lives. If we decide it still works for us after all, we can place it right back in the structure. If we decide it doesn’t, then we can simply toss it aside while the integrity of the structure remains perfectly intact. Pieces of our faith lives can be questioned, examined, and changed, without any threat of destroying the entire theological structure.
Well, Fr. Tim. This sounds great! Why are there so few Anglicans? Good question! But first of all, it’s not exactly accurate to say there are “so few Anglicans.” There are actually 85 million Anglicans worldwide. Only the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches claim more baptized members. But here in the United States, the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism’s official representative in this country) is struggling for membership. Roman Catholics make up for over 20 percent of the US population, while Baptists and Evangelicals together account for another 20%. Our Lutheran cousins make up another 7%. Episcopalians account for less than 2%. But why isn’t that number bigger? Can’t people who share beliefs with the Roman Catholics, the Baptists, the Evangelicals, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, and others still attend Episcopal churches? And the answer is, absolutely! Anglicanism allows space for catholic, orthodox, reformed, and Protestant Christian theology, all under the same roof! Well then, why are our numbers smaller than those of the other denominations?
I imagine if you ask ten different theologians, you’d get ten different answers to this question. But I don’t really see myself as a theologian. I see myself as a pastor. And my pastoral answer is that while it’s challenging to be a Christian, it can be even more challenging to be an Episcopalian or an Anglican. But why? It sounds so easy! Isn’t the Episcopal Church the church where you can believe what you want and do what you want? No! It isn’t! But it can be misconstrued as such. And therein lies one of our obstacles. When we don’t put in our own personal effort to construct our theology, our theology can become wishy washy. One of the great comedians of all time, the late-great Robin Williams, said in his standup routine that the Episcopal Church is like “Catholic lite: all the religion, none of the guilt.” And as humorous as this anecdote appears on the surface, it isn’t exactly accurate. As Episcopalians, we don’t actually get to do whatever we want or believe whatever we want without needing to feel guilty about it. In fact, there are many non-negotiables within Anglicanism that we must adhere to in order to maintain our orthodoxy. We believe in the Creeds. We believe in baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We believe in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments. We believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and we believe in the sacraments. We also believe in participating in the sacraments regularly. While we’re not threatened with things like the stain of “mortal sin” for not attending Sunday Eucharist, we are still expected to attend and receive communion frequently. That doesn’t sound wishy washy to me!
I suspect the difficulty lies in those things that are not as well-defined. While many churches outline answers for how their members ought to live their faith lives, Anglicanism instead gives us questions. These questions are intended to serve as guidelines of how we might want to develop our own personal theology. These questions can include some intentional vagueness, which exists so that we can develop our ability to think theologically. For instance, while some churches do tell their members they must attend church every Sunday, the Episcopal Church believes it is much more important to teach its members how to discern for themselves why it is important to attend every Sunday. And that answer might be different from one Episcopalian to the next. One Episcopalian might say that they need the fellowship of their friends and the clergy, while someone else might say that their relationship with God is strengthened by the beauty of the liturgy. Someone might say they need to receive the physical Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in holy communion, while someone else might say they get their necessary renewal they receive by worshipping among the people, the mystical Body of Christ. There are lots of reasons to attend church, and none of those reasons are threats of hell. Well, removing ourselves from the presence of God is a kind of hell, but that’s another essay for another day.
While the vagueness of providing questions instead of answers can be appealing to some, I suspect it is intimidating to others. It also means that both the laity and the clergy have evangelism work to do! In order to grow the Episcopal Church, we need to do a good job of articulating what it is that we do and why. We need to speak a language that other Christians understand, without stumbling into pitfalls. I am frequently asked by Roman Catholics if we believe in something called transubstantiation, the belief that the communion elements literally and physically become the Body and Blood of Christ and are no longer bread and wine. The simple answer to this question is, no. Episcopalians do not believe in a doctrine of transubstantiation. However, the complex answer is that many Episcopalians (myself included) believe in something that Catholics might call transubstantiation. We don’t call it that, and we aren’t required to believe it. Yet many Episcopalians believe in what Catholics call transubstantiation or something very similar. Our belief is known as Real Presence, which means Jesus is fully present in the sacrament, but we allow for some mystery to exist. We don’t try to explain things that simply cannot be explained.
For effective evangelism, Episcopalians have to learn about our faith and then share it in ways that speak to the hearts of other Christians. The sad truth is that the Christian Church in all its forms has hurt and harmed an unfortunately large number of its members. Some have been exiled for violating doctrinal rules. Some have been harmed by those in authority. Some have been hurt by having been taught bad theology. Whatever the case may be, I believe the biggest strength of the Episcopal Church is its ability to reconcile and heal the hurts of the world. It’s a safe space where we can be at different places in our faith journeys and sit at the table together to be nourished spiritually. But it requires us to continue to learn, to study, and to develop. And those all take effort. One of our collect prayers reminds us that we are to hear the scriptures, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (BCP p. 184 and 236). This is what we are called to do with all aspects of our theology. I like to focus on the “inwardly digest” part. And we need to develop our ability to inwardly digest to an extent where we can teach others to do the same. Have you ever heard that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it? That’s a good example of what I mean.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have the best product in Christianity. There. I said it. That’s not to say Episcopalians are perfect. We are not. But there is room for both imperfection and lifelong improvement within our theology. If you are an Episcopalian, then I encourage you to continue to learn about your faith in a healthy and productive way. Attend catechesis. Read and study the scriptures. Meet with your clergy regularly. And if you are not an Episcopalian and you haven’t stopped reading this essay a while ago, then I encourage you do to the same. We’re here for you. In fact, we want to make you as comfortable as possible. Come as you are now, and when you’re ready to go deeper, we’ll go on that journey with you. Regardless of where we are on our faith journey, we need to evangelize. If we experience joy, it’s important to share that joy with others. We have a real encounter with Jesus Christ every time we get together. Let’s share that encounter with everyone we possibly can.