It’s a difficult question. The Church of England brought its churches around the world as its empire grew. Primarily brought to minister to the English subjects who went to these foreign lands, a missionary zeal grew as well, thereby planting not only Christian communities in these places, but the Church of England in its ceremony, polity and theology. Within the strict confines of the British communities, the forms of the Church of England remained intact, but over time, the indigenous influences came to bear on the communities outside the British subjects. Music and rhythms, colors, local traditions and even indigenous religions impacted on the shape the Church of England was to take in these other places.
The world is both large and small. In its largeness the diversity of traditions has stretched the understanding of Anglicanism beyond its original lines to where it is nearly unfamiliar among its varied outposts. However, even in today’s world of independent nations and independent church provinces, there remains a tantalizing similarity even though there is no judicial connection anymore. So what does it mean to be Anglican?
The Reformers of the 16th century rebelled against the political and financial corruption and abuses of the Roman Church, but more significantly shifted a theological understanding of salvation as a free gift of God, not one that is earned by good works. The reformers were also committed to the accessibility of scriptures to all people, not only those educated in Latin, therefore translating them into secular languages. Sacraments were seen as a hold the clergy had over lay people and not necessary beyond Baptism which anyone can administer and a symbolic re-enactment of the Eucharist.
The Church of England emerged as a blend of traditional faith and significant reform. Scriptures and worship were translated and written in English., yet the sacraments and hierarchical forms remained. The big difference there was to negate the authority of the Pope in favor of the English Sovereign and elevate the importance of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the symbolic head of the English Church with far reaching authority. To this day the King or Queen appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury who technically has authority over the other Bishops in the country. In the days of the Empire, that authority was very far reaching. Today, it’s become a relationship of respect rather than authority since political independence of former British colonies has brought ecclesiastical independence as well.
England’s stormy history has shifted the Church of England widely between Roman and Protestant Churches depending on the conviction of the monarch. As a result, part of the DNA of the church is to embrace a wide expression with tolerance of diversity. This has become it’s strength and part of it’s defining character. What we call “high Church” and “low Church”, charismatic, evangelical, catholic (small c!), and protestant has all fit under the umbrella of Anglican. There has been no central ruling to determine one shape of the doctrine or expression. A phrase coined during the reign of Elizabeth I was “via media” - the middle way. Sometimes seen as intended ambiguity, it has the character of valuing the richness each form has to offer and ultimately embraces one of the Protestant pillars that each person finds their own way. God calls us and we have a responsibility to answer from our heart, not the dictates of another.
Canterbury is the iconic seat of Anglicanism. It represents the history and character of the Church of England as well as it’s former subjects and now, hopefully, friends in faith. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a fulcrum on which balance the seemingly opposite ends of an ideological spectrum. It has always been this way and continues.
I’ve attended three lectures given in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. In the presence of memorials to his many predecessors, he taught us about prayer. He is a natural and gifted teacher with a sharp intellect and command of history even as he makes complicated ideas accessible. He can be whimsical and comic, understated and profound. He makes historical characters like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Theresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and Simone Weil real and even intimate. His commitment to prayer is moving. His commitment to prayer being the solution to the Church’s struggles is clear and unwavering. He says that prayer doesn’t change the problem, but it changes people and allows God to speak through them to each other.
People look to him to take sides and be decisive. It occurred to me during Holy Week that people asked the same of Jesus. Archbishop Rowan is a student of Jesus as well as a disciple. He will create and enforce the environment for people to find God in each other and allow the love to flow into the love of God. It is not according to timetables or desired shapes. Expanding on a verse of scripture the Archbishop said we are to “Knock at the door”. It will be opened as promised, but we don’t know what is on the other side even though we think we do. The same for seeking and asking. God’s promise is to respond, though not as we command.
A definition of Anglicanism is still elusive. But I think a compelling definition is embodied in Archbishop Williams. It is a faith that seeks God to be revealed. It allows the multi-faceted prism of faith to shine not wanting to limit God by one definition. It is not threatened or manipulated. It is not hurried. It seeks, knocks, and asks. Quantum physics teaches that at some point parallel lines come together. Anglicanism might very well be that point.