This post is part of “Ecclesia Anglicana,” a series devoted to all topics pertaining to Anglicanism. This contribution is by Trystan Owain Hughes, Tutor in Applied Theology at St Padarn’s, Cardiff, Wales, UK. Stay tuned for more!

In recent years, the identity and distinctiveness of priesthood has been questioned. In functional terms, it has long been recognized that priests require certain gifts and talents to minister effectively. Vocations advisors and directors of ordinands will suggest texts to candidates that list these functions. Such lists can seem daunting to those exploring a call to ordination. In John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest, one of the principal texts given to candidates exploring ordained ministry in the Church of England and in the Church in Wales, sixteen distinct functional roles are presented, including “creative leader”, “faith coach”, “wounded companion”, and “spiritual explorer”. Traditionally, theological models of priesthood have grown out of a consideration of such functions. By doing so, such models often forged an ontology of priesthood.

During the twentieth century, in the UK at least, the model growing in prominence was the priest as, primarily, a pastoral care giver. In some ecclesial and theological circles, though, there was a sense of uncertainty about this model, with the question posed how much its functional roles actually differ from counseling and social work. By the time I went through the discernment process in the late 1990s, Anglican Churches had moved to regarding the principal role of a priest as an empowerer – a nurturer of the gifts of others. Before my own selection board, one priest even said to me: “as long as you slip in the word ‘enabler’ at least six times, you’ll sail through”! The concept of enabler certainly fits neatly into the contemporary emphasis on collaboration and the flourishing of lay ministries. However, questions should still be asked about the primacy of this model. It is, after all, weak in terms of its sacramental rooting and it could lead to priests becoming glorified creative administrators or, worse still, simply talent-spotters. As such, it is difficult to forge an ontology of priesthood from this model alone.

Towards a New Model

With such uncertainties in theological and ecclesial circles surrounding models of priesthood, it is little wonder that so many candidates struggle to articulate why they feel called to ordained ministry, despite the fact that most of them have read the classic texts of discernment and vocation. The purpose and nature of priesthood certainly needs more thought and clarity. In an issue of The Furrow in 1995, the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron suggests a model that is both culturally relevant and spiritually uplifting, as well as firmly rooted in tradition and scripture. It is also a model that could appeal to the plethora of churchpersonships and traditions that make up the Anglican Communion. It can be summed up as the priest as “a bearer of mystery”.

Barron begins his exploration of this model by describing the fundamental loss of confidence within the priesthood in recent years. He attributes this to an underdeveloped and negative theology of ministry. As a result, priests have lost confidence in themselves and their identity, leading to a lack focus and orientation. While he is writing from his own particular ecclesial context, the loss of joy and hope, along with the increase of pessimism and cynicism, is reflective of some areas of our own denomination. Rooted in that same loss of priestly identity is the superior, and sometimes arrogant, attitude that is found in other areas of our Communion, which looks down condescendingly on what is perceived as the lack of zeal and spiritual fervor of other clergy.

To counter the loss of priestly confidence and identity, Barron therefore presents an image that he believes captures the unique and indispensable quality of a priest. The term “mystagogue” was used in the early church with relation to bringing catechumens into the faith. Barron chooses this word to flesh out the priest’s role in bringing the mystery of God’s being to people’s troubled lives. In other words, the priest’s role is to notice, to announce, or to bring God’s love, hope, peace, and compassion to individuals and communities. He roots this in Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis, whereby we come to know and experience God through his creation – we experience the otherly-other Being through the very tangible being of this world.

In this model, the overriding call of priesthood is to explore and grasp the mystery and then initiate others into it – opening eyes to God’s presence, ears to God’s call, hearts to God’s love, and ways to God’s will. It is in this context that Theilard De Chardin described the priest as a “border walker”, bringing those on earth closer to the kingdom. They stand at the boundaries between the commonplace and the sacred, thus offering the possibility of relationship with the divine. Priests are, therefore, interpreters of Manley-Hopkins’s “grandeur of God”, Von Balthasar’s “patterns of grace”, and Philip Yancey’s “rumours of another world”. They hold, to use William Blake’s phrase, “infinity in the palm of their hand and eternity in an hour” and offer this to those to whom they are ministering.

Incarnation and Mystery

This model is profoundly incarnational in its scope. Paul Tillich describes preaching as “holding up a picture of Christ”. The mystagogue’s task is related to this image – it is the art of bringing Jesus down to earth by displaying of the wonder, inspiration, and complexity of his icon. We do this through our words, but also through our lives. Meister Eckhart pointed out that the incarnation is worthless and pointless if the Word is not also born in Christians. By stating that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1.14), the Gospel writer uses the inceptive aorist Greek tense which implies an action that has started in the past but is continuing into the present. The phrase might rather be translated as ‘the Word started to become flesh’. Thus, the Word continues to become flesh, even today, as Christians acknowledge that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The priestly calling is rooted in this and, in this sense at least, all church traditions will be able to affirm the priest as “in persona Christi”. The model of the bearer of mystery therefore allows us model ourselves on the Jesus of the gospels, bringing to our congregations as many questions as we provide answers, telling as many stories as we affirm facts, and challenging as much as we give comfort.

Yet, more than this, this ministry is a paradoxical process of being Christ to people we already regard as Christ. Cistercian Charles de Foucault regarded the recognition that all people are “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself” as integral to the priesthood. Likewise, in light of the radical incarnational call of Matthew 25, Alan Ecclestone went as far as to challenge his fellow priests to consider where they bow at the end of each service. They should, he suggested, be bowing where they truly believe Christ is. Rather than bowing to the altar or the host, he urged them to consider bowing to their congregations, where the real body of Christ resides and where the physical real presence is found. With the model of the priest as a bearer of mystery, then, we are compelled to see Christ in both ourselves and others, whoever they may be and however different they are to us.

Sacraments and Mystery

This model of priesthood is also sacramental to the core. On one hand, priests become witnesses to the wonder of the traditional sacraments, leading others beyond physical matter to spiritual beauty and benefit – to see beyond bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood, beyond the font to the transformational water of life, beyond the temporary joy of a wedding day to a spiritual covenant, and so on. On the other hand, priests become living sacraments themselves. They do this by, firstly, demonstrating, through words and deeds, God’s excessive and unreasonable love and compassion. To use Philip Yancey’s words, priests need to show people “what’s so amazing about grace”.

Secondly, though, priests become living sacraments by bringing others into engagement with the beauty and wonder of the whole gamut of human experience – theology, literature, film, music, nature, laughter, ecology, spirituality, art, architecture, poetry, and so on. G.K. Chesterton wrote that to see the world properly one must stand on one’s head. The priest’s role is to stand on her or his head, beckoning others to do the same and so to share this distinct, awe-inspiring, and life-giving vision of the world around. It is helping others to recognise the pearl of great price in their seemingly ordinary everyday routines. Karl Rahner, himself often referred to as a ‘mystic of everyday life’, pointed out the importance of leading Christians to God’s active grace in creation, his self-communication in the midst of our everyday lives. This is, to use the words of R.S. Thomas, “the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you”. Furthermore, there is also a healing aspect to this call to, in the words of Alan Billings, “make God possible”. After all, love, compassion, wisdom, and beauty are not only mystery bearing, but also profoundly healing. Barron employs the ancient term doctor animarum (doctor of the soul) to develop this aspect of priesthood and relates it directly to the priest’s pastoral calling.

To truly live out this model, though, priests themselves need time and space to connect with God and to engage with, and theologically reflect on, wider culture. The pace of modern ordained ministry, much of which is either non-stipendiary or encompasses the demands of diocesan or provincial roles alongside parish work, rarely allows enough time for study, contemplation, and prayer, thus making St Paul’s command to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16) seem a mere aspiration to most clergy.

Bearer of Mystery

With Anglican Churches embracing the healthy process of commissioning and licensing lay people for various roles, it is imperative that we ensure that the priestly role is not devalued. Embracing the model of the bearer of mystery may help give further life and purpose to priestly ministry, as well as to our ordinands and ordination candidates. Priests should certainly never be placed on a spiritual pedestal or elevated over and above the laity. No parts of the body should be elevated above the body itself (1 Corinthians 12). However, there has to be something unique and distinctive about priestly ministry. The concept of priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5) reflects that all Christians share something of the role of Mystagogue, but to the priest this is more than a role or function. Through ordination, it becomes a way of being.

While there is, then, no ideal model for which we can forge an ontology of priesthood, Barron’s work does provide us with a model that is both relevant to our times and rooted in the past. It also has the potential to inspire those who may feel the oars of priesthood have been lost on the shores of our rapidly changing culture. Furthermore, this model has the benefit of being accessible to all backgrounds and traditions. John Wesley once described himself as a preacher who set himself on fire and allowed people to watch him burn. This is at the root of this model of priesthood. The primary function of the priest, writes Barron, is not to preach, minister, or counsel. In fact, no function can define or confine priesthood. Rather, a priest is someone who is set on fire to the depths of their being by the mystery of God and then beckons others to draw near and be warmed or set alight by the flame.

Trystan Owain Hughes is Tutor of Applied Theology and Director of the MTh (Theology) at St Padarn’s Institute, Wales, UK and priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff, Wales. Previously he has been Chaplain at Cardiff University, Director of Ordinands at Llandaff Diocese, and Head of Theology at Trinity University College, Carmarthen. His theological training included extended placements in an asylum seekers deportation centre, an Oxford University college, and a large episcopal church in Washington DC. Trystan has attained an MTh from Oxford University and a PhD in church history from the University of Wales, Bangor. He is the author of Winds of Change: The Roman Catholic Church and Society in Wales 1916-1962 (UWP, 1999), Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (SPCK, 2010), The Compassion Quest (SPCK 2014), Real God in the Real World (BRF, 2014), and Living the Prayer (BRF, 2017). He has also been a regular voice on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Prayer for the Day’ and BBC Radio 2’s ‘Pause for Thought’ and was on the theological commission that assists the bench of Welsh Bishops for over 10 years. He is presently a member of the Church in Wales Evangelism Fund Committee, appointed as a cleric who has seen considerable growth in his parish in the past five years.

This post is part of “Ecclesia Anglicana,” a series devoted to all topics pertaining to Anglicanism. Stay tuned for more!

Modern Protestants have always had a troublesome relationship with the Virgin Mary. Seeking not to stumble into the pitfalls of their separated Catholic brothers and sisters, Protestants have put a sort of ‘de-emphasis’ on Mary as to not be associated with anything which could be confused as ‘Catholic.’ However, the Anglican tradition consciously avoids the pitfalls of the nuanced hyperdulia of Catholicism and also the modern de-emphasis on Mary. Rather than seeing Mary as a theological ‘bump in the road’ to the Gospel narrative, Anglicanism emphasizes Mary’s role as the Theotokos: the God-bearer who carries the fullness of God’s grace in her womb and delivers him into the world. Anglicanism also pulls from the rich and beautiful Marian dogma of the Catholic Church, but centers Jesus, rather than Mary, in the place of sole honor.

Anglicanism remains as that branch of the Protestant tradition which holds fast to the rich traditions of the church and can be, both historically and liturgically, tied to the Roman Catholic Church.[1] While other Protestant traditions emulate these characteristics, none do so like the Anglican tradition. That being said, one can see the rich Mariology of Catholicism present within Anglican liturgy. This is where Anglicanism receives its popular slogan: “too Protestant to be Catholic and too Catholic to be Protestant.” Although a blanket statement which may be misleading at times, pertaining to Mariology it does fit well. Truly, Anglican Mariology is far too Catholic for most Protestants to be comfortable with it, but also far too Protestant for Catholics to agree.[2] 

The first reason that Anglicanism holds a high view of the Blessed Virgin, namely her role as the Theotokos, is because throughout the history of the Church, Mary has always been held in high regard. The ecumenical councils of the Church and the creeds which came from them are foundational to the Anglican tradition.[3] These councils and creeds are filled with deep and rich Mariology which supports an orthodox Christology. For example, the Nestorian controversy of the Council of Ephesus led to one of the greatest formations of early Marian dogma. According to Nestorius, Mary did not carry in her womb the Son of God, the second member of the Holy Trinity. Rather, she carried a mere human child; one who would be united to the divinity of God – something apart from the humanness of Jesus. Nestorius argued that the Godhead joined with the human in the same way a man enters a tent or puts on clothes. In short, Nestorius believed he could “hold the natures apart, but unite the worship.”[4] In response to this, Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most fierce, ruthless, and respected Fathers of the Early Church, sought to resolve this heresy. In the crucible of this theological fight for orthodoxy the language of Mary as the Theotokos was affirmed.

Secondly, in the past century there has been an even greater emphasis placed on Mary within the Catholic tradition, and a reactionary de-emphasis from the majority of the Protestant tradition(s). However, Anglicanism continues to look back to the tradition of the Reformation which did not react in opposition to Catholicism, but rather took what was good and beneficial and reformed it through a Protestant lens. 

An example of this is found in Martin Luther’s writings on Mary. Luther brings to light themes of justification and high-Christology without sacrificing genuine belief in Mary as the Theotokos and without losing a high sense of respect and veneration towards Mary, the Mother of God. In his reinterpretation of Gabriel’s declaration in Luke 1, “Hail Mary, full of Grace,” he ‘reforms’ the Catholic interpretation that this is a declaration of Mary’s achievement of this status. In Luther’s understanding of the righteousness of God, he interprets Gabriel’s proclamation to be a gospel proclamation. “Blessed are you Mary, because you are full of the grace of God, which is Jesus Christ! He is within you, and he is coming!”[5] 

A more recent example of this may be found in Protestant versus Catholic interpretations of Mary’s “Yes” to Gabriel’s proclamation.  While the Catholic tradition understands the narrative of Luke 1 to affirm the purity of Mary insomuch as she is then able to bear Christ into the world, Anglicanism follows Luther’s interpretation and emphasizes her declaration of servanthood alongside her unworthiness. In this we model after Mary – we are unworthy to be used by God, yet we daily surrender to him and in our unity with Christ we are given the power to be used by God.[6]

Furthermore, beyond various interpretations of Scripture, Anglicanism also continues this spirit of reforming Catholic dogma spoken ex-cathedra.[7] For example, Catholics believe in the bodily assumption of Mary (declared by Pope Pius XII, 1950).[8] According to Catholic theology, this singular participation in her Son’s resurrection anticipates the resurrection of other Christians. In Anglicanism, the emphasis is placed on Mary only insomuch as she goes before us as all other saints, sharing in the divine glory of the eternal kingdom.[9] 

Another example may be found in the nuanced Catholic doctrine Hyperdulia. Doulia is a Greek term which theologically describes honor paid to Christian saints. Latria, also a Greek term, designates supreme honor and is used to connotate worship given to God, the Trinity. Between this general honor (doulia) and the exclusive worship given to God (latria) is hyperdoulia, which is veneration and honor given distinctly to the Blessed Virgin Mary because of her unique role in the mystery of redemption, her exceptional gifts of grace from God, and her pre-eminence among the saints. While this may remain within the boundaries of orthodoxy, Anglicanism remains true to the Protestant tradition in avoiding such nuanced terminology which often is lost at a local level. Instead, the Anglican tradition understands Mary as the model of humanity redeemed by Christ, and the principal type of the Church (this also is tied deeply into Catholic Mariology). Any adoration or contemplation of Mary and the Saints is beneficial insomuch as it is an expression of the unity of the whole family of God in Heaven and on earth, a unity rooted ultimately in the believer’s unity with Christ.[10]

In short, Anglican Mariology is rooted in a continued ressourcement and reforming of Catholic doctrine. Further, it is an embrace of the unique position the Anglican tradition holds within Protestantism. It continually seeks to avoid the pitfalls of Catholic dogma and of modern Protestantism in order to stand as a bridge between these traditions. Deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the early church, Anglicanism calls believers to look back and remember the saints before, to stand in our moment now and continue to redeem and reform that which is around us, and lastly to look forward to the return of Christ in the fullness of his glory. 

Amar Peterman is Associate Director of Neighborly Faith and currently studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. He completed his BA in Theology at Moody Bible Institute where he was also President of the Student Theological Society and Teaching Assistant to Dr. Ashish Varma. 


[1]  Mark Chapman, Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2]  For more on the boundaries of communion for the Anglican Church, see The Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral

[3] Editor’s Note: hence the name of this very series, “Ecclesia Anglicana.” The Church of England was born from the church in England.

[4] For an expanded narrative, see Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007).

[5] Bridget Heal, The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500–1648 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[6] See the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin in the Book of Common Prayer (August 15)

[7] Literally translated to: “from the chair.” This is in reference to the chair of Saint Peter which, according to the Catholic Tradition, represents the line of apostolic succession which the Pope is a part of. That which is spoken “from the chair” is a declaration made by the Pope through his apostolic authority.

[8]  For the full declaration, see http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus.html

[9]  See The Book of Common Prayer, p. 192, 391.

[10] The Anglican Service Book, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Anglican_Service_Book/addl_devotions2.html#angelus

This post was originally published on my former blog, The Liturgical Theologian. You can find and read it here.

Crumbs

A troubling (to me) blog post has been going around over the last few weeks regarding the Reformation and the Eucharist. Dr. Kelly Pigott, a blogger on the Patheos Progressive Christian channel, has argued that the meal Jesus instituted in Jerusalem with his disciples some 2,000 years ago has been distorted and misappropriated through centuries of infighting and disagreement. Ultimately, Pigott argues that Communion is more about the transformation of the partaker into Jesus than anything else. He suggests that the “eternal question one must ask of Communion is…what happens to me?’

For the sake of clarity, you can and should read the original post here before continuing below.

Unfortunately, I believe Pigott’s post to have been historically inaccurate at best and full of mischaracterizations at worst; or perhaps vice versa. The Reformers, and I’m not only talking about Anglicans, would agree that the Communion was about grace, that this was not about being part of the “spiritual-elite”, and that those partaking are somehow affected deeply. More importantly, the Early Church witness agrees with these statements as well. The real issue at hand here is Pigott’s decision to focus the Eucharist on the individual rather than the on Jesus.

Some of the comments have suggested that focusing on the bread and wine is akin to answering the question about how many angels can fit on the head of a needle. This is utter nonsense! One does not have to chose between two extremes—those of self-focus or elemental transformation—in order to have a meaningful and orthodox conversation about the Eucharist. Embracing mystery does not punt the proverbial ball down the field nor does it ignore the question of presence, it simply seeks to assert that Christ is in fact present without feeling the need to define his presence concretely.

As an example, the Eucharistic prayers from the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer both include the Prayer of Humble Access. I have included the prayer below and the reader should note two things: first, I have updated the old English, and second, the parentheses denote lines removed between the two editions:

We do not presume to come to this thy table (o merciful lord) trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies: we be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore (gracious Lord) so to eat the flesh of thy dear son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood (in these holy Mysteries), that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood. Amen.[1]

Honestly I feel as I though I can end my post here without comment based on the thick theological language of this prayer. But for the sake of clarity, and because I’m passionate about this, I will go on. I have italicized some pertinent statements in the prayer to unpack below.First, the entire prayer is grounded in the belief that no one can earn or merit access to the Lord’s Table. This is not the result of being part of the spirituality elite but is instead based solely in the work of Christ. This belief was not new to Christianity when Archbishop Cranmer wrote this prayer in the 1540’s; the Early Church also believed that to eat and drink at the eschatological banquet table was a gift of the highest kind.

Second, the humility embodied in the prayer is given further credibility by the grace of God. It is God’s property (or nature) to always have mercy and therefore although we are unworthy to partake we are still invited. Again, nothing spiritually elite here.

Third, Communion with God is bedrock to this prayer, to the Reformation, and to the Early Church. Read Schmemann, Ziziuolas, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Eucharistic theologies of the Early Church and you will find example after example of people believing that Communion is union with God. John Calvin did not come up with this idea on his own, he simply recovered it and insisted upon it.

Fourth, it was the belief of Cranmer, Hooker, and many of the Anglican reformers and divines that the Eucharist did indeed effect some type of change in the believer. The Prayer of Humble Access makes clear that the cleansing of the body and the washing of the soul was part of the sacrament. However, this was not the purpose behind the sacrament’s institution nor was it the ultimate goal of individual. The early church fathers and the reformers all believed that Communion was nourishment and healing for the soul, a gift from God that transformed those partaking, but the focus was always on Christ’s once and perfect oblation, and the triune Godhead, rather than on the self.

In the Eucharist the Church is at the summit of her worship, in the throne room of Almighty God, and the concept of the self could not be further from the equation. The moment we begin focusing on ourselves and what we “get” out of worship, or what “happens” to us is the moment we have misunderstood the Eucharist entirely.

Sure, Church history is fraught with examples of fighting and arguments over Eucharistic theology. Indeed there are numerous denominations within the Church that have differing views on what takes place in the sacrament of the kingdom. That being said, the answer to this conundrum, to finding common Eucharistic ground in the catholic church is not to be sought inward but upward, heavenward.

In view of God’s absolute otherness, his holiness, we are not worthy to approach his table. But God has approached us in the form of Jesus his Son, the second person of the Trinity, who has prepared a place for us at the wedding feast. Accepting the grace-filled invitation of a loving and merciful God is neither arrogant nor elite, it is worship. It is worship the way God intended it to be and our charge is to draw others into worship as we extend to them the Body and Blood of our Lord.

[1] Brian Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, 261.

Photo Credit: Sacred Space Kingston

This post was originally published on my former blog, “The Liturgical Theologian” and it can be found here.

Thomas-Cranmer

As we approach Reformation Day within the Protestant corners of the one holy catholic and apostolic church there is a tendency to romanticize the true nature of the various reformations to the point that the baby is all but thrown out with the bathwater. As an Anglican, and as one who believes in the branch theory of the church, to misread history in this manner is not only negligent: it is also lazy. My goal is to briefly outline the lasting and true legacy of the English Reformation in the remainder of this post.

My friend and former mentor, Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison, once said to me, “Anyone who believes the English Reformation was about King Henry VIII truly deserves King Henry.” Though we may not agree on imputation or the new perspective on Paul, I have to agree with Bishop Allison wholeheartedly on this point. To resign the English Reformation to King Henry’s need for a divorce or control over his church is to miss the point entirely. The English Reformation wasn’t the byproduct of a judicial or ecclesiastical statement on the King’s marriage, rather it was the culmination, fulfillment, and realization of a spirituality that far preceded the Tudor dynasty, dating back to the second and third centuries after Christ.

A reformation was already afoot in the fourteenth century as John Wycliffe began translating the Bible into the English language. An influencer of Jan Huss, William Tyndale, and Martin Luther, Wycliffe set in motion the movement toward giving the English people a Bible in her own tongue. Translating the Bible out of Latin is seen as a benchmark of the various sixteenth century reformations but too often it is forgotten that an Englishman had started the trend over 150 years earlier. Wycliffe died some 150 years before Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop, but he is still remembered as the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” Continuing his great work, Tyndale and Coverdale also translated portions of the Bible into English ultimately climaxing decades later with the production of the King James Version in 1611; thus setting the biblical standard for centuries.

Similarly, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer worked his liturgical genius during the 1540’s and early 1550’s under Kings Henry and Edward to reform English liturgy. Cranmer was responsible for the first piece of liturgy written in English (the Great Litany of 1544), much of the Book of Homilies, the inclusion of the Great Bible in parishes around the nation, and the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. These landmarks insured one thing: a common language for the faith and worship of the Church in England. Every parish in the country would now read the same Bible, hear the same homily, and pray the same prayers in the exact same language.

The 1549 Prayer Book was a compilation of various ancient sources from the early church and post-Council period. Elsewhere I have written:

The 1549 book was adapted from many sources in use at the time. The Sarum Rite as used in the Diocese of Salisbury was perhaps the most important component. Other primary sources for Cranmer’s liturgical compilation include: Quinones’ Breviary, the Archbishop of Cologne’s Church Agenda, the Pie, and Bucer’s Ordination Service (for the 1550 Ordinal) amongst others. Cranmer’s work should be labeled as both reform and return because he introduced new elements—chiefly his original collects—and yet he also returned to ancient practices and prayers. Bard Thompson suggests four vital reasons for the introduction of the 1549 book: exposing people to the whole of Scripture, using English to reach the “hartes”, simplifying the service, and creating uniformity within England. Duffy stresses the significant change for English Christianity and spirituality in the 1549 book, perhaps resulting in spiritual “impoverishment.”[1]

Additionally, Cranmer relied heavily upon the Gelasian Sacramentary as part of his liturgical revival and reform which can only really be described as a return to the words and forms of ancient liturgical worship. By the time the second prayer book was produced in 1552, England was worshipping liturgically together on a weekly basis reminiscent of the Didache and Justin Martyr’s Apology. The English Reformation was not without its dark moments.

One of the saddest events was the “stripping of the altars” and the destruction of the monastic tradition during the reign and at the order of King Henry. A wealth of liturgical, ecclesiastical, monastic, and artistic brilliance was lost and as a result many pockets of evangelical Anglicanism are didactically rational rather than being beautifully holistic.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes said it best when describing the hooks upon which the Church of England can hang her theological hat: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period – the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”[2] To be Anglican, therefore, is to celebrate the rich and vast history of liturgy and theology (one might say liturgical theology) of Christ’s Church over the last two millennia; it is to be rooted in the Great Tradition of the Church and firmly committed to ecumenical efforts; it is to embrace the heritage of Christian thought and spirituality stemming from missionary efforts, monastic soil, and an unwavering desire to read and pray in one’s own language.

What then is the true legacy of the English Reformation? A common Bible and a common prayer book in a common language for a common people.

[1] From “The Edwardian Prayer Books: A Study in Liturgical Theology” as posted on Academia.edu

[2] http://datsociety.blogspot.com/2012/09/11-lancelot-andrewes-1555-1626-private.html

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This was originally published as an introductory piece for a lengthy series on the 39 Articles of Religion. The series includes writers from the Anglican Church in North America and the Episcopal Church in a collaborative effort. You can find my original post here or click here to see the whole series (still being published daily at the time of this post) because it is very much worth your time!

Like many elements of Anglican theology and practice, the 39 Articles of Religion are often used as a means of division rather than having a unifying effect. You can divide Anglicans into any grouping you desire (i.e. High, Low, and Broad or 4 streams, or Anglo-Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, and Classical etc. etc.) and you will find the 39 Articles at the core of each grouping. It is not that the Articles are a driving factor in the distinctives and charisms of a particular Anglican sub-set, but that one’s churchmanship often drives how one reads, interprets, and values the Articles.

Let the reader be warned from the outset: this blog series is not designed to value or highlight one reading over another. This is not a series for Anglo-Catholics, Reformation Anglicans, or cradle Episcopalians. This is a blog for anyone who is an Anglican Christian and is looking for a resource to accompany their reading of the ArticlesIn particular, this introductory post will not settle anything but rather seeks to provide a lens through which or a framework by which we read this historic document together.

One of my mentors in the earliest days of my ministry training, Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison, would often remark that, “Those who think the English Reformation was about King Henry’s marriage(s) deserve Henry.” I believe we should add to this statement that such people would also be deserving of Henry’s 6 Articles.

As with many elements within Anglican thought there is little to no agreement as to what the Articles are, what they mean, or why they matter. To quote the famous philosopher, Humpty Dumpty, words can mean anything we want them to as long as we “pay them enough.” Sadly, or perhaps confusingly, the language of the Articles has been paid a great price by every stripe and corner of the Anglican Communion and extant are a plethora of interpretations, applications, and meditations as to how they should function in our common life.

Though a tiresome analogy, the concept of Anglicanism as being a “big tent” is not entirely worn out and can be useful in the proper setting.  One can take shelter under the expansive covering inside the tent and feel at home. As Anglicans, we organize ourselves based on our reception of the prayer book, our understanding of ordination, our theological interpretation of the sacraments, our vestments, and so on and so forth. We treat the Articles as something by which we can organize once inside the tent and I believe this is where we get into trouble. We have expended and exerted such great energy in making sure that the tent is large and exhaustive, but we have done this to the detriment of making sure the tent is held up by sturdy posts and nailed down around the outside with stakes and markers.

If you will allow me to continue using the analogy here, my goal is to provide this significant blog series with the framework by which we can read the Articles together. This introductory post is not an attempt to settle the meaning of specific Articles once and for all, but rather to attempt to look through and beyond the varying camps of churchmanship in order to see the foundation underneath. Originally, I intended this essay to be a setting of the table for the other authors in the series but I now see that it is more of a fencing of the table (liturgical pun intended). At the end of the day, we may still disagree as to the importance of the Articles and what some of them may mean, but when we honestly read them together in their proper context, we are engaged in something that is building up the community of faith rather than tearing it down.

Context is everything. Many Anglicans get themselves into trouble when they begin ripping the Articles out of the historical context in which they were originally compiled and for which they were intentionally written. The same is true of biblical interpretation but we have no problem labeling such carelessness as “proof texting.” This ought to be applied universally when it comes to the Articles. Any interpretation of an individual article or the whole collection which does not pay attention to historical context is automatically starting from a place of deficiency and bias. The unique and precise historical situation which is the English Reformation, as seen through the lens of Cranmer’s liturgical revolution, the long-standing tradition of translating the Bible into English, and the need for the Elizabethan Settlement all provide the rich soil out of which our Articles grew.

We must treat the Articles as a contiguous collection, as a text which was written by a specific people, for a specific people, and during a specific historical, political, socio-economical, and theological context. Just as one cannot ignore Romans 9-11 while interpreting Paul’s letter to the church in Rome or neglect to pay adequate attention to the more “difficult” verses, passages, and books (has anyone read Job, Leviticus, or Ecclesiastes?!) of the Bible, so too must we take the Articles as a whole and not just the sum of its parts.

The language of the Articles can also provide an interpretive battle ground. We find ourselves caught up in asking questions such as, “But what does it mean when the Reformers used the word ‘transubstantiation?’” or making comments about “what they really meant to say was…” No text is without interpretation, but we find ourselves on faulty ground when we ignore the literal, grammatical meaning of the document in an attempt to “pay” it enough to make it say what we want it to say.

For those of us today who are worshipping in the Anglican tradition around the globe, the 39 Articles provide the boundaries within which we find ourselves existing ecclesially. The tent is held up by those truths which we cannot ignore, the commitments we have made as Anglican Christians for centuries. We are held up by Scripture, Prayer Book, Creed, historic episcopate (locally adapted), sacraments. There can be no argument here. The tent is staked to the ground (Cranmerian pun intended) by the Articles because together as one cohesive and comprehensive unit do they provide the boundaries and fencing we so desperately need.

What then do the Articles provide for us? With the understanding that they are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, one can see that the Articles provide the rules for our own language game, the building blocks for our distinct way of doing theology, and the stakes which hold down the tent. Perhaps our attention would be better spent figuring out what it means to wrestle with the issues and questions of our present day along the same lines as the Reformers of the 16th century instead of arguing about what the Reformers actually meant as we seek to parse out Rome, Canterbury, Geneva, and Wittenberg.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes the Articles within the section “Historical Documents” sandwiched between the Athanasian Creed and Preface to the First BCP on one side and the Lambeth Quadrilateral on the other. Do we find this to be a coincidence? The Creed and Preface are foundational to our belief and the Quadrilateral is a measuring tool for ecumenical relationships…and the Articles float betwixt the two. That they are included in the BCP at all suggests they are important for our common life and worship; that they are included in the “Historical Documents” section implies that they are a historical hook upon which we can hang our hats; that they are next to the Quadrilateral could be seen as an attempt to use the Articles as a means of differentiating ourselves from other Christian traditions. Is this not in fact the very situation the Reformers were in? Were they not trying to differentiate the Church of England, the ecclesia Anglicana, from the Church of Rome and the reformations on the continent? You would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.

There is more, much more, to be said on many of these important issues but the Reformers have helped us by providing a standard against which we cannot nor should not seek to wander. The questions asked and answered in this blog series have a great deal to do with living and applying the Articles within a 21st century, North American Anglican context and exploring what they may mean for our common life together. Join us on this journey as we read together, setting aside biases of churchmanship and school theology, and allow yourself to ponder answer the pressing questions of today as read and examine through the guiding framework of the Articles.

The tent is as big and as expansive as ever, friends, but it is not limitless. We have boundaries, stakes if you will, which outline the tent as if saying, “You may go no further.” There is freedom within fences, as the adage goes, and plenty of room to run and play, but the markers are always and only meant to protect, guide, and ensure the passing along of tradition as we have received it. Do not cast the Articles aside as irrelevant because that is lazy; do not make them into more than they are because that is proof texting; do not continue the arguments over language and theological minutiae because that only isolates within the community. Let them be what they are: a theological response to distinct controversy and unique division within a historical context…and a model by which we can continue living as Anglican Christians in the world today.

This is a sonnet I penned for the Writer’s Guild at our church. The prompt was “Rite of Passage” and my mind immediately turned toward baptism. Enjoy! It was originally published here on my old blog, “The Liturgical Theologian.”

Rite of Passage: A Sonnet

A journey through water and into lightThe response of faith to the beckoning call

A night brighter than any day or night

The riteful passage offered one and all

Death and life, descent and ascent

The grace of our Lord ne’er will relent

Draw near the font, feel the water cover you

Into the triune name you are now placed

The glory of the Lord shines around you

A joy so palpable you can almost taste

As you’re washed by his love, grace may astound you

Come sinner, come beggar, make haste

It’s a rite of passage, a loving initiation

New birth, new life, beloved, new creation