What is the English way of life? For us English people living in England the answer is easy: just do what seems normal. Do what your friends do, if that seems normal. Or alternatively, just be yourself, because that might well feel normal too. But ask us to explain what it means to live in an English way, and we quickly get stuck.
We get some ideas through contact with people from other cultures. Or we can read books such as Watching the English, and get a slightly more objective view of ourselves. But some of the best people to ask would be English people living in other countries. If they are trying to preserve an English way of life, they will know exactly what that means. They will be able to tell you what the English way of life is.
So it is with Anglicanism. Possibly the biggest divide within global Anglicanism is between the Church of England and everyone else (with Welsh, Scottish and Irish Anglicanism somewhere in the middle). In England, to be Anglican is just a matter of doing what seems normal. As with Englishness, we in the Church of England would struggle to articulate what it means to be Anglican. After all, some in the Church of England just try to be normal, some try to be like the Catholics, and some try to do the opposite, focusing their attention on studying the Bible or on charismatic forms of worship (or both). We in England scratch our heads and wonder whether Anglicanism is even a thing. With such diversity, does it make any sense to talk about ‘the Anglican way’?
But as soon as we meet Anglicans from beyond the British Isles, they know exactly what it means to be Anglican. It is not a matter of simply doing what seems normal. In the rest of the world, being Anglican is definitely not normal. It is a way of being Christian that is quite distinctive, and different to what people are used to. Anglicans in the rest of the world are used to people asking them, ‘What’s an Anglican?’ And it’s a question they’re able to answer.
One example of this comes from the USA, and a book entitled The Anglican Way. Its author, Thomas McKenzie was born and raised as an Anglican, and is now a priest in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). For those who have been raised on a diet of simplistic English caricatures, that means he belongs to the extremist conservative fundamentalist schismatic breakaway strand of American Anglicanism. And that makes what follows even more interesting.
In his description of the Anglican way, McKenzie makes use of this:
That, my friends, is the logo of the Anglican Communion. (No, I didn’t know either, which might reflect the massive gap between the Church of England and the rest of the Anglican Communion.) The compass rose was chosen to symbolise the spread of the Anglican Communion to the whole world, with the cross of St George representing its origins, and the bishop’s mitre representing its episcopal oversight.
Confession time: I haven’t read the book. But I have watched a series of talks related to the book. They are all good, but the first is most relevant to the question of what it means to be Anglican.
For McKenzie, the Anglican way is the middle way. It is a ‘both/and’ way, rather than an ‘either/or’ way. Within the bounds of Scripture – filtered through tradition (creeds, councils, the Articles, the Prayer Book, the Quadrilateral) and reason (the collective mind of the church today) – Anglicanism holds together things that are often treated as opposites.
Making use of the points of the compass, this means that:
- W-to-E: the Anglican way is both personal and corporate. It is neither all about ‘me’ (the ‘evangelical’ end), nor all about ‘we’ (the ‘catholic’ end). Hence the emphasis in baptism falls both on the individual and on the church.
- N-to-S: God is experienced by Anglicans as both distant and present. God is neither entirely out ‘there’ (the ‘orthodox’ end), nor is he entirely ‘here’ (the ‘charismatic’ end). There is both mystery and intimacy when we meet with God in worship.
- NE-to-SW: Anglican engagement with the world is both contemplative and activist. Grace and works go hand in hand for Anglicans.
- NW-to-SE: Anglicanism is both conservative and liberal. Anglicans are deeply committed to the past and to tradition, but also unafraid to allow freedom of thought or to ask difficult questions.
In short, Anglicans are committed to being radical about only one thing: the gospel of Jesus Christ. In everything else, they are committed to holding things together.
So why the ACNA? According to McKenzie, this has come about because the ‘official’ Anglican Church in the USA (The Episcopal Church) has moved so far towards the liberal extreme of the compass that is has become generally impossible for those who are more conservative to remain within it.
It’s astonishingly rare to hear anyone from the more conservative parts of the Church of England speak with warmth and enthusiasm about the breadth of Anglicanism. We are all so busy defending our corners that we have missed the very thing that, for many in the wider Anglican Communion, is the genius of Anglicanism. But maybe (OK, clearly) we have lost that commitment to the gospel that is necessary for all these apparent opposites to be held together. What is striking about the ACNA is that they appear to be utterly committed to the gospel and utterly committed to holding all these things together. In one sense the ACNA is not actually Anglican, but on this point they are considerably more Anglican even than the Church of England.
When someone has lived abroad for a long time and returns to their country, they often find that the country they knew and loved is no longer there. I suspect this would be the experience of many Anglicans from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, on visiting the Church of England. Is the mother church of the Anglican Communion still Anglican?
Here’s the whole talk: