I visited a local Episcopal church last weekend. Housed in a rather old gothic revival building, this particular church leaned Anglo-Catholic and seemingly rather theologically orthodox. This service was a choral Evensong, a musical interpretation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s Evening Prayer liturgy. The music was transcendent, the words true, and the liturgy focused on gospel truth. I loved it.
There’s been a running joke amongst those who know me that I’m secretly an Anglican in Baptist clothing. One friend even ventured to call me a “Banglican.” The irony of the joke is how true the remark may actually be. If my previous post on how valuable the Book of Common Prayer (hereafter BCP) has been to my personal spirituality has left any lingering ambiguity, the truth is that I have found great value over the years in not just Anglicanism, but the broad and rich liturgical heritage of the greater Christian tradition that Evangelical Protestants have largely left behind. This isn’t a post announcing my conversion to some other Christian tradition. Granted, that possibility isn’t off the table, but I am still currently very active in the Baptist church in Louisville where I’ve been for over seven years.
That said, I can’t deny my pull towards liturgical traditions, and I have, as a result, spent a great deal of time studying them and adopting some of their practices. Listed below are five key areas (amongst others) where I have felt particularly drawn to these “high church” traditions. Perhaps these could be seen as reasons I would consider converting. Perhaps, on the other hand, these could simply be considered things I think we should do better to emulate, incorporate, or emphasize more in our Evangelical Protestant expressions.
- Priorities Particularly in Anglicanism, there seems to be an emphasis where what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity,” John Stott called “Basic Christianity,” Thomas Oden called “Classic Christianity,” and N.T. Wright called “Simply Christian” is dominant. That is, making much of the essentials of Christianity found in the creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian), grasping and going deep with those, and leaving room for differences of opinion within the realm of traditional Christian belief. Perhaps I’ve been within the Reformed Evangelical sphere too exclusively, but I’ve become wary (and weary) of how tribalistic Evangelicalism seems to be. Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t examples unorthodoxy within Anglicanism and the other liturgical traditions as well. Unfortunately, the current state of much of The Episcopal Church in the U.S., particularly in the upper reaches of its hierarchy, shows as much, with some bishops becoming rather shaky on key tenants of the faith. Still at its best, the liturgical tradition actually emphasizes orthodox Christianity by the abundant reading of scripture in each service, the rhythmic daily personal scripture readings, and the recitation of the creeds.
- Tradition The liturgical traditions shared between Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism tend to be quite old. From the two-movement order of service (service of the word and service of the sacrament) to the basic framework of the church calendar, there is an intentionality within these traditions of telling the Gospel story to one another through our use of space and time. This developed over the centuries, with many traditions starting in the first century or two of Christianity’s existence. The church calendar, which guides us through the gospel story year after year, gradually developed and featured the seasons of Christmas and Easter, which we low-church Protestants simply treat as stand-alone days. Contextualized, they are major points in a gospel story where every moment of the year is special and points us to Truth. I too often find that we evangelicals have tended to wipe the historical slate clean between 90 A.D. and the Reformation. Yet when we look at the Church Fathers, we read the original interpreters of the written scriptures, some of whom knew the scripture writers themselves. Likewise, when we miss the Church in the Middle Ages, we miss how the gospel spread throughout Europe and the world and the traditions that developed as the good news was contextualized to the cultures to which it went. We miss all that went right and all that went wrong, and thus we both miss many of the riches and repeat many of the mistakes.
- Discipline By discipline, I don’t mean punishment. I mean the regular spiritual rhythms and exercises of being a disciple. As I have written previously, there is much to be gained from the daily practices of these traditions. The daily readings and prayers from the BCP have personally revolutionized my spiritual walk, and the pattern of these prayer times was set forth long before Benedict of Nursia formalized them within his monastic rule in the early 6th Century.
- Sacrament Ah, yes, the word that evangelicals and Baptists, in particular, don’t like at all. The idea that the two rituals we do as commemoration might be anything more than that seems to frighten us. Yet the Apostle Paul speaks in no uncertain terms that those who have taken the Lord’s Supper impurely have sometimes gotten sick and died. Early Baptists were not so closed off to the metaphysical side of the sacraments as we are, and most, even through that greatest of Baptists, Charles Spurgeon, held to a Calvinist “spiritual presence” view of the Lord’s Supper. The idea that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper might be considered a “means of grace” is oddly misunderstood in our tradition. Even if they were nothing else than visible symbols of the gospel, that is a grace in and of itself. If there is anything more to it that we cannot fully grasp, then it is not an establishment of grace, but an even greater realization of grace that is already there: a gift from God undeserved. Yet participating in these two rituals where the ordinary points to the extraordinary, we are taught the sacramental value of our everyday surroundings and circumstances. The beauty of creation, the creativity we experience in ourselves and in the work of others, and the relationships we have with one another are “little ‘s'” sacraments that extend from the longing within us for him.
- Beauty This is an undeniably huge draw for me. As I have also said before, one of the most powerful apologetics for the existence of God in the world, I believe, is the existence of beauty and, like it, the existence of creativity. The higher church traditions have always placed high value on both of these when it comes to the worship of God. Rightly so. In the Old Testament, God shows both that he reveals something of himself in his creation, and also that he values the creativity he placed within us. This is why Bezalel and Oholiab were commissioned by God himself to create ornate representational and abstract art for the Tabernacle, and later artists to do likewise for the Temple. This is why David made beautiful music for the Lord. Of course, all good things can be turned on their head and idolized for their own worth if we don’t watch ourselves. However, rightly understood, these gifts are bestowed upon us by God. Therefore, if we create powerful artwork and literature and music when we reflect on human love, how much more should we do so when reflecting on the love our God has given us?
Here on this journey, all I know is that there is a richness to the gospel of Jesus Christ that is truly unfathomable. Occasionally, seeing how other brothers and sisters in Christ have celebrated and pointed themselves to this truth over the centuries can enrich our experience of that same gospel all the more. Sometimes this carries us to adopt a different tradition. Other times, it simply brings us to a richer expression of our own. I don’t know how the rest of the story goes for me, but I know I have been drawn closer to God by making the journey.
(Cover image: late 19th Century color print of Canterbury Cathedral.)