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Defining and deciding as an Anglican


Reflecting upon the history and origins of Anglicanism, Jonathan Sargeant presents two modern-day scenarios and asks “What would you, as an Anglican, do?”

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Scenario 1: You’re at a barbeque and conversation with some new friends takes an interesting turn. You mention you went to church that morning, an Anglican one in fact. The next question from your interested friend? “So what’s ‘Anglican’ mean?”

And you’d say…?

Scenario 2: At morning tea after church, you get a buzzing Big News notification on your phone: a federal election has been called. You think back to the Bible readings that morning: Paul talking about how governments are put in place by God. And the Gospel story of Jesus turning over money changer tables in the Temple. These stories swirl in your head as you wonder about the decision you’ll have to make.

What will you do?

Surprisingly, these two possible stories are linked in a way. There’s an intersection between  attempting to define the meaning of ‘Anglicanism’ and trying to make a major life decision.  If you can do the first, the odds are that you’re well on the way to understanding a useful process to determine your stance on the second.

Defining Anglicanism for a friend is an interesting task. They may be aware of some of the facts surrounding Henry VIII, his quest for a new wife and the problems that caused for the Catholic Church. Solution? Start a new church! Whilst that may be satisfying on a Married at First Sight melodramatic reality TV show level, it ignores the distinctive church in England prior to that Reformation period.

Whilst the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury in England at the end of the sixth century is traditionally regarded as the beginnings of an English church, there is evidence to suggest the true origins may, in fact, date back as early as the first century. It was, then, during the Roman occupation that Christianity may have laid its foundations.

The ubiquity of churches named for St Alban, the first Christian martyr (third century CE) in England also suggests early origins for English Christianity.

Celtic Christianity, a precursor of the Anglican Church, retained its distinctive form even after a synod decision in 664 CE tried to suppress it. Along with the incorporation of some local customs and festivals, Celtic Christianity assured that English Christianity would retain a particular local flavour.

Apart from the historical elements, one can try to sum up Anglican Christianity by some of its practices and beliefs. Even though the Anglican Church is not a ‘confessional church’ (i.e. we don’t have a statement of beliefs distinctive to our denomination like, say, the Uniting Church in Australia’s Basis of Union) there are some documents. To start, there are the 39 Articles and things like the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Even our worship styles can be offered as definitions. As it’s sometimes said, you can tell what someone believes by how they pray and worship. This is a loose translation of the saying “Lex orandi, lex credendi”. So our prayer book can be said to be a summing up of Anglicanism currently.

A common way of thinking about Anglicans is through furniture! The three-legged stool as a metaphor for Anglicanism is well known and has in use been for 400 years or so. Each leg stands for one of the pillars of Anglicanism: scripture, tradition and reason. These are the things Anglicans rely on for faith. We think of scripture as the first of these (a thicker leg for our stool? Longer? No that doesn’t work. Hmmm). Tradition is also part of the package, but for Anglicans it’s a living breathing version of principles that we reapply and reinterpret to each new generation. Reason is a vital part of the Anglican process too. This is in the acceptance of new thinking and research that comes to us from the sciences, as well as the creative arts. Experience is seen as a component in the idea of reason here, too; that’s our day-to-day experience of love, joy, peace and troubles, too, as signs of God with us.

So in our quest to answer our (very patient) friend at this barbeque, we’ve begun to veer into the second scenario mentioned before. Whenever Anglican Christians think about how to deal with a real-life situation, whether it’s voting in an election or making ethical decisions about refugee policy or investing our money, this three-legged piece of furniture provides us with a nice process. You could call it a ‘process of theological reflection’ if you want to impress someone.

Considering scripture and its themes, then thinking about the principles that underpin our expressions of faith (i.e. tradition), and finally using our reason as found in current evidential research and thinking, becomes a useful process to assess everything from government polices at every level to how we should live day to day with those around us locally and globally. It’s distinctly Anglican, though others have co-opted it with different emphases and additions.

But for us it becomes a way to define ourselves denominationally in a very practical way, as well as a method for living and thinking in a complex world.

Interested to know more about the ideas in this article? The St Francis College Short Course: ‘Being Anglican’ features Archbishop Phillip Aspinall examining these ideas in an accessible and easy-to-digest way, along with questions for reflection or discussion in a group.  It’s totally free and you can find it here.

The 360 Project features a seminar called ‘FAITH360: Praying in Anglican Ways’, which also interactively delves into these ideas in some detail. That seminar is a one-day, 9am-3.30pm experience led by Jonathan Sargeant in the Anglican Diocese Southern Queensland and you can find out more or register your interest on this page.

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