Why Anglicanism: A Still-Vibrant, Ancient Faith

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Far from being a faith of the past, Anglicanism is a rich spiritual tradition that has grown into a worldwide movement of Christians on every continent. Today, people from various backgrounds are embracing the Anglican tradition anew. Bishop Todd Hunter (who recently became an Anglican) describes this growing movement in the following way, “There is something in the air today, something in the spirit of our age, something in the Spirit that is leading thousands, maybe millions, of people to reconsider liturgical forms of worship.”[1]

Becoming Anglican helped me realize that I am a part of the larger Christian family whose roots go back to the time of Christ. Too often, contemporary Christians forget that there have been two thousand years of church history. For years I felt like a spiritual orphan who was unaware of having a rich family heritage and roots. Then, like someone who discovered his family genealogy for the first time, I discovered my spiritual roots in the Anglican tradition.

Anglicanism helped me realize that I am not just an independent contemporary Christian tied to my own time. Rather, I have come to realize that I am part of the larger body of Christ whose roots began, not with the Reformation or the evangelical movement, but with Jesus Christ. I have met many other evangelicals who are longing for a faith that wasn’t started yesterday and is not driven by fads and personalities. I believe that the Anglican tradition offers a refreshing alternative to our postmodern world by helping us reconnect to the historic Christian faith.

I am often asked, “Why would an evangelical from a non-liturgical background like myself become an Anglican?” There are many reasons why people may or may not chose a particular faith tradition. So, “why Anglicanism?” In an effort to answer that question, I have written a short introduction that examines some of the reasons why I became an Anglican and why I believe others are also drawn to this great spiritual tradition. This introduction focuses on three areas that are important things people who are exploring Anglicanism should know about the tradition. This first post examines one of these areas: An Ancient Faith.

An Ancient Faith

Anglicanism is an ancient tradition that traces its roots back to the time of the Roman Empire when a Christian church first came into existence in the British Isles. The word “Anglican” is based on the word “Angle” and actually means “English” and refers to its place of origin and comes from the Medieval Latin phrase ecclesia anglicana. According to legend, Christianity first came to England Joseph of Arimathea, although this cannot be known for certain. Early Christian writers mention the existence of a British church in the third century. Saint Alban, who was executed in 209 AD, is the first Christian martyr in the British Isles.[2]

Christianity spread throughout the British Isle under the leadership of Celtic missionaries like Patrick and Columba. Patrick baptized thousands of people, ordaining hundreds of ministers and helped plant hundreds of churches throughout the British Isles. Christianity continued to spread throughout the British Isles like wild fire under the gifted leadership of men such as Columba who established monastic communities in Iona and Aidan in Lindsfarne. These monasteries were not places for monastic recluses, rather they became spiritual centers and discipleship training hubs that sent out missionaries throughout Western Europe.

An important step in the history of the English church was taken in 596, when Pope Gregory the Great sent one of his assistants Augustine, who was a Benedictine monk to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He is considered by many to be the “Apostle to the English” and a founder of the English Church. Early on, Augustine almost abandoned the quest, but was persuade by Gregory to continue the mission. He eventually arrived in Kent (the southeast corner of England) in 597 with a team of monks. There, King Ethelbert, whose wife was already a Christian, allowed them to settle and preach. He was eventually successful in converting the king and many others to the Christian faith.

Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and helped establish a center for Christianity in the Brittan. From that time onward, the see of Canterbury has honored and respected as the ‘Mother Church’ of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. In a letter, Pope Gregory wisely counseled Augustine to allow room for the English church to retain its own distinctiveness,

“For things are not to be loved for the sake of places but places for the sake of good things. Select, therefore, from every church the things that are devout religious and upright, and when you have, as it were, combined them into one body, let the minds of the English be trained therein.”[3]

Anglican Christianity was also strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation. During this time period, the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII, reunited under Queen Mary I and then separated again under Queen Elizabeth I. Under the leadership of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the Church of England began to embrace elements of the Reformation throughout England, yet retaining many of the historic practices of the Catholic Church. Cranmer carefully danced around the politics of his position, and was able to introduce a number of reforms in England such as the Great Bible in 1539. Cranmer’s greatest achievement was realized in 1549, where he helped organize the Book of Common Prayer in the English language. Cranmer’s legacy was fulfilled with development of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty Nine Articles. During this time period, the Anglican tradition also included great luminaries such as Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, John Jewel, Richard Hooker, and Lancelot Andrewes who helped translate the 1611 King James Version of the Bible.

In the years that followed, Anglicanism continued to develop and flourish and eventually grew into a worldwide movement that spawned later movements such as the Puritans, the Wesleyan revival, and the Oxford Movement. Over the years, the Anglican tradition has produced some of the world’s greatest Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders such as Bishop Jeremy Taylor, John Donne, John and Charles Wesley, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, William Temple, and Festo Kivengere to name a few.[4] With over 1,500 years of rich history, this ancient tradition still has the power to speak to our contemporary world with a faith that is relevant for a new generation.

[1] Todd Hunter, Accidental Anglican: The Surprising Appeal of the Liturgical Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP Press, 2010).

[2] Bede, A History of the English Church and People. (London, England, Penguin Books, 1968), 44

[3] Ibid, 73.

[4] If you are interested in reading the biographies of great Anglicans, see Richard H. Schmidt’s Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans. 2002).

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Winfield Bevins has a passion for equipping others to spread the gospel in their own context. He serves as the Director of Asbury Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. As a seasoned practitioner, he has used his experience to train leaders from diverse backgrounds on three different continents. He frequently speaks at conferences, churches, seminaries and retreats on a variety of topics. He is the author of several books, including Plant: A Sower’s Guide to Church Planting. He and his wife Kay, have three beautiful girls Elizabeth, Anna Belle, and Caroline.

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