Recently I posted one of those semi-serious Facebook things about how the Easter season starts on Easter Day; that the day before Easter Day isn’t Easter Saturday, it’s Holy Saturday. Easter Saturday is the Saturday that follows subsequently to Easter Day. A good friend, part of my church but with his roots in a very different Christian tradition, said he’d value more on why these things matter to me and how they help me follow Jesus. It’s actually something I’d been meaning to try and articulate more fully for myself for some time, and my friend’s comment prodded me to do something about it. Like much of what I write on here, it’s really for my own benefit – if it helps you also, that’s great.
I have lived most of my Christian life in the Anglican (referred to in some contexts as Episcopalian) church context. In 2001 I was ordained as a minister in that tradition. I’m not one of those who thinks it’s the only true church; I am often frustrated and even angered by aspects of how this mode of church works. But it does work for me as an imperfect structure within which I can minister and function as a disciple. For the record, I’m also greatly resourced by many other Christian traditions – but the Anglican one is where my feet stand, with the waters of other traditions intermingling around me, refreshing and renewing me at different times. So here’s a few of the things I value around this expression of Christianity – I do so acknowledging that strengths are often also weaknesses, and this is true here as much as anywhere else. They’re listed in no special order.
1) The Anglican church is often referred to as a ‘broad church’. I take that to mean that what you experience in public worship at one Anglican church may look or feel very different to what you experience at the Anglican church a mile away – or a few thousand miles away. But they’re united by a few core points of theology (theoretically – and that’s where this can go awry) and practice. Weirdly, one of the places this has been bought home to me is on social media. Through social media I have made contact with numerous Anglicans who express their faith very differently to me – there’s much we disagree on. But we found ourselves drawn together, and connecting together and supporting each other. Similarly, the priest of the next door parish to mine was (he’s just moved on) very different to me, and our parishes’ worship are almost unrecognisably different. But Jesus untied us through something far deeper and firmer, and we’re good friends. I’m going to miss him.
2) Many Christian traditions give a rhythm to the church year, and this is a big feature of Anglicanism. That’s illustrated in what I mentioned above about the difference between Holy Saturday and Easter Saturday. Sometimes the application of this can all seem a little Pharisaical, but increasingly I’m finding it deeply beneficial. Let’s take the Holy/Easter Saturday thing. The week that leads up to Easter Day uses readings from the Bible and liturgy (prepared prayers) to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Now most of us know how the story ends – with victory and resurrection. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot of talk in the world of movie criticism about how much you give away about the plot of a film – spoilers. People don’t want the story spoiled before they see the film; otherwise the story loses power and purpose. To a large extent the point of a story isn’t the destination, it’s how we get there. We know the ultimate spoiler – Jesus rises from the dead, and it’s wonderful! But -and this is important – we only really grasp how wonderful it is if we’ve lived the whole story. The pain, the fear, the despair. The death. Make that journey, and you’re really going to want to party come Easter Day. In addition, we all know that life isn’t all about victory – it will be, in the new creation. And Easter Day gives us a glimpse of that. But in the meantime people still get sick, are still disabled, are still depressed, bereaved, alone, dead, crying, fearful, angry, numb … All those things and more are still part of our story, and the build up to Easter Day helps us to incorporate all those things in our worship and give them their place. It helps me to spend time with Jesus in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, pleading with God for another way and being let down by His friends. It helps me because that happens to me to; and if I spend time looking at Jesus experiencing it too then I feel less alone in my experiences, less guilty, better equipped for the trials I face.
3) When it works well – and I know that it by no means always works well – the way the broader Anglican church functions does a good job of holding people and churches accountable. Churches and their leaders get things wrong, step out of line, need comfort, support or challenge. People like Bishops are there – in part – to do that, or to make sure that it happens. When they get it right, it’s wonderful. A small illustration from my own experience. I was here in South Africa when my mother died a few years ago (in the UK). When that happened I was on the receiving end of many helpful comments and prayers. One of those that meant the most to me was my Bishop calling me personally, asking me how I was doing, assuring me of his prayers and support in whatever I needed, acknowledging that this was a hard time to be doing this sort of job – especially so far from my birth family. Years later, I still remember that. Don’t underestimate the power of these things – especially for clergy, who need to be pastored as much they need to pastor others.
4) There are many, many expressions of Christianity and I’m grateful for the variety. God is a big God, so it’s OK that there’s a multiplicity of ways to respond to Him. But for some people who aren’t Christians, there are some expressions that can feel odd (I’m not saying they are odd – it’s just how they can come across to some others), or even a bit cult-like. Anglicanism’s rich history and accountability structure means that this is a rare perception – and that when things do go wrong, there’s a chance of them getting noticed and addressed. It often surprises people to discover ‘free’ Anglican churches – that are charismatic in theology and practice. The fact that these churches are present within Anglican structures can reassure some that this is, in fact, an orthodox expression of Christianity and not simply a breakaway cult.
5) Quite against some perceptions, the deep roots and wide resources of the Anglican tradition can (when used well) be the bedrock and resource for immense creativity. The rich theology of Anglicanism and the accountability structures can give a space for a lot of new things to happen. I’m thinking of, for example, the Fresh Expressions movement – which seeks to find ways of expressing church for those who don’t come to church and won’t engage with church as it currently is. This movement is by no means limited just to the Anglican Church; but the Anglican Church has been and continues to be a major player in the movement’s development. Hence we find Anglican churches that are based around a multiplicity of networks – meeting in pubs, skate parks, shops, nurseries and the like – which look very different to ‘normal’ church, but have the bedrock theology and accountability of Anglicanism.
6) Sometimes I don’t feel like praying or worshipping. That’s when the liturgy – prepared prayers for use in public worship – kicks in. Saying these prayers with others can carry me – their faith can carry me when I have none. Knowing these have been prayed by others in other places for many years reminds me that my problems may be significant but they’re not the whole picture – and life, faith, the church, God will all go on even if I’m struggling. I remember one day going for a walk on a windswept beach, so depressed and stressed I could barely think … and I found tumbling out of me the words of liturgical prayers I’d been praying my whole life, that I didn’t know I’d memorised. They just embedded themselves in me, and came to the surface when I needed them most, unbidden.
I could go on, and may do so on another occasion, but that’s enough for now. To repeat – I know many people find some or all of the above in traditions other than Anglicanism. And all these strengths can also be weaknesses. But this is me.