Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, refers to us as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement”. The tree off the movement, to follow Bishop Michael’s metaphor, is vast and complicated. Christianity is the largest religious tradition in the world in terms of numbers of adherents.
We might wonder at why the Jesus movement has split itself into so many different branches and twigs, but it is understandable that especially when it comes to beliefs and practices that we hold dear, that give direction to the way we live our lives and that we’re both intellectually and emotionally invested in, it can be hard to compromise. From the time that Jesus was still with his disciples, disagreements and disputes arose, and the New Testament records the fact that differences within and between congregations were very much a part of life from the earliest days of the church.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, disagreement about belief, practice, and authority had become concerning enough that Christian leaders gathered in a series of councils with the goal of hammering out their differences. Some points of consensus emerged about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. The creed we say weekly was formulated at the First Council of Nicea in 325, and certain schools of belief were declared to be heresies at Constantinople and Ephesus. As you might anticipate, however, concord or compromise could NOT be reached on some of the early church’s disagreements, and the first significant formal instances of separation between traditions took place, to be followed, over the centuries, by many more.
For our purposes today, the important point of differentiation leading to what is now the Episcopal branch was the Protestant reformation of the 16th century. At the time, Christian Europe was united under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 1517 Martin Luther, a German teacher and monk, published a document he called “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences” or 95 Theses that he was inviting other church leaders to debate with him. As you’re undoubtedly aware, Luther wasn’t subtle: he posted his document on the door of the church in Wittenburg.
Luther’s thinking and action was radical because the Catholic Church of the time was extremely dogmatic: its teachings – especially if they came from the Pope himself – were to be accepted without question and its practices followed to the letter, or one could expect dire consequences in the afterlife.
Luther’s fundamental disagreement with the Church was that it had set itself up as a necessary intermediary between the believer and God. The faithful needed to purchase forgiveness of their sins by payments to the Church and neither the Bible nor the words of worship itself were in the languages that ordinary people spoke or could read. Luther, and reformers like Calvin and Zwingli who followed his actions in publicly challenging Catholic teachings, wanted believers to understand that they have an independent relationship with God for which they are responsible, without the mediation of the Church or its clergy.
The English Reformation that resulted in our “branch of the Jesus movement” was more political than theological. We’re all familiar with the sad story of King Henry VIII of England and his six wives. Henry was fundamentally a devout Catholic and, in the early part of his reign, was named “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his staunch support of papal supremacy. His failure to produce a male heir became a driving force in his life in the second decade of his reign and his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, however. Pope Clement VII refused to approve annulment of Henry’s marriage in order for Henry to remarry. Henry and his advisors, including Thomas Cranmer (of whom we’ll hear more), eventually engineered a parliamentary act denying the authority of the Pope over the English Church and identifying the English monarch as “Supreme Head” of the Church in doctrinal and legal matters, opening the way for Henry to obtain a divorce.
The Church of England was, in he following decades, actually pretty ambivalent about the ideas of Luther and the other reformers, and and the way the church developed was motivated by both religious and political concerns. Some influential thinkers and political advisors (including Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn) were genuinely sympathetic to the ideas of the Protestants, while others remained deeply attached to both the theology and liturgical practices of Catholicism.
This ambivalence in the English Church leads to what I want to identify as the first significant characteristic of Anglicanism, but before we go there, let’s look briefly at the way authority and governance in our part of the Church is organized.
The Anglican Communion includes all churches throughout the world that choose to affiliate themselves with the Church of England, and all, to be truthful about it, spring from the centuries of colonization practiced by the British Empire.
Coming out of the Reformation, Anglicanism retained (from Catholicism) an episcopal structure. Bishops have responsibility for and authority over priests, deacons, and laypeople in matters of practice. This is why Heather and I ask Bishop Doug for permission when we want to use liturgies that don’t come from the prayer book, and when, early in the pandemic, Bishop Doug communicated that Episcopal Bishops had agreed that “remote consecration”, setting bread and wine in individual homes for consecration during virtual worship, was not in keeping established understanding and tradition in the Episcopal Church, we complied.
The Head Bishop (or Primate) of each member branch of the Anglican Communion, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of the Church of England, is a spiritual leader and frequently acts as a spokesperson for the denomination, but does not have authority over other bishops as the Pope does in Roman Catholicism.
To be “in communion” with other Anglican churches is like being in a family: we don’t always agree with one another, but we commit to remaining in communication and (as an ideal, not always realized,) we don’t attempt to impose our own understanding and ways of doing things on one another. In the last several decades the Episcopal Church has often been an outlier in the Anglican Communion as a result of our decisions to ordain women and to open the sacraments including ordination and marriage to sisters and brothers who identify as GLBTQ+.
So on to what is really important: What are the principals and characteristics that distinguish us from the many other branches and twigs of the Jesus movement? I’d like to touch on three.
1) We are characterized as being a via media, a middle way between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and the most reformed of the Protestant denominations. This principal springs from such Reformation leaders as Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry, who wanted to embrace the thinking of the reformers without, in effect, throwing the baby out with the bathwater in abandoning all Roman Catholic thinking.
This via media sensibility is undoubtedly why so many people raised in the Catholic tradition find their way to the Episcopal Church. Our liturgy and devotional practices and often, our theology, remain close to that of the Catholic Church.
I personally think that part of the genius of the Anglican way is that the via media nature of the denomination embraces a “big tent” approach: for the most part (and again, we sometimes fail at this,) we allow for differences in emphasis and practice according to personal preference and local custom. Some Anglicans pray with rosaries and icons, many don’t. Congregations on the “high church” end of the spectrum use incense and bells in worship, many do not. Some call their clergy “Reverend” or “Pastor” and others prefer “Father” or “Mother”. You don’t see such diversity and tolerance in all denominations.
2) A second characteristic of Anglicanism is closely related. Richard Hooker of the late 16th century is generally credited with coming up with the image of the “three-legged stool” on which the via media rests, even though the metaphor as we use it today really comes from the 19th century Oxford Movement.
The concept of the three-legged stool is that Anglican doctrine is based on three things – scripture, tradition, and reason, and that all three must be taken into consideration in order for the stool – the teaching and practice of the Church – to be in balance.
Some denomination favor one or another of the three: “if we don’t find something in the Bible, it shouldn’t be part of Christian practice”; or, “we’ve always done it that way, so it must be what God wants us to do”. Anglicans insist, coming from the work of the Reformers, that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation”2 Like the Catholic churches, we maintain deep respect for the wisdom of longstanding tradition, and are very cautious about precipitous change. But we are also committed to the exercise of human reason, of critical analysis, of logical consistency and of implications. If what the Bible and tradition suggest are not consistent with the lived experience of the people, we’ve got to keep working on thinking it through.
3) The third defining characteristic and foundational principle of Anglicanism that I want to mention this morning is reflected in yet another churchy phrase from the latin: Lex orandi, lex credendi. Loosely translated, “the law of prayer is the law of belief” or better, “You are what you pray.”
Words are important to Episcopalians because we understand that “prayer, belief, and action are intimately tied together.”3 Episcopalians, as do Anglicans worldwide, use a common prayer book. Thomas Cranmer (again) oversaw and in fact wrote many of the words of the first Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549. It was the first time English-speaking people had a common text guiding them, in the language they spoke, in their relationship with God. Many of the prayers were translations in (then) contemporary language of ancient prayers dating back many centuries, and thus, served to root Anglicans deeply in the Church’s traditions. We continue to use many of those 16th century words in our prayers today.
The language we use in prayer shapes the way we understand God, ourselves, and the world. The words we say when praying together don’t just express what we believe, they determine what we believe. And in shaping our beliefs, they determine the choices we make.
I am glad to be an Episcopalian. Having grown up in the tradition I haven’t known any other way, so my assessment isn’t exactly unbiased. I love the rich liturgical practices of the Church, and our embrace of symbol. I love our appreciation of language. I’ve seen the denomination evolve, in my lifetime, to be much more mission-focused than it used to be, and to become much more inclusive. I’m grateful that in nurturing and supporting my relationship with God in Jesus Christ I am encouraged to think and to formulate my own perspectives.
What do you appreciate about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, and how would you also like to change it?
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