The basic beliefs which unite confessing Anglicans
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
In the 1960’s William Barclay wrote a series of commentaries on classic Christian texts entitled “The Plain Man looks at…” While this phrase needs to be updated, and some have questioned whether the erudite Mr Barclay could claim to speak on behalf of a “plain man”, his objective was to look afresh at Christianity from the perspective of the ‘ordinary bloke’. If a regular, intelligent, inquisitive person, without any background in terms of knowledge or church history or theology, or any higher educational qualifications, looks at the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed, what would he or she make of it? What does it actually say? – because that will tell us a lot about what the Christian faith actually is as originally given.
Barclay was not an Anglican. But we could take his idea to expound the basic elements of Anglican Christianity by looking at foundational texts from the perspective of an ordinary person. To get hold of this ‘ordinary’ perspective we need to look at the text initially in such a way that it doesn’t need theological or historical interpretation, but also, crucially, to try to read it without the bias of a philosophical commitment which might skew the way we look at the text, causing us to read things in which are not there, or to refuse to see things which are there.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is one of the foundational texts of the Church of England which bear witness to the apostolic faith. The order for Holy Communion, Morning and Evening Prayer remain the most widely used of all these texts, and perhaps Morning Prayer most of all because it, along with its various updates, also serves as the standard model for daily private devotion for many clergy. If we want to know what Anglican Christians believe, we will find it in the implicit and explicit thinking and messages contained in the shape and main themes of Morning Prayer.
The rubrics (or instructions) often tell us as much as the main text. For example, we are told at the beginning that “The minister shall read with a loud voice”. If this is a ‘service’ at which more that one person is present, it is not supposed to be a show of religious mystery where a ‘holy man’ mutters away inaudibly, worshipping his God privately, while others look on; rather it should be about communication with words that can be followed and understood.
The service begins with sentences from Scripture, all of which have the same theme: a declaration of the sinfulness, rebellion, even “wickedness” of humanity, leading ultimately to death, in the presence of a holy God of justice, yet also of mercy. When we recognize this, and turn back to God with sorrow, he promises to forgive and restore the relationship. The minister then invites all present to “acknowledge and confess” their sin, and then all join in the words of the General Confession. Our ‘ordinary’ reader would conclude that for Anglican Christianity, this firm conviction that all people are sinners, the corollary of the grace of God, and the need to take an active, personal part in repentance and faith, are foundational. The reader might reflect that this seems to be against the grain of contemporary culture. We are constantly told that we at the centre, we’re “so worth it”, and we must have positive self-image, and if things go wrong it must be someone else’s fault. But Cranmer’s structure insists we begin with admitting our wickedness, our offense against God, and our desperate need of forgiveness and cleansing, which is pronounced confidently on those who turn away from sin and “unfeignedly believe his [God’s] holy Gospel”.
The first section of ‘penitence’ is followed by a short section of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer (again said audibly and communally) is followed by asking for God’s help in giving him praise, in memorable call-and-response form. After this the structure sets down a section interspersing corporate praise and worship of God with the reading of Scripture.
If the focus in the first section was on our sin, weakness, failure, rebellion, wickedness, and God’s response in terms of mercy and forgiveness through Christ, here the focus is very much on God the Father, his transcendent greatness and creative power, and his compassion and desire for relationship with his people; God the Son, his incarnation and death as the means of our salvation, God the Holy Spirit, or “ghost” in the BCP, always mentioned in the Trinitarian conclusions to the songs. An ordinary reader might also notice the cosmology of the Psalms and ancient canticles that are given as resources for praise. God is “in heaven”, he is “the great King above all gods”, to him all angels and powers cry aloud in worship, the “spirits and souls of the righteous…magnify him forever”. Again, this focus on the total ‘other-ness’ of God, and the reality of the spiritual realm separate from human psychology, might seem strange to our ‘ordinary reader’. He or she has been used to a depiction of reality flattened out by secularism: the economy, my work and my money; human interaction, my community and my relationships; my entertainment, physical and mental health, hopes and fears for the near future. Whether the reader believes it personally or not, he can’t deny that Morning Prayer refers to other dimensions of reality, vast vistas past, present and future which can only be seen by faith but about which we are given enough basic information to be without excuse of ignorance.
And this reality, and God behind it all, is not something left to the imagination of each person or cultural group, as though it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we have some kind of spirituality. The Anglican understanding of creator and creation, visible and invisible, history, plan and purpose, is very clearly defined by Scripture, hence the need to read it daily “as appointed in the Calendar”, as we’re told in the rubric. As Scripture is read publicly, Old and New Testament, the reader is instructed to name the chapter and verse, implying that this is not a mystical religious experience for a few who are into that kind of thing, but a vital form of education of the laity in which the ordinary people are urged to use their minds, learn and remember.
The service continues with the Creed of St Athanasius, a summary of faith said communally but in which each participant affirms “I believe”. After this, a series of prayers which suggest priorities in how we should approach God and what we should ask him for. His mercy. Our salvation. The salvation of the sovereign. The righteousness of the church’s ministers. Peace in the nation. Then in the second and third collects, asking for God to defend us from “assaults of our enemies”, people, circumstances, internal and external problems which threaten our safety, peace and ability to “do what is right”. Our ‘ordinary reader’ might be interested in the priority given to praying for the leaders of nation and church to believe and live as Christians, but of course this is a sound Scriptural principle. Many of the Bible narratives show clearly how easy it is for leaders to compromise with false gods, selfish ambition and fearing people rather than the Lord, how important their spiritual well being is for the health of the nation, and that the prayers of the ordinary people really make a difference in promoting peace, prosperity and rightly-directed worship.
The service concludes with the familiar blessing from 2 Corinthians 13:14, mediating the grace, love and fellowship of the Trinity to “us”, the people of God. This is Christian unity: not something to do with nation, tribe, family or allegiance to an institution, however valuable these are, but sharing together in the same faith that has been summarized in the words of the service just completed, and being in union with the God of love because of the work of Jesus and through the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What have we done with this wonderful resource that we have as Anglicans? There have been various responses. Some have continued with the form and content of Morning Prayer, and really believe the words to be ‘true’ at the time of saying them, often in the context of the drama of a formal service. But then this is relegated to a ‘religious’ compartment of life, with no continued application outside in the real world. Some have continued with the form as above, but no longer believe in the content and even refute it in theological discourse. Participants in such a service might say the liturgical words and then hear the meaning denied in the sermon.
Others have found this hypocrisy intolerable, and also no longer appreciate the form of Morning Prayer, either in its Tudor/Stuart form or in contemporary updatings, seeing both form and content as coming from a bygone age with no value for contemporary devotion or mission. They develop, as they think, new forms of liturgy to affirm and communicate new beliefs (although in fact these beliefs and worship styles follow ancient forms often derived from the secular world, or even Eastern and gnostic practices. A more extreme example can be found here).
But in fact any form of worship which omits confession of sin, elevates me, my feelings and needs before God’s glory, and does not look to sit under the authority of regular teaching from Scripture (even the unpopular bits) is in danger of moving away from authentic Anglican Christianity.
The correct, life-giving way to look at Morning Prayer surely is a ‘confessional’ one: to wholeheartedly believe and publicly affirm all that the content says and means; to use it in worship, both in its original text and in new, fresh, updated forms which communicate the same truths, to read and proclaim the same Scriptures and the Gospel they contain, and give the same space for genuine encounter with Christ in praise and prayer.
 The ‘Sangha’ Zen meditation group at York Minster is thankfully no longer being advertised online after worldwide publicity.