What distinguishes the Anglican Church from other Christian denominations? In this article, we discuss several key Anglican characteristics.
by Rev Canon Daniel Tong
The catalyst which led to the formation of the Church of England (see the previous article: “Catholic, yet Reformed”) is not something that Anglicans should be proud of, but we are thankful “that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Thus, in our potentially darkest hour, reformers were readily on hand to uphold standards and impute biblical truth back into the English Church.
In reforming the Church of England, choices had to be made on practices to be kept or done away with. Thoughtfully, the decision was made not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The choice was made to retain certain practices and forms which did not detract from biblical truths. This choice underscores our distinctive Via Media (middle way or compromise between extremes) approach to church life and doctrine, which has resulted in the Anglican Church being often called the Church of the Middle Way.
The “baby” we kept refers first and foremost to our belief in the declaration of the Apostles’ Creed that we are One Holy Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic Church. As Anglicans, we do not see ourselves as THE or ONLY TRUE Church. Rather, we proclaim ourselves to be a vital part of our Lord’s Body universal (catholic) and the Communion of Saints through the ages, in the lineage of the early churches set up and following the doctrines taught by the Apostles. Another major distinctive of the Anglican Church is our Belief in the Bible as Final Authority. As stated in Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion (our Anglican Statement of Faith): “Holy Scripture contains everything that is necessary for our salvation. Consequently, nobody should be required to believe as an article of the Christian faith, or to regard as necessary for salvation, anything that is not found in Scripture or that cannot be proved from Scripture.” We also upheld the biblical teaching that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Another aspect of the “baby” we have kept is our retention of a Formal Liturgical Expression which shapes how our worship services are conducted. Anglican services are “formal” in that set-prayers are prepared to be said; yet they are reformed, as the author/s of our service order (liturgy) sought as far as possible to quote verbatim from the Word of God. For e.g., the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and the Offertory Sentence (1 Chronicles 29:11). This “formal” order (liturgy) serves to ensure that our services are not geared toward the pet interests or whims and fancies of those officiating worship services; but that the full breadth of the Word of God is explored and taught, and the different needs – for reading and preaching the Word, intercession and partaking in the Sacrament of Holy Communion – are met. That said, please note that flexibility is allowed, as stated in Article 34 of our 39 Articles of Religion:
It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies should be uniform and identical in every place; for these have at all times been varied, and they may be changed to accord with the diversities of countries, times, and human customs, provided that nothing be ordained contrary to God’s Word. Anyone, who by his private judgment willingly and deliberately breaks the traditions and ceremonies of the Church (traditions and ceremonies are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are appointed and approved by common authority), ought to be openly rebuked. This is in order that others may fear to follow his example, as one who offends against the common order of the Church, undermines authority and wounds the consciences of weak fellow Christians. Every particular or national church has authority to prescribe, change and abolish ceremonies or rites of the Church which have been ordered only by human authority, providing all things are done for edification.
Apart from the set readings, our liturgical form also encompasses the visual arts, as seen in our use of colours to represent the different seasons and focus of the church through the year; as well as the manner in which our clergy and lay readers are robed (please refer to the other articles in this issue of CHORUS for details). These, again, we have chosen not to throw out with the “bath-water”. What we have thrown out are images with idolatrous connotations, in obedience to our Lord’s command in Exodus 20:3-6.
In forming the Anglican Church, the decision was made to retain another aspect of the “baby”, which is the Threefold Order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. This we chose to do, because as much as we regard all believers as equally ministers and priests in the sight and service of our Lord (1 Peter 2:4-5 and 9), the order and oversight of the Church remained a necessity (c.f. 1 Timothy 3). Rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel by creating another structure, the decision was made to reform the known Threefold Order.
This reformation dealt with the fact that the clergy were equally fallible human beings. Yet, because they serve “not in their own but in Christ’s name, and perform their ministry by His commission and authority, we may avail ourselves of their ministry both in hearing the Word of God and in receiving the Sacraments” (Article 26 of the 39 Articles of Religion). It was also judged that clergymen are not commanded by God’s law to remain celibate and may thus marry at their discretion (Article 32).