Anglicanism: The Undiscovered Home, by The Reverend Joey Odell, M.Div.
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
To those with a top-down view of my life, Anglicanism was where I always belonged, and I just did not know it.
I am the son of two families on opposite sides of the Reformation. My father is a committed Roman Catholic, and everyone on his side of my family is also either Roman Catholic or non-religious. My mother is a committed non-liturgical Protestant, and her family is similarly oriented in Baptist and non-denominational practice, with no one “higher” _than a Methodist. Anglicanism, on the surface, seems to bridge these two traditions of the Christian faith, and is precisely where I always should have been.
Of course, there is more to it than that. My family story is tumultuous to say the least, and my upbringing was a smattering of both sets of traditions with little consistency of practice in the faith of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. When I arrived at the place in life where I could make my own decisions about where to worship, I was drawn to the West Point Cadet Chapel, a neogothic monument to architecture that directed one’s thoughts to the Almighty, with a semi-liturgical worship style, classical sacred music, and a Protestant emphasis upon the preached Word. While I drifted away over time, that combination of traditional reverence in action and sincerity in preaching remained my expectation of “what right looks like.”
I had what evangelicals call a “conversion experience” at twenty-one, and, largely due to the influence of a genuine Christian friend, found myself in Southern Baptist churches wherever I went. Thus, when I chose to attend seminary to become a chaplain, I selected the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). While I was obviously guided into ordering ecclesiology and sacramentology from a historic Baptist perspective, I also was exposed to healthy doses of the early church fathers. My love for the history of the church began with those primary source readings from the early church, which was the beginning of the journey that led me to historical Anglicanism. SBTS is also where I was told that the Anglicans were those nasty monarchists that brutally suppressed the innocent and peaceful Puritan separatists, so I had little interest in learning about the Church of England.
As I continued my journey as a Southern Baptist, a combination of my previous experience and continuing experiences made me an odd fit. I never bought into the Zwinglian memorialist view of Holy Communion, but the SBC tent was big enough to allow “spiritual presence” as a view, so that was not ever problematic. I was well-versed in credobaptism only but saw the practice of baby dedications as a non-traditional form of paedobaptism, and when I had soldiers who wanted me to baptize their small children, I simply verified that they did not hold to a Roman view of baptismal regeneration and used a Presbyterian Book of Worship baptism liturgy as a guide to baptize their children.
All that said, it was, in practical terms, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and relationships with actual Anglican clergy that placed into motion my real walk down the Canterbury Trail. I was in a Presbyterian small group, and one of the other men, hearing I was looking for literature on church history, offered me his combination 1552/1662 BCP. I only read through parts of the 1552 BCP, but I was blown away. This is the book to which the Puritans furiously objected? This book was almost entirely quotations from the Bible! And, it was presented beautifully, in a pattern which lent itself to memory and thoughts of majesty.
Immediately, I began to question my historical understanding of the churches in England. I then questioned my dismissal of Anglicanism. That dismissal was drawn from my understanding of the state of the Episcopal Church in the USA while I was in seminary; from my awareness of the decline of the historically mainline churches in the United States; and from the caricature of the development of the church in England at the time of the Reformation.
At the same time, I was encountering Anglican clergy in the Army Chaplaincy. At a required professional military education course, four Anglican chaplains impressed me with their intellect, compassion, wit, and diversity of personality. I was struck by my ignorance of the existence of orthodox Anglicanism in the United States, and started asking questions about the roots, beliefs, and practices of the Anglican church. The rest, as they say, is history.
If I were to summarize what was lacking or deficient in the Reformed Baptist tradition, I would characterize it as a lack of awareness and understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in His Church. That may seem surprising from both my testimonial and the experience of many Baptists. They might say, “Why, of course we recognize that the Holy Spirit works in the Church – _some of us are even charismatic! The real ecclesiological differences are in church structure and understanding of the sacraments.”
But why? Why are those things so different? Perhaps because the Reformed Baptist tradition holds to an unspoken belief that the operation of God the Holy Spirit essentially stopped in the church shortly after the time of the Apostles, and only returned at the time of the 16th century Reformation. We see this assumption in the way that their tradition, and broader evangelicalism in general, treats one-thousand years of church history – _not as a time when a sovereign God filled and protected his church, but as a time when the beliefs and traditions of the church became quickly unmoored and, thus, had to be discarded completely and replaced with whatever the authorities at the moment believed was best. While the evangelical tradition often cites the “early church,” their worship practices look entirely unlike how the early church worshipped, and reflect little, if any, familiarity with the writings and practices of the Church in the first few centuries.
That is not to say that they ignore the church in history completely, nor that they disagree with many of the doctrines that the church held – _but that, when it comes to many areas, there is no recognition that the Holy Spirit filled His people - the Body of Christ - between 451AD and 1517AD. Regarding the worship practices of the Church, the work of God the Holy Spirit from 90 A.D. to 1850 A.D. is more often than not, simply ignored. The ignorance of the acts and works of the saints of the past, and the reflexive dismissal of anything that looks or sounds Roman Catholic, is a dismissal of the power and wisdom not only of the giants of the faith who have gone before us, but also of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps most glaring in my own tradition was the disconnect between a firm affirmation of the sovereignty of God through all of time, and the practical application of that understanding toward doctrine and belief that assumed God could not help the church worship or know Him properly over all that time.
This leaves the evangelical tradition in a position where it is rare to find any argument for practice and doctrine which is not restricted to an attempt to logically connect the proposition to Scripture alone, with no knowledge or recognition that the issue may have long since been addressed in history. Laypeople and clergy approach the Scriptures as if they are the first ones with the indwelling Spirit to read and attempt to understand, interpret, and apply them. “Traditions of men,” is applied to anything in the church that is older than the current people’s experiences. The result is a church culture that largely reflects current Western culture. This, my brethren, should not be so.
Contrast this with the Anglican tradition as I understand it, explained in Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer of 1552, in the section entitled, “Of ceremonies, why some be abolished and some retained.” _To summarize, the Archbishop states: the English Church kept the ceremonies that were not in obvious error or contradiction of truth, but those that expressed faithfully the doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who demand that all tradition be swept away are simply expressing a desire for innovation and newness, which is always to be avoided in faithful worship.
While some claim they are returning to the practice of the early church, they deliberately ignore the testimony of the early church beyond the New Testament, and form their worship according to their own personal preferences and desires. The rejection of tradition simply because it is tradition has no place in the history of the church; and, in contrast, the retained ceremonies of the church are not equivalent with God’s law, but do, where they have been maintained in accord with Holy Scripture, express the truth faithfully, and should be retained as having flowed from the Spirit-filled wisdom of those who have gone before us.
Thus, the distinctive elements of the Anglican ethos are its combination of a sacramental theology, an episcopal and conciliar polity, a Reformational soteriology, an historic doxology, and an evangelical missiology. Each of these elements puts Anglicanism in agreement with some part of the global church and in disagreement with others, but the combination of all agrees with the undivided church of the first five centuries.
Anglicans agree with Rome and the East about the efficacy of the sacraments, the importance of the three-fold order of clergy, the importance of the great tradition in worship and doctrine, the centrality of the worship of the church, and the mandate to do good works inside and outside the church. Anglicans agree with most Protestants and the East about the supremacy of Holy Scripture as the highest authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. Anglicans also agree with the East in the primacy of ecumenical consensus in doctrine and the freedom of provinces to adapt the liturgy to their local contexts, as well as the inseparability of Scripture from that ecumenical consensus. Anglicans agree with the broader Protestant consensus (which is, admittedly, difficult to find in most areas) about the importance of justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of the believer.
Conversely, Anglicans disagree with Rome about the authority of the Bishop of Rome and the Magisterium to overrule the great tradition and the Holy Scripture, or to develop new doctrines. We disagree with the East in our deliberately evangelical missiology and in our embrace of the Enlightenment’s and the Reformation’s application of the principle of ad fontes and human reason to our theology, which the East did not experience and with which they did not have to wrestle. We disagree with broader Protestantism largely about the value of and authority of tradition and it is this gap between the Anglican embrace of tradition and the radical Reformation’s rejection of tradition as any authority at all, that results in the other differences between the Anglican church and broader evangelical Protestantism. Among these are the method of rightly understanding Scripture, the efficacy of the sacraments, the structure of church government, and how important decisions should be made within the church.
Because of these combinations of agreement and disagreement, and because of the unity of our belief and practice with the early, undivided church, Anglicanism gives the world its best forum for unity and ecumenical agreement. This is evidenced in the broad range of ecumenical efforts toward all three groups and is often reinforced by cooperation in social good works.
Thus, in its ecumenism, its undeniable connection to the faith and worship of the early church, and in its unyielding presentation as a body that worships in a way distinct from the culture around us, Anglicanism has a unique appeal to both Christians and non-Christians. Because the most common forms of worship practiced in the affluent West are the contemporary, big-box evangelical concert-style, and the small, 20th century, “three hymns and a sermon” _style, the Anglican way is so distinctive that it begs the observer to investigate further. To some, they will want to know, why would a church that identifies as “Protestant” look so “Catholic?” To others, it immediately draws them in because the Anglican way reflects a God who is clearly distinct from us in His character and desires. I am a person already formed by my time, place, and secular human culture, and a God who merely wants me to worship and belong in a manner already oriented with my desires has little appeal aside from self-affirmation. Self-affirmation only sedates us for so long, and then the longing in our heart for our Creator will make us restless once again until we find our rest in Him.
The Anglican way is a way of submission: to God, to the Church, to the Prayer Book. It calls me out from myself and calls me into a right relationship with God in Christ, a relationship that is right because it is both He who secures it and He who defines what it should look like. While the sinful nature within men resists submission to anything external, the imago dei desires the oneness with God that is inseparable from submission to His will and His word.
To my fellow travelers on this journey of life, I invite you to join me on the Canterbury Trail. There you will find the historic expression of the faith once delivered to the saints, as practiced in the English-speaking tradition. It is a liturgical and sacramental journey of faith where God meets His people on His terms, but in our incarnational experience as a people who are collectively His Body, while also receiving His Body and Blood and Word in our flesh as we seek to worship and serve the Creator of all. It will look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like little else in this world, which is exactly what we should expect from worship directed toward the God who took on flesh.
The Rev. Joey Odell, Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel), U.S. Army, serves as the Regiment Chaplain for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He holds an M.Div. in Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, an M.A. in Psychology from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, and a B.S. in Chemistry from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He has been married to his wife Carrie for eighteen years, and they have fifteen children. His book, Faith is Not Blind, was published by Westbow Press in 2018.