Shortly before my confirmation into the Anglican Church this summer, a friend handed me Dr. Robert E. Webber’s book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. Upon reading it, I was struck by the number of parallels between Webber and myself. Although I have never attended Bob Jones University as Webber did, I too considered myself to be an Evangelical free from denominational ties for many years before joining the Anglican Church.
While I currently consider myself to be a member of the Anglican Communion, I am something of an accidental Anglican. My family attended a variety of churches when I was young: Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, and Conservative Baptist among others. Though I considered myself to be a nondenominational Evangelical, I was confirmed into the Anglican this past July, and became heavily involved in my home church. The process seemed strange to me when I reflected upon my path, but then I discovered Dr. Webber’s book. Through reading Webber’s description of his own experiences that led to his membership in the Anglican Communion, I have come to see that my journey was not rare at all, or even uncommon.
While I often have struggled to find words to articulate how I feel about the Anglican Church, the sacraments, and the rich tradition that I have been drawn to. Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail is a clear and entertaining account that mingles Webber’s personal story with an enlightened explanation and defense of traditional liturgical worship. A former faculty member of Wheaton’s Bible and Theology department, Webber writes with the purpose of outlining the particular strengths of traditional historic church denominations, specifically the Anglican Church, rather than trying to convert everyone to a mainline church. The use of the plural “Evangelicals” in the title makes it clear that he is writing more than an autobiographical narrative; there are many Evangelicals currently walking the “old pilgrim’s trail” to Canterbury, and the book is for those on the journey, as well as those seeking to understand why their friends feel compelled to make the trip at all.
In the Preface, Webber writes, “While I cannot provide any statistics stating how many people are involved in this movement, I can say that I am overwhelmed by the number of people I meet who are either journeying the pilgrimage described in this book, or at least somewhat influenced by the concern to restore aspects of historic Christianity inadequately represented in their own church.” To illustrate this point, the book is divided into two parts. The first section explains six areas of faith and spiritual life that Webber feels are more strongly present in the Anglican Church. Those six areas consist of: a return to a more mystical form of Christianity, a form of worship that is focused on God rather than the individual, sacramental reality, a spiritual identity, a place in the catholic and universal church, and an emphasis on holistic spirituality. The second section presents the stories of six other evangelicals who felt drawn to the Anglican Church.
While many students on campus do attend Anglican or Episcopal churches near campus, such as All Souls or Church of the Resurrection, my own experience has shown that a majority of campus would consider itself to be solidly Evangelical. I view Anglicanism as a compliment to Evangelicalism, not as an exclusively separate category. Webber puts it well when he says, “Christianity is like a diamond. To see it in all of its fullness and beauty, we must see it from all of its sides. Anglicanism has a side to it that is not found within the evangelical church. And the opposite of this is true.” Anglicanism does not view itself as the one true expression of Christianity, instead as one particular reflection.
Of the six areas Webber discusses, two in particular stood out as very different from the church experience I was used to in Evangelical congregations. The first was the idea of sacramental reality. The definition given in the catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer for a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The two main sacraments, which nearly all Christians agree on, are Holy Baptism and Communion; while the Anglican Church also includes confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction as sacraments as well, the greatest surprise to me was the emphasis on the Eucharist.
In the churches I attended while growing up, I never heard anyone explain the significance behind the grape juice and wafer we all ate once a month. While I often heard terms such as “memorial,” or “reminder,” the importance of the event remained largely unknown to me. Upon attending an Anglican church, the heavy emphasis on understanding and taking communion was a refreshing change. Webber, describing his own revelation of the sacraments, writes, “…the sacraments of water and bread and wine, [The Church Fathers] said, are the visible, tangible signs of Christ’s saving action. The purpose of the sacrament is to signify Christ and thus provide a sign of his encounter with us.” The importance became clear to me. We are not merely called to remember, in a vague, intellectual way, that Christ died for us; instead we receive from Christ spiritual food and nourishment.
My increased reverence for the Eucharist as more than a remembrance fed my interest in Webber’s explanation of Christian life. I have often felt uncomfortable with the idea of theology, which has, to me, appeared to be closer to a dissection than a genuine encounter with God. Webber, describing his own foundations in rational, fact based Christianity, said of the theological proofs he learned at Bob Jones and temporarily taught in Wheaton’s classrooms, “Christianity was no longer a power to be experienced but a system to be defended.” The essence of Christianity is centered on multiple mysteries, such as the notion of the Trinity, the eternity of God and heaven, and the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. To approach these unfathomable mysteries with an air of confidence and certainty seems to directly oppose fear of the Lord. Webber describes his view of mystery by saying, “My God was no longer the God you could put on the black board or the God that was contained in a textbook, but a maverick who breaks the boxes we build for him.”
While it is not uncommon to find students on campus who consider themselves to be a part of mainline denominations, opinions seem to be rather polarized. Friends, upon learning that I became an Anglican, have occasionally asked in hushed tones, “Isn’t Anglicanism really close to Catholicism?” If Wheaton as a whole is to respond to Christ’s prayer for his church in John 17:11 “that they may be one,” it must be based in love that grows from understanding. While we are all busy challenging our assumptions about Christianity and the faith handed down to us by our parents, it is important to examine arguments in favor of a point, not just arguments intended to demolish ideas. If a Bob Jones graduate found his home in the Anglican Church, then who knows who else could?