The Greatness of the Anglican Church

It is easy to beat up on the Anglican Communion these days, and especially its American wing, the Episcopal Church. But we ought to keep in mind that the Anglican Church has been a remarkable 500-year experiment in combining the best of the Christian heritage with the distinctive insights of the Protestant Reformation. Anglicans have blessed the larger Christian community in many ways. The chief reason that the Anglican Church continues to deserve our respect and supportive prayers is that it has been a remarkable effective missionary church. And rumors of its death may be greatly exaggerated.

Years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of Anglican Christians worldwide (and of Episcopalians in America) decided to visit the Anglican faithful in my home province of Saskatchewan, Canada. Our frigid, windswept and under-populated (did I also add beautiful?) province was not regularly visited by world-class celebrities, so the capital city was abuzz with plans for a real ecclesiastical extravaganza. The Center of the Arts, the biggest venue for hundreds of miles, was booked for the event. Local dignitaries lined up, volunteers signed up, choirs rehearsed, baked goods were promised, and all manner of liturgical paraphernalia was assembled.

When the big day finally came, the thing that surprised me most was the amazing number of busloads of First Nations Canadians (called natives or Indians by some Americans) who showed up from towns and reservations all through the north. The parking lot filled up with them. These First Canadians sang and danced and drummed in that haunting, hypnotic way of theirs to the glory of God. It had never dawned on me before that so many aboriginal Canadians would be Anglicans.

But then I remembered that just about every First Nations hamlet in Canada (whether Cree, Chipewyan or Inuit) has a little Anglican church, and most of these buildings have been there for a very long time. That’s because back in the nineteenth century the Anglicans (the Church of England), and their visionary Church Missionary Society (CMS) were among the most missionary-minded people on earth. One of their greatest bishops, William Carpenter Bompas by name, traveled clear up to the Arctic Circle by dog-team and the like. Severe hunger once forced him to cook and eat his own leather moccasins, and this was an educated man whose supreme indulgence was to study his Greek Bible by candlelight on a wintry night in a makeshift igloo. Those intrepid Anglicans were made of stern stuff back then.

It is easy to beat up on the Anglican Communion these days, and its American wing, the Episcopal Church, in particular. Frankly, it deserves some of the scorn heaped upon it in those British Monty Python sketches, and more recently by sneering evangelicals from other denominations. Sadly, some people seem drawn to positions of Anglican leadership less by biblical conviction and the call to costly Christian discipleship, and more by the appeal of dressing up in fancy vestments and having people kiss their ring. Some may be more excited by the way their organ bench vibrates when they press the bass pedals than they are by the power of the Gospel to transform lives. We are embarrassed by the turf wars now between bishops, as though we were talking about Coca-Cola protecting its market share against intrusions by Pepsi.

But these are recent aberrations. The Anglican Church has been a remarkable historic experiment in combining the best of the Christian heritage with the distinctive insights of the Protestant Reformation. It has bequeathed to the English-speaking world through its greatest literary productions, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the fundamental grammar of our faith and our worship. It has given us such giants like the abolitionist William Wilberforce and countless hymns like Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” It has inspired the poetry of John Donne and the imaginative genius of C. S. Lewis. In our own generation it has give us the statesmanlike moral leadership of John Stott. And it continues to provide a refuge for that minority of sincere Christians from other fellowships who have grown weary of banal sermons and tawdry church services, and want to reconnect before they die with the rich texture of the Scripture, and the deeper realities of tradition and beauty.

But the chief reason the Anglican Church continues to deserve our respect and supportive prayers is that it has been a remarkable effective missionary church. The most Christian nations in Africa—Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria among them—owe their faith chiefly to the ardent, sacrificial efforts of foreign and national Anglicans. The Anglicans of the nineteenth century seized the opportunities afforded by the reach of the British Empire to expand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Go to Hong Kong or Singapore even today, and you will find that some of the most vibrant churches are Anglican.

Two weeks ago I re-visited the oil-rich Islamic Sultanate of Brunei on the north-west coast of Borneo. The extravagance of the Brunei government manifests itself in opulent mosques throughout this small nation, but Christians meanwhile are severely restricted to just a couple of church buildings, and denied building permits for new ones. One of their few surviving edifices in Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan is the modest St. Andrews Anglican Church—among the first ever to gain a toe-hold in this remote part of the world. And now it generously makes its facilities available to a stream of homeless Christian fellowships each Sunday. Filipino, Chinese and Iban tribal churches, among others—and few of them Anglican themselves—are allowed to cycle through this little Anglican church due to the Christian hospitality of its congregation.

Last week I was in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province of East Malaysia, also on the island of Borneo. There I met, among others, a remarkable Chinese Christian doctor who has devoted his career to medical work in this region, mainly as a “tent-making” means of participating in Christian outreach efforts to native people in the surrounding jungle. Former head-hunters have become Christians on a massive scale, despite the fact that Malaysia remains officially Muslim. Many of the conversions occurred during remarkable “people movements” toward Christian faith during revivals in the 1970s and 1980s. This articulate University of London-trained physician was in the midst of all this from the beginning—being blessed by it and contributing to its stability and maturation.

How did this doctor ever end up in Sarawak? As he explained it to me, it was in London while in medical school that he began attending All Souls’ Anglican Church. There the preaching of the rector John Stott captured his heart and fueled his resolve to give his life for the things that mattered most. It’s just another—dare I say it, typical—global Anglican story. Certainly the final chapter of this remarkable 500-year old tale has not yet been written. May we dare to hope that Mark Twain’s wry comment may prove applicable to our Anglican brothers and sisters and their communion as well: “Rumors of [their] death have been greatly exaggerated.”

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