Evangelical is a cultural buzzword in America today. For many people, the term implies a certain kind of politics. It also implies a whole range of socio-cultural phenomena from home schooling to Christian rock concerts and everything in between. None of this, however, has much to do with the word’s theological meaning. Evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion from which we get the English word Gospel. An Evangelical is a person whose life is centered on the Good News about Jesus Christ. For early Protestants, being called Evangelical was a way of identifying with the Sacrifice of the cross. In later centuries, as the Evangelical movement emerged across denominational lines, being an Evangelical meant being committed to the teaching that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, accepting the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God, and sharing the faith far and wide.
The Evangelical movement in Anglicanism began in the eighteenth century. While it quickly evolved in a number of different directions, it was essentially a renewal movement. During the preceding century, the Church of England had become lax and set in its ways. Evangelical Anglicans sought to remind the Church that the Gospel is the true center of our life, not anything else, and that the Gospel is something worth being excited about. As you might imagine, this stirred up a hornet’s nest amidst those who felt just fine about the sleepy status quo. The cries that followed against the dangers of “enthusiasm” are hard not to snicker at today. A parishioner of mine once told me that upon a visit to a parish church in England, he saw a plaque on the wall commemorating a long dead vicar of the past “who served this parish faithfully for forty years without enthusiasm.”
Charles in Charge
At its best, the early Evangelical movement in Anglicanism sought not to undermine or replace the Anglican formularies but to embrace the Evangelical spirit that was already at the heart of them. Among the great Evangelical lights of this period, Charles Simeon holds a special place. In addition to being a great preacher and evangelist, Simeon was deeply devoted to the Book of Common Prayer. In a famous series of sermons called The Excellency of the Liturgy, Simeon explains the biblical roots of liturgy in general and of the prayer book’s liturgies in particular. While he acknowledges that pastors in every church body may appeal to the Scriptures, he says that Anglican priests have a distinct “advantage” because “in addition to the Scriptures, they have other authorities to which they may refer in confirmation of the truths they utter.” Those “other authorities” are the formularies. “The Articles, Homilies, and Liturgy of the Church of England are an authorized exposition of the sense in which all her members profess to understand the Scriptures. To these therefore we appeal as well as to the sacred Records.” Amongst the formularies, the Book of Common Prayer holds place of privilege for Simeon. He argued that each piece of the liturgy for Holy Communion in particular confirms and rightly lays out the biblical teachings of grace and the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, all Anglican priests ought to conform their teaching to the prayer book’s authority:
As Members of the Church of England, we have a right to expect that the discourses of Ministers shall correspond with the Liturgy of our Church. Certainly, in the first instance, the holy Scriptures are to be our guide: but, as all profess to have the Scriptures on their side, let us bring to our aid that excellent compendium of religion which we have been considering.
Because the prayer book is in the language of the people and can be in the hands and homes of the people, Simeon believed the people ought to make use of it as a measuring stick upon which to determine the fidelity of their pastors to the Christian faith as Anglicans have received it.
Simeon was quite right to call on us to embrace the prayer book as a sure guide to Scriptural truth. A lot of young Evangelicals in Simeon’s day had little patience for the prayer book, or for authority of any kind beyond their own personal interpretations of the Scripture. Many second generation Evangelicals left the Church of England in hopes of creating new, purer churches or joining one of the “free churches.” Simeon argued passionately not only that his fellow Evangelicals need not leave but that they should not leave. It is not simply that an Evangelical can find what he wants in the prayer book tradition. It is that in the prayer book tradition, he finds the fullness of what it means to be Evangelical. This is not because the prayer book is a magical document handed down from on high, but because it contains a distilling of centuries of the Church’s teaching, honed and shaped by the best minds of each generation and the movement of the Holy Spirit. The prayer book contains the fruit of Ecumenical Councils and the scriptural teaching of the Fathers, freed from any undue burdens added by the accretions of later ages. Moreover, it is itself some eighty percent Scripture, repurposed into prayer. The prayer book is a gem of unimaginable value. It allows us to hear God’s words of grace and forgiveness to us and it gives us God’s own words to offer back to Him in worship.
The Tangible Gospel
At the heart of the prayer book is the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist in which Christ draws us to Himself. Simeon’s own conversion was intimately tied to this liturgy. As a young man in college, preparing to receive Holy Communion for the first time, he had been terrified by the realization of his own sinfulness. But after reading Bishop Thomas Wilson’s A Short and Plain Instruction for the Lord’s Supper, his eyes were opened to the beauty of grace and the fact that in the Sacrament, Jesus gives Himself freely to us even in our sin. The next time he went to receive, on Easter Sunday, 1779, Simeon heard in the words of the liturgy the “peace that passeth all understanding.” He found there the comfort that he had yearned for his whole life. Suddenly, the Sacrament was no longer a judgment but the very way in which Christ Himself had come to set him free.
To be truly Anglican is to be truly Evangelical. And as Simeon shows us, to be truly Evangelical is to be truly liturgical and sacramental. The other accoutrements of popular Evangelicalism, the music, the culture–all of that is really secondary to the freedom and comfort of God’s grace poured out for us in the preaching of the Word and the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. If the liturgy bores us, it can only be because we have forgotten what it really is, just as they had in Simeon’s day. We need men and women like Simeon today who can bring that fire back to us, reigniting in us a love for the treasures that we have inherited. It is time for the sleepy status quo to be knocked once more out of complacency. It is time to wake up.