So you’ve studied, read, and prayed, and you’ve come to the conclusion that classical Anglicanism is the truth. So now you want to join a church that’s part of the classical Anglican tradition. How exactly do you do that? It isn’t as easy as it should be.
First of all, the Anglicanism that most people are exposed to around the world today is not purely classical Anglicanism. It is Anglicanism that has been filtered through the lens of the nineteenth century and the rise of church parties. Often, the flavor of churchmanship in a particular country is determined by which set of missionaries first established an Anglican presence there. And in theologically mixed churches, like the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, individual dioceses and even individual parishes can be radically different from one another, depending on whether they would call themselves Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, Broad Church, Liberal, Charismatic, or something else entirely. This does not mean that you will not encounter classical Anglicanism in a church that comes from one of these party perspectives, but it is often the case that a church’s party affiliation trumps its affiliation with Anglicanism. You show up expecting to hear preaching and teaching that reflects the principles of the 39 Articles and instead receive teaching from the Roman Catholic Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, or whatever slick book the individual priest happens to have been reading that week.
This presents a huge problem for lay people who have been learning about classical Anglicanism and assume, quite understandably, that if it says “Anglican” or “Episcopal” on the sign outside than it is going to teach the Anglican faith inside. I get notes on a regular basis from frustrated lay people who want to know how they can find a parish where they can become classical Anglicans and not merely Anglicans in name. There are people out there hungry for the Gospel as Anglicanism historically preached it, and yet nominally Anglican churches are often woefully ill equipped to respond to these seekers when they walk through the front door on a Sunday morning.
This problem is compounded in North America because a succession of schisms in the last hundred years has produced numerous church bodies claiming to be authentic Anglicanism all occupying the same space. How does one navigate the alphabet soup between TEC, ACNA, AMiA, REC, ACC, and others?
I’m afraid I don’t have a very good answer to this question. The divisions amongst us are shameful, as are the ways in which we have allowed Anglicanism to be co-opted and held hostage by various theological movements. The first order of business for Anglicans around the world today ought to be a strenuous effort at theological education that trains clergy to understand and teach classical Anglicanism.
But in the mean time, how can a lay person determine whether any given parish is the right place to be? Well, first and foremost, I would look at the parish website. Then, I would pay the parish a visit, preferably on a Sunday morning, although a week day service may also provide a good opportunity since the place will be less crowded and the priest may have more of an opportunity to speak with you. Any priest worth his salt will want to meet with you after you have attended worship, to get to know you and to allow you the opportunity to ask questions about the parish. When you get to that stage and you’re sitting in the priest’s office, here are a few questions that I would ask if I were in your shoes:
1) Do you believe that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead and that it’s only through faith in Him that our sins are forgiven and we come to be saved?
It is appalling that we live in an age when we cannot take the answer to this question for granted, but there we are. If the answer to this is anything other than an unqualified “yes,” turn around and walk right back out the door. This is a good question to ask because it saves you time on having to ask a whole bunch of other questions about the creeds, the scriptures, etc. If the answer to this question is yes, you can be pretty well assured that the answers to all those other questions will be the right ones.
2) Does the worship in this parish come straight out of the Book of Common Prayer and do you view the prayer book as an authority over what you can and cannot teach?
It is not necessary for every single service to be a prayer book service. In fact, there are certain special services, like the Stations of the Cross or the blessing of a home, that require a different book. Nevertheless, the basic content of a normal Sunday service ought to be coming from the Book of Common Prayer, even if it has been augmented to include a few extra things that are consistent with it. The style of worship may vary dramatically. One parish may have a praise band while another has an organ and a vested choir. One may have incense and extra processions while another may have a long, expository sermon or a chance to receive the laying on of hands for healing. All of that is secondary. The use of the prayer book, both as an essential form of worship and as an authoritative source of doctrine, is mandatory if the parish is going to be able to claim to be authentically Anglican.
3) Do you believe in the faith as it is taught by the 39 Articles?
Here you may find that the priest wants to start to explain or make certain distinctions about his understanding of the theology of the Articles. This is fine, up to a point. The Articles have been understood in more than one way over the centuries, and it is possible for people to have a good faith disagreement over the interpretation of one point or another within them. What you want to beware of is the priest who says that the Articles were a nice document that formed part of our history but that they do not have any relevance or authority today. Similarly, watch out for interpretations of the Articles that go beyond the plain grammatical sense of the words themselves.
4) Do you believe in justification by faith alone?
Again, there are multiple ways to articulate this doctrine, so be prepared for the priest to offer an explanation. The priest may very well want to move from the topic of justification into the less well defined topic of sanctification, which is fine. The thing to be cautious about is the priest who is unwilling or unable to affirm that he believes in the doctrine of justification at all.
5) Do you believe that Holy Baptism really does wash away our sins and make us one with Jesus? Do you believe that in the Holy Eucharist Jesus Christ is really and truly present and that we really and truly receive His Body and Blood?
There should be no quibbling about the first of these. Baptism either saves or it doesn’t, and if the priest believes that it doesn’t then what the priest teaches is not Anglicanism. On the second question, as to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, the priest may wish to explain or to offer some caveats about how he understands the Real Presence. What you need to be assured is that he believes, unequivocally, that Jesus is present in the Eucharist and that when you come forward in faith you truly partake of His Body and Blood. Any hint that this is all symbolic or that it is just meant to remind us of what Jesus has done for us and not to actually give us Jesus, and you can bet that classical Anglicanism has no place in that parish.
In the current state of Anglicanism, if you can get good answers to all of the above, you’re way ahead of the curve. Nevertheless, as a bonus question, you may wish to ask this:
Bonus: Do you believe in the necessity of bishops in the Church?
I say “bonus” not because I think that the answer to this is unimportant, but because it is so very difficult to find Anglican clergy today who will give a full-throated defense of this basic theological principle, even if they are sound, classical Anglicans in every other way. Now, very few Anglican priests will tell you that having bishops is bad, and most will tell you that maintaining the historic, apostolic succession is a good thing, but they may lose their nerve when the question comes around to whether or not having bishops is essential. Some small amount of equivocation on this point shouldn’t rule the parish out for you, especially if the answers to all the questions above have been the right ones. After all, whether the priest believes in the absolute necessity of bishops or not, if he is an Anglican he has to be in relationship with a bishop somewhere, which means that your connection as a lay person to the historic episcopate is secure. Still, if you get a priest who is willing to say, without a doubt, that episcopacy is necessary in the life of the Church, it is time to celebrate, because you have found yourself a truly authentic, truly Episcopalian, truly classical Anglican.
Respect the Priest
All of that said, I wouldn’t recommend walking into the priest’s office with a print-out of this and a pencil to check each item off. It’s best to allow for these questions to come up in the flow of a natural conversation. Remember, the priest is trying to find out as much about you as you’re trying to find out about him. After all, it’s a big deal for him if you decide to become a part of his parish, not just because it means one more body in the pew that he can count towards the average Sunday attendance, but because it means one more person whose soul he is responsible for. He is quite literally placing himself under judgment by welcoming you in, so be kind and avoid being adversarial, even if the answers you get to these questions are not what you would hope to hear.
The last and most important thing to do before joining that new parish of your dreams is to pray about it. Ask God’s blessing upon the priest you have spoken with, upon the people of the parish, upon the bishop, and upon you that you may have the clarity with which to see whether this is God’s calling for you or not. In the state of things today, you may have to drive some distance to get to a classically Anglican parish, but it is worth it if you can be assured that you are in a place where the Word is truly preached and the Sacraments are truly celebrated and received.