Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Making Anglicanism accessible

By J. West

An important issue for Anglican parishes is incorporating those unfamiliar with our liturgy (or language) into our churches. At the same time, Anglo-Catholics want to do so without diminish from the mystery and reverence that were reclaimed by the Oxford Movement and often the reasons why people seek out Anglicanism in the first place.

In my second year lay ministry class last month, only two of us (plus our rector) were childhood Anglicans. At Christ Church Waco, only four of the adults (and only one of the four five priests) was raised Anglican.

This is very different from when I joined the Episcopal Church at age 8 in a previous century. (My dad was Presbyterian, mom Episcopalian and we switched for good when we moved to Palm Springs). But it's not exactly a new phenomenon: Robert Webber, a formerly Baptist theology professor at Wheaton College, wrote about this in his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.

The topic of accessibility came up today in the monthly call of a church planting committee I belong to. How do we explain what we are doing — and why — to someone who’s never been in a liturgical church before? We compared notes of our parishes and those we’d visited, but in the end it came down to three options. From least to most intrusive:
  1. Add a written explanation to the service booklet — whether a weekly seat bulletin or a preprinted liturgy booklet.
  2. Make remarks at the beginning of the service — either weekly or on special occasions such as a change of liturgical seasons — about what we are doing and why.
  3. Insert transitional remarks during the service every week so people know what’s happening at all times.
The third option feels wrong to me: although I lack both the formal training or clerical experience to justify that opinion, it seems more like the evangelical churches that are more focused on presenting a service for the seeker than growing and deepening the faith of the believers. However, I know the priest who uses this approach has good reasons for doing so, and the character of his (charismatic-flavored) Anglican parish is very different than the bells-and-smells high church where I’m a member.

The final point is that church planters are entrepreneurs. Being entrepreneurial means trying experiments, and by definition some experiments won’t work; also, in my experience, parishioners are more tolerant of experiments and mistakes in a young (or rapidly growing) church that hasn’t done something before. So — as with everything else — it’s really up to the planter to try things that work in his particular context, and get prompt feedback to change things if they’re not working.

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