"Rooted in the Anglican tradition"
By Stephen Andrews
Sep 11, 2023
As we prepare to receive 50 new students at the College this semester, I am once again reminded that many, if not most of our students have been drawn to Wycliffe because of our evangelical commitments and the quality of our teaching, and not because of any denominational allegiance. Those who come because we happen also to be an Anglican institution have for a number of years been in the minority, and given the demographic trajectory of the mainline churches we don’t expect Anglican students to account for more than about 40 percent of our student body anytime soon.
I regularly come across people who want to know more about our identity as an Anglican college. We are not the official seminary of the Anglican Church of Canada or the Diocese of Toronto (there are eight Anglican seminaries across the country, and Trinity College has been linked to the Diocese of Toronto since 1841). But we like to say that we are "rooted in the Anglican tradition.” For roots both anchor and feed in important ways.
So, what are the roots of the "Anglican tradition?" Let me briefly identify seven features.
- It is a Reformed tradition – Anglicanism is a product of the sixteenth-century Reformation that sought to redress erroneous doctrine and the abuse of power invested in the Pope. Its Protestantism is, however, eclectic, borrowing as it does from other traditions like Lutheranism and Calvinism, and adopting the humanism of scholars like Erasmus and Zwingli. One of the consequences of this is that the Anglican tradition is not confessional. While being thoroughly creedal, no adherence to anything like the Westminster Standards, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Augsburg Confession is required for membership in the Anglican Church.
- It is a biblical tradition – The Reformation is itself a product of Bible reading and the conviction that holy Scripture is “God’s Word written.” Anglican reformers believed that the Bible should become the possession of the whole Church and not just the priesthood. Tyndale’s determination to ensure that “the boy that drives the plough [should come to] know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself” led him to translate the Bible into plain English, and this is one of the reasons more Scripture is read in Anglican worship services than in many other Christian traditions.
- It is a liturgical tradition – The English reformers rejected erroneous Roman Catholic doctrine, but they kept many of its forms of devotion, and some of the prayers most familiar to Anglicans come from the earliest days of the Church’s existence. While the shape of modern liturgy has evolved – to the extent that there is now very little uniformity in Anglican worship – a family resemblance can still be recognised in the focus on the ordered reading of Scripture (often including congregational responses), in standardised forms for confession of sin and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, in the offering of absolution and blessing, and in the observance of a liturgical calendar.
- It is a continuous, episcopal tradition – While the Church in England broke politically from Rome, it nevertheless retained an episcopal order and thus traces its genealogy to the practices of the ancient Church. At the same time, as the Wycliffe College Six Principles state, “Non-Anglicans should note that [subscription to the principle of the historic episcopate] does not assert the exclusive validity of an episcopal polity." Consequently, Anglicans respect and enjoy fellowship with a number of non-episcopal traditions.
- It is a synodical tradition – While the Anglican Church has not been immune to the abuses of clericalism, its governance is undertaken by synods in which the laity take an active role in the Church’s administration.
- It is an intellectually curious tradition – Anglicans are drawn to historical and theological debate because of a conviction that “truth is larger and more beautiful than our imperfect minds are able to apprehend or to conceive," states Stephen Neill. One of the greatest virtues of Anglicanism therefore is what J. I. Packer called “a rational temper,” a willingness to stay in dialogue with those from whom we differ, until intellect, conscience, and will become persuaded that we have reached a better understanding of the mind of Christ.
- It is a global tradition – The product of a Catholic mission from Rome to the British Isles in the seventh century, Anglicanism has an evangelistic legacy. Wycliffe College itself has played an important role in the global reach of the gospel, and today the Anglican Communion is the largest Christian fellowship after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, with 85 million members organised into a web of 42 autonomous and independent – yet simultaneously interdependent – churches spread across the globe, and each in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The national, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of its members makes for a rich engagement with the work of God’s Church around the world.
Well, much more could be said about the distinctiveness of the Anglican tradition among the many other church traditions that surround us, but let me conclude with one conviction I strongly hold in this matter.
At its best, Anglicanism is a way of being the Church that possesses its own integrity as part of both the Catholic and Reformed traditions; it is a place where Scripture is read deeply and respectfully by the lights of those who have gone before us in the way of Christ; it features a way of worship that resonated with the ancient Church and that still resonates today; and it is a global Church, uniting us with a family resembling those who will gather before the throne of the Lamb at the end of time (Revelation 7:9). To describe the Anglican tradition in this way is not to be triumphalist, but rather a way of suggesting that Christendom, like the Body of Christ, is made up of a variety of parts or charisms, and that Anglicanism is itself a charism – a gift – and a beautiful part of Christ’s Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church here on earth.