Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Ritualism in the Anglican Church in North America

By Robin G. Jordan

Back in 2011 I posted two articles, “Liturgy and Catechism in the Anglican Church” and “Sizing Up the Worship Practices in Your Church,” which were related to a problem that I saw in both Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Mission in America—clergy who identify themselves as “evangelical” but who do not in their worship practices exhibit those characteristics historically associated with Anglican evangelicalism. These clergy exhibit what may be described as a love of ritual that from a historical standpoint has been associated with what is sometimes described as the “Catholic Reaction” of the seventeenth century and the “Catholic Revival” of the nineteenth century.

Their love of ritual is pronounced to such a degree that Gerald Bray describes them as “charismatic open evangelical ritualists.” Bray classifies them first and foremost as ritualists, then as evangelicals  but of the open variety, and last of all as charismatics.  Ritualists are individuals who display an excessive devotion to the use of ritual often without any regard to its function. Open evangelicals, while exhibiting some of the characteristics associated with evangelicalism in the Anglican Church, show a greater openness to unreformed Catholic teaching and practices than conservative evangelicals. Prominent nineteenth century evangelical leader, Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle, would have described them as “liberal evangelicals.” Charismatics are individuals who believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit did not cease with the apostolic age. They may or may not believe in a separate baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gift of speaking in tongues as proof of such baptism.

Among the concerns that I expressed in the aforementioned articles was that this particular group of clergy is not taking seriously the principle of lex orandi, lex credenda--how we pray shapes what we believe. The vestments we wear and the gestures, postures, and ceremonies we adopt carry theological freight.

The same group of clergy has been influenced by the Ancient Future Movement and the late worship garu Robert Webber or by seminar professors, bishops, and other clergy who have been influenced by them. One of the criticisms of this movement and Dr. Webber is that they promoted worship practices in a number of denominations, which had strong associations with doctrines that conflicted with what these denominations historically have believed and taught.

This particular group of clergy is not homogenous. Some of its members maintain a Protestant identity despite their ritualistic proclivities. In this regard they bear similarity to the seventeenth century Caroline High Churchmen. Others, however, are a step away from becoming full-fledged Anglo-Catholics. Indeed they may be viewed as incipient Anglo-Catholics. They are in the process of exchanging their Protestant identity for an unreformed Catholic one.

The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church in North America includes a number of this particular clergy group’s former members who have made that final step. Yet they describe themselves as “evangelical,” “evangelical Catholic,” or “High Church evangelical” The last two discriptors are oxymorons. The use of such discriptors adds to the confusion over what constitutes a genuine Anglican evangelical identity.

In addition to showing ritualistic proclivities the same clergy group confuses liturgy with ritualism. Liturgy is a form that is used in the conduct of public worship and the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Ritualism, on the other hand, is excessive devotion to the use of ritual often without any regard to its function. Liturgy and ritualism is not the same thing. A denomination may be liturgical, that is, use a fixed liturgy, without being ritualistic. A liturgy points away from itself to God. In ritualism, the use or practice of ritual becomes the focus of worship, not God.  As the article I posted yesterday points out, it reflects a particular view of the divine or the supernatural.

If you have not read “Liturgy and Catechism in the Anglican Church” and “Sizing Up the Worship Practices in Your Church,” I definitely recommend that you read them. If you have read the two articles, I recommend that you read them again. 

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