The Christian formation of my younger years was nourished in that most peculiar of settings: the evangelical institution known as “youth group.” Anyone who has participated in such a ministry will perhaps understand why I look back at that time both with bemusement and gratitude. But my primary intention here is not to criticize the institution nor to tell tales of my less than dissolute youth. It is rather to lift up and re-utilize a constant and admirable call at many such youth events, whose refrain takes up words, probably all too familiar to those of us from evangelical backgrounds, words paraphrased from Rev 2:4: “Return to your first love.”
Though it seems odd to say so after spending the better part of a decade in Anglicanism, I am still a relative newcomer to the tradition. I can still remember, though, the zeal with which I first joined. This will perhaps be surprising to some as “zeal” and “Anglicanism” are not often associated in people’s minds. Many imagine instead that the churches stemming from the Church of England are characterized instead by a sort of ho-hum, slog-it-through, middle-class respectability, minimal-gusto approach to the Christian life. That sort of mindset, though, is not what attracted me to Anglicanism, nor is it what preserves me within its borders, nor is it remotely what I would identify as the character of any of the churches within the Anglican Communion, despite common perceptions otherwise.
No, what attracted me to Anglicanism was a mix of other things. I took pride in the strength of its theologians, whether evangelical, catholic, or liberal in persuasion, both those writing now and those whose works have long adorned Christian shelves. I admired the beauty of its common liturgical heritage, from the sober restraint of the traditional Prayer Book to the extravagant splendor of Anglo-Catholic observance. I was comforted by its conscious focus on the centrality of Holy Scripture, as interpreted in light of tradition and with the tools of reason. I marveled at the great and yet unified diversity of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It was hard to imagine a richer tradition, and I’m sure that I am not the only person to have first loved Anglicanism for these features, among others.
But I have found that these features of Anglicanism, which are among its chief glories … well, they are all too easy to forget. Not only do we sometimes succumb to the popular representation of Anglicanism as a sort of drab religion for the self-consciously respectable, with few real expectations and even fewer demands, but we also fail to sustain interest in our common life, practice, and tradition when nothing particularly “exciting” is going on.
Allow me an illustration, based on a metric which can be deceptive, but which I think is still important to consider. I am not only a general reader of Anglican blogs, among other electronic media, but I also try to keep an eye on how frequently people post on them, as well as the sort of topics that recur with some noticeable regularity. And while I have no hard statistics, I have to say anecdotally that I notice the greatest flurry of activity occurs in the midst of our controversies. A new statement comes from someone in the Church of England about women bishops, or a development occurs in North America regarding same-sex unions, or a liturgical event of some bizarre nature occurs (Canine Communion, anyone?). Then, lo and behold, the whole web of online Anglican sources and readers begins to thrum with impassioned commentary, denouncements and praise all mingled together like the voice of many waters.
But what about the rest of the time? In the daily and weekly round of activity, as one liturgical season revolves into another, as the minute and magnificent events of life unfold around us, what happens to those lively networks of discourse?
They seem to fall silent. Rarely does one find the Anglican blogger, putting forth with regularity some commentary on the readings of the Daily Office, writing set pieces on the liturgical inheritance, or bringing forth treasures from the bounteous supply of spiritual writers in the English tradition. Why is this? Do we not say to each other, often even, that the great strength of Anglicanism is its ability to sustain the day-to-day? And yet we fall silent much of the time, especially online, a fact which ought to give us pause. No wonder we have such an odd public face. We only make noise about our squabbles.
Of course, as someone who has engaged in pastoral ministry, I have other concerns as well. I often wonder whether other sorts of observance also slacken in the quiet times. That is, do we only read the Daily Office when engaged in some great struggle in the Church? Do we ransack the Scriptures and the writings of theologians ancient and modern, only when we need to utilize them in some theological battle?
I hope not. I would like to think that we have not become so warped by our passions and by a reliance on our controversies to sustain our interest in one another, in Anglican forms of Christian faith, and, ultimately, in Christ. But I fear we may have. And so I must recall to us all, those resonant words from Christ: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love.”
Remember what first drew you to Anglican Christianity or what has kept you here for so many years. Take time to pick up again the great masterworks of Herbert or Ramsey, Cosin or Keble, particularly in this Lenten season, for it is never too late to start. And remember that love for the brethren which ought to characterize our Christian conversation. Indeed, love even that conversation, whether online or off, so much so that you are willing to engage in it with some regularity, not simply when events of apparent catastrophe force you to. “Do the deeds you did at first” (Rev. 4:5), and persevere in them, for your own good and for the good of the whole Church.