What is it that causes a Baptist of forty years, particularly a Southern Baptist, to switch communions? Simply put, there’s no simple answer, easy proof text, or sole theological argument. For me, it’s the coalescence of a web of convictions and life experiences. Even so, I don’t think my transition comes from a misunderstanding, or lack of appreciation for my Baptist roots. If someone might boast in their Baptist heritage, I more, or at least as much: progressing from Royal Ambassadors through three Baptist schools, the last of them the flagship school of the SBC, Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. I understand the theological identity of Baptists, and my journey to Anglicanism is not a repudiation of everything my Baptist upbringing taught me. Nevertheless, as far as theological distinctives go, I’m no longer Baptist.
At the broadest level, I embrace Anglicanism because it potentially expresses the balance and continuity of classic Christianity. I say “potentially” only to acknowledge that Anglicanism, like Southern Baptists, houses conflicting perspectives that often fail to meet this ideal. Yet, from my perspective, the Anglican Church in North America, the communion I belong to, does capture a significant measure of orthodox Christianity’s catholic balance and historical continuity. I think Baptists could learn to value some of these distinctives, and joyfully acknowledge many do. But, certainly, to embrace the whole package is to cease to be Baptist.
Specifically, I believe Anglicanism embraces the best of both Protestantism and Catholicism. By Catholicism I mean ancient and medieval Christianity before the rise of what church historian Philip Schaff calls Romanism. With Schaff, I see Romanism as a deviant tradition, separating from all other communions by continuing to affirm Trent and the novel (anti-catholic) teachings of Vatican l on papal infallibility. If this distinction is kept in mind, I believe it’s easier to see how Anglicanism potentially embodies the true catholic ideal in terms of balance and continuity. By maintaining the older order of ministry (i.e. bishops, priests, and deacons), the ancient forms of liturgy, and the classical creeds, while fusing these with the evangelical emphasis on grace and the gospel, Anglicanism, at least to my mind, unites the best of the Western Christian Tradition.
Consequently, Anglicanism, more than my Baptist heritage, gives me a deeper sense of belonging to the church universal. The liturgical year reminds me that I’m a part of the ancient, worldwide communion. When I embody worship through liturgy, sign the cross, offer the prayers, and participate in the Eucharist, not only do I express greater unity with other traditions (esp. Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox), but I gain a deeper sense of union with Christ’s people throughout history. This liturgical rhythm rescues me from the contemporary spell that blinds the present to the wisdom of the past in favor of all things new and faddish. On the contrary, the liturgy renews my faith in the present by teaching me to inhabit the redemptive acts of the past.
It’s this catechizing spirit of Anglican worship that I find so compelling. Anglicanism teaches its theology so thoroughly through the Prayer Book that over time I sense the great truths of the faith shaping my approach to God. I especially value the Trinitarian shape of Anglican liturgy because it’s so vital for maintaining worship that is distinctively Christian. While my Baptist friends embrace orthodoxy, it seldom shapes their pattern of worship. Occasionally, the Threefold Name gets a sound bite at baptisms. Beyond that, their belief in the Trinity remains entombed in article II of the Baptist Faith and Message, neatly displayed like a museum piece in the vestibule. But by the end of the liturgy I’ve heard the gospel and expressed my response, all in language that is explicitly Trinitarian. To my mind, this better embodies Paul’s charge to pay attention to the pattern of sound words, to guard the good deposit (2 Tim 1:13).
Another godsend of Anglicanism, in my view, is that it upholds the church’s ancient commitment to both Word and Sacrament. As a Baptist, I grew tired of always seeing the Lord’s Table vacant below the pulpit. Once, at a church I had attended for over a year, I asked about communion. The response came with indifferent tones and then slightly agitated stares. I began to see that Baptists, like many evangelical traditions emerging after the Reformation, so emphasize preaching that they lose the balance and continuity of classic Christianity. We need to remember that for the first millennium and a half of church history, from Christ’s resurrection until the Reformation, when Christians met, they met to commune together in the holy mystery of Christ in bread and wine. I rejoice that the Bible remains central, permeating the service, interpreting and sanctifying the Table. But I rejoice all the more that Anglicanism embodies the balance of classic Christianity by keeping the Eucharist as the high point of our gathering.
I think John Henry Newman exaggerates when he says, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Nevertheless I do think gaining an appreciation for the church’s great Tradition is one of the factors that drew me to Anglicanism. Of course there are other important factors I could mention, but that would make this long post even longer. In short, I embrace the catholic balance and historical continuity of orthodox Christianity as a defining conviction. Others who come to similar convictions may not embody them by making the same transition. But for me, Anglicanism meets these convictions in a way my Baptist heritage could not without compromising the integrity of its own theological convictions.