From Dort to Canterbury
Last August, my family and I transitioned into Anglicanism, and I began the process of ordination to the priesthood. For the last several months we have been fully immersed in an environment that is about as Anglican as it can possibly get here in the United States. At Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the Daily Offices are prayed every single day in chapel without exception. A Benedictine way of life is inhabited (as best we can, by God’s grace). Hymns and chants that were once foreign to me now are becoming second nature. We even, on occasion, celebrate weird English holidays that I’d never heard of before.
Prior to this tradition and this place, I was a Commissioned Pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. I didn’t serve in the capacity of a senior pastor, but I did hold an ordained office within the denomination, as I worked with youth and functioned as an associate pastor of sorts.
Not too long after my family and I decided to make the decision (or, rather, sensed a call to it), I was asked to write out my personal perspective on what I perceived to be some of the major differences between my Reformed background and the Anglican tradition. The request came during one of the initial parts of my ordination process. This article is a slightly adapted excerpt from the response I wrote last summer, minus the introductory bits. Even though it was written before I officially came under the Anglican umbrella, I am not sure I would change my response much if I were asked again today.
Certainly, what is presented here is just a short outline compared to the many distinctions that I could’ve listed. This response is not meant to be exhaustive in nature or anything close to it. Nor is this meant to be an upfront theological critique. It is much more pragmatic in nature. I am not critiquing Calvinism as a worldview per se, but rather the institutions that blossom out of the worldview (namely confessionalism, its tradition(s), polity, liturgy, etc.). I am also aware that many other people who have trodden a path similar to mine would choose to respond differently than I have, by either hardening or softening their reactions. My response, however, lists the things that were significant to me at the time the question was posed, and they are still pertinent to me now.
I decided to post this because authors for this site are encouraged to share their spiritual journeys for this online community. I have just come through, and in many ways am still experiencing, a season of major spiritual and theological transition. I am also posting this for any dissatisfied Calvinists who may be out there, with the hopes that this article can help them articulate some of the misgivings that they have about their own tradition. Lastly, I am also posting this for the devout adherents of a specifically Calvinistic denomination who will read this, think I am a total loon, and feel just as convicted as they ever have to stay right where they are. I am not seeking to trigger denominational wanderlust, and most Calvinists I have known would be repulsed by the thought of becoming Episcopalian. I simply would be grateful to any Calvinist who reads this and merely seeks to empathize with its content, even if they find themselves staunchly disagreeing with me.
That said, I hope the reader will understand that I am not seeking to villainize either Calvinism or Calvinists. My time serving as a Calvinist pastor and running in Calvinist circles was invaluable to me, especially the time I was able to spend ministering to and with youth. The whole experience was extremely formative for me, and I learned a lot from my time in the tradition. I merely seek here to spell out those things that became irreconcilably problematic for me as time went on.
An important note: there are certainly Anglicans who are also Calvinists, like J.I. Packer. Again, this is not so much a response to Calvinism as a worldview as it is to Calvinism manifested in its own peculiar denominational and institutional forms. I will save the debate as to whether one can be a Calvinist and a true Anglican for other folks who like to debate such things.
With that in mind, here are the 4 major distinctions between Anglicanism and the Reformed tradition that were significant to me both then and now:
Personally, I like the fact that Anglicanism embraces many theological flavors. I have met Anglo-Catholics, Wesleyan Anglicans, Calvinistic Anglicans, Catholic (big “C”) -leaning Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox-leaning Anglicans. For those with a heart for ecumenism, it would be impossible not to love a tradition which can be so theologically and intellectually diverse while somehow finding a way to keep it all together (for the most part, at least). With such diversity, things can certainly be messy, but I believe it is a mess worth dealing with. I don’t look at my son’s toys scattered all over the living room floor and think to myself, “I wish I didn’t have a kid.” In the same way, I don’t look at the untidy theological nature of the Anglican tradition and say to myself, “I wish these various strands didn’t exist.”
I love that the church is united through its liturgical, episcopal and eucharistic life, not by some semi-modern confession. The Reformed tradition on the other hand is heavily and narrowly confessional. Officeholders in the Christian Reformed Church have to sign an agreement saying that they adhere to the Three Forms of Unity, which are the three confessions/catechisms (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort and the Heidelberg Catechism). I have always taken issue with this, because it causes people to rely upon their own intellectual conceptions rather than the relational reality of the Church, which makes faith expression knowledge-centric rather than communion-centric.
This type of confessionalism also raises an important question: what about those who are not intellectually capable of understanding these confessions? Where is their place in the confessional understanding of church unity?
Furthermore, I think that few will disagree that the Canons of Dort (aka “T.U.L.I.P.”) are particularly hard to swallow, making it difficult to claim total adherence to their claims. There are certain aspects of the confession that can be found to be agreeable. The details of the Canons, however, are a bit much to take, especially the doctrines popularly summarized as “Irresistable Grace” and “Limited Atonement.” Others would argue that “Total Depravity” is heterodox as well, pending on the angle you approach it from. But an office bearer is called to adhere to the totality of the document, difficult details and all.
I also really struggled with the feeling that the Christian tradition has said more than can be summarized in three documents within one relatively small tradition. It doesn’t help things that two of the three forms (Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort) were written as reactionary documents, responding to particular circumstances during very specific time periods in the life of one part of the Calvinist tradition. It is hard to promise to bind oneself intellectually to something that was the product of very specific reactionary debates that occurred around 400 years ago.
The Creeds (Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed) of the church have a way of transcending time, even though they were firmly produced within history. The Reformed confessions, however, don’t have that same transcendental pull. After I read the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort, I feel as though I am being groomed to debate a medieval pope or theologically thwart a pesky Arminian. I do not feel like I’m being molded to express a Gospel message which spans the ages and summarizes a universal faith. Granted, creeds and confessions are very different: creeds were never meant to be used in a confessional way (even though, unfortunately, many use them for this purpose). Where confessions are meant to construct unity, the Creeds articulate a pre-existing unity.
I also appreciate the historical focus of Anglicanism. Not only does it seek to embrace a wide spectrum of theological flavors, it also fully acknowledges the Spirit’s work throughout the whole panorama of church history. In other words, Anglicanism is much more prone to highly treasure the church fathers and the saints of the medieval era and to see the Reformation as an actual reforming of the Catholic faith, rather than its destruction. Even though there are some in the Reformed tradition who teach that the projet of the Reformation was the renewal of the Catholic faith, not the disposal of it, (such as James K.A. Smith, J. Todd Billings, Herman Bavinck, A.A. Van Ruler), people in the congregations and many pastors do not operate by this notion whatsoever.
Instead, I have found that the majority of the Reformed people I know, CRC and otherwise, have developed a severe allergy to anything that bears any resemblance whatsoever to Catholicism (big “C” and little “c” are both applicable here) in their minds. For example, they would be utterly shocked if their pastor pronounced an absolution after the confession of sin rather than a simple assurance of pardon, even though Reformed figures such as John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper put the absolution in their liturgies. They would also be shocked to learn that some of their Reformed heroes—like, again,Calvin and Kuyper—actually saw merit in parts of the monastic vocation and the habits monasticism embodies.
This allergy to any and all things Catholic has several negative side effects for both theology and liturgy
Theologically, things like the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, the Ascension, and the Trinity are severely neglected in the minds of most of the Reformed people that I know. Much emphasis is placed on Jesus, his cross and occasionally his Resurrection. The other members of the Trinity seem to be little more than an afterthought, however, and other significant events in Jesus’ life are often left in the background if they are acknowledged at all. Don’t get me wrong: being Christocentric and cross-centric is necessary to all things in the Christian life, but this need not be to detriment of the other members of the Trinity, nor to a full and comprehensive Christology.
This attitude also affects the Reformed faith liturgically. As I mentioned above, Calvin and Kuyper pronounced absolution over their congregations after corporate confession was made, but I don’t know of any Reformed church that does this anymore. Anti-Catholic sensibilities have not only caused them to alter the ancient Western Rites, but also the actual historic Reformed liturgies as they’ve been handed down.
Furthermore, I know of Reformed pastors who are chided as being “too Catholic” whenever they simply have their congregations sing Psalms (even from their own psalter), chant ancient hymns, or incorporate litanies into the service. I incorporated the Great Litany into a service once, and a small group of people (who grew up in the denomination) were deeply troubled by this. Little did they know that I used their denomination’s version of the Great Litany. They never gave me the chance, even, to explain. They were disturbed by the repetition in the prayer and the fact that we were praying for people across the world that we didn’t actually know. It all seemed much “too Catholic” for them. All I could think was, “Yes, that is pretty much the point.” I was at an utter loss. To be clear, I wasn’t trying to Romanize everything. I was simply trying to help reconnect them with something that came from their own tradition and that partly had its origins in ancient practices.
In the Reformed tradition, the way in which the liturgy is done seems to be entirely up to the individual discretion of the current minister or, more alarmingly, the song leader. The shape of the actual service is up for grabs. The various components can be pieced together however one wants. I am all for innovation and for doing creative things in worship to an extent, but we risk innovating ourselves out of the shape of the liturgical way of worship that God has given us through his Holy Word and through history. Something like detaching intercessory prayer for the world or the offertory from the Eucharistic liturgy and placing them elsewhere in the service (or leaving them out altogether) dramatically changes how we are formed in prayer and how worship is expressed liturgically. I heartily agree with the Anglican liturgical scholar, Dom Gregory Dix, that whenever we change the shape of the liturgy we are actually altering its meaning (see his excellent book “The Shape of the Liturgy”). The liturgy is given to us not just so that we can keep good order in our services, but so that the way in which worship is done actually points us to and helps us to embody the Kingdom of God. I have heard several liturgical theologians claim that the liturgy itself is an icon of the Kingdom come. Thus, if we change the liturgy’s shape we actually change the image of the Kingdom we are portraying and promoting in our worship.
Another major distinction is polity. Like most Calvinist denominations, the Christian Reformed Church does not have bishops. Rather, it is elder-led. Elders are broken down into two groups: a) teaching elders (i.e. pastors) and, b) ruling elders (lay leaders). I have never been a fan of this type of polity—and, based on my personal experience, this type of leadership just doesn’t work well. On a congregational and classis (regional) level, elders oscillated between being passive on the things that mattered most and obsessive and abrasive on the issues that were peripheral or secondary at best. If you talked about outreach or making home visits (which elders are required by church order to do) with the elders, the room would be filled with utter silence. If you talked about even a minuscule matter dealing with the budget or “those dang liberals at Synod this year,” however, you wouldn’t hear the end of it. Thus, consistory and classis meetings were nothing much more than a group of men sitting around talking about ministry while abstaining from their presbyterial duties themselves. Certainly, many of them were involved in the life of their churches in one way or another in other non-elder capacities, which is why they were selected for the office to begin with. I met very few elders, however, who actually fulfilled their offices in accordance with church order during their terms. Rather than fulfilling their offices—by visiting parishioners, proactively praying with people, and regularly offering them spiritual guidance, taking the initiative on outreach/evangelism—they considered their offices fulfilled by merely having conversations about ministry with one another while making and passing motions during their meetings.
One of the Reformed pastors that I know also has had some reservations about this type of polity, and he has a line that also sums up my feelings quite well. He says that, “there is no other area of culture where engineers are the bosses of doctors, or where doctors are the bosses of construction workers, or where construction workers are the bosses of nurses. Yet, in the Reformed church, ministers are overseen by people of a different vocation altogether.” Thus, a pastor’s “bosses” are elders who are not ordained clergy.
I completely understand that Calvinists are quite fond of saying that one’s career is their ministry before and service to the Lord. Thus, a school teacher is exercising her “calling” in life in her line of work. I agree, to a point (I think the idea can be easily misunderstood apart from Trinitarian and liturgical worldview). However, there is a difference between having people who are ordained (bishops, priests, deacons) leading the church as opposed to those who are not ordained clergy. In the case of non-clergy leadership, vision begins to flow from a group of people (let’s face it, who are usually white men) who volunteered for a position for a short season (three-year terms in the CRC) rather than from someone who has sensed a call by God and given the entirety of his or her life over to that calling (like a bishop or priest).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, just as liturgy is meant to have a shape which portrays the Kingdom, ecclesiology is meant to do the same. I agree with Ignatius of Antioch in that the way in which bishops, priests, deacons and laity relate to one another portrays the Kingdom of the Triune God. He tells us that the bishop serves as an icon of Christ with his apostles (priests) gathered around him. This is not because he has qualities that make him superior to everyone else, but because God has called him to it and appointed him in it. As the Father is one with the Son and the Holy Spirit, the bishop is one with all of the people they oversee. Yet, as the Father is the source and the authority within the Godhead—even though the other members are equal to Him in every way except for His personhood—the bishop is the source of authority ecclesiologically speaking.
I am not sure what sort of Kingdom elder-led polity depicts. It paints a confusing picture for me, as I have seen Reformed polity shift between a pseudo-democracy, a pseudo-republic and, worst of all, a pseudo-dictatorship where the elder with the least amount of self-restraint shouts with the loudest voice in order to ramrod his own personal agendas through time after time. My Reformed friends don’t like Anglicanism because it is more “monarchical” and less “democratic” in its church leadership structure. They don’t like the notion of a single source of authority within a church. Yet, whenever it comes down to the decisions that are vital (or even not so vital) time after time I have seen a centralized authority erected around the elder who knows how to consistently tune genuine dialogue out and assert himself and his opinions the most. He gains his victories by simply wearing others out with his senseless rambling, and people opt to let him have his way because they have grown too apathetic to combat him anymore. For the sake of avoiding drama and confrontation, they bow out whenever they really wish they had the stamina and the grit to do otherwise.
Again, elder-led polity is an innovative thought, and I understand where my Reformed friends are coming from. However, I think it is a bit naive for them to think their own polity doesn’t frequently collapse down into a monadic type of church government as they far too often follow the elder (lay or clergy) who believes that power-mongering and bloviation are attributes worth embodying.
Prayer and Mission:
The last distinction that I will mention has to do with mission. While there are many Reformed Christians who would classify themselves as “missional,” (especially in the quasi-Calvinistic Acts 29 and Reformed Baptist movements) there seems to be a missional impulse at the heart of the Anglican way. There is a long, long history of devout evangelical fervor within the communion. On the other hand, one can be a part of the Christian Reformed Church and be absolutely, 100% non-missional (I have known plenty of these folks) and nobody will raise an eyebrow or express a concern. You do have pockets of evangelical movements here and there, but these are the rare exceptions to the norm.
There seems, however, to be a missional impulse and an evangelical (little “e” here) comprehensiveness at the heart of Anglicanism that the Reformed tradition doesn’t even come close to touching, in my experience. There is a genuine movement of the Spirit happening. When you bear witness to this movement as an outsider and don’t see anything remotely like it happening within your own camp, it is hard to stay put. After a while it becomes impossible to remain in a culture that sees the Great Commission as an option, or merely as something that can be done at one’s convenience.
Why does Anglicanism have such an impulse towards outreach? The crux of it for me comes down to something extremely simple: Anglicans pray to missionally with a evangelical focus for the world every single week. The intercessory prayers in the services have an outward thrust for large portions of them. There are prayers for non-Christians to come into the fold, for those who are in the fold to be sent out and evangelize, for God to bless the whole world with sustenance and peace, and, most importantly, there are prayers for enemies. You can’t pray like this week in and week out and not be shaped by it.
As I mentioned above, some of the people in a Reformed setting that I was in once were offended whenever I tried to incorporate the Reformed version of the Great Litany into a service one Sunday. They were baffled as to why they needed to pray the part that mentions women in childbirth or the sick, when they didn’t know of any pregnant or sick people at the time. The motive behind this perspective begins to make more sense if you look further into the history of Reformed liturgy. Historically, Reformed Christians didn’t pray for the whole world liturgically. Rather, they simply prayed for the “needs of Christendom.” Again, you can’t pray that way week in and week out and not be shaped by it.
“I want to suggest that the search for roots, for a living tradition, is a necessary part of the struggle for a viable and nourishing spirituality, and that much of the current spiritual quest can be understood best in terms of the recovery of the meaning of Christian community. To be a Christian at all is to be grafted into a living tradition, the Body of Christ, and that tradition is historically rooted.”1
This quote from Kenneth Leech sums up quite well the quest that many people, including myself, have found themselves on. They are looking for theological Catholicity. They are looking for historic traditions. They are looking for communities that have a concrete shape and commitment, and for leadership structures in the Church that resemble the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world. They are looking for a spiritual tradition that has a lineage that goes back more than just a few decades or centuries. They are looking for a living tradition that they can be excited to share with the people they love and a communion that they can be enthusiastic about welcoming others into. I know that other people can describe their denominations this way as well, which is wonderful. Anglicanism, however, is the living tradition that I am happy to be grafted into. It has been a wonderful tradition to call home.
1. Leech, Kenneth. 1992. Subversive Orthodoxy : Traditional Faith and Radical Commitment. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre.