Finding Common Ground

For many Pietists, I’m sure that Anglicanism inspires the same sorts of reservations that I noted in earlier responses to other Christian traditions that emphasize sacramental worship within the structure of an episcopate. It’s the rare Pietist, for example, who would see a short homily (or a longer sermon) as “merely a stop on the way to the Eucharist, the culmination of the liturgy.”

But in ways expected and not, Randall Balmer’s essay resonated more strongly with me than any other preceding it.

First, his recollections took me back to some of the most meaningful worship experiences in my own memory. Every other January for several years, I led a three-week travel course on the history of World War I, always starting with a long stay in London to help orient us to the world of 1914. At least, that’s what I told students. Personally, I loved starting those journeys in that way because it let me attend Choral Eucharist at St Paul’s, Evensong at Westminster Abbey, and the Epiphany Carols service at St Martin-in-the-Fields. To borrow Randall’s words… in each of those Anglican churches I found that “[e]ven the space itself told me that something important transpired there; I wasn’t sure at the time what it was, but it seemed sacred to me and very much unlike the cavernous and (yes, I’ll say it) soulless spaces all too typical of evangelicalism.”

(If I reach back farther in my memory, I find myself in St Luke’s, Kew, a Church of England parish near the Public Record Office, where I did part of my dissertation research. There were many fewer people — and no tourists — that Sunday morning, and the space was more modest. But the music still evoked the Anglican commitment to join the psalmist in “worship[ping] the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” And the “cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, the reverence of the liturgy” felt more spiritually satisfying in St Luke’s smaller sanctuary than when I strained to make out those same words as they reverberated around St Paul’s and Westminster.)

I don’t know that most Pietists would feel so moved by that kind of worship. As one of Randall’s fellow historians, I understand the appeal of wanting to “try something old instead.” But for all of their own traditionalism, we Pietists have long been tempted to equate renewal with innovation.

But whatever the differences in the form of worship, it’s the emphasis on Christian practice and experience over Christian doctrine that most connects the Anglican way of following Jesus with my own. What Randall calls the “obsession with doctrinal precisionism” hasn’t quite led me out of evangelicalism, but it has made me drink more deeply from the Pietist springs that sourced evangelical revivals in which Protestants transcended differing beliefs to live out a common commitment to evangelism and social reform. “This deemphasis of theology exposes us to the charge of latitudinarianism,” acknowledges Randall of Anglicanism, “a criticism that is not entirely unfounded.” And the same has been said of Pietism (here too, not always unfairly). But it doesn’t change my conviction that it’s far more important to seek together after Jesus Christ as people of faith and doubt: inhabitants of what Randall aptly calls an “enchanted universe,” whose mysteries a primarily intellectual faith “cannot begin to understand, much less explain.”

Finally, Pietists should recognize something familiar in Anglicanism’s emphasis on “what holds us together as followers of Jesus.” We might disagree on what can hold together our faltering attempts at Christian unity — a Pietist post on that subject is going to say more about the Bible than the Book of Common Prayer, much as I do love the cadences of the latter. But it’s that commitment to “find common ground,”  to seek a via media around the Reformation’s most destructive dead ends, that Pietists can certainly celebrate in Anglicanism.

I’m too far along the Halle Road to join fellow evangelicals and post-evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. But spiritually, if not geographically or historically, I think both paths lead Christians to some of the same places.

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