Tyler Kerley is an M.Div. candidate at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. He serves as an intern at Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham, AL.
The study of church teachers and pastors – labeled in technical terms as Church Fathers or “patristics” – was not until very recently a popular thing to do. Only in the last twenty years or so has the study of the first few centuries of the Church become commonplace among the academic guild; but Anglican theologians in the early- to mid-twentieth century, such as George Leonard Prestige and Dom Gregory Dix, were influential in shaping the renewed appreciation of the Church Fathers in the academy.
But the careful attention to the Church Fathers goes much deeper in Anglicanism than simply the recent scholarly trend. Anglicanism stresses the need to live, worship, and believe in continuity with the early, post-New Testament Church in a way that is unique outside of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That is why, for example, the Thirty-Nine Articles do not hold as central a place for Anglicanism as the Augsburg Confession holds for Lutheranism or the Westminster Confession holds for Presbyterianism. Anglicanism is primarily a creedal and patristic faith and only secondarily a confessional and reformed faith—while it certainly is those things, too.
Growing out of its desire to be consistent with the early church, Anglicanism also features a threefold-office of ordained ministry, otherwise called an “episcopal” form of governing the Church. In addition to deacons and elders/pastors, which are common in other traditions, we also have bishops.
There are traces of the existence of bishops in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters (Acts 20:17-38; 1 Tim. 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-9). The position of Bishop is a formal office of ordained ministry by at least by ca. 95 AD, when the Bishop of Clement wrote to the Corinthian church, and 110 AD, when Ignatius of Antioch gave instructions to his church while being carried to his martyrdom.
Bishops, in shorts, are supposed to be the “pastors of pastors” and to ensure that churches are teaching true, biblical doctrine (2 Tim. 1:14; Titus 2:1). But even in traditions where there is no formal bishop, like in the Baptist or non-denominational world, there can be “bishops” in practice, who simply minister under a different name. These and other traditions oftentimes strongly recommend that pastors should seek another pastor to be his or her mentor. This is the role a bishop is meant to occupy. Anglicanism formally recognizes in its structure what many other denominations strongly advise in practice, though that structure has by no means been a guarantee of preserving Christian orthodoxy or effective Christian ministry.
Anglicanism also has a rich tradition of devotional works. It features poets such as George Herbert, John Donne, John Milton, C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot. Hymnists of many classic Christian songs were also Anglicans, such as Charles Wesley (“And Can It Be?”), William Cowper (“There is a Fountain”), John Newton (“Amazing Grace”), and Augustus Toplady (“Rock of Ages”).
These figures’ poems and hymns are rich meditations that teach people how to understand, pray, experience, and sing Scripture. Anglicanism, as these Anglican pastors illustrate, beautifully welds head and heart. Anglicanism sings its theology; its theology is devotional, practical, and experiential. Beauty is at the heart of Anglican worship—not beauty for its own sake, but beauty that arises out of a sinner’s grateful recognition of God’s abundant grace.
For the Anglican tradition, all of these aspects meet in prayer. If our theology, polity, and poetry do not lead us into deeper lives of prayer, then they are meaningless. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is the wedding of discipline and doctrine in a poetic form of devotion. The prayers (or “collects”) are metered, heartfelt, and deeply biblical. It is sometimes said that the BCP is “the Bible arranged for prayer.” I have heard it remarked that the BCP is 80% Scripture! As we sing the Bible in our hymns, and as we feel the Bible in our poems, we Anglicans pray the Bible in our prayer book. The BCP teaches us how to pray and how to read the Bible both devotionally and doctrinally, and it helps to make prayer the natural, spontaneous, and poetic rhythm of our lives.
But what about preaching?! Don’t Anglicans have a strong tradition of biblical, evangelical preachers like George Whitefield, John Wesley, and John Stott?! Or what about the preaching of the Caroline Divines, like Lancelot Andrewes?! Or of the Oxford Movement, such as John Henry Newman?! Why not, then, include ‘preaching’ among the “P’s” of Anglican distinctives?
Simply put, it is a sad, descriptive fact within Anglicanism today that preaching does not occupy as central a place as it should. Despite all the differences that divide them, what liberal, Anglo-Catholic, and evangelical Anglicans today do seem to hold one thing in common: poor preaching. Liberals preach flowery, moralistic sermons. Anglo-Catholics use sermons simply as the warm-up for the real purpose of worship, Holy Communion. And evangelicals content themselves with verse-by-verse, line-by-line exegetical analyses of biblical passages that do little more than describe what the Bible meant back then and state little about what it means for us today.
I am speaking in generalities, of course, and preaching is undoubtedly the hardest task I have undertaken. I am sympathetic to the preacher’s plight; but I am also pointing out a serious issue. Biblical, personal, and gospel-centered sermons are essential for the spiritual well-being of the Church and for the preservation of a distinct Anglican identity for generations ahead. Rather than taking away from its importance, our patristic heritage, our episcopal structure, our poetic devotion, and our prayerful posture should combine to strengthen the quality of Anglican preaching. We should practice our theology. We should sing our theology. We should pray our theology. But we should also proclaim our theology.