Trad & True: On Evangelical Anglicanism

It’s my great honor to write this inaugural entry for 39+, the blog of the American Branch of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA). For the past 58 years, EFAC has provided networking, training, and support to evangelicals serving in the Anglican Communion. This blog will bring that same old mission to a new space. In this first post, I want to say a word about the draw of evangelical Anglicanism. 

Some years before his death, Billy Graham remarked that if he had it to do over again, he’d be “an evangelical Anglican.” The “evangelical” bit, of course, isn’t surprising. Along with Harold Ockenga and Carl F.H. Henry, Graham built the infrastructure of modern-day evangelicalism. That point is clear, even if the definition of “evangelical” remains contested.

The historian David Bebbington famously offers four theological markers of evangelicalism, namely: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. John Stott, Graham’s close friend and the founder of EFAC, had a helpful illustration when asked about the nature of evangelicalism. He liked to compare fundamentalism to a caged bird which has only the potential for flight. Liberalism, on the other hand, is like a hot air balloon controlled by the whims of the wind. Evangelicalism, he said, is like a kite: It’s tethered to the ground like fundamentalism (i.e. orthodoxy—it believes the faith) but soars in the air like liberalism (i.e. orthopraxy—it lives the faith).

At its best, this is evangelicalism; and again, it’s not surprising that Graham had no doubts about remaining one. What is more surprising, however, is Graham —the most famous Southern Baptist to ever live —letting his eye drift from FBC Dallas toward Canterbury Cathedral.

Anyone familiar with the history of 20th century evangelicalism no doubt understands the relational connection Graham had with Anglicanism, chiefly through the influence of John Stott. Yet, it wasn’t a relational pull alone that captured Graham. Instead, Graham said it was the “spiritual beauty in Anglican order” which drew him to the tradition. 

Too often, the “order” of the Anglican liturgy is contrasted with the theological distinctives of evangelicalism, as if the latter is most fully realized in a simple service in which an expository message is sandwiched between two praise songs. Yet, for those of us in the evangelical Anglican tradition, we understand that the affection Graham had for the liturgy wasn’t in spite of his love for the tenets of evangelicalism, but because of it. “The church depends on the truth for its existence,” said Stott, and “the truth depends on the church for its defense and proclamation.” Said differently, there’s a reciprocity between the ecclesial and the dogmatic, the liturgy and the evangel.

In this vein, I appreciate J.I Packer’s description of Anglican liturgy: “Prayer Book worship is, first to last, justification by faith set forth in liturgy so that it might be reprehended and re-experienced in regular acts of devotion.” Incidentally, that quote is taken from Packer’s foreword to the aptly titled book, Archbishop Cranmer’s Immortal Bequest: The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England: An Evangelistic Liturgy

I reference that title often when talking about EFAC-USA because of what it illustrates in keeping the words “evangelistic” and “liturgy” next to one another, where they belong. Indeed, I have no doubt that Anglican worship was attractive to Billy Graham for precisely the same reason it was attractive to his evangelistic predecessor, George Whitefield.

The Prayer Book was, according to Whitefield, “one of the most excellent forms of public prayer in the world.” Indeed, Whitefield’s love for the Church of England was pellucid to anyone who asked: “My dear brethren, I am a friend to her Articles, I am a friend to her Homilies, I am a friend to her liturgy. And, if they did not thrust me out of their churches, I would read them every day.”

Today, the Anglican tradition stands at something of an impasse, and it’s anyone’s guess as to which way it will or won’t go. Many evangelical Anglicans have remained inside the communion, praying and working toward renewal. Many others have been “thrust out,” yet, like Whitfield, continue to draw sustenance from the tradition in the way in which Whitfield said he would in such a position. 

39+ seeks to be a helpful resource for everyone who stands in the great Cranmerian tradition of Latimer and Ridley, of Wilberforce and Simeon, of McIlvaine and Ryle, of Stott and Packer. EFAC’s effort to cultivate and nurture that tradition is as vital today as it was prescient in 1961. And so we hope you join us here regularly as we seek to hold together that which attracted Graham to evangelical Anglicanism: the liturgy and the evangel, the sacrament and the word, the tradition and the truth. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

Rev. Dustin Messer ministers at All Saints Dallas and teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. Additionally, Dustin serves on the board of directors at both the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA) and the Center for Christian Civics in Washington, DC. Before starting his doctoral work at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary and completed a fellowship at the National Review Institute.