Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Reflections on the Pilgrimage to Anglicanism Nearly 40 Years After Webber’s Classic

Gillis Harp
Wednesday, October 26th 2022

By now, the pattern is familiar. A young evangelical becomes disenchanted with her religious upbringing, discovers the liturgical church, and “walks the Canterbury Trail,” joining an Anglican or Episcopal church. She may even conclude the Anglican tradition is insufficiently Catholic and turn to Roman Catholicism or the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Back in 1985 when Wheaton College professor Robert Webber wrote Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, the phenomenon struck many as an intriguing novelty. Decades later, the initial trickle has become a steady stream. Wheaton, Illinois, now boasts four Anglican churches and one Episcopal congregation chock full of former evangelicals. When the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) was formed in 2009 by theological conservatives who left the Episcopal Church, it provided an attractive alternative to the mainline Episcopal Church. Consequently, many ACNA parishes today include many converts from evangelicalism—often this group forms the majority.

What has driven pilgrims from evangelical Baptist, Presbyterian, Free Church, and non-denominational ranks? What have they found to be the chief attractions of Anglicanism?

Reasons to Leave

I read Webber’s original account of those who walked the Canterbury trail, and I’ve also informally interviewed several Anglican pilgrims. As I’ve done so, several themes have emerged. Here are some common reasons Anglican Christians have given for leaving their evangelical roots:

1. Strident Fundamentalism

Initial pilgrims to Anglicanism were not from confessional Protestant traditions but from revivalist and fundamentalist churches—communities that are typically independent/non-denominational, dispensational, or charismatic/Pentecostal. Webber himself was a graduate of the uber-fundamentalist Bob Jones University in 1956. Fundamentalist churches tend to see their tribe as the pure descendants of the early church, and they view other traditions with deep suspicion. As a movement, fundamentalism is deeply sectarian; it confuses major doctrinal issues with minor ones and makes minor disagreements into reasons to break fellowship. For understandable reasons, these tendencies have tended to rub many Canterbury pilgrims the wrong way.

2. Ahistorical Worship

For many, the informal and ahistorical character of populist and revivalist worship seems painfully irreverent. American evangelicalism has often absorbed contemporary cultural norms—even tacky and kitsch aspects of American culture—uncritically and has forgotten historical forms, rarely referencing centuries of church history between the death of the apostles and the birth of Keith Green. This indifference to historic forms included neglecting the sacraments, with holy communion being administered only infrequently.

3. Changing Social Tastes

We can’t ignore the social class dimensions at work in these transitions. Many on the Canterbury trail moved from their blue-collar roots to white collar, professional circles. As they did, they grew less appreciative of revivalist choruses and more interested in Johann Sebastian Bach or John Rutter.

4. Anti-intellectualism

Linked to these class and cultural aspects was the anti-intellectualism prevalent in many Fundamentalist circles. As Mark Noll explained in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, many believers who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees became alienated by the reluctance of their religious traditions to engage modern science seriously. They also became exasperated with the tendency of their communions to absolutize certain idiosyncratic or eccentric readings of Scripture, especially ones connected to a few prophetic or apocalyptic passages.

What’s Missing?

Many will not find these critiques of American evangelicalism to be surprising. What’s surprising are the features that are missing from typical Anglican pilgrimage accounts: any reference to the English Reformation or to evangelical Anglicans.

A Wheaton colleague once remarked to the Canterbury Trail author: “Webber, you act like there never was a Reformation.” Though they’ve rightly bewailed their churches’ lack of historical understanding, Canterbury pilgrims have shown little interest in the leading lights of the English Reformation, except for Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Even those who speak of Cranmer rarely explore his theology in any depth. Curiously, Anglican pilgrims also rarely referenced prominent Anglican evangelicals like John Stott, J.I. Packer, and the lesser-known Michael Green.

Though these three evangelicals were all renowned Church of England clergy, they seldom spoke at Episcopal gatherings in the United States. Their low-church Protestantism stands in stark contrast to the Episcopal clergy discussed in the first edition of Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. Webber mentioned a handful of Anglo-Catholic clergy, including the Bishop of Chicago, James Montgomery, a strong proponent of liturgical revision.This neglect of Anglican evangelicals, the Protestant Reformers generally, and of the Anglican church’s Reformation formularies (the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal, 39 Articles of Religion, and two Books of Homilies) is telling.

Anglicanism, or Anglo-Catholicism?

It’s clear that many Canterbury pilgrims were attracted to Anglo-Catholicism and not to the Anglicanism described in Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation oath: “the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law.” What appears to have appealed to most of those leaving their evangelical traditions was a decidedly Anglo-Catholic version of Anglicanism. The Canterbury pilgrims’ liturgical preferences and fondness for high church ritualism make this clear.

Webber was no champion of the classic 1662 Book of Common Prayer nor its traditional 1928 American edition. Instead, he preferred the 1979 American revision, which reflected the views of Cranmer critic Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix, author of The Shape of the Liturgy (1945). Though an Anglican priest, Dix mostly used the Roman Catholic missal when leading worship. Dix believed Cranmer had badly mangled the classic form of the medieval mass and concluded that the official 1662 Prayer Book was irredeemable. Episcopal scholar Massey Shepherd agreed. Contemplating liturgical revision in the 1960s, he wrote that “Cranmer’s work was no longer adequate. We were going to have to start from the beginning.”

Many Canterbury pilgrims who entered the ordained ministry adopted medieval vestments as a natural expression of their Anglo-Catholic theology. Such vestments had been viewed as illegal by English courts for roughly three hundred years. By the 1960s, however, they’d gained widespread acceptance among Anglicans in North America where low-church evangelicals were few and isolated. In addition to pre-Reformation vestments, Anglo-Catholics also reintroduced ceremonial practices including assorted processions, the use of incense, reservation of the sacrament for adoration, bowings and genuflections, and the imposition of ashes for Lent on Ash Wednesday.

The Canterbury pilgrims’ appropriation of what they assumed to be Anglicanism was thus a partisan choice, even if not always intentionally or self-consciously so.

Webber’s Own Emphases

How exactly did Webber himself describe the positive features that attracted pilgrims to this form of Anglicanism? In Canterbury Trail he explained that Anglicanism supplied six crucial needs: a sense of mystery in religious experience, a Christ-centered worship experience, a sacramental reality, an emphasis on historical identity, a feeling of being part of the universal church by observing pre-Reformation traditions, and a holistic spirituality. The concerns about historical continuity and genuine catholicity, as noted above, were all well founded. No one should object to paying less attention to the preacher’s personality and focusing more on Christ’s person and work during gathered assemblies.

But some of Webber’s six points confirm my portrait of the movement as straying in the direction of a romanticized Anglo-Catholicism. Perhaps most remarkable here is the way Webber prioritized mystery and awe coupled with a singular emphasis on the sacraments. Webber sometimes pushed beyond a critique of irreverence within American pop evangelicalism and attacked what he characterized as the rationalistic and cognitive character of Protestantism which made the ministry of the Word central. In this way, Webber echoed the approach of Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941), an influential Anglo-Catholic mystic. She promoted a sacramentalism which stressed the human need to seek a symbolism that transcends mere propositional truth.

Other elements in Webber’s list reflected an understandable disenchantment with pietist subjectivism and a thirst for something more solid and objective. Here, the high church emphasis on ritual and sacrament obviously filled a need. As Gordon College’s John Skillen explained: “‘Liturgical worship allowed me to forget myself in a corporate action not contingent on my own feelings at the moment for its effect.’”

In one of the few initial critical reviews of Canterbury Trail, Charles Flinn saw a connection between this experience and the doctrine of forensic justification: “Some pietistic evangelicals… look for actual righteousness in themselves as evidence of their own salvation and have only found the external righteousness in which they can have confidence in liturgical and sacramental acts.” But these “pilgrims do not realize the similarities between their own stories and the stories of the sixteenth century Reformers who realized that they must look for their justification in a righteousness external to themselves.” To Flinn, the confidence of those pilgrims who sought security in man-made externals appeared misplaced.

What About Pilgrims Today?

Not all those on the Canterbury trail in the 1980s followed the Anglo-Catholic approach of Webber and his immediate circle. Nevertheless, I believe the historical and theological assumptions of that period’s initial Canterbury pilgrims merit closer scrutiny, especially for those joining America’s new conservative Anglican movement. A more accurate, historically grounded understanding of classical Anglicanism is needed, and today’s pilgrims will benefit from considering the confessional Protestantism of the Magisterial Reformation.

We must ask, “Is it possible to promote a more thoughtful historical consciousness without returning to nineteenth-century romanticism?” “Can one revive proper sacramental observance without indulging in ritualism or medieval mysticism and aestheticism?” A fuller understanding of what constitutes true catholicity merits attention as well. As others have noted, Anglicanism’s claims to genuine catholicity are stronger because of, not despite, its experience of the Reformation and its embrace of the Reformers’ core teaching.

Gillis Harpis professor of history at Grove City College where he has taught since 1999. He’s the author most recently of Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Wednesday, October 26th 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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