Her wooden yardstick measured things precisely. She moved methodically around each corner with practised ease — touching here, tugging there. Even though she was far away, it was easy to see her thoughtfulness, her care, the quality of her attention. She was thorough, attentive, present to her place and task. Thus, my first experience of an altar guild.
At the time I did not know what she was doing or why, but I have not forgotten her—from 48 years ago! Why on earth have I remembered for so long the seemingly innocuous movements of an elderly woman going about her church duties?
Here is another “church moment” much closer to the present day: a dozen folks in a circle sharing our journeys. To our surprise, the majority of us did not grow up in the Anglican Church. In fact, a good number of us had freely chosen to be baptized as adults—including myself. Over the years I have met scores of Anglicans who did not begin as Anglicans, and many of those Anglicans did not begin as church folk in any church at all.
At the same time, I have met many Anglicans who have left the church and whose children do not attend. Those children, now grown up, have no intention of bringing their children to church. In fact, I would say, anecdotally speaking, the offspring of “born Anglican” folk are numerically insignificant.
In our circle, while sharing our journeys we all spoke of an initial curiosity in the Anglican world. No one mentioned royalty. No one mentioned empire. No one mentioned bishops. No one mentioned priests. No one mentioned hierarchy. We discussed, instead, liturgy, spiritual loneliness’s silence, music, poetry, social justice, intellectual freedom, spiritual growth, the church year, pre-Reformation church history, the Gospels. Questions, monks, saints, cathedrals, mystery, Narnia, T. S. Eliot, the conscience, confession, prayer, colour, raising children, environmental issues.
I have come to something like a conclusion that the Anglican Church is a lot more interesting to folks outside the church than we are generally led to believe. I would almost say the Anglican Church as it presently exists was made for outsiders!
I was led to some of these thoughts, oddly enough, by the magnificent preface to Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible. He writes: “The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible. … In the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible … in their zeal to uncover the meanings of the biblical text for the instruction of a modern readership, [these versions] frequently lose sight of how the text intimates its meanings—the distinctive, artfully deployed features of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry that are the instruments for the articulation of all meaning, message, insight, and vision.”
Perhaps the appeal to “outsiders” and converts to the Anglican Church is that we do not attempt to “explain away” the power and mystery of God and our existence. We instead embrace the mystery. We are consecrated by the mystery, beauty, and power of the revelation of God in the risen Christ. I believe the Anglican Church speaks directly and articulately to the meaning, message, insight, and vision that our present day longs for. Like Richard Hooker, our foundational Anglican theologian, I believe that meaning, message, insight, and vision are inherent in all human beings. In discussing, in his day, whether non-Christians should be prayed for, he wrote (more or less!): “Of course, for we do not know what that man or woman might become!”
There is in the Anglican Church an all-embracing, Spirit-led love for all humanity. We are all be-coming. We are all made in the imago Dei—the image of God. Jesus died for us all. God’s love for all humanity is eternal. We worship with all our heart, mind, soul, and body. We strive as Anglicans to embody St. Paul’s self-understanding that we too have been given a “commission”: “to make God’s Word fully known!” When I remember now that altar guild member in Canterbury Cathedral, I am grateful for her incarnation of the revelation of God’s Word in the beauty and dignity and mystery of her purposeful movement.
Sometimes it takes an “outsider” to see that.