Book Review: Webber, Robert. Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail

WebberI have long enjoyed the writing of Robert Webber. Both his Ancient Future Faith and Younger Evangelicals have been linchpins to my time as a minister. Both books came at important times as I was piecing together who I would be as minister. Reading his books allowed me to realize I was not alone in looking for a worship and faith that was deeper and wider than the one afforded me by Southern (US) Evangelical heritage. So I was quite hapy to be told that as a requirement for ordination in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), I would need to read another of Webber’s seminal works. Reading Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail seems like hearing Paul Harvey intone “this is the rest of the story.” Hearing Webber and others describe their journey from Evangelical churches to the Episcopal Church reminded me once again that I was not alone in this weird journey of mine from Pentecostal to Anglican.

From the beginning Webber is on. His description of the faith journey from familial to seeking to owned faith is actually how I have discussed my journey. For me Pentecostalism was my family of origin. The third wave world of the Vineyard was my seeking faith. Now it seems as if the Anglican Church is my own faith. I have nothing but love for the Pentecostal Church of my youth. My parents still attend that church and I love them for it. I love that the staff, and members of that church continue to pray for me and continue to support my parents. I love that that world means something valuable and precious to them. It is precious to me as well. Yet for whatever reason I needed something more. As a young minister that something was the third wave theology of John Wimber and __________ . That group of pastors and missionaries that coalesced around Fuller Theological and then the Vineyard Movement in the 1970s and 80s was the home base from which I could set out into the deep waters of ministry. Yet I can relate to Stefany Webber Welch:

“the whole place [her nondenominational megachurch] was crowded and noisy. The words of the Wadsworth sonnet: ‘the world is too much with us.’ The music began to hurt my ears. I craved more contemplative worship. I was tired of being a passive audience member.” (106)

I know exactly how she felt. I also recognized myself in her story. For her the tipping point came when she told her husband that she would be outside in the all until the end of worship. She was over it. I get that. I knew my time was short when I found myself writing sermons in my head during the services I was attending. I knew this was all kinds of wrong. I knew that perhaps my belief that the sermons in my head were more fulfilling said things about myself that I didn’t want to countenance. But like Welch I knew if I cannot worship here, I needed a change.

Webber gives six reasons for his move to the liturgical church. I think these needs give answer to the normal human needs for first half of life: who I am and why am I here. These reasons come in two clusters: the meaning (why am I here) needs and the identity (who am I) needs. The meaning needs are the need for mystery, the need for deep worship, and the need for sacraments. The identity needs are the need for historical (contextual) identity, the need for a home, and the need for a holistic spirituality.

For me of these needs the two that called out to me where the need for a sacramental approach to life, and the need for historical and contextual identity. I loved the way Webber described the sacraments: “In and through them God actively conveys himself and his grace. They are his signs, and as I participate in faith, my relationship with him is established, repaired, and maintained.” (42). This. These sign. They are what I need and have longed. About six months into the transition I found myself sitting at the Purple Onion in Pelham, Ala. I was eating lunch after church and readying myself to go into work for the afternoon. While waiting for my food I was thinking about the service I had just experienced when something important that I had previously been unable to state hit me. In an attempt to not forget this I grabbed my phone and quickly tweeted a message: “When I was an Evangelical minister I created the liturgy. As an Anglican the liturgy is creating me.” This thought points to my chief dissatisfaction that drew me to the church. As Welch stated in her statement, life in my evangelical world was formless and void just the earth had one day been. I found myself running faster and faster to try to contain the chaos and to create order from it. I was in charge of creating ex nihilo as it were the liturgy and that was exhausting. Yet in the liturgy as maintained by the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy has been brought into form and being, and it is good. Having this background and structure I can now relax as if on Sabbath. The work is done. I just have to allow it to breathe and settle and adjust. And as I relax, I find that the movements and rhythms of this source are reshaping and recreating me in the process. I am no longer trying to play God, I am being reformed into his likeness.

The sacraments are working and creating a strong and steady identity out of the rock and granite that is my life. This would be scary if not for the second area I mentioned: the need for a historical identity. Webber wrote movingly of his need for just such an identity. He like me was raised in an ‘us versus them,’ Elijah-like “everybody has fallen and I am the only one left” mentality. Yet his mature self has found an important truth: what unites us is bigger than what separates us. God is a big God. And he has been moving throughout the history of the world. He is not some Rip van Winkle who just woke up (in my case, say) in 1906 in the back pew of the Azusa Street church room. When we treat God like some Rip, we miss out on the power and beauty of the faith lived by many faithful witnesses. We also miss the line of faith that unites us to the ministry of Jesus as it was passed to the Apostles and to the Church Fathers and to each new generation of faithful men and women who stood and proclaimed “Jesus is Lord.”

Beyond this truth, there is this. When I was who I was, I was surrounded by people like me. Even in the famously “alternative” of the Vineyard, there was a way we all dressed. There was a way we talked. There was a way we all ‘did ministry.’[1] That way was like us. Yet the world did not need another group like us; well, maybe others like us felt validated by us; but it was just us. For us that was good, for times. But then it wasn’t. There came a time that I needed something that ‘us’ didn’t seem to have. And there came I time that I stopped looking and sounding like ‘us.’ And then it dawned on me, the importance of ‘them.’ And suddenly I understood the words of Paul in his discussion of the body. I was an arm surrounded by arms and as long as we didn’t need to walk anywhere it was good. But then I needed to walk and suddenly the need for a leg became apparent.

This has been a great blessing in the Anglican Church for both me and Webber. The experience of the local parish in which the Wesleyan and the Calvinist can go to the table together is a blessing. The experience of the local parish in the eternal punishment person and the annihilationist person can share a feast day together has been a blessing. We have stood and said the creed together and that is enough. What a comfort that has been. Nobody is taking notes and reporting to the Bishop. No one is in danger of being in today but out tomorrow. What a blessing.

One of the pull quotes used in the book comes from Matthew Hoppe who is quoted as saying, “my experience in the Anglican Church has encouraged me to envision a place where my Pentecostal friends and Catholic friends can meet under the same roof.” If you change the word ‘friends’ to ‘side,’ you have a perfect picture of just why the Anglican Church has been an encouragement to me. It allows all of me to come into play. My Pentecostal side can hang with my Catholic side. My intellectual side can converse with my mystical side. All of me can be in fellowship with all of the church. It has been a long road to Canterbury; but I can’t help but be excited and wonder ‘where does it lead from here.

[1] A favorite term of ours.


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