I have recently been doing a lot of thinking about and study of the classical Anglican tradition. It has been a wide ranging project where I have spent some time looking again at how Anglicans read and interpret the Bible, how Anglicans understand the sacraments, and how Anglicans function as a hierarchal church. In this article, my focus on the classical Anglican approach to the Bible, how we interpret the Bible and what we believe the Bible is for. Before getting into that, I should preface my comments with two important thoughts. First, some may be wondering why I am using the term Anglican rather than Episcopal. In the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church is the official representation of Anglicanism in the United States. We simply go by the name Episcopal, as does the Church of Scotland, the Church of Brazil, the Church of the Philippines, and the Church of Jerusalem and Middle East. Second, by using the term classical I am referring to what those who set the foundation for a unique Anglican way believed and taught. That way was one of being both Catholic and reformed. It was one that was intentionally a via media or middle way between the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and that of the more radical protestant reform movements like Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and Calvinism.
When Thomas Cranmer wrote the first Books of Common Prayer in 1549 and 1552, he turned to the ancient Benedictine traditions of the monasteries and convents in England. In those places, the Bible was used for lectio divina or sacred reading and for the celebration of Eucharist. What Cranmer recognized is that the Bible’s purpose in the ancient practices of the monastics, practices that when back to the very beginning of Christianity, is spiritual. The Bible is to be used in prayer and liturgy to help us hear God speak, to shape and maintain our relationship with God. Cranmer’s Prayer Book sought to give the common person that same experience and so he crafted a book that is saturated with scripture and meant for use in prayer. We are correct when we say that the Book of Common Prayer is the Bible organized for worship. For classical Anglicanism, reading the Bible is a form of prayer and our Book of Common Prayer facilitates that practice.
What this should also tell us is that classical Anglicanism did not see the Bible as concerned with many of our contemporary debates. They saw the Bible as a vehicle for prayer, not one on which to base morality. For classical Anglicans, God gave us reason and it is by the use of reason that we know the basic principles of morality. The Bible’s role in this is to continually reconnect us with the revelation of God’s grace. Lastly, it should remind us that contemporary concerns over the validity of Bible - either a fundamentalism that claims literalism, inerrancy and infallibility, or a liberalism that seeks to trim the Bible of what is not scientifically verifiable - are foreign to the classical Anglican tradition. Rather, the classical Anglican approach is to read, pray, and understand the Bible as containing symbolism, metaphorical language, and mysteries that lead us into a deeper relationship with God.
As Episcopalians who are inheritors of this great classical tradition, we are a people of prayer. I encourage you to read and pray your Bible reading. It is through praying scripture that we reconnect with God’s grace and with Anglicans throughout space and time.