It was fifteen years ago, in the Senior Common Room at Wycliffe College. A group of graduate students, all raised in evangelical Protestant communities, were discussing the phenomenon of the evangelistic ‘altar call’. ‘Oh, an altar call!’ chimed in our ‘cradle Anglican’ colleague as he rounded the corner to join our conversation. ‘That would be when you are called forward to receive communion, wouldn’t it?’ We chuckled: we knew an ‘altar call’ was an invitation at an evangelistic rally ‘to receive Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour.’ But we also instantly sensed the logic of our friend’s genuine, if theoretical, response.
A glance at ‘Just as I am’, the favourite hymn of the world-famous Billy Graham evangelistic missions, only heightens the potential connection between Holy Communion and conversion. Throughout the twentieth century, this Charlotte Elliott hymn has appeared in The English Hymnal, the most anglo-catholic of Anglican hymnbooks, and its successors, as a communion hymn. But does the hymn have evangelistic overtones in anglo-catholic liturgy? And if it does is there then a connection between anglo-catholic liturgy and evangelism?
The answer to these questions is ‘yes.’ The connection is neither accidental nor whimsical. Yet it certainly isn’t the case that Anglo-Catholics are ‘liturgical’ and other sorts of Anglicans (or other sorts of Christians) are not. Any repeated pattern of worship (and all worship does have a pattern) deserves to be called ‘liturgy’-so thank God for the variety of Christian liturgies around the world today! Nor can Anglo-Catholics boast that crowds of completely ‘unchurched’ visitors, having experienced worship amongst them, are likely to ‘accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour’ at the conclusion of the service. But if evangelism is the means by which seekers encounter the resurrected Lord and are converted, then anglo-catholic liturgy is unabashedly evangelistic, and ought to be taken seriously as such along with other forms of evangelism.
The shape of anglo-catholic worship illustrates this clearly. The most significant preoccupation of anglo-catholic liturgy is the service of Eucharist, still called by some the ‘mass’. Though morning and evening prayer are said, the Eucharist is always the principal service of worship on Sunday, and is observed several times mid-week-in some places daily. The Eucharist is the normal way in which the congregation first gathers to begin life together-whether a Bible study or a retreat or a day of building maintenance is to follow. Moreover, sermons delivered during every Eucharist are to be ‘eucharistic’ in the sense that they are to lead the assembled to the central eucharistic act which follows, the re-enactment of the last supper. The setting aside of space and people for this act of worship with incense and water, the blaze of candles, the ringing of bells during the eucharistic prayer-these heighten the experience of worshippers created in the image of God (not as disembodied minds, but as sensing beings), but they are nothing without the eucharistic act itself.
Both traditional and modern rites are in use in various anglo-catholic liturgies. What is significant in all cases is the divine summons to respond to Jesus’ words of pure grace about the offering up of himself, his body and blood, for us. It is these words that fall on the ears of worshippers whenever they gather together. It is in relation to this centre that all sacrificial actions seen ‘at the altar’ and all sacrificial words heard there must be understood. Whatever those present offer up is only possible because of divine grace and divine initiative in the call to conversion. And the invitation is to offer up (in an echo of St. Paul’s words in Romans 12.1) ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’ whether during or after the eucharistic act, whether in these words or in others.
It might be noted here that John Wesley, the famed Anglican priest-evangelist of the eighteenth century, was devoted to the eucharist throughout his life, to a degree that alarmed other Anglicans and made him laughable at Oxford as an adherent to the old High Church traditions of his day. At a time when the Eucharist was offered in many places only three times a year, Wesley celebrated it or participated in it at least weekly, and in high seasons of church life it was often a daily part of his life. He also understood the notion of the divine invitation of God’s sacrificial grace and the human sacrificial response as central to the whole eucharistic liturgy. Long before, during and after his central conversion experience of 24 May 1738 Wesley remained a devoted and frequent communicant.
This brings us back to the nature of evangelism in relation to liturgy. It is well known that most of Wesley’s famous evangelistic preaching and the consequent conversion experiences did not take place during any liturgy but in the fields and marketplaces of central England. He quite consciously, though at first reluctantly, preached in these places to the wholly ‘unchurched’-and there were easily as many in his day as there are in our day. A number of Anglican rectors soon found to their surprise, however, that all or most of their communicants were Wesley’s converts. And Wesley did not cease from preaching to those who were already, in one way or another, a part of parish life, and hence able to feel the converting power of the Eucharist. This is perhaps why a disproportionate number of hymns by Charles Wesley (John’s brother and fellow priest-evangelist) have made their way into the Holy Communion section of the anglo-catholic New English Hymnal (1986).
The anglo-catholic Eucharist that so shapes the life of a number of modern communities has certainly moved on beyond Wesley’s experience of it. But these communities have this in common with Wesley’s convictions. They understand the Eucharist as the primary call to conversion for those who are there to experience it. Anecdotal evidence suggests a large number of ‘cradle Anglicans’, long absent from active faith and parish life, have experienced the converting power of the Eucharist and responded by offering up themselves to God in a life of faith.
But there is something else. In the anglo-catholic Eucharist, God’s divine initiative is never changing, so the Eucharist must be continually offered to the community as the perennial starting point of the converted life. On the other hand, all Christians wander widely, after whatever conversion experience they might profess. Thus they all need to enter into the re-enactment of the story of divine grace and hear the call to conversion as often as they gather together-hear it and feel it as richly and as clearly as possible. This is the evangelistic gift offered to the Christian community by anglo-catholic liturgy, and so it takes its place along side the many wonderful evangelistic gifts of other parts of the Anglican world and the Christian community.