A Beginner's Guide to the Anglican Church
This guide was written by parishioner Alan Firth.
This section is aimed at people who've never been inside an Anglican church, or who are entirely new to Christianity. Perhaps you've walked past a church and wondered what goes on inside, or perhaps you've heard a lot about Christianity from the media and you're wondering if what you've heard is representative of Christianity as a whole. (A lot of it isn't. The extremists at both edges get most of the publicity, while the Anglican Church sits firmly in the middle of the spectrum.) This page isn't meant as a comprehensive guide to Christian belief. It's intended to give you some background information so that - we hope - you'll feel comfortable enough to come along to a church service and begin finding out more about us. We welcome visitors; coming along for a look doesn't commit you to anything. This is part of the website of St John's Roslyn, in Dunedin, but most of the information here is applicable to all Anglican churches, and much of it applies to all mainstream Christian churches. Please click on one of the section titles below if you want to go directly to that section.
The Anglican Church is one of the largest Christian denominations worldwide, with about 75 million members. The New Zealand arm of the Church is also this country's largest non-governmental social service organisation. Much of Anglican worship, like that of other churches, is based on traditions stretching back for centuries. The Anglican Church welcomes new members, but faces a serious difficulty; to a newcomer, much of what we do in church looks puzzling or entirely incomprehensible. This article attempts to explain the basics of Anglican Christian belief, and to serve as an introduction to what we do, and why. There are sections on general Christian beliefs, on the Anglican Church in particular, and on what actually goes on in a church service. There is a glossary of terms at the bottom of the page. The most vocal Christians are often the minorities who hold extreme views, and so the general public view of Christianity is not necessarily accurate. (Most Anglicans are actually nice, sensible people.) Please read on - we hope you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
What is the Church for? Why not be a Christian in private?
The Church fulfils three important functions. Worship is one of them. We don't worship God because we have to, or because we're afraid of what God might do to us if we don't. We worship God because we believe that God is a being who fully deserves our respect and love. Worshipping God is simply the most appropriate behaviour for the beings He has created, and a church service is an effective and time-honoured way of carrying out this behaviour. The second purpose of the Church is teaching. Partly this is something we do to each other; passages from the Bible are read out in church, and sermons comment and enlarge on them and other issues, and relate Christianity to real life. But Christians also have a responsibility to make their own insights about God available to the rest of the world, and an organised Church can attempt to do this in ways that individual Christians cannot. Our third purpose is fellowship; we are a community of people with a common goal, supporting and strengthening each other as we work towards that goal. An important part of Christian teaching is the need to have compassion for others, and so this, too, is an external as well as an internal activity. The Church provides material support for the needy, and it attempts to promote social justice to the rest of society.
Who can come to an Anglican service?
Anyone! You don't need to be an Anglican or even a Christian to come along. (Holy Communion, a ceremony which takes place during many of our services, is technically restricted to baptised Christians; see section 3 below.) Attending a service doesn't commit you to anything. We will (hopefully) try to be friendly, but that's all. You can become a Christian at your own pace. We don't charge membership fees. (We're always after donations, but how much you contribute is up to you, and entirely private.) There's plenty of ceremony in a typical Anglican church, but we don't have secret initiation rites or anything else scary or sinister. We don't even have a dress code - people normally dress tidily for church, but you don't have to wear a suit or a big flowery hat. Audience participation in an Anglican service isn't particularly strenuous. The words of the service are provided, either in the New Zealand Prayer Book or an equivalent, or on a piece of paper. If you're not familiar with the service, just sit near the back and do what everyone else does. You can stay in your place when people go up to the altar for Communion, if you don't want to take part in this section of the service.
There are two important parts to Christian belief. Firstly, Christians believe in a God who is an all-powerful intelligent being, existing independently of the physical Universe, and responsible for its creation. We also believe that God cares deeply about the Universe and all of its inhabitants. This belief is common to many major religions. Jews, Muslims and Christians all worship the same God, in different ways. Secondly, Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth (c. 6 BC to AD 27) was a manifestation of God on Earth as a human, and that His teaching as recorded in the Bible is therefore a direct insight into God's wishes for humanity.
Lots of people have claimed to be gods. Why do Christians believe Jesus really was?
There are several good reasons. Firstly, He taught a path of self-denial and caring for others, and followed these teachings Himself, and as a result He was executed by the Romans. This is hardly the behaviour you'd expect from a person claiming to be the Ruler of the Universe – unless He was telling the truth. Secondly, He was clearly not a construct of people's expectations. The Jewish people of the time had prophecies concerning a Messiah, but they were expecting an Earthly ruler - although with God's authority - who would kick out the Romans and make Israel great again. Jesus was not at all what they had expected. Later theologians had great difficulty in finding Old Testament ‘prophecies’ which actually seemed relevant. And yet - without once commanding an army or any material wealth - Jesus became the most influential person in recorded history. Finally, Jesus rose from the dead shortly after His execution, and appeared to hundreds of his followers before (we assume) returning to God. Whether you believe this or not depends on how much weight you give to these eyewitness accounts, and to the simple fact of Jesus’ continuing, dramatic influence on history through the people who had known him.
So what did Jesus teach?
Jesus came not to form a new religion, but to reinforce and improve people's existing relationships with God. His main commandments were to worship God, and to care for other people. He said that God has very high standards - but that God understands that we usually can't live up to them, and loves us nonetheless. God is always willing to forgive, and let us make a clean start, as long as we keep trying. The very presence of Jesus shows that the God who created the universe, and who probably knows the position and state of every subatomic particle, also cares deeply about individual humans, and wants us to love Him and live fulfilling lives in accordance with good moral principles. Christians believe that when Jesus became a human, He opened the door for us to become more closely connected with God. And no, we do not actually know how.
Where does the Bible come in?
The Bible is the record of humanity's gradually increasing knowledge of God, culminating in the Gospels - four accounts by different writers of the life of Jesus.
Is every word of the Bible true? Do Christians believe that the Earth was created in seven days?
Some do, but this is not a common view in mainstream churches. Christians believe that the Bible was inspired by God. However, different parts of it were written for different audiences and not all of it is intended as literal history. Christians take the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, very seriously indeed.
Is Christianity incompatible with science?
No. It can't be, because science is a self-correcting method of finding truths about the Universe, and we believe that Christianity is one of these truths. As a general principle, science tells us ‘what’ and ‘how’ and religion tells us ‘why’.
What about life after death?
Christians believe that human consciousness doesn't cease when we die. We don't know what Heaven is actually like; it's probably something well beyond our current capacity for understanding. We believe that we will have a permanent existence in the presence of God, in a form fuller and richer than our current physical one.
What is the Trinity?
The short answer is; we don't know. Christians see God as having three aspects; God the creator, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit, which is the manifestation of God which we believe can still interact directly with human beings. We do not believe that God is a sort of committee; the idea is more that a single God appears in different forms for different purposes. In the past, theologians have attempted to explain and codify the idea of the Trinity, but in fact it's something which we don't fully understand.
The Anglican Church is an organisation with branches in 164 countries and a total of about 75 million members worldwide. The national Churches have a good deal of autonomy, but all recognise the spiritual leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Canterbury in England, not Canterbury in New Zealand), and they talk to each other via a body called the Anglican Consultative Council. Also, all Anglican bishops come together at the Lambeth Conference, held every ten years. There are many differences between individual Anglican churches, but we hold four things in common:
- The Bible as a basis of our faith;
- The Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, basic statements of Christian belief;
- Recognition of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and
- The historic episcopate; that is, the continuity of the line of bishops since the time of Christ.
It has been said that the Anglican Church rests on the three pillars of Faith, Reason and Tradition. The unique strength of Anglicanism lies in our balance of these three aspects of our religion.
Wasn't the Anglican Church formed by Henry VIII so that he could annul his marriage?
Ouch. Yes, it was, but leaders in the Church of England took the opportunity to make a number of reforms which the central authorities of the Roman Catholic Church opposed. Something like the Anglican Church would probably have happened without Henry VIII’s political interference, but it might have taken longer. King Henry's main concern was simply independence from Rome.
So what else changed?
At the time, there were a number of doctrinal concerns, such as the exact nature of the Eucharist. The main practical difference between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches nowadays is that the Anglicans, while maintaining a hierarchy of priests and bishops, give much more autonomy to individual churches. This means that, while the basics of our belief are fixed, there are wide differences in our style of worship from parish to parish.
Is the Anglican Church male-dominated?
It's trying not to be. The Diocese of Dunedin was the first in the world to appoint a female Bishop, and there are now many female priests in the Anglican Church in New Zealand. Most services and modern hymns use inclusive language. Some traditional hymns and forms of service do unfortunately contain male-specific language which can't be removed without damage to their poetic quality. We still often (but not always) refer to God as ‘He’ and ‘Father’, because sadly the English language has no suitable neutral terms other than the horribly impersonal ‘it’. We are working on improvements in this area.
The core of many Anglican services is Holy Communion, also known as Eucharist. This is a ceremony derived from the supper which Jesus held with his followers on the night before his arrest and execution. Christians believe that this ceremony creates a special sort of contact with God, which helps to strengthen us as Christians.
What actually happens?
Holy Communion involves the giving out of bread and wine which has been consecrated, or made holy, with special prayers. In some parishes real bread is used; others use special wafers which look like slices of glue-stick. Normally the congregation walk up to the front of the church and kneel at the altar, receiving the bread from the priest in cupped hands. The chalice, the ceremonial goblet containing the wine, is usually taken round by an assistant.
Won't I catch horrible diseases from sharing a cup?
Probably not, as alcohol is a disinfectant and the rim of the chalice is wiped between uses. If you are concerned, you can hang on to the wafer and dip this into the wine instead of drinking directly from the chalice.
Does anything weird happen when you receive Communion?
Mostly, no. People do have mystical experiences, but they are not a normal part of Communion in most churches. (Some branches of Christianity actively encourage them; the Anglican Church tends to be suspicious of this sort of thing.) In general, Communion strengthens your relationship with God in the same way as you can get to know people well by spending a lot of time with them over many years.
Can anyone take part in this ceremony?
Officially, you have to be baptised in order to receive Communion. It doesn't have to be an Anglican baptism; any branch of the Christian Church will do. The ceremony of Confirmation (a deliberate reaffirmation of the vows of baptism, made when we're old enough to know what we're doing) still exists in the Anglican Church, but it's no longer necessary to go through this process before you can receive Communion.
Will I go to Hell if I don't receive Communion regularly?
We sincerely hope not! Holy Communion, like most of the Church's activities, is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. However, the Anglican Church believes that Communion is a valuable component of our relationship with God.
What else happens in a church service?
Anglican services are extremely varied and flexible. Set forms of words are available, in the New Zealand Prayer Book as well as several older equivalents, but the use of these is optional. There is much variation in style between individual parishes, and some parishes use different services on different Sundays. There are specific words to accompany Communion, and the Lord's Prayer will normally find its way into a service. There will often be a Creed, a formal statement of basic Christian beliefs. Most services include hymns, which may be either traditional or modern. There will be prayers; some of these will be in set words, but we also pray about current issues. Services also include readings from the Bible.
And a sermon?
Quite often. We're fully aware that sermons have a reputation for inducing sleep. This doesn't have to be the case. Some preachers are very good speakers, adept at making Christianity relevant to everyday life.
And . . . ?
Yes, we admit it. There will normally be a collection. We need to meet running costs and pay salaries, and the Anglican Church is also a major social service organisation. No one will pay attention to how much you're dropping in the basket, and you don't have to make a contribution at all. If you see any value in what we're doing, you'll probably want to help if you can.
Why do priests wear funny clothes?
Like many of the details of our worship, this is a historical accident. A priest's robes are based roughly on the garments worn by Roman officials in the early days of the Church. We've added Christian symbols to them, but (being Anglicans) we haven't actually changed anything much.
Newcomers are always welcome at any Anglican church. There are no membership fees and you don't have to fill in any forms. Anyone can attend any Anglican service and see what happens.
Where and when?
There is a link to the Diocese of Dunedin's website here. It contains a lot of background information and contact details for local parishes. There is also a long list of contact telephone numbers under ‘Anglican Church’ in the White Pages of the phone book. Most churches have a noticeboard outside listing service times and contact numbers.
What if I like what I see?
There are two ceremonies relevant to becoming a fully functional Anglican. The first is Baptism, and the second is Confirmation. Baptism is a ceremony representative of spiritual cleansing, ‘renewing’ a person upon entry into the Church. Originally the recipient was fully immersed in water; a modern baptism in the Anglican Church involves a ceremonial sprinkling of water on the head, and special prayers. Some people are baptised as babies. This is an indication that the parents have decided to bring up their child as a Christian. In this case, people can be Confirmed when they are old enough to make their own decision to be part of the Church. You can take part in most of the activities of the Church without going through either of these procedures, and there are no rules about how soon, or how late, you should make a formal commitment. Talk to your friendly parish priest about it some time.
What can the Church do for you?
The Church can bring you closer to God. We believe this is more important than anything in ‘ordinary’ physical existence. It can also help teach you to become a better person by living in a more ‘God-like’ way. The Church answers the human need for something greater than themselves in which to believe, and gives our lives a sense of meaning. The Church also provides community with fellow humans, all working towards a common goal.
What can you do for the Church?
Many Christians become involved in the life of their Church in ways other than simple attendance. Many functions in a church service, such as reading lessons from the Bible, can be undertaken by any member of the congregation. Many churches have choirs and music groups. Parishes also run groups which operate outside the confines of Sunday services. These include youth groups, studies and courses, and community service organisations. Christians can also become qualified as ministers. Becoming a priest requires several years of study, and a deep commitment to Christianity. However, all Christians have a part to play, using their own individual talents in their everyday lives to further the work of the Church and bring the world a little closer to the way God wants it to be.
- Baptism: the ceremony of cleansing used when a person becomes a member of the Christian Church.
- Confirmation: a conscious reaffirmation of baptismal vows, for those baptised as babies.
- Congregation: the group of people who attend a church.
- Creed: a formal statement of Christian belief.
- Diocese: a regional grouping of parishes under the direction of a bishop.
- Eucharist: another term for Holy Communion, or the service containing it.
- Gospel: one of the four accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament.
- New Testament: the part of the Bible dealing specifically with Christianity, and containing the Gospels.
- Old Testament: the part of the Bible predating Jesus, and containing Jewish religious laws and traditions.
- Parish: an individual church, and the area for which it has responsibility.
- Sacrament: one of the core ceremonies of the Church, defined as 'outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace'.
- Theologian: a scholar who studies questions of God and religion.
- Trinity: the combination of the three recognised aspects of God, known as Father, Son (Jesus of Nazareth) and Holy Spirit.